Remembering Chinua Achebe And "Things Fall Apart"

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[Tribute]

1930-2013

Chinua Achebe, in person and in his writings, has been a centrifugal force holding a world together.

That world seemed to burst at the news of his transition on Friday, 22 March 2013.  And yet there is a radiance in every memory, in every photograph which reminds us that our Teacher, Father, and Brother will always be.

While the world now looks at new evidence regarding our planet's beginnings, Achebe's "Morning Yet on Creation Day," a collection of essays published in 1975, enabled us, long ago, to see with a new understanding that life is  still in the early stages of becoming.  What a wonderful vision of hope.

Former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, said "prison walls fell down" when he read "Things Fall Apart." In the two opening pages of his signature novel Achebe tells more story than many authors are able to narrate in 30 to 50 pages.

Only five years ago, PEN celebrated the 50th Anniversary of this magnificent novel. Before the doors opened  at The Town Hall in New York City,  on February 26, 2008, 35 of my students and their guests, all dressed up and glowing with anticipation, joined the waiting crowd.

Bringing students to meet Achebe was no mere academic exercise. When James Baldwin and Achebe first met years ago, that meeting was a lifeline which transformed the American born Baldwin whose image of the motherland had been of an Africa "chased out of the world". My students, traumatized  by recent campus shootings in Virginia, observed that they no longer felt safe at school. They too needed a lifeline. They needed to be reminded that together with the  world's many horrors, there still exists a constantly unfolding beauty.

Achebe, a master educator whose multidimensional knowledge is expressed through cosmological perspectives, is a major contributor to the world's beauty. His writings transcend the suffocating spaces which stifle the imagination. His writings continuously provide access to the larger spaces of perpetual creation.

At that 50th anniversary celebration, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the award-winning novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun," reminded us that she came to live in the very house on the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria which was once occupied by Achebe. She shared the stage with Edwidge Danticat, Chris Abani, Colum McCann, Suheir Hammad, Ha Jin, Toni Morrison and dancers, the Francesca Harper Dance Project from the Alvin Ailey School.

Center stage, at this Town Hall celebration, a ceiling-to floor screen showing photographs of Achebe as a young man, followed by other historical and fictional images. The huge photograph of a wrestler representing Okonkwo, the central character of "Things Fall Apart," evoked a soft  chuckle which reverberated throughout the auditorium, confirming  that we had all seen his youth, his humanity, and yes, his courage, his struggle to measure up to his society's definition of manhood.

It is this vulnerability, this human dimension which struck me deeply in my most recent re-reading of this novel, some 35 years since my first. Look again at  the scene  when Chielo, the priestess,  comes for Okonkwo's daughter. Don't be fooled by the perceived calm when Okonkwo repeatedly "pleads" with  Chielo to return in the morning, to allow his daughter to sleep. Okonwko is frightened. This woman who calls his daughter, "my daughter" is now possessed. Okonkwo is begging with all his heart and this intensity is reflected back to us when Chielo eventually screams at him.

But that scream is more than a scream.  Powerful cosmic energies are channeled through sound. We are100 trillion vibrating cells and sound shakes and shapes us. The drums beaten with a frenzy, the sound transporting people to heightened levels of being.

The drumbeat and the heartbeat in shared rhythm. The cannon that  "shattered the silence",  announcing the death of the village elder.  Sound is used to measure space and to describe motion: a vital element missing in most contemporary  literature where a constant barrage of noise substitutes for narrative energy and denies the reader a chance to "hear yourself think". 

Here, silence and sound exist in exquisite balance and each is effectively used by Chielo, a crossroads figure with connections to two worlds, the world of the living and the world of the ancestors; she speaks when her voice is "clear as metal" and she also "speaks" when  she wordlessly returns Ezinma, unharmed, to her bed.

The visual is also stunning in "Things Fall Apart." The image of the tiny flame of a mother's lamp against the thick dark, the mother's hand cupped to protect the flame against the wind is a metaphor for our Earth's precarious existence in this expanding universe, and a metaphor for the author, hand held in position to guard the fragile flame, the  life of a continent.

Memory of Ogbu-agali-odu, "one of those evil essences loosed upon the world" manifesting as a "sinister light", fleshes out the cosmic imagery in this scene. A beautiful confluence of the  literal and the legendary. "Things Fall Apart" continuously exists for me as both reality and dream.  I step into the real world of this novel each time I visit Nigeria. I "live" with the characters: Okonkwo, my neighbor in Enugu is a medical doctor; Okoye, a writer and  friend; and Uchendu, the sons of several of my friends: all share the names of characters in Things Fall Apart.

Because the "new religion" is one cause of Okonkwo's death, I was on guard two summers ago when Christians threatened to attack traditional celebrations. I was relieved when they were persuaded to forgo that confrontation. "You can worship your own god," the people say to Mr. Smith (p. 134) in "Things Fall Apart," advocating religious freedom and mutual respect for their traditional religion.

If only today's  religionists shared this view! I would read "Things Fall Apart" after my first visit to Nigeria 41 years ago. In 39 years out of 40 in my teaching experience, "Things Fall Apart"  has been required reading in my literature courses. At my first reading, as a graduate student at Columbia University,  I was young enough to be the central character's daughter. Today, 40 years later, I am old enough to be Okonkwo's mother and my appreciation for the life of the young protagonist  has only increased. After more than 100 years–the novel is set in the 1890's–"Things Fall Apart" continues to teach; these lessons are indispensable to our survival in a rapidly changing world.

It was only 12 years ago when we gathered to celebrate Achebe's 70th birthday at Bard College, where guests included his countryman Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate, the late poet and activist,  Jayne Cortez, and the sculptor Mel Edwards, her husband. Other guests included authors Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinwezu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and many students and educators, and of course Achebe's wife Christie, their children and grandchildren who made the celebration complete. All the children seemed to have inherited the graciousness of their parents.

When Achebe was 60, we held our unofficial vigils, begging the Divine to spare the life of Achebe following a terrible automobile accident in Nigeria. Now, some 22 years later, it is time to accept. It is time to let go.

"It's  like a dream," Achebe said five years ago, responding to the authors who celebrated him and to the prolonged applause of the audience in standing ovation. "I am grateful" he said more than once,  smiling with  twinkling joy as though his life had never been touched by trouble.

He did remind us that the writing process was equal parts "joy and pain". He also spoke of historical matters with great clarity; he had been an "eye-witness" to events occurring long before his birth.

Achebe has published a total of 22 books. He has shared his time generously, sending his son to Nigeria in order to deliver condolences to Chioma Enekwe when her husband Ossie, died suddenly a few years ago.

He regarded all, the child and the king, with a comforting respect. The City College Tribute in 1988 was one of many honors Achebe received from both sides of the ocean.  May ovations for Chinua Achebe continue.

From eternity to eternity. 

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