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Remembering Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

21 Apr 2013

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By Ebele Oseye

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 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 came 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 thirty to fifty pages.  Only five years ago, PEN celebrated the 50th Anniversary of this magnificent novel.   Before the doors opened  at The Town Hall on February 26, 2008,  thirty-five 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  ranscend the suffocating spaces which stifle the  imagination. His novels 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.

Centre 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 thirty-five 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.  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. 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 forty-one years ago. In thirty-nine years out of forty, this book has been required reading in my literature courses.  At the first reading,  I was young enough to be the central character’s daughter. Today, forty years later, I am old enough to be Okonkwo’s mother and my appreciation for the life of theyoung protagonist has only increased.

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, the late poet and activist  Jayne Cortez and the sculptor Mel Edwards, her husband.  Other guests included Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, students and educators, and of course Achebe’s wife Christie, their children and grandchildren 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 Chinua Achebe following a terrible automobile accident in Nigeria.  Now, some twenty-two years later, it is time to accept. It is time to let go.

Chinua Achebe has left us with his recently published There Was a Country, A Personal History of Biafra, where, in the early pages, he details the all-consuming process of writing Things Fall Apart. 

Chinua Achebe.  We are eternally grateful for the life and the works of our Master Teacher who lives forever.
Professor Oseye (Elease Sutherland) the author of this tribute is an African-American bestselling author of Let The Lion Eat Straw and A Feast of Fools among numerous other works.

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