Friday, March 29, 2013

The Significance of Achebe as an African Writer

(A tribute to Chinua Achebe who passed on at the age of 82 last week.)

By Chuks Isiugo

In the early 1980s along thecorridors of the English Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka on one certain day, an argument ensued between Esiaba Irobi and Maxwell Ihedioha on whether Achebe had won the Nobel Prize or not. I can't quite recollect who was canvassing what position, but I remember clearly how it ended.
     "Let's ask him!" I quipped to the two combatants as we watched Achebe step out of his office about to go out."Let's ask him!" they chorused.
     So we all strayed a bit uncertainly towards him.
     "Good morning, Prof" It was Esiaba who spoke up on our behalf."
    "Good morning. How are you?" He turned to us with his soft voice and the faint smile of a writer imagining a funny scene that he seemed to wear always.
      "We've been having an argument that you have won the Nobel Prize. Then we thought we should ask you as we saw you coming out of your office."
     Achebe's smile widened and became ironical as he detected humor. "Not yet. I haven't won that. But thank you for wishing it for me," he said as we went off in laughter, the matter finally resolved.
     Achebe’s one great trait was his simplicity, showing that a writer can be a normal human being. He can raise a family and stick with his wife without being moralistic about it and still abound with a liberal dose of naughty humor. A writer doesn't have to be full of himself and unapproachable. At the same time a writer can drive a nice car if he wants to (he drove a Mercury Monarch in those days) as he was to tell Esiaba in a subsequent interview. In short, that a writer is a man, a member of his community.
     I was to see this significance in his conduct and interventions during those years we as students were able to mingle in his company, whether in the classroom, at social events or at home. I remember one occasion he held a lecture at the Margaret Ekpo Refectory in those days. His had been preceded by visit by Wole Soyinka, the eventual winner of the Nobel Literature Prize a few years later. We had all thronged to Soyinka’s lecture and were not disappointed. There was Soyinka standing at the lectern, filling the hall with his presence: his uniquely cut, dark jumper top, his hirsute Afro then devoid of grey, his booming voice and very impressive diction. He did fit the bill and we were all excited to see him, even though we couldn't make much sense of what he said, we were all satisfied with the performance.
     Then came the Achebe lecture and we expected something similar. But we were disappointed. His was rather a self-effacing presence. He wore a printed Ankara top over grey trousers, his voice rather high pitched (with none of the boom of Soyinka’s), his gestures rather reserved. All his efforts were geared toward focusing us on the subject of his discussion. We were disappointed as it wasn't as colourful a show as Soyinka’s. It took me years of added maturity to appreciate how important it was that Achebe remained himself and didn't try to be anyone else. I also began to reflect on how lucky my generation was to be mentored by the likes of Achebe, Soyinka and J.P. Clark, all strong, unique examples of what it meant to be an artiste.
     In April 1990, I was in the swirl of activities to mark Achebe’s  60 years and had managed to door-step him for an interview. Days later I had gone to his Nsukka home near the campus stadium in the company of the painter Greg Odo, who was well-known to the family.  It was four days before the road accident that was to cripple him for the rest of his days, I remember very clearly. And after we sat down and made introductions, Achebe asked me if I found the interview he gave me useful. I was surprised he still remembered me. I said I did, though I was still struggling to get any publisher interested in the story I had written.
     While most of the conversation went on between his wife, Christie, Greg and I, Achebe sat quietly listening. His only intervention was to ask Greg, who had been describing the plot of a novel he planned to write, to get on with it and talk less about it.
     "If you keep talking about it, you may feel you have done enough and end up not writing it," Achebe said.
     The writer should always be aware that he is engaged in a solemn, serious business, was a message Achebe always harped.As he said in an interview, his advice to aspiring writers is that they should know it’s a very difficult business:
     “They have to know that before hand. Because if they're going into it, they should know that what it takes is not just the fanciful notions, you know, especially how writers look, what they wear or something. They should really have the energy plus the stuff. You know the story of a young  man who became mad? He just became mad, and he was just stamping up and down the market. And the older mad man who was just watching him after a time called him and said: ‘This thing you entering, do you think you can do it?’ He told him this thing is for life and you're already wasting so much energy on the first day.”

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