A Poet of Global Encounters

Chinua Achebe’s legacy is not fixed but rather about responding to change with energy and wit.

The author, sitting first from the left. Achebe is far right. (Image via the author.)

The first time I met Chinua Achebe I had just started teaching at Bard College, where I had been hired as Director of Africana Studies. I saw Chinua one evening at a campus event and nervously approached to introduce myself. I did not expect his humor or his humility. Instead of exchanging a quick word or two, he engaged me in a long conversation about the state of Africana studies and my research in Ghana. I tentatively began to seek out his company and realized that, while he was one of the most important living writers in the world, he was also lonely living in upstate New York. Over the next six years I spent as much time as I could at the house on the Bard campus where Chinua and his wife Christie lived. Sometimes I was invited but eventually I just started showing up; for food and conversation, to watch the news or bits of recent Nigerian films. Christie would tease me that I had a knack for arriving when the food was ready.

I was writing about West African theatre, music, and political transformation and after trips to Ghana, I would come to discuss with Chinua the latest developments in West African politics, media, and arts. Even if he did not identify with the new Nigerian and Ghana video films and Hip-Hop that had become so popular, he loved the creative energy of young West African popular artists. He told me how he saw innovative rappers and video directors as part of the legacy of older generations of African writers. With each conversation I felt I was getting a master-tutorial as he talked of Yeats, from whose poem, “The Second Coming,” he took the title of Things Fall Apart, or Fela Kuti, the Nigerian singer and activist, or Igbo language politics, or the origins of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, or a dozen other topics.

In upstate New York some were in awe of him, some were ignorant of his importance, and still others who knew of his celebrity took a blasé New York attitude and left him alone. Most Americans do not welcome visitors, but in many parts of the world, including Nigeria, it is a sign of respect to visit someone. To be hospitable is normal. Chinua was grateful to Bard as an intellectual community and personally to its President Leon Botstein for supporting him after his 1990 road accident and he stayed there for almost two decades, perhaps because Bard’s culture of cosmopolitan and exiled intellectuals and artists from around the world suited his state of mind. After being confined to a wheelchair, going home to Nigeria posed problems because of his medical needs, but living in the US meant he was in a state of self-imposed exile and stasis. He was angry and disheartened at the structural condition of Nigerian and African politics in general, but was also deeply concerned with the addiction of the Western media to negative representations of Africa. He relished the privacy and the anonymity of his quiet house in Annandale, NY, but he was also saddened by it; he seemed unsure of where he might feel at home and so remained in limbo.

Since Chinua did not like email, people around him helped filter correspondence and mediate the constant offers to give talks, receive honorary degrees, and write pieces. Over time, I came to help with this task. He was generous with his time and considered all offers, though he always sought ways to stay focused on his writing and on building a vision of African literature’s place in the world. Some afternoons I accompanied him as he made his way from his house slowly across the ill-paved, often frozen parking lot to teach or hold office hours. Bard students revered him, though they often did not understand the depth of analysis or historical tales he gave them. He taught various courses on African literature including one on African Women Writers, still a rare course anywhere. As I taught courses on African and diasporic politics and arts we would also exchange class visits. There is nothing like teaching Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah with the author next to you in the classroom. Often, we talked about Africana studies, its history and how to solidify its position outside of token courses in the curriculum at Bard and around the world. We discussed how to teach about Africa and its diasporas, to demonstrate their centrality to philosophy and education in general, to link various historical, geographic, and cultural strands that are still often seen as separated. While many know Chinua as a foundational figure of Nigerian and African literature, his thinking was embedded in a strong Pan-Africanist political and artistic sensibility. Our conversations often drew upon W. E. B. Du Bois as an historian of Africana and we discussed how conflict, violence, inequality, and movement have shaped Africa and its linkages to multiple diasporas. Out of our conversation we shaped a two-course sequence called “African Encounters” that I taught as the core of our Africana curriculum.

Some days Chinua was tired and did not want to do his exercise routine. He hated having to use a special van to accommodate his wheelchair. He wanted to feel free and autonomous and instead was trapped and grounded. But he never showed his frustration or let it affect how he related to people he met. He was genuinely interested in talking and listening to people. But his daily routine was punctuated with grander and more joyous events. His engagements ranged from speaking at the United Nations to meeting with members of a visiting Ghanaian theatre troupe. It was amazing to watch how people of all sorts revered him and felt an intimate connection to him through his work and how genuinely he responded to the personal stories people would tell him.

Sitting at the Achebes’ dining table one afternoon I listened as he explained his decision to reject a Nigerian national honor in 2004, a consequence of his ethical concerns with the state of Nigeria. Reading his same words in the international press a few days later I was struck by how he was the same person sitting in private as on the global stage; the scalar shift of fame and celebrity must have been strange to live with: his words and choices, his winks and nods, carried a global weight.

One day I raised my concern that there were few institutions that reflected his vision of history, Africa, and African arts. I thought we should formalize his legacy at the college that was his home and asked him what he thought of starting an institute that would ground Africana Studies by fostering young artists working in and around Africa. He liked the idea so we began to conceive of what became the Chinua Achebe Institute of Global Africana Arts. With Chinua’s guidance I wrote the institutional guidelines and funding proposals. Leon Botstein supported us and helped organize Ford Foundation support. Chinua was excited about the Achebe Institute and we set about arranging a series of events and residencies that would foster work by artists and intellectuals stemming in a broad way from Chinua’s vision. As an executive committee of two, we discussed the latest novelists and filmmakers and settled on Helon Habila as the first year-long residential Achebe Fellow. Though Chinua was most concerned with writers, he was also adamant that we include artists in other media as he recognized that the new directions of the younger generations were part of the same artistic-political continuum.

One of the most energetic events we held in the early days of the Achebe Institute was a reading by Ama Ata Aidoo. The two writers were so pleased to see each other. After not meeting for many years, Ama Ata Aidoo was effusive in alternately teasing and praising Chinua. Strangely, just before her talk, the power went out in the auditorium so we held her reading in the glass lobby with the capacity crowd squeezed onto the floor and steps. Chinua introduced Aidoo by pointing to her strength and her incisive voice, joking that when members of the African writers association had a problem they called on her to take care of it for them. She prefaced her reading of a selection from her unpublished post-apocalyptic Afro-futurist novel, by telling us about being a young writer traveling from Ghana to Nigeria many decades ago to meet Chinua. She reminded us how generations of African youth have gained inspiration from him.

In 2005 I organized the first major panel sponsored by the Achebe Institute, “Writing Africa: Politics and Dialogues around the African Continent.” The event was meant to present our vision for the Insitute. The discussion revolved around the changing artistic influences and political connections between Africa and its diasporas. After my introductory comments there were papers by Caryl Phillips, Emmanuel Dongala, Kofi Anyidoho, and Helon Habila. Chinua was the final speaker of the evening.

He began by saying “let me tell you about the first time I met James Baldwin.” The capacity crowd of hundreds leaned in to listen to Chinua’s soft, commanding voice. He described how after several missed meetings the two of them were finally to share the stage in a public conversation as the inaugural event for the 1980 African Literature Association conference, in Gainsville, Florida. Chinua recalled thinking hard about what to say at their auspicious introduction. Finally, as they were introduced on stage, Chinua turned to his fellow author and said “Mr. Baldwin, I presume.” The Gainville audience reverberated with excitement and then fell quiet to hear Baldwin’s response: “This is a brother I have not seen in four hundred years.” After pausing for exclamations from the audience he continued, “it was never intended that we should meet.” In this introduction both writers invoked the possibilities and traumas of the complex global history of African peoples that frame their achievements as literary pioneers. Habila had noted on the 2005 panel African writers of his generation sometimes take for granted the existence of modern African genres which Chinua’s generation called into existence. Two generations on, Chinua’s work has allowed modern African writers to work without having to constantly justify their existence. While Phillips’s paper had described a fictional meeting of Francophone African thinkers in pre-War Paris as a space of political and artistic blossoming, Habila argued that most young writers do not have the same idealistic hopes for the potential of literature as mid-century African artists and thinkers did. Overall, the panel brought to the fore various types of encounter, both creative and destructive, that surround Chinua’s work.

After our panel discussion at Bard I asked Chinua to tell me more about his meeting with Baldwin. He showed me a video of the conversation between them, explaining it had taken a very strange and sinister turn. As Baldwin was speaking, a haunting voice could be heard on the P.A. system, insulting Baldwin in explicit racial terms. Members of the audience rushed to the doors to guard the group against possible attack. Baldwin replied calmly to the anonymous voice, saying “excuse me but your time has long past… white supremacy had its hour… it’s over. It is now our time. I am going to finish my remarks.” Chinua recalls Baldwin’s strenght and calm. Apparently, the authorities could not find the culprit but the voice disappeared and the writers were able to finish their conversation. I asked Chinua why he had not invoked the second part of this event at the panel discussion. He smiled and said, “the storyteller shapes his stories for a purpose.” Historical traumas remain close at hand but in the retelling of stories artists and intellectuals invoke new ways to live in the world and transform violence and distance into collaboration.

Chinua told me several times that he saw himself as a poet who also wrote other things. Perhaps this was a feeling that grew in his later years with his renewed reflections on Biafra; but knowing he read politics and wrote novels as a poet, changed how I read his work. Nonetheless, he was proud of the role of Things Fall Apart in opening up the publishing of African writing and in his role in editing the first 100 Heinemann books in its groundbreaking African writers series. In 2008 around the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart there were numerous events, panels, and lectures, some big, some small. Chinua often joked privately and at talks about being known as a one book writer. To start off readings he would quip with a smile: you know I have written other books, don’t you? This jab was a way to gently provoke an audience to think more incisively about literature and politics rather than simply celebrating the work. Backstage after one of the panels I teased him if he wasn’t tired of talking about the same book for 50 years. He said: Well, yes and no, he always learned something new from how people read the book, how they talked to him about it and interpreted the characters. He recalled receiving a stack of letters from Korean school children and seeing that Okonkwo’s life, death, and choices resonated with them in ways he could never have imagined. He spent more than 50 years in dialogue with characters he created as a young man that remained imminent, complex, and relevant across the globe.

The most common misreading of his first novel, as Chinua explained to me, was to understand it as an idealized recollection of precolonial African life. This was exacerbated by the fact it was often included in American and European syllabi as a representation or token of Africa or non-Western expression, a sign of Africa for outsiders to imagine an authentic vision of its peoples and cultures. But if you listen to Chinua this simplistic nostalgia dissipates. He recalled that he was writing Things Fall Apart as Ghana became independent from British rule in 1957. The Pan-Africanism of Ghana’s first leader Kwame Nkrumah was especially influential on Chinua: “They were ahead of us [in Nigeria] so we were looking to Ghana to see the path to independence. It was an inspiring moment.” This novel and his other tales are stories of multiple encounters of loss and impossibility, humor and survival that point to the future; they are meditations on the experience of time. Things Fall Apart presents Ibgo life from multiple angles simultaneously forcing consideration of the question of cultural stability and its representation; it is a reflexive mediation on the possibility of storytelling itself to encapsulate history, memory, and new ways of life; it is an extended proverb in content and form. Chinua is the poet of encounter, a primary trope of 20th century life.

I have been thinking about the sparkle in Chinua’s eye and the subtle ways he used his hands when he talked. One of the brilliant things about Chinua was how he used silence both in writing and in person. He was a master of the pause and the unexpected proverb, of multiple meanings, of putting stories to good use while enjoying the process of the telling. His work was deceptively minimalist and immensely complex. He had brilliant comic timing; he could read a room and command it from the first words out of his mouth. He taught me that you can be fierce and respectful. You can talk softly while compelling people to listen to ideas and stories. He must have been a wise elder even as a young man, but as he grew older he never lost the mischievous dry wit of youth and the belief in redemption even for the most corrupt and lost. Chinua’s legacy is not fixed but rather about responding to change with energy and wit.

After I left the Directorship of the Achebe Institute and then Chinua went to Brown University, Binyavanga Wainaina took up the post, renaming it the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists and transforming it in ways befitting Chinua’s legacy, through his own expansive, creative vision of African cosmopolitanism and cutting-edge media and literature.

At my wedding Chinua’s gift was to read a poem. In a tent overlooking a hilltop farm in upstate New York, Chinua, removing the beret he usually wore, faced the congregation. Holding his book open ready to read, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye. He explained, deadpan, that he was only loaning me the poem he was about to read and that he expected something in return. Within a year, he said, I should write one myself and return this one to him. After the reading, as the ceremony ended, a huge thunderstorm filled the sky and almost demolished the tent. To my embarrassment, I have not repaid my debt to Chinua Achebe. But it is a small part of the far larger debt that so many writers and intellectuals owe him, that we can only repay by offering our best work in his memory.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.