Remembering master storyteller Achebe
Pusch Commey Correspondent
Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, a book of eulogy in honour of the departed master storyteller, provides a magnificent insight into Achebe the man, both his character and his work.
Launched at the 40th African Literature Association Conference on April 10 in Johannesburg, the book attracted 49 eminent writers and academics from the African literary space including Ali Mazrui, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Nadine Gordimer (now late), all paying a glowing tribute to the pioneering role played by Chinua Achebe.
One of the two editors of the book, Nana Ayebia Clarke, recalled: “The news of Achebe’s death in the US on the morning of March 22 2013 in the middle of the 39th Annual African Literature Association Conference (ALA) in Charleston, South Carolina, sent shockwaves not only through the African literary community that was present at the conference, but also through the global literary world … I had the privilege and sadness of contributing to the African Literature Association tribute on behalf of my colleagues at the Heinemann African Writers Series.
“It was suggested that Ayebia Clarke Publishers follow up with a book of tributes on the achievements of Chinua Achebe in the establishment of African literature over the last 50 years both by his own writing and by his work as founding editor of the African Writers Series.”
Wole Soyinka’s tribute to Achebe was riddled with deep respect. In his elegy for a nation (Chinua Achebe at 70), Soyinka eulogises in poetry and evokes a brotherhood:
But we survived, Chinua. And though survival reads
Unending debt – for time, alas decrees us
Witnesses, thus debtors – earth alone remains
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o recalled how Achebe’s name had haunted his life. When he appeared in places he was often introduced as the Kenyan writer of Things Fall Apart.
It was Achebe in the 60s, as the founding editor of the African Writers Series, who was kind enough to have a look at the scribblings of a budding young writer, and guide him into publishing famous books in the series like “Weep Not Child”, “The River Between” and “A Grain of Wheat”.
Ama Ata Aidoo had a delightful anecdote of her first encounter with Chinua Achebe in his office in the 60s, as the big chief of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (director of external broadcasting).
After a frantic effort to get an audience with Achebe had finally succeeded, she exhaled and declared audibly that she had “indeed arrived at the shrine”.
She further recounted that as a student at the English Department of the University of Ghana, Legon (1961-1964) she had assumed that literature was only produced in England and by a group of writers who belonged to some sacred society called The Great Tradition.
That was until she encountered “Things Fall Apart” as a recommended text. It was the one book that debunked the European myth of African cultural inferiority, which was under full assault by colonial hegemony. It is the one book by which the whole world remembers Achebe.
After all, it has sold over 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 languages. However, one of the 10 books Ama Ata Aidoo will take along when she gets marooned on a proverbial Desert Island will be Achebe’s “Arrow of God”.
A number of academics and literati agree that “Arrow of God” was Achebe at his best. His other well-known books include: “No Longer at Ease”, “A Man of the People”, “Anthills of the Savannah”, and “Beware Soul Brother”.
Chinua Achebe, Tributes and Reflections is a beautifully published book that must take pride of place in every bookshop, and in every academic institution. Great credit must go to Ayebia Clarke Publishers, without whom the memory bank of great African Writers was in danger of being forgotten.
Pusch Commey is a barrister of the High Court of South Africa, award-winning writer and associate editor of New African magazine since 1999. He is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.