Tributes To The Master Storyteller

Tributes To The Master Storyteller

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 1:42 pm

Nkrumah Bankong-Obi

Writers and publishers pay their respects to the late Professor Chinua Achebe in a new book

He is not a contributor to the collection of tributes yet his words reverberate throughout the book. His is the complement that most of the writers clinched onto, in appreciating the influence of a man acknowledged as the “Father of modern African literature”. The sign of high approval-rating that sweeps through the majority of the essays in honour of Chinua Achebe came from the great African icon, Nelson Mandela. The effect of that tribute, “There was a writer in whose company the prison walls fell”, speaks of the enigmatic value of Achebe as a socio-cultural emancipator of the African from the blurred representations of his western counterpart.

Chinua Achebe… Tributes and Reflections, a compendium of essays, poems, drama sketch, edited by Nana Ayebia Clarke and James Currey, pay homage to Professor Achebe, the symbol of modern African writing who passed on last year at age 82. The editors, Achebe’s colleagues at Heinemann, set the stage in capturing what the author of Things Fall Apart represented in his lifetime and perhaps for humanity today. Clarke for example, states her gratitude clearly: “The publication of this book is my own tribute to Chinua Achebe. As a woman, an African and as a publisher and champion of African writing, I am extremely proud and grateful for his enduring contributions to raising the profile of African writing on the international stage.”

The book

The book

Lyn Inns, whose obituary tribute is culled from The Guardian of London, provides the reader some useful biographical information about the subject of the book. Apart from Achebe’s bio data, Inns writes of his struggles as a writer with Nigeria, his [Achebe’s] native country that is bedeviled with an unfortunate political leadership that has driven the country to a developmental sclerosis. In a piece titled “Profile: Chinua Achebe – Storyteller of the Savannah”, Maya Jaagi combines commentary on the personality of Achebe and insight into his works. In the course of the text, one finds the contributors giving slices of their experiences, encounters and perceptions of the man with who they bandied ideas with at different fora and from different perspectives. Jaagi remembers Achebe’s humility is rejecting the toga of “The father of African Literature”. While others celebrate and bestow this literary crown on Achebe, the master novelist himself, according to Jaagi, pitched his tent elsewhere. Jaagi notes that Achebe praised Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard “for opening floodgates to modern West African writing in 50s”.

Themes like the place of women in Achebe’s writings also creep into the text. A few of those who inked the pieces try to stoke a debate as to how generous the celebrated fiction writer treated the female folk in his works. There is however a comprehensive acknowledgement that even though Achebe did not design his women-characters as loudmouths, loquacious beings and overtly corrupt beings or competitive bunch contesting for space with the menfolk, he had a very important place for them when it mattered most, and they acted as such critical times. Put differently, Nurrudeen Farah, the Somali exile writer, feels that Achebe is excusable for whatever shortcomings his treatment of women in his novels could be. This pardon, he argues, is hinged on the fact that Achebe had a great fighting match across the Atlantic in responding to the despicable portrayal of the African and Africa by racists writers – remember Achebe’s repudiation of Robert Greene and James Cary for being parochial in their representation of Africans in their writings. Thus, Farah says, Achebe took up the bigger task of settling the cultural quarrel between Africa and the rest of the world, leaving internal quarrels for other writers, himself  [Farah] inclusive, to settle.

Elsewhere in the book, another contributor testifies to how Achebe laid the boulders upon which he climbed to fame as a writer. The testimony didn’t come from any less a man in the creative enterprise than Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer. Ngugi shares his experience after meeting Achebe for the first time in Kampala, Uganda at a writer’s conference. Despite his tight schedule and being in the middle of writing his own novel, Ngugi tells that reader that Achebe still found space within the conference to read the draft of Weep Not Child, offering useful suggestions. This was capped with the publication of the text in the Heinemann African Writers Series, thus laying the foundation for the East African’s fecund creative output from thereon.

The diversity of the themes in the text manifests in the approaches adopted by individual writers. And it is pertinent to mention Wole Soyinka’s poetic intervention. Deep in reflection, Soyinka compares Achebe to his nation, Nigeria. The result is a harvest of unpalatable result showing the individual excelling in his respect for humanity and the skills he possesses while the nation, so-loved, dwindles unfortunately towards the abyss of self-condemnation. Characteristic of Soyinka, he highlights the absence of the very basic essentials of sanity in the country that make life in Nigeria bleak and the future uncertain:

———There sits the nation

All faculties intact, but wheelchair bound

Your lesson of the will, alas, a creative valour

Marks the gulf between you and that land

 We claim our own

John Pepper Clark’s The Casualties is reproduced in Chinua Achebe…Written in the 1970s to assuage the pains of the Nigerian Civil War, The Casualties is dedicated to Chinua Achebe. It is an example of a fellow-feeling shared by a generation that had more than just friendship in common.

The editors did a great job in ensuring that the book of tributes did not become a collection of hagiographic inscriptions. There are also, articles whose authors interrogate Achebe in such ways that help to shed even more light on his writing. Ibrahim Bello-Kano’s essay, “Chinua Achebe: A Dissenting Opinion”, may appear to attempt to put down some of the contributions of the fiction icon. But he succeeds in calling our attention to the very pertinent issues, such as progression or regression of Achebe’s creative output at a certain stage of his life and career. While Bello-Kano acknowledges the indisputable role Achebe played in ‘writing back to the West’, he however, believes that his latter-day works lost steam and magnet that made his earlier books, Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer At Ease compelling reads. As a literary critic of a different temperament, Bello-Kano believes Achebe’s A Man of the People, The Trouble With Nigeria and There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra laid bare the author’s world view which falls short of satisfying the needs of the positive leadership question that his literature strives to correct. Kano raises a fundamental question portraying Achebe as romanticising with the idea of leadership woven around ‘voluntarism’ , propelled by high moral standing of a leader who guides his people by example rather than by laid down principles. He concludes that Achebe fails consider the facts of history, leadership based on collective principles as the basic solution to the leadership question in the country. In a nutshell, he argues against the archetypal model of leadership that Achebe appears to be inclined to.

There is a dramatic adaptation of Achebe’s A Man of the People ably crafted by Femi Osofisan, which he calls “The Discombobulation of a Rookie Patriot”. From novel to playlet, the piece retains the theme of corruption and ineffectual leadership, drawing attention to spectacle, acoustics and other forms of performance that are hitherto silent in the original narrative

The book is the product of 49 contributors, including three Nobel laureates – Soyinka, Nardine Gordimer and Toni Morrison. There are other renowned writers from either side of the Atlantic. Their slices on Achebe give the reader a rounded view at the man who is unarguably the symbol of modern African fiction.

In addition, and overwhelmingly too, it is his championing the cause of responding to early European writers who portrayed Africans as being less than human that is instructive. In this fight, he wasn’t just interested in tunes that suit black people’s ears, he showed enough commitment to a rounded humanity hence “An unflinching consciousness of all the flaws that blemish our inheritance. Of all things, I remember, that was the clearest: I must not make this story look nicer than it was. I went out of my way to gather all the negative things, to describe them as I think they were – good and bad – ordinary human beings as neither demons nor angels. I dare anybody to say; these people are not human,” he challenged detractors of Africans. So was the storyteller’s unshaken stance.

Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections is published by Ayebia Clark Publishing Limited, United Kingdom.

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