By Anote Ajeluorou
He’s been gone now for a year and three months. But like the great cultural legislator and storyteller that he was, Chinualumogu Albert Achebe’s tale will continue to be told and retold ad infinitum. Barely a year after, a book marking his passing, Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, published by London-based Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited and edited by the pair of Nana Ayabia Clarke and James Curry, has come out. The two had worked closely with Achebe at African Writers Series for many years.
The book on Africa’s chief cultural icon, Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, could not have come at a better time for a re-evaluation of the pioneering work of Achebe. The double-barreled ‘tribute and reflections’ appropriately serves the dual purpose of the book, as contributors not only pay tribute to the pioneering work of Achebe in making a case for Africa’s humanity that colonising Europe denied her for their selfish economic and political interests but as a critique of Achebe’s lifelong work, as Africa’s pre-eminent cultural ambassador.
Indeed, Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections assembles some of the finest African scholarships in the humanity sector from around the world. They are scholars of either African descent living in or outside the continent or those with deep ties to African literary and cultural scholarship, which gives the book wide-ranging breath and depth of interrogation. Three Nobel Laureates – Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer – join in the chorus of tributes. In fact, every name worth its salt in African literary discourse makes a contribution to this unique book of treasure in honour of Achebe.
As is usual with such books, there are those who simply eulogise the great writer for his immense contributions to the development of African literature and in bringing it to world attention. These are those who personally benefitted from the mentoring Achebe gave them even, as they made their first tentative steps into the world of writing. They affirm Achebe’s humility, his simplicity, how he was a great listener, how approachable he was, how he encouraged everyone to write his own story because he believed in the power of the story to change minds, how much importance he attached to the story, as the living history of the people.
For Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Achebe “made a whole generation of African people believe in themselves and in the possibility of their being writers”.
But Achebe wasn’t just a novelist; he was also a great essayist. Through his essays he laid out his literary vision and what his craft and those of others, especially of African descent should be, in reshaping the African cultural and humanistic landscape before a world that sees Africa with strange, uncomprehending eyes.
Achebe wasn’t just a writer he was also a publisher. This part is brought out by two publishers, James Currey (British) and Henry Chakwa (Kenyan), both men having been part of Heinemann, publisher of African Writers Series (AWS) for many years.
Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections brings into one neat volume insightful reading of Achebe’s literary and scholarly vision. It maps out the various facets of his literary works, how they rewrote Africa’s story, and their very projections from the past to the future. Also his critical writings also come into scrutiny.
As to be expected, there’s poetry as well to serenade the poet home. Great, flowing and moving poetry that sings of the bard’s passing, what he left behind, what he taught a whole continent about itself and the very void of his passing has left. Drama isn’t left out, as Femi Osofisan’s adaptation of A Man of the People is also included. Indeed, the tributes are as varied as Achebe’s life and works; they capture the essence of the man and what he stood for and will continue to stand for in the minds of a grateful continent.
But as would be expected, not everyone agrees with Achebe’s creative vision and what he achieved with his craft. Of course, such sentiment didn’t start with this book. Achebe had detractors while he was alive and also now that he’s gone. First is the credit usually given to him as the father of African literature, which he always rejected. Rather than being the controversial ‘father of African literature’, Eustace Palmer prefers ‘father of modern African literature’ an appellation that may sit well with some people.
Abiola Irele is first to set the record straight, as it were, when he takes on Adewale Maja-Pearce, who disparages Things Fall Apart, as a bad book for celebrating ‘virile men and virtuous women’. In Irele’s methodical analysis, the mind of Achebe is better explained, as not only being restorative but also laying bare some of the evils that plagued Umuofia society. Irele also locates writers, who had long written before Achebe came into the scene. But as Irele puts it, “As we are all aware, the novel (Things Fall Apart) rapidly assumed an innovative significance, one which it has never lost, going on to lend to modern African literature as a whole the world-wide resonance that derived from its status as a modern classic”.
For others like Kenyan’s Ali Mazrui and South Africa’s Njabulo Ndebele, Achebe’s life and work afford them opportunity for alternative vision for the continent of Africa that has occupied a marginal status in world reckoning. Helen Chukwuma sets aright for all time charge of bias against women often flung at Achebe in his novels, which he manages to redeem in Anthills of the Savannah. Chukwuma explores the depth of Achebe’s authenticity in portraying women as it was in African, Igbo social complex. Her piece serves as a vindication of Achebe’s deep understanding of the issues and how he gave due regard to that.
Chimamanda Adichie, Ibrahim Bello-Kano and Kole Omotoso are some of those who disagree in part with Achebe, particularly his creative vision. Adichie, for instance, is not in agreement with some of Achebe’s views, as laid out in his last book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. For her, Achebe remembers differently and is somewhat uncritical of Biafra warlord, Emeka Ojukwu. She feels that some sloppiness in the book could have been avoided through better editing.
Bello-Kano believes Achebe had a narrow vision of Nigeria and had particular aversion to the Northern part of Nigeria, which he depicts as anthills in his last novel Anthills of the Savannah, a place of barrenness. He calls it a disappointing novel, saying it was why it failed to win The Booker Prize in 1987, when it was shortlisted. So bitter is Bello-Kano’s conception of Achebe that he admits, “So while I pay grudging tribute to this important novelist and essayist, I should remark, at the same time, that we should not, in our usual romantic rush to venerate our (cultural) heroes, forget earlier illustrious and master English-Speaking storytellers such as Amos Tutuola(1920-1997) and Cyprian Ekwensi (1921-2007)”.
Although Omotoso says he owes so much to Achebe in his life and career, he sees inconsistency in Achebe’s narrative vision. Perhaps, the most notable is Omotoso’s charge that Achebe fails to side with humanity, as art is wont to do, as he makes Obi reject Clara on grounds that she’s Osu. As he puts it, “For me, Chinua Achebe’s failure as an artist is his inability to follow the logic of his calling as an artist”. Obi’s abandoning of Clara with the unborn child is to Omotoso, “Achebe abandons humanity and fails to make a promise of a better future to that unborn child”.
Indeed, Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections is a great addition to Africa’s cultural history, the finest collection of incisive essays on a continent’s cultural history as epitomized in Achebe’s writing. Through these 49 incisive essays young readers will particularly enrich their knowledge of their continent, what has gone before that was unsavoury, how to approach the future armed with a better understanding of the past and how to deal in a world that has largely been hostile. This is the genius of Achebe in bringing together in this volume deep cultural exposition to a much-maligned continent for which Achebe, acting on the people’s behalf, illuminated for all to see!
It’s doubtful if any other writer will elicit these outpouring of emotions. Clarke and Currey are to be commended for this huge cultural exposition served through the medium of Achebe.