Achebe: Art community pays homage to literary icon

Posted: April 9, 2013 in arts/culture
late prof chinua achebe

late prof chinua achebe

As literary works by the late Nigerian literary icon, Prof Chinua Achebe, vanished from bookstores in the country and around the world on account of mounting sales, Nobel laureates, culture stakeholders, public officials in the arts and culture sector have continued to acknowledge the literary giant whose numerous works made him a household name and national hero.

Despite his age and distance from his homeland, Achebe’s frequent and often barbed pronouncements against an oil-fed Nigerian elite kept him very much in the national psyche. He further endeared himself to a younger generation of Nigerians weary of corruption, when he twice turned down a national honour in 2004 and 2011.

African literature burst onto the world stage with Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which portrays an Igbo yam farmer’s fatal struggle to come to terms with British colonialism in the late 19th century. It remains the best-selling novel ever written by an African author, having sold more than 10-million copies in 50 different languages.

Professor Wole Soyinka, a fellow giant of African literature, who was informed by the Achebe family in a dawn phone call, said, “We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter.”

Soyinka said: “No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives. His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression.”

Speaking from the town of Ogidi where Achebe was born in 1930, village head, Amechi Ekume, said: “There is deep mourning all over the village; both young and old are mourning.”

“As we say in Igboland, when an extraordinary person dies, the iroko has fallen,” said a weeping Dora Akunyili, a former minister who worked with Achebe during his tenure at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

The celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, last year said she wept when she received a note from Achebe praising her best-selling novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. She was too awed to pluck up the nerve to call him back. Meeting him for the second time, she was again too shy to approach as writers including Toni Morrison and Ha Jin crowded around him backstage during an awards luncheon. “Before I went on stage, he told me, ‘Jisie ike [more grease to your elbow]’. I wondered if he fully grasped, if indeed it was possible to, how much his work meant to so many.”

Novelists from a younger generation described the freedom to write in their own voices, which Achebe’s own writing opened up, and the daunting task of trying to live up to his works.

“In the last five decades, just about every post-colonial African author, one way or another, has been engaged in a creative call-and-response with Chinua Achebe,” said author Lola Shoneyin. “You are never weaned off his fiction because it renews itself. It gives you something new every time. He was just that kind of storyteller.”

Another novelist, Chika Unigwe, recalled reading Things Fall Apart as a young child: “I like to imagine it was on a Sunday afternoon, right after lunch, lying on my bed. I [clearly] recall … the wonder of reading the world he creates in the book so beautifully. Its power did not hit me until years later when I re-read it as a much older reader. I am immensely grateful to him.”

His children’s books on African folklore remain popular with Nigerian parents. “I just literally handed The Flute and also The Drum to my daughter two weeks ago. She was glued to them, reading and re-reading them. I was too,” said Ifeamaka Umeike of her 7-year-old. “I feel like my granddad died.”

Another Nobel Prize for Literature winner, the South African Nadine Gordimer, who called Achebe the “father of modern African literature” in 2007, when she was among the judges to award him the Man Booker International prize for fiction, said the late novelist’s works do not fear to challenge those post-colonial, independent regimes in Africa who abuse personal power in every possible way, from banning political opposition, to corruption.

“It surely must mean a great deal to a writer to know that his or her work has reached through prison walls, having been longingly requested and received with difficulty by way of lawyers or rare visitors allowed a political prisoner.

“Achebe had that rather special recognition when Nelson Mandela, 27 years behind prison walls, told Achebe what his novels brought to him: “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe in whose company the prison walls fell,” said Gordimer

Achebe who lit the year in controversy following the recent release of his book titled; There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, where he had allegedly pointing fingers at some personalities as for negative roles played during the Nigerian Civil War, is also credited with severally rejecting national merit awards.

Early in the year the novelist had his award-winning and multi-translated book, Things Fall Apart, included in the 100 Greatest Novels of all Time list, compiled by both readers, literary critics and writers and announced by the Guardian United Kingdom.

Achebe’s Publisher at the Penguin Books, Simon Winder, called the late essayists an “utterly remarkable an,” adding: “Chinua Achebe is the greatest of African writers and we are all desolate to hear of his death.”

Reacting, Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, described the death of Professor Chinua Achebe as ‘shocking and a huge loss to Nigeria and the international community.’

Duke described the late Achebe as ‘not only a global literary icon but also a distinguished nationalist who contributed immensely to the making of a modern Nigerian nation.’

“Professor Achebe raised issues of nation-building, peaceful coexistence and cultural affinity in his writings. He had an excellent grasp of his culture which he deployed with uncommon deftness and a style that has remained unique and enduring.  He made the well-being and future of this country his concern till he breathed his last, and despite living out of the country for some time, he never allowed the physical distance to separate him from his culture, his nation and his people. Through his writings, Professor Achebe promoted Nigeria to all corners of the world. Surely, he will be missed by all,” Duke said.

On his part, Executive Secretary, National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), Dr Barclays Ayakoroma, described death of Chinua Achebe as ‘ a very big blow but we are consoled by the fact that he had put Nigeria on the global literary map, adding that: “He will continue to be a reference point in World Literature in many years to come.”

While, Director General, National Gallery of Arts (NGA) Abdullahi Muku, who stated that: “Nigeria has indeed lost a great son. He was completely misunderstood by many. He was just not happy with the way Nigeria is being run overtime,” noted further that Achebe ‘really had wanted Nigeria to have been better than it is right now. That was quite his discomfort with our leaders.’

“While we are happy that the present leadership in Nigeria is trying to address the long decay and almost total neglect, Nigeria will indeed remember him for his upright and sincere love for this country, his country.

May his gentle soul rest with the Lord almighty God and May God give his family and indeed Nigerians the fortitude to bear this great loss,” Muku said.

For the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), the agency’s Director General, Prof Tunde Babawale, while commiserating with the entire Achebe family, the academic community, the government and people of Nigeria, over the transition of the great icon, noted the demise ‘has created a big vacuum in the art and culture sector of Nigeria and the Black and African community globally.’

“Prof Achebe was a great nationalist, an accomplished academic, a great intellectual, a renowned scholar, a prolific writer and literary giant of note and a teacher of no mean achievements. He was also a reputable author, and assiduous global affairs commentator. He would always be remembered for his simplicity, love of his country, and Africa and outstanding spirit of critical scholarship.

According to Babawale, Achebe’s works ‘bequeathed to the coming generation enduring legacies worthy of commendation, just as they have demonstrated to the world that Nigeria and indeed Africa is capable of using art, culture and tradition to make the world a better place.’

“On national and global stages, he championed campaigns for cultural rebirth through his writings. His interventions during moments of national crisis would remain eternally etched in our memory. Given his record of contributions to scholarship and global knowledge, there is no doubting the fact that he will be sorely missed,” the CBAAC chief stated.

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