M&G LitFest: Nadine Gordimer remembers Chinua Achebe

Gordimer described Achebe, well-known for his novel Things Fall Apart, as a fearless writer; the eponymous “man of the people”. His weapon, she said, was a “blade of humour” poised in battle against the corrupt leadership, or as Achebe termed them, the “men of hell”. In the closing lines of A Man of the People, Gordimer stated, are engraved on her consciousness: “You died a good death if your life inspired someone to shoot your murderer in the chest without asking someone to be paid”.

Gordimer proceeded to read extracts from Anthills of the Savannah and No Longer at Ease, as illustrations of Achebe’s wit and his political prescience. In Anthills, deploring the post-colonial condition and reigning sycophancy, he castigates those who “learn their way and behave more fierce than they”.

In 1998, decrying the conditions in Africa for the majority of the populace, Achebe’s anger was directed particularly at the restrictions on press freedom, warning that “evil thrives best in quiet untidy corners”, a statement which resonates eerily with the intentions of the so-called “Secrecy Bill”. The message Gordimer desired to impart in her speech was to encourage everyone to read or re-read Achebe’s work as “the final appreciation of all he’s meant to us”, to be inspired by “his remarkable devotion to his work” and to emulate his courage and persistence in all avenues of his life. She mourned the loss of his illuminating vision.

A thoughtful conversation continued between Gordimer, author Imraan Coovadia and academicAghogho Akpome, which was initiated by the Mail & Guardian‘s Darryl Accone’s question concerning the state of African leadership as depicted in Achebe’s work. Their candid engagement also considered what Achebe has meant to them, how his words have echoed in or inspired their lives and their work.

In highlighting the extent of what has been lost with Achebe’s death, Coovadia, in his characteristic deadpan delivery, insisted one could count the number of contemporary writers animated primarily “by the love of justice on a two- or three-fingered hand”.

Complex affective states
Coovadia also quoted from the encomium decorating the modern library edition of Things Fall Apart in which Gordimer praised Achebe’s ability to make the reader “laugh and catch your breath in horror”. This identification of the emotional effect of Achebe’s work is at the heart of Coovadia’s admiration of him. He especially applauds Achebe’s ability to convey complex affective states, rare in the increasing trends towards and obsession with the spectacular in African literature.

Akpome, a doctoral candidate at the University of Johannesburg and a research associate at the University of the Free State, drew attention to the recurring “father figure” in Achebe’s oeuvre. Akpome also spoke of growing up in the Nigerian Delta, and how his childhood reading of both Austen and Achebe (representative of a kind of familial canon) informed his understandings of literature. He found Achebe’s “use of local aphorisms” enthralling and admired his ability to convey the nuances of local traditions. 

For Gordimer, Achebe epitomises what writer and philosopher Albert Camus meant when he exclaimed that the “day that I am no more than a writer, I shan’t be a writer”. She elaborated that Achebe never compromised, “he was not a political writer, but simply doing what a writer does”: exploring all of life in search of “a little of human truth”. A contention which should perhaps be borne in mind along with the writer Javier Marias’s claim that “literature doesn’t properly illuminate things, but like the match it lets you see how much darkness there is”.

Akpome took up this thread of political responsibility, and quoted writer Elleke Boehmer’s appraisal that in writing of the fractures in society, Achebe “disperses agency and blame on all” such that everyone is complicit.

Gordimer suggested that Achebe’s wit was intended to compel people to “think and confront themselves. He wasn’t condemning all human frailty”.

New generation of writers
The speakers didn’t shy away from acknowledging the criticisms of Achebe, notably the fact that his work is written in English, which forms the basis of his disagreements with writer Ng?g? wa Thiong’o. 

Gordimer commented that she believed “that the best of Achebe is in the fiction. It’s terrible to say, but the memoir is almost superfluous in terms of what he offers….”

In closing, and in response to various questions from the audience, Achebe’s status as an exile and its impact or lack thereof, on his fiction was considered, in addition to the new generation of Nigerian writers.

It seems fitting to conclude with Wits professor Karen Lazar’s questions about the outbreaks of xenophobia in South Africa and the stereotypical depiction of Nigerians in some media. In response, Akpome cited an interview in which Achebe conceded that “stories have been used to set one people against another”, but stories can also be salutary if one realised “there was another story that was not being told”. This alternative story needed to be given life so that it could be set free to interact with other stories. Perhaps that is the real task awaiting the children of Achebe.

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