Chinua Achebe (Interview, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 139)

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe was born in Eastern Nigeria in 1930. He went to the local public schools and was among the first students to graduate from the University of Ibadan. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer and Director of External Broadcasting, and it was during this period that he began his writing career.

He is the author, coauthor, or editor of some seventeen books, among them five novels: Things Fall Apart, 1958; No Longer at Ease, 1960; Arrow of God, 1964; A Man of the People, 1966; and Anthills of the Savannah, 1987. He is the editor of several anthologies, including the essay collections Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impediments, and the collection of poetry Beware Soul Brother. He is the editor of the magazine Okike and founding editor of the Heinemann series on African literature, a list that now has more than three hundred titles. He is often called the father of modern African literature. He is the recipient, at last count, of some twenty-five honorary doctorates from universities throughout the world and is currently the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of English at Bard College.

This interview took place on two very different occasions. The first meeting was before a live audience at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the Ninety-second Street Y on a bitterly cold and rainy January evening; the weather made the sidewalks and roads treacherous. We were all the more surprised at the very large and enthusiastic audience. The theater was almost packed. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; Achebe paid gracious tribute to him and then answered questions from the interviewer and audience. The interviewer and Achebe sat on a stage with a table and a bouquet of flowers between them. Achebe was at ease and captured the audience with stories of his childhood and youth.

The second session took place on an early fall day at Achebe’s house on the beautiful grounds where he lives in upstate New York. He answered the door in his wheelchair and graciously ushered his guest through his large, neat living room to his study—a long, narrow room lined with many books on history, religion, and literature. There is a small slightly cluttered desk where he writes.

Achebe favors traditional Nigerian clothes and reminds one more of the priest in Arrow of God than Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. His appearance is peaceful and his eyes wise. His demeanor is modest, but when he begins to talk about literature and Nigeria, he is transformed. His eyes light up; he is an assured, elegant, and witty storyteller.

The year 1990 marked Achebe’s sixtieth birthday. His colleagues at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, where he is a professor of English and chairman emeritus of the department, sponsored an international conference entitled Eagle on Iroko in his honor. Participants came from around the world to appraise the significance of his work for African and world literature. The conference opened on the day Nelson Mandela was liberated from prison, and the day was declared a national holiday. There was a festive mood during the weeklong activities of scholarly papers, traditional drama, dancing, and banquets. The iroko is the tallest tree in that part of Africa and the eagle soars to its height.

Scarcely a month later, while on his way to the airport in Lagos to resume a teaching post at Dartmouth, Achebe was severely injured in a car accident. He was flown to a London hospital where he underwent surgery and spent many months in painful recuperation. Although confined to a wheelchair, he has made a remarkable recovery in the past three years and, to the surprise of his family and many friends throughout the world, is beginning to look and sound like his old self.

from Pocket

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