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PEN Pays Tribute to Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Tuesday 26 March 2013 - 12:00am

from Tade Ipadeola, President of the PEN Nigerian Centre

World literature acknowledges an immortal in the transition of Chinua Achebe whose quiet dignity brought unprecedented attention to African literature written in English, translated into more modern world languages than any other African writer before him and studied in every notable institution of learning around the world. As Aretino said upon the death of Michelangelo, the world has many kings but only one Michelangelo. I acknowledge that the world has many potentates but only one Achebe. He was the tree that made a forest, the one voice that travelled beyond the seven seas.

Chinua Achebe lived as the poet Robert Browning before him prescribed: he kept one end, writing, in view – and made everything else serve that end. Adversity and prosperity, war and peace, love and indifference all were transformed by that alchemist we knew as Chinua Achebe into a different substance universally recognised, and acclaimed, as literature. The total effect of that way of living cannot be calculated in simple terms. Achebe compelled attention, commanded respect. One did not have to agree with him but one had to listen to him. Few writers ever achieve that degree of relevance in their lifetimes. Achebe set out in the morning of his life to be the writer with whom you had to engage. Book after pertinent book, this wordsmith stunned the literary world with his writings. No one gave him any quarters, he had to fight for every inch of glorious ground.

Many people know Things Fall Apart. Not as many know of Arrow of God or A Man of the People. These were his finest works of fiction, creations over which he laboured when he was young, when the sap flowed strong in the trunk of what became his magnificent Iroko tree. He wrote for children too. He wrote essays and even attempted poetry. He wrote short stories and only last year published his memoir, There Was a Country.

It wasn’t possible to be indifferent to Achebe. You loved him or hated him. Sometimes you did both at the same time. He wrote so beautifully, so efficiently that his medium was as much a means of spreading his message. He wrote as he spoke, in a spare, stern way. He was, nevertheless, intricate in his creations. His writings, examined, consisted of a balance that was not always apparent. If we borrowed from one of his own favourite images, his work was lattice-work. Achebe was no mean craftsman and no ordinary warrior of the word. His simplicity hid an advanced degree of sophistication which every young writer will do well to study.

Achebe knew how to place his finger on the pulse of his environment. If we consider the fact that he wrote the bulk of what became his first book, Things Fall Apart, at about age 26, we have to conclude that he must have paid uncanny attention to both the language of his people and the structure of their society in a way that we hardly ever see any more in new writers. Achebe harnessed his prodigious talent early and set about the task of portraying his environment with as much realism as any man in the literary trade could have hoped to do. Of the quartet of Okigbo, Clark, Soyinka and Achebe, the most readable prose belonged, by far, to Achebe. He ran with it. The world won’t ever forget that accumulative narrative voice that built and built until his denouement shattered the ambience […]

Any literary life will ultimately be measured by two simultaneous indices as Berryman suggested: that of talent and that of achievement. A life like Chinua Achebe’s, however, is in a class all by itself, a class sui generis. When such a life has run its course, it’ll require an encomiast of the stature of Xenophon who wrote the classic tribute to Agesilaus. Achebe had huge talents and achieved astronomical successes. He worked very hard, he dug very deep.

On the 11th of September 2012, in the city of Gyeongju, South Korea, strolling with the veritable John Ralston Saul, international President of PEN, the oldest writer’s organization in the world, that writer and philosopher regaled me with the story of Achebe and PEN. In the mid-eighties, Ralston Saul and a few other radical elements in world literature had canvassed for Chinua Achebe to be voted as President of PEN International. They lost narrowly at the elections. I saw in Saul’s eyes the conviction that he had been the equivalent of a cardinal rooting for a black Pope, a dancer to a distant tropic drum. Few had seen what he saw back then. Not anymore. Africa’s best are at the forefront of the writing profession everywhere today and it is undeniably due to the labours of such great spirits as Chinua Achebe. Let him rest now that he belongs to the ages.

(This is an edited extract of a tribute first published in Nigeria’s Premium Times 23.3.13)

from John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International

Chinua Achebe played an important and fascinating role in the modern history of PEN. There are at least three occasions of which I have a very particular memory.

A group of PEN Centres, which included PEN Canada, convinced him to run for International President in 1989 at the Maastricht Congress. It was my first Congress, and it was a very intense campaign. The position of those of us who convinced him to put his name forward was that he would lead an important reform movement in PEN. In the end, he came very close to winning, but did not win. Nevertheless, it is still considered by many to be the beginning of the modernization movement in PEN International, as well as a statement about the important role that would be played in PEN by African Centres.

The following year, the Congress was held in Canada in Toronto and Montreal, and he was one of the honoured guests. I put together a trip to the Arctic for honoured guests from sixteen countries. We first flew up to Iqaluit, and then in small Twin Otters on to isolated communities at the northern end of Baffin Island. Chinua was one of the sixteen, along with writers like Édouard Glissant, Betty Friedan, Nélida Pinon, Claribel Alegria, and Monika van Paemel. It was a remarkable trip, because at that time virtually no international writers had visited the High Arctic. There were fascinating conversations, involving Chinua in particular, with local elders and young Inuit writers.

Finally, in 2010, Chinua was one of the guests at the Free the Word! festival in London. Fortunately, he wasn't actually coming to London! That was the year of the Icelandic volcano and many of the guests were unable to fly. Derek Walcott couldn't make it because there were no airplanes. But Chinua was going to speak to us via live video link, which he did with his usual intelligence and sharp yet elegant style. It was as if he was in theatre with us.

He was a truly great writer, who took the time to involve himself in major public issues throughout his career.