Chinua Achebe November 16, 1930 – March 21, 2013
Chinua Achebe, literary giant, author of Things Fall Apart passed away on 21 March 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts after a brief illness.
That question, “Where were you when…?”
In Boston, Massachusetts at the NeMLA, (regional Modern Languages Association ) conference.
I found out about 9.30am on 22 March from Dorothea Smartt. She’d seen the link on someone’s Facebook page.
She keeps insisting that I get onto Facebook, and I keep not doing it, so it was she, who posted the sad news of his passing on the SABLE Facebook page whilst I got my bearings together, emailed a member of his family to offer my condolences and then thought, who do I need to tell? There was a time before email when you knew who the ‘touch’ person was who would inform everyone else. That isn’t the case anymore and I didn’t know where to start – who to tell – who already knew… at that time in the morning it was still ‘alleged’; no BBC confirmation had yet appeared. Did this mean that someone in confidence had leaked the news before the family officially announced it?
Helon Habila interviewed Chinua Achebe for SABLE when he was the first ‘Achebe Fellow’ at Bard College in New York. It was a SABLE moment when I felt ‘we had arrived’. The ‘father’ of African literature appearing on our cover! (Issue 8. Spring 2007). Our Africa issue sold like ‘hot cakes’ in Nigeria, said Farafina publisher Muhtar Bakare, who sold them on our behalf.
Chinua Achebe also signed 30 SABLE ‘cover’ postcards for us. I sent them hopefully, not expecting him to respond. But they arrived in the post one day, within a couple of months after I’d sent them to him.
On the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, we asked 50 writers of colour to give us 50 words on the impact that TFA had had on them – with a final statement about the burden for Achebe being ‘embodied’ as African literature from Syl Cheney Coker.
I didn’t include my 50 words then, but here they are: ‘I stared at a series of cream/orange books on a late uncle’s bookshelf when I was 11. He took one off and gave it to me. Didn’t say a word. The first book I’d seen by an African writer. Five years later, I handed it to a friend in Trinidad. Didn’t say a word.’
I treasure my early US copy that I picked up for $1.50 in a second hand bookstore just outside Philadelphia. I paid for it quickly and ran out of the store, in case they realised that they had sold me what I considered to be a collector’s item by mistake, and that it was really supposed to be $150 instead. A children’s book that he wrote, too. They are now in a ‘safe place’, along with my signed copy of my Things Fall Apart 50th anniversary edition. I was lucky. I got it signed in Washington DC at an event he did in 2008.
The room was packed; his books had sold out, and someone in the queue kindly sold me one of the few additional copies they had bought. This was the night before the voting for Obama’s first term. On my way back to Philadelphia I was so happily exhausted, I fell asleep, missed my stop and ended up in Penn station NY instead of Penn station Phila. My (ex)husband wasn’t amused, he said: “I’ve waited all my life to vote for America’s first Black President and you get yourself stranded at a train station in Center City in the early hours of the morning? I have to vote – you’ll have to wait.”
I didn’t mind; I understood. My husband went to vote and I made my way back to 69th Street station. We were both elated – I had been in the presence of Achebe and my ex had played his part in making history – and that was my last time of meeting Achebe. Somewhere in my archives there is a video recording of a poetry reading that he did at Foyles bookshop in London. Each time I had seen him in the past ten years, I foisted my latest book on him. He probably never read them – but I wanted to make sure that I made an impact in his presence. Brushes only, but they have left indelible prints on my memory, on my work and on my love of literature.
Ironically, the African Literature Association conference is taking place in Charleston at the same time and I feel their collective mourning.
Instead, like other ‘Africanists’, I wandered around physically, mentally and creatively for most of the day, waiting to regain a sense, a balance and some meaning that although we knew that one day this icon would leave us, he was not supposed to. Dionne Brand started her keynote at NeMLA by honouring him and spoke of the breadth of his work.
I feel blessed that I’ve personally brushed with his greatness.