Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chinua Achebe at the 92Y

Chinua Achebe at the 92Y

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was a great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaine. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth.

Ah, the opening lines of “Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe’s monumental novel that captures the humanity inside the colonization of Africa—Nigeria specifically. It had been years since I read this stellar text and I found myself falling into its rabbit hole of story, enchanted by its magic all over again as the 4 train shot me uptown to the 92 Street Y where Achebe was to be speaking.

It occurs to me now that Achebe never touched the stage--fitting. Paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident, Achebe appeared to us in a wheelchair. A man well into his golden years, he spoke to the sold out auditorium with the heft of a person steeped deeply in the totality of the human experience. How he spoke: imagine an endless sting of pearls in his belly. To speak was to pull each pearl, each word, from his throat one by one—making him easy to transcribe. All around me, I could hear the furious scrawlings of fellow note takers.

I am deeply intrigued by various responses to oppression, as it is a conversation that circles right back into the question of human nature. Etheridge Knight’s
“A Fable” is a timeless examination of this and I return to this poem often when certain questions resurrect like dust in me. Achebe’s obsession as a writer has been the examination of how Western customs impacted traditional African societies. His father, a teacher, was one of the first to become Christian in his village, soon after the missionaries arrived. While other Nigerians deeply resisted the inevitable, his father considered this “new faith” the path to salvation, truly believing Christianity would solve the problems of the world, a commentary in itself on his dissatisfaction with the affairs of the day. I wonder if Achebe's father would still feel that today, if he were alive in present times.

As a boy, Achebe attended a government college and described walking into the library as being in another world. His school had a law called the Textbook Act. Three days a week students could not touch a single textbook after school and were only allowed to read novels and biographies, for excessive bookwork they deemed dangerous.

Achebe described himself as “skeptically grateful” of some of the things Westernisms brought to African society—as the good things came with a price. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, received an American education and returned to enrich West Africa with the concept of free education for everyone, resulting in Nigeria’s fecund literary tradition, or as Achebe said, less illiterates reading the newspaper upside down. On the flip, Achebe was shocked to hear of extremist Christians in his village back home destroying shrines, deeming them idols. Ah, the heartbreaks of cultural erasure.
I think of my buddy Bob Holman, who has travelled to West Africa on his mission to preserve endangered languages. His question is: why should we care more about endangered animals than about entire systems of consciousness?

Achebe discussed his extraordinary love hate relationship with Nigeria, which sounded similar to how say, Chicagoans and Trinidadians speak about their homes. This precise tension Achebe speaks of spells the undercurrent of my own life, my own relationship with this beautiful and terrible world. My love and hatred for it are one in the same. I don't know if or where one ends and the other begins but its totality is what fuels my odes and lesson plans; informs my decision to disconnect the cable and overdose on reggae. It is why I see an ad for 1-800-Flowers and think of the flower fields in Ethiopia, and indulge in frivolous delights, like hibiscus sorbet. It is why I smile when I wake up and slap my insides when I catch myself complaining about anything. Why I stay inspired.
It gave me a charge, seeing Chinua Achebe. To listen to him was to drink more fuel for the conflagration that already rages in me like the brush fire that loves its forest.