Chinua Achebe, the novelist, essayist, and professor who turned just eighty, is best described as “a man…who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
The words of that eloquent description, as the quotations marks indicate, are not mine. Even so, they capture my sentiments.
I was at the Hudson Theatre in New York City on Wednesday, October 27 when Achebe was invested with the 2010 Gish Prize. The prize, which was instituted in 1994 by the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust, is given each year to a towering figure in the arts world who – in the wisdom of the panel of judges – has used her or his artistic gifts to make the world a more beautiful place.
In choosing Achebe as this year’s recipient of the $300,000 prize, the judges and trustees of the award demonstrated admirable fidelity to the noble principles and aspirations set out by the two sisters, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, whose bequest started the prize.
Lillian Gish, the principal spirit behind the prize, stated her goal: “It is my desire, by establishing this prize, to give recipients of the prize the recognition they deserve, to bring attention to their contributions to society and encourage others to follow in their path.”
To be in the hall where the prize was formally given was to bear witness to the way in which one man, Achebe, through the sustained excellence of his work as one of the world’s finest novelists and intellectuals, has not only enriched the world but also – in a most moving way – defined it.
Speaker after speaker at the event in New York returned again and again to that essential theme – a recognition of Achebe’s transcendent place in the world of letters. The African American poet Sonia Sanchez, whose powerful voice belies her diminutive stature, declaimed it in a poetic tribute. The Gish Prize judges expressed it when they testified to a sense of inevitability the moment they looked into Achebe’s surpassing credentials. A representative of JP Morgan Chase Bank, the trustee for the prize, struck the same note in her speech. And then there was Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, a Jamaican writer-activist cum teacher, who was given the task of presenting Achebe.
If there’s a more devoted champion of Achebe’s work than Thelwell, or somebody with a richer insight into the ethical, aesthetic and intellectual ground that Achebe has staked out, I have yet to meet her or him. Marshalling anecdote after captivating anecdote, Thelwell gave a thrilling account of Achebe’s literary, cultural and political stature, his unrivaled artistic vision, the amazing reach of his influence, and the abiding clarity, integrity and power of his work.
Thelwell’s unscripted, straight-from-the-heart tribute was a harvest of stories, stretching from a concierge in a Lagos hotel who improvised a song of praise using the names of Achebe’s books to his witness of great outpourings of love for Achebe, from the high and humble alike, when he accompanied Achebe on a trip to Jamaica in January, 2007.
Of all the speeches given that night, Achebe – characteristically – spoke the fewest words, but the words were infused with great power. He said he had news for the packed audience of his family, friends and fans. “I am a lucky man,” he declared. His luck lay in the fact that the Gish sisters, two sisters he never met physically, had nevertheless sought him out in his “small corner” in the world. Achebe’s genius for linguistic compression is well known. He summoned that flair when he told the audience that of his feeling that the Gish sisters “knew” him and that he, in turn, “knew” them. It was as eloquent a statement of spiritual kinship as one has ever heard.
When Achebe reiterated that he was “a lucky man,” a voice from the hushed room shouted, “We’re luckier to have you!” That voice stirred the room, as if every listener said, in his or her fashion, “Amen!”
Achebe was only twenty-eight when Things Fall Apart, his first, and most popular, novel was published in 1958. I recall a conversation with a friend from Botswana, a colleague of mine in graduate school. Two years ago, as I drove with a Cameroonian academic to Achebe’s home in upstate New York to interview him, our discussion turned on Things Fall Apart. Suddenly, the Cameroonian, a professor of African literature, said to me: “That novel is so deep. It’s the kind of book you’d expect a much older man to write.”
That reaction was etched in my mind when we arrived at Achebe’s and began the interview. When I posed a question about the seed that germinated into the idea for the book, Achebe answered in a quasi-mystical accent: “I can theorize that the story wanted to be told at all costs, and why it chose me to tell [it], I don’t know. It could have been anybody else. The story would have been different, of course, because every person has his or her story. This is my story, and it wanted to be told.”
When I raised the specific issue about his age, he saw an opportunity to delve into a particular predicament created by colonialism. “What colonization did to us was to remove power from the elders and pass it over to children. This is what European education meant for us. I don’t know what other place had this experience of having children, because they went to school, giving them power over the elders to determine what was going to be what. And so that’s part of the reason why it was someone very young. My father could not have written it. There were things, many things that he knew that I didn’t know, but scribbling a story was not one of the things he knew. This is one of the major weapons with which, if you like, we were disorganized, or if you prefer, one of the weapons that enabled us to pick up the fight. The generation that should have done the fight had been disabled.”
That young man with shoulders stout enough to carry an elder’s burden, has since matured into a veritable elder. He continues to inspire us with his example, permitting us to ride on the wings of the eagle he is, showing us where the rain began to beat us, reminding us that – even as things fall apart, even long after we are no longer at ease – that our world can be righted again, that we can find a new center, because it’s morning yet on creation day. I salute Achebe, a gentle, soft-spoken giant of a man, a beautiful spirit who, even now, is thinking of creative ways of making our world beautiful.
May God grant him many more years.