Over the last twenty odd years, there are a couple of stories Chinua Achebe seemed to like telling his audiences about me, whenever and wherever he and I found ourselves on the same panel or in any kind of a meeting. Meanwhile, and invariably, his wife Christie would be around too, nodding her head and openly cheering him on. One had to do with me as a ‘small girl’ who, way back in the mid-1960s showed up in his Lagos office when he was the Director of External Broadcasting at the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation.
Corroborating any of the stories was never a problem, except that my versions start from two or so years prior to the Lagos visit. Like a few other lucky young African writers –then! – I had the privilege of fleetingly meeting Chinua Achebe in 1962. We had been invited by Ulli Beier of Mbari, and later Black Orpheus fame, to a workshop for young writers at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. On their way back to their various final destinations after the more ‘executive’ first Makerere African Writers Conference, Achebe and the other greats of African Literature had obviously been asked to come by our workshop to inspire the budding lot of us.
A couple of years later, Ulli Beier and his wife, the British artist Georgina Betts invited me again to Nigeria, this time to their home in Oshogbo, to meet his first wife Suzanne Wenger and Taiwo Olaniyi, aka Twins Seven-Seven, and others in a group of young artists they were nurturing. That was when, on my way back to Ghana, and at the grand age of 25, I decided to stop in Lagos and go in search of Chinua Achebe, properly.
As told by Achebe, I had emerged from somewhere in Lagos, entered the Nigeria Broadcasting complex, found my way to his office, walked to his secretary and asked her if I could see the Director. I remember that after recovering from whatever minor shock she had suffered from my gumption, the secretary had asked me whether I had an appointment. ‘No’, I had replied rather truthfully. Another nasty little shock to the poor secretary’s system. Then sensing that the hapless secretary was going to ask me to leave, I had pleaded with her to at least, let the Chief know that I was around. The secretary obliged, and Achebe had asked her to let ‘the visitor’ in. Given the nod, I rushed into the office of the Director of External Broadcasting at the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation and without so much as ‘good afternoon Sir,’ I had raised up my hands, audibly exhaled, and declared that that afternoon I had ‘indeed arrived at the shrine’. By the time he got to that point, Achebe himself would be so enthralled by this story, he would double up laughing so infectiously that the audience would start laughing with him. I cannot recall how the rest of the visit to ‘the shrine’ progressed, or ended. What I know is that Achebe went on being Achebe. He became a bigger chief, and stayed as an icon for me, even though I continued to write, and in time gathered enough courage to see myself as a writer in my own right. And definitely long after I had stopped being a ‘ small girl’.
What I also remember is that after one of those events, some friends and well-wishers who had found the story objectionable on my behalf came to commiserate with me. Their point exactly? Their point was that by insisting on telling the story over 40 years after the event, and from very public platforms, Chinua Achebe was trying to assert his big male African writer self at the expense of the woman writer who had been ‘the small girl. They had a point there. Or did they? The fact is that try as I did, I could not bring myself to be angry with Achebe. Why? Because he was Achebe. The last time I heard Achebe tell the story was in 2010 when he was giving his inaugural public lecture as the Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.
Now looking back, it took Things Fall Apart, an amazingly short time between when it was published in 1958, to when, as a student, it made a difference to my perception of Literature. I was in the English Department at the University of Ghana, Legon, [1961-1964], and until I encountered this novel, I had honestly assumed that Literature, definitely with the big L, was only produced in England, and by a group of writers who belonged to some sacred society called The Great Tradition. Then I encountered Things Fall Apart as a recommended text, and it promptly took care of all that. Now, like countless African teachers on all levels of education and other millions of individuals around the world, I am intensely aware that it is Things Fall Apart that has chalked all those very well-documented and amazingly stellar statistics for its author. Having said all that however, I must confess that Arrow of God is the Achebe novel that I taught to university students all over the place, and over a longer period. It will also be one of the 10 books I would take with me when I get marooned on that proverbial island.
On September 24, 2010, Achebe was awarded the lavish Dorothy and Lilian Gish Prize. The previous year, he had come to join the faculty of the Africana Studies Department, Brown University, as the Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies, and members of the faculty were given invitations to attend the award ceremony on October 27, 2010. So there we were, Karen Allen Baxter, Managing Director of the Department of Africana Studies’ Rites and Reason Theatre, Kathy Moyer, then Assistant to Professor Achebe and I, on the highway from Providence, Rhode Island to New York.
Even though it was almost rained out, our trip was absolute fun, with quite a few diversions on the way. We did get to Broadway, if only in the nick of time. Since it was Broadway, finding a room to change in was not a major challenge. We entered the Hudson Theatre, nice and dry, to join a beaming Chinua Achebe. It turned out to be a great evening that was made more glorious because of course Christie was present, and so were a great number of his family, close and extended. Other friends and colleagues who had joined him for that evening included Sonja Sanchez, the late Jayne Cortez, and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, the renowned Jamaican writer and activist. In fact, it was Thelwell, along with Lisa Philips, who presented Achebe with the prize.
Talking of rain-sodden journeys to see Chinua and Christie and arriving just on time, the trip from Brown University to Bard College in the fall of 2004 was another. I had contacted Jesse Weaver Shipley about me visiting the Achebes. Jesse was also teaching at Bard then, and very busy campaigning and raising funds to set up The Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists. Within the shortest possible time Jesse came back to me. The couple’s response was not only that they would be delighted, but they all thought it would also be a good idea if I could read or speak or do a little of both to the Bard community. It was raining when I got into the rented car in Providence and after about 5 hours on the road, it was still raining when I stepped out of it in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. But the hall was packed, and Achebe could not prevent himself from opening his remarks with you-know-which-tales!
So my confession is that I had not found it easy to mind the fact that Achebe would share reminiscences about me, especially if their telling made him feel good, and hurt me none: including my pride. The other story Achebe liked telling on such occasions was the one about me making the trip in 1990 to visit him at the Paddocks Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England. He would insist on sharing that too with his audience, and unwittingly, reduce Christie to tears. That had been a train journey. Had it rained that day too? Quite frankly, I had felt too anxious on that journey to even notice the weather outside. But it was fall, or autumn in England, and most likely a rainy day. In any case, being African, I would still have considered it a good omen. Of the wonderful news when I got there. That he would live. The rest? We do not want to go there. ‘Nuff said. We miss Chinua Achebe already, and always will.