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Binyavanga Wainaina Remembers Chinua Achebe, One of the Greats Who Died This Year

One Day I Will Write About This PlaceThere Was A CountryAs part of The Guardian‘s series of obituaries for prominent individuals who died this year, Binyavanga Wainaina, author of One Day I Will Write About This Place, has written a piece in which he remembers the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

Wainaina recalls how nervous he was to meet Achebe at the the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart held at Bard College. “The only African proverb my panicked mind could find for the looming conversation was ‘as black as my grandmother’s cooking pot’. It was coming, it was coming! He would turn, point at my heart and mind, and say something Pan-Africanly Naipaulian and I would turn, right there, into a giggling, sweaty colonial askari.” But Achebe ended up asking Wainaina to speak about his own work and listening attentively.

Wainaina compares Achebe to Nelson Mandela, who also recently passed away, saying: “They both had the same husky voice and a noble good that trapped them into permanent bronze images hardened by the intense desires of tens of millions.”

I was in my 20s when I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I was a hunter-gatherer reader who resented the obvious hurrump hurrump books that filled my dad’s bookshelves. The idea of Chinua Achebe was so ubiquitous that he shared the territory reserved by my imagination for presidential portraits, school-teacher lectures, family Bibles and Reader’s Digest-condensed books. When I read it I was already older than he was when he wrote it, and was startled at how wise, fresh and radical it remained. Its readability, its ability to make Umuofia the centre of the world makes it everybody’s African village. There is no staleness in this idea. Proverbs from the book pound the Twittersphere and countless conversations. In English-speaking Africa, only Bible parables are as widely used. His assault on the novel in English remains a big shock to the novel itself. Our generation has work to do.

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Image courtesy Lannan Foundation and Dreadview

 

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