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Chinua Achebe at Leeds: When the Great Share the Good – Brendon Nicholls

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[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 42-45]

On 22 November 2010, the University of Leeds Centre for African Studies was privileged to host the world-renowned African writer, academic and cultural commentator, Chinua Achebe. Achebe famously attended the first conference on Commonwealth Literature held by the School of English at the University of Leeds in September, 1964. It was at the Commonwealth Literature conference that he presented his now-classic essay, “The Novelist as Teacher” Achebe’s landmark association with the university has been a source of enduring pride for academics and students who work in disciplines embracing African Studies and Postcolonial Studies. Given the tradition and prestige associated with Achebe’s accomplishments, it is no surprise that well over 500 students and academics filled the Rupert Beckett lecture theatre and an overflow room with a video link   to hear him read from his Collected Poems (2005).Achebe, of course, requires no introduction.[1] His literary accomplishments stretch well beyond the publication of several classics of African Literature. Indeed, he is responsible in many ways for bringing the crucial importance of African Literature and its principal concerns to the attention of readers and thinkers from much further afield. The recently re-issued volume of collected poems is a reminder of Achebe’s continuing importance as a leading representative of global literature in English, and it was from this volume that Achebe read. Listeners accustomed to Achebe’s poise, wit and nuance could not be disappointed upon returning to these poems: his characteristic talents were all in evidence and his reading conveyed a fine sense of the measure and timbre of his lines.

The first sequence of the Collected Poems, “Prologue,” assembles reflections such as “1966,” whose lackadaisical movements and jarring imagery emphasise the poet’s disaffection with Nigeria’s casual drift into civil war following the Biafran secession. Achebe’s initial emphasis is not upon the crude phenomena of the conflict, but instead upon the half-disclosed play of contrary forces in the moment of imminence: as when the undulating flight of a butterfly meets with the windshield of a motor vehicle in “Benin Road.” This meeting of mortal delicacy with a more robust fate produces a profound duality of perspective. Duality, in turn, clears the space for ephemeral subtlety within an irrevocably belligerent climate – as in “Mango Seedling,” in which the speaker observes a young plant sprout, wither and finally remain as a monument to its own fruitless courage. Amid the failure of fable and faith, these poems turn to the natural world for instruction. For instance, “Pine Tree in Spring” views an enduring conifer as an understated icon of fidelity to “Nature’s recumbent standard” amid the flamboyant treachery and the florid betrayals of the Biafran experiment.

The second sequence, “Poems about War,” mulls over the human textures and intricacies of Biafran suffering. The seemingly idiosyncratic poem, “An ‘If’ of History,” speculates as to what might have happened had Hitler won the Second World War. The disordering of received value resulting from this hypothetical history serves to throw Biafra’s ubiquitous moral aberrations into relief. “A Mother in a Refugee Camp” and “Christmas in Biafra (1969)” are more direct in their approach to their subject-matter. Both poems hazard comparisons between mothers tending their afflicted children and the Christian nativity myth, only to refuse cosy parallels. In the Biafran example, maternal tenderness for ill-fated infants contrasts powerfully with God’s distance from atrocity. In circumstances in which almost all human qualities are eroded by famine and violation, small everyday acts allow the more-than-human, “alias Man Pass Man” (ix), to subsist. In conversation with Achebe after his reading, I asked him about this phrase that is so crucial to his vision of poetry and the role poetry plays in beleaguered times. Achebe explained that “Man Pass Man” is a phrase denoting a superior kind of man, but that it was also his name for a magician who he had known in his childhood. In short, we might say that these poems might be taken as magical and durable emanations from war: akin to the child-survivors who barely endure – starving, orphaned and unhomed – amid desecration. But Achebe’s answer was not – he implied – culturally or historically insular. As I considered his explanation, he added in a characteristically generous way, “That was a man pass man look!”

The third sequence, “Poems not about War,” uses love as a metaphor for social reharmonisation, especially in “Love Cycle,” where the gendering of sun and moon is used to argue for a balance between nocturnal and diurnal powers over the Earth. This imagery is continued in “Question,” in which a sunbeam highlights dust motes in the speaker’s shadowy room, leading to his agoraphobic sense of being crowded out by other selves within the visible present or by predecessors from the invisible past. The speaker’s solution in “Answer” is to seize his “remnant life in a miracle of decision” (36). In an exemplary individuating act, the speaker-poet ascends the sunbeam supported by the crowd, only to fall back into the crowd. Now possessed of an elevated vision, the poet may distribute it among the common man and woman. This theme of poetic levity being grounded by social responsibility is continued in “Beware, Soul Brother,” in which the potentially destructive drives of the dispossessed become a final mechanism holding the poet’s raptures to account. Such preoccupations with complementarity and a balance of powers are typical of this section, and at their root is an argument for redignification of those abased by conflict. This argument for redignification leads to difficult and finally unresolved moral confrontations in “Vulture,” which questions how we might acknowledge the humane qualities that remain within the perpetrator of atrocities.

The third section, “Gods, Men and Others,” resolves these moral ambiguities by arguing for a resacralisation of the world, in which the reciprocal powers of gods and men are restored. Although every human act is measured by its reception among the divine, man’s subtle besting of the gods leads to ultimately dignified outcomes. For instance, a man condemned to compulsory execution in “Those Gods are Children” has his sentence stayed for so long that it is finally carried out as a merciful act of euthanasia when he is suffering illness. When measuring Igbo deities against Christianity in “Lament of the Sacred Python” and “Their Idiot Song,” Achebe finds that the new religion suffers not from an absolutist god, but from a complacent simplicity of belief. “We Laughed at Him,” which concludes the collection, recognises that this simplicity of belief also besets poetry – whose glimpses of the divine founder upon the scorn with which its lofty fancies are received.

The undoubted highlight of Achebe’s reading was the dirge, “A Wake for Okigbo,” which he read first in English and then in Igbo. The powerful rhythms of this poem invoked Okigbo’s own masterful sequence, “Path of Thunder: Poems Prophesying War,” and Achebe’s tribute to his fellow poet was received with rapturous applause.[2] Okigbo, of course, is a poet who died in the most compelling of circumstances, defending the university town of Nsukka against the advancing might of the Nigerian Federal forces during the Biafran War. He was killed while trying to hurl a hand grenade into the turret of an armoured vehicle – a bombastic human act of defiance against overwhelming odds (Nwakanna 2010: 256).

This sense of the literary and its obligations to the world was conveyed in a plenary conversation after the reading. The Director of LUCAS and Professor of African Theatre, Jane Plastow, asked Chinua Achebe upon his return to the University of Leeds what he now felt the duty of the writer to be. Achebe remarked that he had written “The Novelist as Teacher” when he was a new writer and that he was expressing his mind as strongly as he felt the need. He then asked why his ancestors had invented stories and explained that it was, of course, to amuse children, but also to make their society strong and firm. Expanding on this idea, he asserted that stories are in no way adverse to morality, to order. Leading on from her previous question, Professor Plastow asked Achebe about the increasingly narrow view of education and specifically about the beleaguered position of the Arts in an instrumental and vocationally-directed culture. Achebe once again asserted that the Arts promote the same values of morality and order that society upholds and that their common purpose should therefore be observed. He argued, “Life is serious [and] Art is serious.” With the students studying Things Fall Apart in mind, Professor Plastow observed that much of Achebe’s fiction “looks to the past to reflect upon the future.” She asked if an historical understanding is key to a better future in Africa. Achebe declined to prescribe, but emphasised that the past, today and the future “have a very powerful bearing on what life means to us.” He gave the example that the past or the present are useful analytical tools when placed in relation to one another. Professor Plastow then asked Achebe about the range and variety of his work, and if there was “some difference of sensibility or urgency that motivates a particular choice of genre at a particular moment in your life that influences the way you choose to write”.  Achebe observed that just before the Nigerian civil war, he had been president of a writers’ society. On one occasion, the writers were about to begin the meeting when a member came in and shouted from the door:

“Chinua you were a prophet! Everything in this book has happened, except the coup! . . . And what he was talking about – he had a copy of my new novel, in fact a novel to be because it hadn’t been published. So everybody rushed up to see A Man of the People. . . . But the fact that was demonstrated overnight was one of the most curious things that happened to me in my writing career. This event that he said had not happened – namely a coup, a military coup – did happen that night.”

The larger implication in this anecdote was that when a literary sensitivity shares a common purpose with the social, the order at work in narrative design may anticipate larger cultural or political shifts.

In conversation, Chinua Achebe conveyed the seriousness of an established literary talent and the magnanimity of a statesman. It was clear that his vision of the literary work is primarily concerned with the intricacies and resolutions provided by a moral order that is not aloof, but that may provide new and enriching perspectives on global problems. In this sense, Achebe’s stated “common purpose” with “the same values of morality and order that society upholds” means that he is a writer who is fundamentally concerned with sharing “the good.” Such generosity characterised his visit to Leeds, from the moral wisdom contained in his lines to the time he gave unselfishly to a throng of admiring students.

Brendon Nicholls is a Lecturer in African Literatures and Cultures at the University of Leeds. His principal research interests are in Postcolonial literatures in English, and he has specialised interests in the Anglophone literatures of Africa.

Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. Collected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 2005

Nwakanna, Obi. Chrisopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight, Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2010

Okigbo, Christopher. Labyrinths, London: Heinemann, 1971

[1] The following five paragraphs first appeared in modified form in Nicholls, Brendon. “Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems and Togara Muzanenhamo, Spirit Brides,” Stand 7:3 (2007), pp.58-60.

[2] It is the subtitle of this sequence, “Poems Prophesying War,” that haunts the titles of the second and third sections of Achebe’s Collected Poems, “Poems about War” and “Poems not about War.”

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