Monday, March 25, 2013

Give Us This Day Our Private Grief

I was at the Salon du Livre in Paris, meeting my wonderful new French publishers, +Editions Zulma, speaking of the importance of integrity and consistency in the building of a literary career, when I missed a phone call from my agent's office in London. I called back to find that Chinua Achebe had died. I was incredibly sad to hear of the passing of Chinua, and – for a brief period – I regretted not being available in the UK to contribute to various news items covering his death. An hour later, having thought it through, I realised that it was a blessing that I was unavailable for comment.

The loss of a literary and political giant – especially one who embodied the very integrity and consistency I was discussing when I heard of his passing – is upsetting to us in ways that are hard to put into words, yet it also heralds a festival of agendas. The same public officials that Chinua Achebe lambasted in Nigeria will seek to claim him, taking out adverts in the national press to mourn his passing; the critics that defended Joseph Conrad when Achebe labelled him racist will seek to rehash the old argument, confident that he will not be around to rebut; news outlets will seek the most compelling way to extrapolate the significance of his death to embrace African issues of the day – whether it's corruption in Nigeria, religious killings, the current generation of writers from the continent or secession movements; various publishers will be quietly awaiting the post-death sales spike.

The one thing we the currently-domiciled-in-the-West can be certain of, when we lose such a giant, from a continent considered to be peripheral in the literary world, is that our authors – African writers – will suddenly be in demand by news outlets – for comment, for public display of their grief, to reinforce the accepted narrative of the greatness of the fallen. The problem is, when these outlets ask us for our opinions, for our sentiments, they tend to only be interested in our responses as relates to the narrative that they are constructing around the event. But our relationship to these icons is not always as simple as they would like. Yes, I am devastated by Achebe's death – in part because I think the recognition he got was always skewed towards one book, when his achievements were far greater than that – but Achebe was never my ultimate inspiration. Like him, the reason I started writing was the impulses I got from reading European writers – that is simply what we have inherited. The idea of writing for print was seeded by those European authors, who practised in that small sliver of the greater culture of storytelling. However, my love for stories came from my family (what would be labelled my extended family in the West), my activism for communities and for representation in history, from being raised in a collective culture. It is only later that my inclinations, my tendencies to document the margins, were given structure and guidance by the examples of pioneers like Achebe, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Kwame Nkrumah and Margaret Atwood.

But this is not the kind of tidy narrative that works for the media. I know from experience that if I said this on pre-recorded radio or television, it wouldn't make the final edit; for a newspaper, they might try to get me to edit to suit them until, realising my unwillingness to change, they would pay me for the content and not use it. How do I explain that in my home country, we do not only mourn, we eulogise and celebrate? I am no expert on Igbo culture, but I was so glad to see that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's response to Achebe's death was an elegy in Igbo. It may be considered too sentimental for the New York Times, but it is apt and heartfelt. It is the right kind of public grief – a private-public expression of loss on her own terms, something you can't fully translate to suit news headlines.

Yes, we are bereft. Achebe was a great writer, editor and mentor, a highly intelligent individual with incredible capacity for empathy and forgiveness (in my opinion, Biafra was a hard thing to forgive). He was also fearless; he went onto battlefields where few had dared tread and showed us what armour we would need for our future skirmishes. He bore a torch and raised it high so we wouldn't trip over our own feet.

But there is a bigger truth underlying Achebe's departure: we are at a point when many African countries are marking 50 or more years of post-European-colonial life – that means that many of our well-documented pioneers (I make the distinction because the notion of pioneers only existing after the European-colonial era is patently false), are in their late-70s and early 80s and we are likely to be mourning some more over the next few years. Sadly, we are still fighting some of the same battles Achebe fought, still trying to shift the image of Africa that Europe insists on perpetuating, still having to explain how and why our writing in English or French or Portuguese or Arabic is not a loss of self. And I guarantee, that in the next few weeks, you will see articles dedicated to seeking the 'successors' of Chinua Achebe in a way that no one sought the successors of Saul Bellow when he died. The articles will claim they are well-meaning, the contributors will be Africa scholars (or even African writers) but ultimately, I can't see how they can be anything but patronising; we are living our lives and developing our art, we don't need anyone to tell us where to look, thank you.

Oh, Chinua, thank you for the stories, for the guidance, for your clarity. Because of you, we can see how much work we still have to do. We mourn you, we mourn our sleep. Our writing lives are like the breaking of anthills – the ants rebuild if we ever dare to rest. This is our private grief.

what i'm reading/listening to
listening:
Conflict by Ebo Taylor & Uhuru Yenzu -  from +Mr Bongo Worldwide

reading:
Running the Dusk by Christian Campbell + The Full Indian Rope Trick by Colette Bryce


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