Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Achebe & Appiah Conversation at Princeton

Achebe and Kwame Anthony Appiah chatting ahead of the public event
at Princeton Presbyterian Church, March 26, 2008
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Princeton Professors Simon Gikandi, Valerie Smith and Appiah at the pre-conversation dinner
(photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

In my last post I said I hopefully would return with a report (since I am yet to complete my wishful diploma in journalism, I will for now only make an incomplete report) on the two events at Princeton last week: the lecture by Danticat and the conversation by Appiah and Achebe. As it is, I can only report on just the latter for lack of time. But also because I understand that there are plans to make the entire Danticat lecture available online.

Gikandi introducing Appiah and Achebe
(photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Listening to Professor Simon Gikandi, one of the foremost Achebe scholars, introduce the two conversationists of the evening, with his soaringly beautiful diction and powerful evocation of the contributions of both Achebe and Appiah to knowledge, something kept me wishing the introduction continued well into the evening, so I could soak in Gikandi's critical foray into the core ideas we have come to associate with the two public intellectuals and philosophers. It was the perfect preparation for what followed, which is the measured, searching questions and comments by Appiah about the ideological and historical motivations that made Achebe write Things Fall Apart, and Achebe's own multilayered responses that makes you appreciate the awesome combination of wisdom and age. Appiah asked about the Conrad connection, the willful gesture of embarking on a counternarrative of African subjectivity and history? "Even if Conrad never existed, I would still probably have written Things Fall Apart," Achebe responded, as if to suggest that Conrad was only a symptom--a microcosm--of a larger ideological context so powerful and pervading, which made me think of Edward Said's articulation of the insidious symbiotic relationship between colonial knowledge and power in Orientalism.

Achebe reading from the 50th Anniversary Edition of Things Fall Apart
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Then Achebe read from a section of Things Fall Apart that he said he was only now beginning to understand. So, go figure, all you who pull your hairs about meaning or authorial intentions in TFA! This was the section where Uchendu, Okonkwo's maternal uncle, seeing that the exiled Okonkwo was falling into depression, called a family meeting to address the problem. After challenging anyone present--all his juniors--who believed himself/herself wiser to show up, he started by asking Okonkwo if he knew why the Igbo name their children Nneka (Mother is Supreme) and also why a woman is buried with her kindred rather than among her husband's people. Then, after Okonkwo shook his head, he goes on to explain that the mother protects the child in times of great need; that it is to the mother that the besieged child runs to... Although Uchendu does not answer the second question, he ended his speech thus: "Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies:
For whom is it well, for whom is it well
There is no one for whom it is well
In a way, I suspect that this section of the novel is crucial to any understanding of, as enunciated in the novel, Igbo conception of the relationship between the child and his mother; between humanity and motherhood and, despite Okonkwo's rash attitude to his wives, the proper disposition a man ought to have toward his mother and women in general. Also it speaks to the centrality of womanhood and motherhood in not just the Igbo cosmos but also in its social relations.

In the Q/A period, Achebe was asked about the state of contemporary Nigerian literature, whether there are any young writers he considers of promise. To which he responded that yes, indeed, there is important work coming out today. But he would not mention any specific names, because according to him, "it is not fair" to do so. You could almost hear in him the sentiments of a proud father of many accomplished children being asked in public to name his favorite child! Wisdom is an immense gift. The last question came from a twelve-year old boy who had just read TFA in his class asked the last question of the evening. He wondered if Achebe should be speaking, as he has, of Okonkwo as a "flawed hero", or is the novel a story of "rash and wise men," since to him Okonkwo did not so much cut the image of a hero as one of a rash man. I never thought of it that way, Achebe responded; but his people called him a hero.

1 comment:

Doyin said...

Thank you for your summary. It was truly an inspiring event and it was good to see you again. What you said about the paradox between the rash way Okonkwo treated his wives at times and the Igbo idea of the respect for womanhood; is interesting. See you in the Fall.