Thursday, October 16, 2008

Things Fall Apart @ 50 Conference at SOAS

Chinua Achebe and Simon Gikandi (Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Conference audience at the Brunei Theatre, SOAS
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Alain Ricard (Left); Graham Furniss (2nd Left); Margaret Busby (2nd Right); Abdulrazak Gurnah (Right)
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

I have been decompressing after attending the "Things Fall Apart @ 50" conference at SOAS, University of London Oct. 10-11. It turned out to be one of those rare events you feel infinitely grateful to have witnessed, especially if African literature means anything to you. Apart from seeing Achebe again this year (he was in Princeton in the spring for a reading and public conversation with Anthony Appiah), it was a treasure listening to Keith Sambrook who founded the African Writers Series; James Currey (former editor of AWS and founder of James Currey Publishers), and Henry Chakava (the MD of Heinemann Educational Books, East Africa) and Margaret Busby CBE (co-founder of Allison and Busby Ltd). Of the people who could not make the trip, Aig Higo (the founder of Heinemann Educational Books) and Chinweizu were the most significant. Yet, the organizer of the conference Lyn Innes of University of Kent deserves every praise I could summon for putting together a hitchfree, extremely well-attended, and most rewarding conference.
The presentations were for the most part superb, but it was clear that the two highlights of the two-day event were first the conversation between Achebe and Simon Gikandi of Princeton University (Ahem, my esteemed senior colleague!); Watching and listening to Achebe speak or respond to questions always feels like being in the presence of an oracle. His soft yet infinitely weighty voice, and his deliberate manner of speech makes you want to hold on to every word he utters. You leave such sessions wondering how come men like Achebe and Mandela manage to carry so much moral authority, even when they make a joke! The conclusion of the interview with Achebe reading section of Things Fall Apart summed up the whole event. Gikandi asked him to read the section (I suspect it is Achebe's favorite), where Okonkwo's maternal uncle taught him a lesson, in the presence of his maternal kindred, on the value and significance of motherhood, in the early years of his exile. But what the novel does not include is Achebe's rendering in Igbo of the wrenchingly sorrowful song Okonkwo's uncle invoked; a song performed at the funeral of a woman:

"For whom is it well; for whom is it well?
There is no one for whom it is well"

Udechukwu's presentation just before the interview was equally compelling. Seeking to show that Achebe's idea of the "novelist as a teacher" draws from a long tradition of Igbo minstrelsy, Udechukwu demonstrated his own amazing schooling in the art of song. When he finished performing a sung poem in Igbo that he had written for Achebe, the auditorium went quiet, then burst into applause. Did the audience have questions for him (and I; ok, both of us were in a plenary session. My paper was titled: "The Politics of Form: Uche Okeke's Illustrations for Achebe's Things Fall Apart")? No. They just simply called for an encore! Such was the beauty of Udechukwu's act. And then to have the afternoon, and the conference, conclude with the Gikandi and Achebe's conversation-that-ended-with-a-dirge? A state of grace.

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Adele King, Joao Cosme, Michel Naumann in the "Reconsidering Things Fall Apart" panel
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Elleke Boehmer, writer and literary scholar
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writer
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

One more thing, there were so many old friends including Ike Achebe, Ike Okonta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ike Anya--co-travelers from that small town of seven hills in Eastern Nigeria: Nsukka. The conference thus felt like a homecoming for the Nsukka clan. And for this, I thank Professor Lyn Innes.

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