September 16, 2005

Achebe Visits C.U.

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Chinua Achebe gave a reading of his famous book Things Fall Apart last night to a full-capacity crowd at Statler Auditorium. Achebe, 74, is currently the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. professor of languages and literature at Bard College. He addressed students, faculty and Ithaca residents on a broad range of topics, including Nigerian culture, languages and racism.

Things Fall Apart is a story about a protagonist named Okonkwo, who is a wealthy and respected warrior of the Umuofia clan in Nigeria. Because of a fatal accident, Okonkwo is banned from his village for seven years. Achebe chose to read a passage describing a speech given by Okonkwo’s uncle, Uchendu, explaining the meaning of the saying “mother is supreme” before Okonkwo’s family leaves the village. The book was this year’s New Student Reading Project and the event marks the first time the annual Project’s writer has come to speak at Cornell.

Achebe is often asked why the book is written in English and not in Ibo, a Nigerian language. At the reading, he answered that “English was the language of integration and communication” and he wanted to reach many people with the novel.

“My work became, for me, an exciting dialogue between two languages,” Achebe said. “It was not just a translation. It was a conversation that was very enriching to observe. That’s the benefit … to see how these two languages managed to get along.”

Achebe then read a poem in both the original Ibo and the translated English versions from his anthology, Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo.

As the event neared its end, Achebe returned to the subject of languages in the book.

“When I was writing Things Fall Apart, I was too young, too inexperienced,” he said. “I knew it was a question of language, but I did not realize how [important] it was until much later. … [I realized that] I must treat the two languages with equal respect.”

When asked about how to handle overt acts of racism, Achebe answered simply, “My book is the answer.”

“Behave like sugar in tea. Don’t be visible but sweeten the environment [around you],” Achebe said, citing a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, in response to an audience member’s question.

Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III introduced Achebe at the reading.

“He chose exactly the right things from [the book] to read. It was a passage that meant a lot to the community and one that was familiar to everyone. He always seemed sharp in his explanations and gave concrete images. His words were direct and highly principled,” Rawlings said after the reading. “He’s such a strong writer and speaker.”

“It was absolutely wonderful to have this world historic figure and writer talking with us. It was fantastic and truly a magical moment in Cornell history,” said Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government.

“You read a writer’s work, hear about a writer’s reputation, but seeing the writer in flesh … it’s the University at its greatest.”

The Nigerian Students Association helped with the event, which was sponsored by the Office of the Provost. Caroline Nnenda Nyenke ’07, president of NSA, found Achebe’s lecture “inspiring.”

“Despite his age, he’s still vibrant and energetic. His words are poetry; everything was well-thought out,” Nyenke said. “We took his words to heart. Our parents, many of which are born in Nigeria, keep telling us to show our gratitude to the country. … In Nigerian culture, the right thing to do is to serve your elders, and this was the least we could do.”

“It was an honor to hear him and to see him,” added Yaw Agyapong ’06, one of the attendees. “It was intellectually stimulating.”