Chinua Achebe: A Literary Diaspora Toasts Oneof Its Own

Considering the stature of the two literary lions sitting onstage fora historic dialogue, the question seemed so pedestrian that the hostand interrogator was apologetic. If you were stuck on a desertisland, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, asked his guests,Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison, what book would you take withyou?

He got a look of disbelief from Ms. Morrison, winner of the 1993Nobel Prize in literature.

Then came this response from Mr. Achebe: "Beloved," he said. Hewas referring to Ms. Morrison's novel about a mother who kills herchild to save her from slavery. And no, he told the audience, whichwas murmuring its collective approval, he was not saying so to be"precious."

"I think she's the only one who is probing the African conundrum:the question of what happened to us in the continent and in thediaspora," said Mr. Achebe, the Nigerian author widely regarded asthe patriarch of the African novel. "How could it happen? We have notdealt with that question on the continent. I think Toni Morrison hasthe courage to deal with it."

He singled out "Beloved," he said, because in the abominations ofthat story ó the abomination of slavery and the abomination ofa mother murdering her child ó lay the most haunting questionfacing the black world. "This daughter you kill will come back; andwhen she comes back, it's not going to be pleasant," Mr. Achebe saidin his slow, considered voice. "A similar question will come up onthe continent: `Is it true that you sold your own brother?' "

Ms. Morrison, clutching a hankerchief in her right hand, satabsolutely still. No matter what the explanations of Europeanconquest and greed, Mr. Achebe went on, the question still gnaws."It's a frightening conundrum we have to deal with, we black people,"he added.

Those hushing words came at the end of a conference in celebrationof Mr. Achebe's 70th birthday at Bard, where he has taught for adecade.

For two days, wearing the traditional Nigerian red cap reservedfor important men, Mr. Achebe sat in the front row with his wife,Christie, listening to the paeans onstage. The president of Nigeria,Olesegun Obasanjo, sent a cabinet minister to deliver a birthdaysalute. Jimmy Carter sent a letter. Nelson Mandela sent birthdaygreetings in which he recalled the books he had read while imprisonedin South Africa. "There was a writer named Chinua Achebe," Mr.Mandela wrote, "in whose company the prison walls fell down."

The birthday party brought some of the most influential blackwriters and scholars to Bard, a campus of 1,200 students snuggled inthe Catskill Mountains, where only 4 percent of the students areblack. Men in traditional West African brocade suits walked aroundthe campus, crunching red and yellow leaves underfoot. As if toaccommodate all the Southern Hemisphere natives who had arrived forthe weekend, temperatures were unseasonably warm.

Among the participants were many who might have been wearing theliterary equivalent of Mr. Achebe's traditional red cap. WoleSoyinka, another Nobel laureate who, like Mr. Achebe, has been anoutspoken critic of dictators in their native Nigeria, described himas a writer of courage and commitment. John Edgar Wideman credited"Things Fall Apart," Mr. Achebe's groundbreaking 1958 book about aNigerian (Igbo) village before colonialism, with teaching him aboutthe power of gesture ó "primal language," he called it in thetelling of a story.

The Kenyan playwright and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o brought hisgrandchildren, who at one point climbed onstage to give Mr. Achebe abirthday card. The Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter sat in theaudience knitting.

Ms. Morrison spoke of how Mr. Achebe's writing had not onlyinduced her love affair with African literature more than 30 yearsago, but also helped her think about her own tussle with English, alanguage, she said, at once rich and deeply racist. What she gleanedfrom Mr. Achebe's work, she said, was not simply to write against the"white gaze," but outside it, so as to "postulate itsirrelevance."

She described her debt to Mr. Achebe as one that was "very large,had no repayment schedule, and was interest-free."

So on this afternoon, it was Mr. Achebe's turn to flip the script.To be sure, he was grateful for the praise, he said privately, but hefound it all a little odd, too.

"It's a funny feeling," said the author, who has written fivenovels, five books of nonfiction and numerous short stories,children's books and poems.

"I am pleased. But it's not intended to be that way ó to besitting in the front row and everyone's singing your praises óunless you're a third world dictator."

But as improbable as the site seemed to some ("Dutchess County isone of those places you avoid instinctually," Mr. Soyinka said), theypraised, and he listened.

For Mr. Botstein, the birthday, which Mr. Achebe's family wasplanning as a private event, offered an opportunity to celebrate thewriter's presence on campus. "It's a celebration of the power ofliterature, the power of the imagination, the power of thesignificance of Africa," Mr. Botstein said later.

The intellectual wrestling matches that once divided many of theseAfrican writers and thinkers whether to write in a colonial or nativelanguage, for instance, or whether a writer was political enoughó were noticeably absent. After all, it was a birthdayparty.

So Mr. Ngugi, who once famously fought Mr. Achebe over his choiceof English as the language of his novels, mentioned none of that.There were not even any verbal fisticuffs between Mr. Soyinka and thehistorian Ali A. Mazrui, whose decadelong argument intensifiedrecently over a documentary that Mr. Soyinka's friend Henry LouisGates Jr. made of his trip to Africa. "Wole Soyinka and I will be onour best behavior for his birthday party," Mr. Mazrui declared.

But a few of the new questions swirling around African lettersbubbled up. Mr. Mazrui catalogued some of these in discussing hiseffort to compile the 100 best books of 20th- century Africanliterature: Is a writer African because of citizenship or the contentof the work? Does African literature include works by writers in theAfrican diaspora; does Toni Morrison or Alex Haley count?

Perhaps the most salient fact about African letters today didn'thave to be articulated. That Mr. Achebe's birthday was beingcelebrated here, on the banks of the Hudson rather than along theNiger itself, spoke volumes. From Mr. Soyinka, who now teaches atEmory University in Atlanta, to Mr. Ngugi, a professor at New YorkUniversity, many of the writers gathered here had been forced toleave their countries. They were all exiles, what Mr. Achebe'scolleague the Romanian writer Norman Manea called "displaced dreamersand messengers."

For her part, Ms. Morrison declined to name the one book she wouldtake if she were exiled to a desert island. Instead, she said, shewould want reams of paper and some pencils. "I'd like to write thebook I'd like to read," she offered.

"I would write between the lines," Mr. Achebe softlyresponded.

-Sengupta is a reporter for The New York Times. Pictures byWill Waldron for The New York Times

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