Since 1958, Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" set a standard of artistic excellence, and more
By DOUGLAS KILLAM

Special and Exclusive to USAfricaonline.com
USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston


We met in person at the first conference on Commonwealth Literature, organized by Professor An Jeffares at Leeds University in 1964. We met again in Lagos, later, the same year. We met again at the Canadian Association of Commonwealth Literature conference in Toronto in 1973.

The celebration of Chinua Achebe's 70th birthday acknowledge, time and again, the central and seminal role that Achebe has had in restoring dignity to Africa through his writings. Second, it underlined the central role he has played since 1960 towards the fostering of literary criticism. Third, he has offered encouragement and challenged African societies to strive for the improvement of the human condition.

What was also asserted was the fact that while it is possible now to read hundreds of books by African writers, when Achebe published "Things Fall Apart" in 1958 he set a standard of artistic excellence which prompted other writers to test their ambitions. Nothing that had gone before, only a few texts, compared with the complete artefact that was and is "Things Fall Apart." Achebe's command of the medium of fiction was confirmed by the novels which followed. More than that, as James Currey insisted, was Achebe's central role in the development of modern African writing through his role as Advisory Editor for the Heinemann AfricanWriters Series, surely one of the most amazing publishing phenomenon in publishing history.

The story of the development of the African Writers Series and Achebe's central role deserves to be told and then told again as a reminder of the way in which an important body of writing was brought to the attention of a world community in a remarkably short time.

On a personal note, I first met Chinua in "Things Fall Apart" in 1960 and confirmed the meeting in "No Longer at Ease" the following year. We met in person at the first conference on Commonwealth Literature, organized by Professor An Jeffares at Leeds University in 1964. We met again in Lagos later the same year. We met again at the Canadian Association of Commonwealth Literature conference in Toronto in 1973. We met, yet again, in Enugu in the days preceding the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War (which started in 1967), a meeting where tensions were riding high in the then Eastern Region (which constituted Biafra) but where Chinua's presence provided a kind of calm center. At each meeting, I felt a growing friendship which superceded mere meetings. This feeling was confirmed in 1985 when Chinua came to University of Guelph as Senior Commonwealth Practioner. His two month's stay was filled with invitations to visit many places, not all of which he was able to accept. He did have time to show his culinary capabilities one evening where the ground but stew and gris gris were unsurpassed.

Achebe's daughter, Chinelo, came to Guelph a year or two later to do graduate work. When Chinelo flew from Lagos Chinua phoned me in Guelph to say what her arrivals time was meant to be and said words to the effect that I was now the father. That was when I felt I had become a part of the Achebe family. This feeling too has since been confirmed. When Achebe came to Guelph to be first plenary speaker at the international FILLM conference his daughter gave a reception for him in our home. It happened that on that day an advance copy of his book "Anthills of the Savannah" arrived on my desk. The fifth novel was launched in the presence of some twenty Nigerian men and women who came from near and far to greet Chinua.

The friendship offered by all of the Achebe family was demonstrated at the November 2000 meetings at Bard College. And it is a great honor to feel oneself numbered among the legion of friends to whom the Achebes have offered their warm welcome.
Killam's commentary on Achebe also appears in USAfrica The Newspaper, The Black Business, BBJonline.com and NigeriaCentral.com

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