Sincere and modest

2013-03-24 10:00

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Nigerian literary giant Chinua Achebe’s death has touched South African authors and poets deeply. City Press asked some of our leading literary voices about the first time they read Achebe’s work, and what it has meant to them as artists.

Zakes Mda

Novelist and academic

I am almost certain that if Chinua Achebe had not written Things Fall Apart I would only be a playwright and a short story writer, but not a novelist today.

I was first introduced to this novel in the very early sixties when I was at high school in Lesotho.

It was the first time that a novel by an African writer was prescribed for the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate, the equivalent of our South African matric.

Before this, all the novels and plays we read were written by English authors of the Victorian era – authors like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters etc, and of course the Elizabethan bard called William Shakespeare.

As a result, we thought that only dead English people could produce literature.

Things Fall Apart disabused us of that notion. Here was a great novel written by an African about Africa.

Achebe helped some of us find our voice.

Keorapetse Kgositsile

South African poet Laureate

I don’t remember which one I read first, whether it was Arrow of God or Things Fall Apart, although Anthills of the Savannah has since become my favourite.

It is because it deals with the contemporary African situation.

The imagined country transcends the borders given to us by the Berlin Conference that all post-colonial countries can relate to.

I first met Achebe in the mid-1960s. We were in Senegal together with other Nigerian writers like (Wole) Soyinka, John Pepper Clark and others.

I was struck by his sincerity and modesty. I think we have lost not just a novelist but an overall cultural giant who never gave himself to fear.

Njabulo Ndebele

Writer and academic

Ihave drawn much from Chinua Achebe’s characteristic forthrightness and his deep love and optimism for Nigeria, its people, and for Africa.

I was exposed to Achebe’s remarkable oeuvre in the 1970s, at the same time as my awareness of anticolonial struggles grew more focused.

The African reality, he said to us through his novels, had an integrity of its own and did not have to be understood only as the opposite of some other cultural reality.

Things Fall Apart and The Arrow of God, in particular, drew that reality in ways that will stand the test of time.

No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People began to test that reality in contemporary settings that enabled Achebe’s readers to begin to foresee some disappointments with the project of historical restoration.

I will miss his gentleness, his humility, almost necessary conditions for the breadth and depth of his imagination, and the sharpness of his insights.

His life has ended, but the human value it created endures.

Lebo Mashile

Poet and TV presenter

I was about 15 years old when I first read Things Fall Apart. It was around 1994 and my family was still in the US.

We were transitioning to move back to South Africa.

I remember it moved me to start questioning, then, whether South Africa could also have a dark future.

It made me ask whether the leaders we were celebrating, then, could be corrupted too.

Achebe taught me that there’s no African utopia but that we build it with our lives.

In 2002, Achebe gave the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture – I remember how the hall was so full of young people who’d come to hear this man speak.

There was an event that followed on Robben Island. Don Mattera and Keorapetse Kgositsile were there, along with Achebe. It was mind-blowing. I was 23 years old.

I remember thinking: “I could do this for the rest of my life.”

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