Saturday, April 6, 2013

For Chinua Achebe: Writing is easy

For Chinua Achebe: WRITING IS EASY
By Tunji Lardner

The transition of Chinua Achebe on March 21 this year at age 82 signalled the passing a great African and a global man of letters. Widely acclaimed as the father of the modern ‘African novel,’ with the debut fifty-five years ago of his timeless classic ‘Things fall apart,’ Chinua Achebe can rest easy, and gaze proudly from his celestial writing desk at the many children he has spawned.
The richly deserved avalanche of glowing tributes and readings that will be held in his honour will
no doubt speak to the man’s literary genius, but might not fully capture the sage humanity of his personage that only a direct interaction with this great man might impress. My own tribute to the man is borne out of intermittent contact with him over the last three or so decades beginning with this essay fully reproduced below, and written as a preface to a cover story about the man and his work. After working feverishly to pen the said essay titled ‘Writing is easy;’ I was over the moon, when word got back to me that he liked it. Me....? Chinua Achebe liked my essay? Wow...unbelievable! As young journalist, this was to be my bragging rights for the rest of the year.
Now fast-forward to the early nineties in the US, when a handful of us rode up to meet him then at Bard College, not too long after his road accident. We were welcomed by his ever so gracious wife Christie and his son Ikechukwu and as I recall it, the sounds of Fela wafting in the background and emanating from his study. When I tentatively inquired about the music, he was to remark that ‘Fela was the sage of our times,’ clearly genius recognizes genius.
Sitting in the modest campus issue living room and enveloped by the love and attentiveness of his wife and son was the great man in a wheel chair, warmly dressed and a blanket draped over his knees cascading to the floor. His quiet, yet powerful presence had us acolytes awe struck; there was a luminous sadness and a sober happiness, coexisting side by side, without friction or contradiction. Like his writings, there was a measured, balanced, and weighted series of conversations that we had, mostly about Nigeria, (these were the darker days of the military as opposed to the present dark days of ‘democracy’) writing, and our sense of our  place in the world. Each point as I recall was carefully gestated before being delivered in a slow deliberate cadence, freighted with considerable moral authority and punctuated by his wry wit interlaced with deeper meanings that occupied my mind on the long drive back to New York City.  Here was an advanced and enlightened soul, whose humanity and spirit had fully embraced the wholeness life in its entirety, the good, the bad and the ugly.
I next met him at Wesleyan college during the joyous celebration of his 70th birthday surrounded by a large crowd of family, friends, and well wishers all enveloping him with love and admiration. The high point for me was when he lovingly embraced my then young daughter and somehow managed to cradle her for quite a little bit in spite of the hubbub of activities around him. Given the timelessness of his work, his spirit will undoubtedly live on, the man might be gone but his soul and spirit embedded in his wise words live on. My own little tribute is therefore to go back in time to uncover a past tribute that in my mind remains a timeless homage to a truly great man, who could and did write.

On the pale uninspiring walls of our rather prosaic newsroom is this acerbic epithet credited to Red Smith, an American sports reporter: “Writing is very easy. All you have to do is sit in front of a typewriter keyboard until little drops of BLOOD appear on your forehead.”

Peering unremittently from strategic positions in the newsroom, its message at various times elicits various attitudes. In the somewhat relaxed atmosphere of post-production recuperation, its sardonic wit can be laughed off.
Of course, ‘writing is easy,’ after all we have just put to bed another excellent issue of Newswatch. But in the pre-production madness, with the horrifying spectre of implacable deadlines — personified by the unsmiling countenance of any of the four big editors, the import is anything but sanguine.
Sanguinary it might be, if a crucial deadline is not met, but whatever the reasons, the writing must be done. "A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one: it comes as sincerely from the author's soul," Aldous Huxley wisely observed. True, and no less truthful, regarding a copy. After the expenditure of so much calories, a bad story in the end is perhaps twice as laborious as a good one. But what drives men to such torture?
Obviously the need to communicate in a more permanent fashion must have been the catalyst of this unending agony. Although evidence for the original alphabet is scarce, it is widely upheld that the first alphabet came from the lands bordering the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, including ancient Canaan and Phoenicia circa 1700—1500 BC.

The creationists, on the other hand, are typically quick to remind us that "in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God" (John chapter 1, verse 1). If so, man at some point in antiquity must have stolen the WORD Promethean-like from the gods, and like Prometheus, who allegedly stole fire from the Greek gods to give to humanity, writers have to perpetually suffer the retribution of the gods. Prometheus was chained to a rock by an enraged Zeus, with an eagle sent to eat his immortal liver which constantly replenished itself. A tale akin to the agony a writer feels when his pen is willing but his inspiration is weak. And a fate many would readily prescribe tor writers, having suffered the toxicity of a poisoned pen.

But Prometheus has since been unbounded. In his epic lyrical drama, Prometheus Unbound Shelly, the British poet and philosopher, captured the universal theme of the principle of good (Prometheus) triumphing over the universal principle of evil. And although the poetic licence validated by the writer’s muse permits the amoral, and even the immoral, the enforcement of poetic justice has been the ethical responsibility of the writer.

But this is a responsibility that has oftentimes been abdicated for reasons too wide for ready discourse. "The fact that many people should be shocked by what he writes practically imposes it as a duty upon the writer to go on shocking them,” Aldous Huxley again observes. But the shock and the bizarre themes explored by some writers, for example, Kafka, Tutuola, Fagunwa and Soyinka, are even more shocking when it is realized that although the writer might draw his inspiration from deep within his soul, his expiration is necessarily part of his environment. Writers with varying degrees of refraction mirror the foibles of man, which are considerable. It is this irksome and self-indicting reminder issued relentlessly by writers that, although we might be god-like, we must certainly have feet of clay, that more often than not gets the writer in trouble. Writers have been beaten, imprisoned and quite routinely killed for putting the word to paper. And their baffling stubbornness to recant, even in the face of death, has often times been their very end.

“The moving finger writes, and having written moves on; nor all thy piety and wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it,” remarked Edward Fitzgerald in the Rubbaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

It is the permanency of the written word that has encapsulated existence. Where would history be if the word was not put down in whatever language? And what would you read if somebody had not sat down to write it. But writing it, and writing it well, is the big problem which the opening quote by Red Smith addresses so wryly.

“Of all those acts in which the wise excel, nature`s chief masterpiece is writing well,” John Sheffield enthused in his Essay on Poetry, 1682. And the British man of letters, Francis Bacon, had about five decades earlier advised that “reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man.” Going by such wholesome advice, it is clear that a great many men are not “ready,” “exact” or “full.” Very few people can creditably sustain an idea through one or two paragraphs, and indeed anybody who can, should be warmly congratulated.

Chinua Achebe is a man who has driven his soul through many paragraphs. “Language has not the power to speak what love indites. The soul lies buried in the ink that writes,” John Clare profoundly observes. The soul of Achebe`s literature, unobscured by quaint Euro-centric literary appreciation, is organically entwined with his society, But his art and craftsmanship has successfully elevated indigenous themes to the heights of universality. His books speak of a man as a homogenous commodity in a society that is universal. For although Umuofia and Mbanta, the principal villages in Things Fall Apart, his monumental debut, are intensely Igbo homesteads, the clash of cultures, the nationalistic pride of Okonkwo (the protagonist) and his tragic end, have world-wide currency. Man is often times caught in the cross-fire of change, the shifting sands of time, and the rain storm of fate. To capture all these, for better or for worse, one has to write well. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe writes well.

Originally published as the ‘Preface to Cover’ of NEWSWATCH Magazine MARCH 24, 1986

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