Friday, February 29, 2008

Honoring Achebe

The other night Jenn and I went to an event sponsored by PEN, to honor Chinua Achebe on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart. It was a rainy evening. We waited for a long time outside the Town Hall on 43rd Street, and Jenn spotted our old friend Dorla, a regular from our storefront bookstore. She was there with her fiancee Kevin, and she told us that her friend Sadio -- we always used to see them together -- is studying in Finland, of all places.

It was strange to think, even after all my work on A Basket of Leaves, that modern African literature is only about as old as I am. But it was comforting and even inspiring to be in a big auditorium full of people who care about books, especially with so many Africans and Africans Americans there. Chris Abani spoke about discovering Achebe's work as a boy, because his older brother used to copy out passages from Things Fall Apart to impress girls. Chimamanda Adichie (her voice deeper than we expected) spoke of growing up as a professor's daughter in Nigeria, and how Things Fall Apart was the first book she ever read where the characters looked like her and had familiar names. Edwidge Danticat and Ha Jin were there too, and Toni Morrison spoke about an anthology of African literature she created for Random House around 1969. It was beautifully designed and edited -- she had brought a copy to show -- but due to the politics of the textbook business, or general lack of interest, almost no one bought it. I think times have changed in the last fifty years, at least a little.

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