Close your eyes for a moment. Listen to his velvety voice for some fleeting seconds. Hear the modulation in his voice that rises with the intensity of the subject. And for one moment, you would think you are right there in the awesome presence of the master, the father of modern African Literature, the great Professor Chinualumogu Albert Achebe, who the world stands in awe to bid a final bye today.
Remove the element of age, and you find the perfect replica of the departed wordsmith, Chinua Achebe, who conquered the world at just 28 with his epic, Things Fall Apart, in the subject of this interview. At 49, Professor Ikechukwu Achebe is the chip off the old block. As his legendary father would have described him, were he to return from the land of the spirits and manufacture another masterpiece, Ikechukwu Achebe is his father’s child. The true son of his father.
As preparations to receive the remains of the departed iconic writer back home hit a frenetic height, upper week, I cornered the younger Achebe, a visiting Scholar and Director of the Igbo Archival Dictionary Project at Brown University, Providence, Rhodes Island, United States, at Awka, the Anambra State capital.
The first of the Iroko’s four children (two boys and two girls), Dr. Ikechukwu Achebe, during the two-hour encounter, opened virtually every page of his legendary father’s life and paid a glowing tribute to a man whose works shredded the thick wool woven on the world’s eyes by racist writers who projected blacks as apes that hopped from tree to tree in the thick jungles of Africa for survival.
Though pained by his father’s eventual demise, Ikechukwu, a former Professor at Bard College, New York, who holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Cambridge, was grateful to God that the old man lived for 23 years after an accident that crippled him and which seriousness made his doctors predict that his days were numbered.
As a dyed-in-the-wool reporter, there is the tendency for you to want to poke your nose further and ask for details of the legend’s final days and the infirmity that sent him the way of all flesh.
Dr. Achebe, who, in 2004, was appointed Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, would just look at you straight in the face, lower his voice, almost to a whisper, and say: “The complications are not things that I am going to discuss on the pages of a newspaper. I’m not going to discuss his medical records or medical history on the pages of any newspaper.”
Case closed? Not really. He, however, would tell you that the accident that crippled his father at 60 was serious enough to raise concerns. Indeed, going by the seriousness of the injuries, doctors, at the time, never gave the writer much chance of making old age. And that he lived for 23 years after was one miracle that the family was grateful to God for.
Away from the accident, Ikechukwu, who was a Smuts Fellow in Commonwealth Studies in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, between 2006 and 2007, spoke about things you have never read anywhere about his father. He revealed the man’s unaccomplished work, his major regret and why the family’s 70-something-year-old matriarch, herself a professor, has steered away from the klieg lights that perpetually trailed her global celebrity husband.
You won’t want to swap this interview for anything. Not for a million dollars.
Therefore, sit back, relax and enjoy the whole of it.
Is There was a Country, your father’s last work or there is something else he was working on before he died?
There was a Country was his last published work but he always has many things he was working on.
In his comment on There was a Country, former South African President, Dr. Nelson Mandela, described your father as ‘a writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.’ Now, what were the prison walls that your father’s writings brought down in your life?
Although you’ve asked the right question, I think the quote in full is something like ‘there was a writer named Chinua Achebe in whose company the prison wall fell down’. It was actually a tribute that Mandela had given to my father on the occasion of his 70th birthday and it is not a recent quote.
I know; I just want to transpose that to you so you could look at the statement and tell me those walls in your life that your father’s writings metaphorically helped you to dismantle.
Well, I think that, like most people who have read the works and have encountered his writings would understand, what Mandela was saying was that he derived a sense of liberation from reading the work. For me, it was, like the walls that had been put up, in the sense of an absence of the African person in literature, were being brought down by the publication of his novel (Things Fall Apart). And you could begin to see yourself in literature for the first time. That is the symbolism we are using here.
So, you do feel that Mandela was expressing a sense of liberation in that reaction to your father’s work?
I think Mandela was inferring to a specific context of being imprisoned, and that being in Robben Island, in prison and receiving copies of my father’s work, he was able to imaginatively leave the confines of prison, and once again inhabit the open spaces of the Africa that he knew. So, imaginatively, literature does liberate the mind and the spirit.
So, which of your father’s works liberated you?
Liberated me imaginatively?
I think they all did because you are imaginatively liberated from your presence to a little known part of the glorious past. That is what his books have done for me; and I think that’s what imaginative literature does generally.
What’s your earliest exposure to his work, and what particular work?
My earliest exposure to his work? I think I will start by saying it was through storytelling as a child. He used to tell us stories.
Like tales by the moonlight?
He told us tales of the tortoise; he told us children’s stories; and there were many of them. And these were stories that had been handed down from his mother to his elder sister, and to himself. That was the first experience of his art of storytelling that I got. And then, I must have read Things Fall Apart at the age of eight or nine. I think it may have been an abridged version that was in the market at the time. But then, it didn’t take very long before I read all his works because I was interested. Of course, when we got to secondary school, they became the prescribed text and you have to read them. But I had already read them at home.
How did the fact of he being your dad impact on your life, first, as a child, and as you grew up?
One is always able to distinguish clearly between the father who is not an internationally famous writer, and another father who is this internationally famous man; and I think it was because he, too, focused a greet deal on his family. Family life was important to him, and even though you are constantly aware of fame and publicity, it wasn’t something he drew attention to. It was more to do with ‘where have you been today? Have you done your home work?’ And I think that distinction was important in keeping us grounded and focused on the things that were important as a family as opposed to this very public famous man.
What were those core African values that he imparted on you?
Integrity and the way he did things, the way he lived his life. He wasn’t a preacher, but he wouldn’t tell you how to live your life. But he would always present to you his own way by simply living an example. You could tell that truth was important for him. Integrity, telling the truth, was important to him. You knew that you shouldn’t compromise principles in little things. You knew that he would support you if you stuck to your position based on conviction. And working very hard, he believed a great deal in education. He invested everything in education. Education was really that important to him.
He never acquired wealth?
No, he wasn’t interested in wealth.
How many known property did he have?
No, I wouldn’t discuss that (laughs). But it wasn’t something that he wasn’t interested in at all.
He was just interested in his family and friends?
…And anybody who came through him. He was very generous. That’s why he was instrumental in the growth of African literature because he spent a very long time essentially building a continent-wide body of young writers, some of them not so young, into famous international authors. He was the general editor of the African Writers Series and he did that for decades without pay.
He worked without pay?
He wasn’t interested in money because he was on a mission. He discovered his mission at a very young age, and he set about it in a very systematic way. I think that is really very important in understanding the person that my father was. He was so focused on the work that has to be done to really uplift the African, the black person globally. He was focused on the work that has to be done in terms of reaching out to other people around the world; and the work that has to be done in creating a common humanity of people with shared values. So, he had many fans and friends from all over the world.
From Korea to England, from United States to Australia to New Zealand, he had friends who identified with the values he represented and the values that he suggested. That mission was central to who he was. He was particularly concerned about the denigration of the African over a period of 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade and he was very conscious of the problems and some of the benefits of the colonial rule, including education. He believed very much in the school system that was set up by the missionaries. He wasn’t a one-track-mind man. Those are the values we learnt and have helped us in developing.
So, you didn’t grow up consciously trying to ape those values you saw?
No, because he was not prescriptive. He would not come and say be like me; or do this or do that. No. But the force of the argument should be the sort of life he lived and the value he represented. The idea that the writer was not on the side of the government, that the writer had no business with siding with government against citizens, were important ideas to him. His life was a life of mission. He was a missionary in a sense that resonated with his own father’s background as a mission agent and so on.
You described your father as an excellent family man, and espoused the values he inculcated in you. In doing so, did he spare the rod?
No, he was not known for spanking. He would talk to you and he was a very gentle person when it came to his children. I can’t really remember any occasion of spanking. What I remember was more the forcefulness of his presence. You knew when you had done the wrong thing.
His body language will tell you that?
Absolutely. He believed in respect. He believed in giving respect and he would respect you even as a child. He never really wanted to disrupt us. That, in itself, was punishment for us. If you found that that respect he had for you had now diminished, that he thought less of you because of something you had done, that was enough punishment. And you wouldn’t want that. He believed very much in the equality of the sexes and so his daughters were a premium to him in terms of education and the way in which he interacted with them and the way in which he interacted with us the boys. He was foremost a family man and then the famous writer.
Your father was renowned to be a principled man and he demonstrated that in many ways, including turning down two national awards. How did you feel on those two occasions? Did you feel very proud that he did what he did, even though some people felt he turned his back on his fatherland?
That’s an important question. But it’s equally important to understand that he never turned his back against his country because he had, on previous occasions, been awarded the Officer of the Federal Republic, OFR, and the National Merit Award. I know how proud he was of having received those two honours. Incidentally, the OFR was awarded to him under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Of course, he had received other wards from the nation. For instance, in 1960, on independence, he had been awarded the Nigerian National trophy for Literature.
In rejecting the award of the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) the first time, he did make it clear that, number one, he thought it was a high honour that he had been given and he was agonized by the fact that he was rejecting a high honour. Secondly, he stated clearly in the letter that he wrote (to turn down the award) that he had, in fact, accepted many honours from this country even though he knew things were not perfect, but that he did so in the hope that things will get better; that with all the things committed to work, things would work for the improvement of the Nigerian citizens. He stated all these things so clearly that one didn’t need to explain things for him. He was always clear about what he did.
I don’t think we have forgotten so quickly about what he wrote in that letter (rejecting the last offer). He wrote clearly in that letter that things had gotten out of hand and that he felt that accepting that particular award at that particular time would have done some injustice to Nigerians who were suffering from the heavy political and economic pressure from their government. He went further to say that, for instance, in his home state of Anambra, ‘this is what is happening right now’. So, it was clear. For us, as a family, we felt that we needed to support him and we gave him our support. And we are proud of him. We gave him as much support as we could because it was always a lonely road. With the initial reactions that usually trail such decisions, you will be on your own. You will be alone. That initial period was a period when people were asking those questions without full understanding. But subsequent events would, of course, bear out some of the analyses that he gave. As it was always the case, it was clear that he was ahead in seeing certain things; and that puts him in a very lonely position.
Because he also walked on that lonely road, he wasn’t quite shy of controversy?
No, he never did.
What was his reaction when the controversy generated by There Was a Country roiled on?
It is like this is his life. It’s not new to him. It’s like most controversies. He doesn’t pay attention to controversies. He never paid attention to them.
He never did?
No. Once he had written a book, the next thing he did was to take some form of holiday or a vacation away from the work that had just been introduced. It was a process in which he had liberated himself, to use that term again. As long as he felt the integrity of the work was secure, he was done. That was it. Then, he would focus on his grandchildren. He would spend more time with them. He would go out a lot more. So, he wasn’t really aware. Of course, we would tell him this is what happened, but he never, for instance, read articles on it. No, he never did. The same thing happened when he wrote The Problem with Nigeria and other controversies. The same thing happened in the 1960s when he published The Man of the People. The military started looking for him. They said he was involved in plotting the overthrow (of the government of the day) because his novel had predicted a coup in Nigeria. But he had always known that there would be pushback. That is what he felt he was created on this earth to do: to give headache not prescription. All his life, he had been engaged in speaking truth to power. He loved speaking inconvenient truth to power. Oh, he loved it. In fact, he often said the job of the writer is not to prescribe medicine but to give you the headache.
So, as much as he gave power headache he was fulfilled?
Yes. I think he felt that was part of his mission. Speaking truth to power is the most ancient role of the poet, like the poet against the emperor. The poet is there to speak the truth to power because he is particularly endowed with those gifts, whether oratory or writing, to do so. So, he took that mission seriously. It was both a domestic mission to help uplift the people in Nigeria and the condition in his village, or more globally to help uplift the African, the black person, and to create a fellowship of citizens of all colours around the world based upon shared values.
Your father was always in the eyes of the public. As your father, which of his past do you not know?
He was very open. He would always answer questions that you ask him. He would not volunteer stories, but if you ask him he would tell you.
And if you don’t ask him, he keeps quiet?
Yes. He was a very quiet person. He was a very, very quiet persona and he liked his privacy. But his being quiet is also part of a family trait. I think the area that I would have liked to know more about, and I think he thought about too, was the relationship between himself and his father. I know that one of the novels he wanted to write would have had to do with his father’s life, my grandfather’s life. Perhaps, that is something I would have wanted to know more about.
He never got round it, he never did?
It was meant to be part of an epic story of the first three novels. The first three novels were conceived as one, but he broke them into three. The second novel in the trilogy, the one that he did not write, was in fact the story of Okonkwo’s son.
The same character in Things Fall Apart?
Yes, he was just thinking about it in terms of the novel that he did write. The novel that is missing, or the story that is missing is the story of Okonkwo’s son, the story about him, the first story, which is the story of Okonkwo’s grandson, which is in No Longer at Ease. So, you have the first story of Okonkwo and the story of his grandson. But that little story which represented his father was a story that he didn’t get round to telling.
As his first son, you must be very close to him. I want to assume that you know very much about him. Which part of your father does the world not know?
I think it is the part of him as a family man. It is the very private part of a family. The part of his love for his wife, his real love and loyalty to his wife and his love for his children. That is always a private part and, of course, his love for family, his nieces and nephews. That was important to him. Family was important to him in a very broad way. But the world doesn’t know much about that as they do about everything else. Everything else dominated. He is a very dedicated husband and a very present father even though he travelled a lot. He was, in many ways, a present father, a very focused father. He was focused on his children’s education and on the development and thinking.
Incidentally, maybe because of who he was, little was known about your mother. Was it a deliberate attempt to shield her from the public?
I don’t think there was a deliberate to shield her. My mother is a highly accomplished person in her field.
What’s her field?
A Professor of Education in Guidance and Counseling, and later on, a Professor of Psychology. She is one of the very first professors in education guidance and counseling anywhere in this part. She is one-time vice president of the Nigerian Guidance and Counseling association.
How old is she now?
She is in her late 70s.
And how is she faring?
Well, she has lost the love of her life. She has lost her partner for over 50 years. It’s a very difficult time for her. But she has her children and grand children to support her but she is very proud of him. She believes completely in his mission, so, she was able to be very supportive. Their relationship was very close. They talked about everything. And for us, we would always find out a sort of solid wall of loyalty between the two of them. It was so solid that even when you wanted to complain about one to the other it couldn’t work. They were very close.
Accomplished as she is, why did he shield her from the public?
I think it was her own choice.
Not much of your father?
No. As I said, my father wasn’t prescriptive in anything. He wasn’t. He was also the most liberal-minded person I know in terms of acknowledging the power of women. His mother meant everything to him. And he was very close to his mother, and in our household, it was clear that my mother was in charge of the household. He would come in but my mother was in charge. There was no question about that. Although my mother spent a lot of her time raising the family, she also had a great career. She balanced the two and wasn’t really interested in publicity for herself. So, if anybody shielded anybody, I think it was my mother who shielded her children from too much publicity. My mother is a very strong person.
Please tell me the truth about Nsukka. Why did your father leave Nsukka?
Remember, he left Nsukka twice. The first time was in 1972, that was after the civil war. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the federal military government of the time was, understandably, very hostile and jittery about those that they thought had left Biafra. And there was a lot of harassment. As a child, I remember a visit by the Head of State at the time, General Yakubu Gowon. He was in the area and soldiers coming into our house and ransacked the entire place looking for weapons and so on. My father had not been well but they went ransacking everywhere. Soldiers jumping everywhere was something we…
You could not stand it?
No. We were fairly used to it having come through the civil war. But there was a climate of intimidation and disruption. And I think it got to a point they (family and friends) were concerned about his safety sufficient enough for him to have taken the decision to take his family out of Nigeria in 1972.
Can you give me one of those sufficient reasons why he had to flee?
Well, these things would have been reports about plans to do more than simply harass and intimidate.
You mean there was a plot to kill him by the Gowon Regime?
I certainly will not go that far but I think there was sufficient harassment of those who were thought to have been leaders of Biafra to have made life very uncomfortable and difficult for them. So, it was in that climate, and the climate of the post-war exhaustion, that he left for the first time. The second time was when he retired from the university. This time, there wasn’t any controversy. He had taken early retirement because he wanted to focus more on his writing. Teaching was something he did but writing is something that he loved. He wanted to do more of that.
What are your recollections of the accident that crippled him?
I think it’s fairly well known. He was travelling out of the country to take up an appointment. I think it was Stanford University. And it was a motor accident he had on the way that left him paralyzed. He was first taken to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, where they did an excellent job in stabilizing him and, then, he was flown abroad. From there, from the hospital in England, he was invited by the president (vice chancellor) of Bard College to come and take up an appointment at Bard. But, initially, he was travelling to take up an appointment at Stanford.
That now helped him to stay permanently abroad?
No, he never liked staying abroad. The reality of his medical need and the concern of adequate medical care, were the primary reasons for his extended stay. But he did some travelling. At a time, he went to South Africa; he went to Europe; and he came back to Nigeria a couple of times. But I think the fact that he wouldn’t have had (in Nigeria) the level of medical care that he needed was what kept him abroad.