Perhaps the difficulty of Chinua Achebe’s simplicity lies in its temporal fractures: Things Fall Apart asks when “things” were ever not apart. Similarly, No Longer At Ease, based on Okonkwo’s descendant, Obi, questions when “ease” was ever possible. In one register, one might say Achebe is the great master of the fractured temporalities that anchor desire, producing “tradition,” the “past,” and “before” as fetish objects saturated with wholeness. His work actively solicits our desire for something we desperately want to believe once made sense: time, motivation, action, agency. It is not that we do not understand what motivates characters – duty, despair, hope, ambition, blindness; instead, even with that understanding, we are still left longing for something more, desiring something better for Achebe’s characters and, implicitly, for ourselves. Perhaps a kind of psychic satisfaction, a story that will turn out a particular kind of way. But this is not Achebe’s task.
His departure now – euphemism must be used, if only once – feels much like an encounter with his work: it was unexpected because it had been possible to believe that he was beyond mortality. Achebe simply was. He existed in the world and the world existed because he did. I could afford to take his existence for granted, could afford not to teach or discuss or write about his work, because he simply was. His being in the world made certain things unnecessary. Because he was. Certain figures inspire a kind of faith that they have transcended death, and their deaths hit all the harder – most recently for me, Adrienne Rich who, like Achebe, simply was. When they die – euphemisms can no longer work – we continue to call their names, hoping that they will return to us, that their ghosts will continue to energize the labor they started and sustained and that we now feel unable to continue. So it is that we continue to call for Audre Lorde. Believing, as we must, that she can still provide the right words, the necessary words, the transforming words.
Simon Gikandi has written that Chinua Achebe “invented” African literature. This is not a claim about who wrote first – other Africans wrote before Achebe. Nor is it a claim about the volume of his work – others have written more. It is a claim, I think, about Achebe as an institution builder, as one who made possible a certain kind of imagination and, in his role as editor with the African Writers Series, made possible many other imaginations for African literature. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given to a writer is this: that a particular book has been written. A particular imagination explored. A room populated. And multiple other rooms made possible.
Few contemporary Africans, if any, feel the need to write another Things Fall Apart. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, Things Fall Apart could not be written again. Achebe’s work had given African writers the permission to pursue their geo-histories, to take multiple paths, to pursue the mystical and the routine, the profane urban and the perverse rural, the unending past and the foreclosed future. Things Fall Apart had been written, and African writing pursued its multiple afters, with Achebe as inspiration, as guide, and as champion.
Of Achebe’s works, No Longer at Ease is the most congenial to my sensibilities. Obi, the main character, is, after all, that other kind of African figure: the failed intellectual. The clever student who finds himself unable to handle everyday life. Who believes that love conquers all. Who believes that merit should matter. Obi is the idealist I needed to believe in, the figure whose failures so closely mirrored my own, but were so necessary. Because Obi dares to believe in a world forged through creative affiliations, a world anchored in new possibilities beyond and alongside the claims of filiation.
One watches Obi flounder in a world he imagined had been made for people like him – young, university educated, been-to, post-ethnic. But this world does not yet exist, and might never exist. Obi becomes a difficult character to read because we want so much for him, so much for the world he inhabits.
Today, I listened to Toni Morrison talk about Chinua Achebe, and then she read excerpts from his essay “English in Africa.” There, Achebe imagines African-ness as it is produced through the mediation of European languages – predominantly English, French, and Portuguese. Writing in shareable languages, he argues, can create possibilities for being together. Because Achebe’s work is so invested in tracking impossibilities – failed futures, truncated presents, fractured pasts – this hopeful reading of what writing and reading can accomplish might seem strange. A less subtle mind might argue that “positive” work produced in a “positive” manner is more suited to the task of producing livable collectivities. This, in fact, is a thesis thrown about endlessly by those who want “positive” depictions of Africa.
Achebe’s commitment to representing Africa – and, make no mistake, he was committed to it – refused to inhabit the truncated possibilities of “positive” and “negative.” While his characters range from the mythic to the perversely human, they never incarnate a bland binary. More often, they are conflicted, unsure of their decisions, acting from instinct and impulse and tradition and training and sheer unknowingness, risking themselves for unknown futures. We wince as we watch their decisions, not because we would necessarily make different or better ones, but because, as readers, we have the luxury of reading events unfold with a measure of detachment, even as we sigh and smile and become enmeshed in the familiarity made less foreign by Achebe’s prose.
I am unable to participate in the rituals of grief – the wake, the funeral, the desire for the dead to rest in peace. This last especially because I do not want authors to rest in peace. I want their words to bloom and grow. I want their words to “dare” to “disturb the universe.”
What, I ask myself, was Achebe’s vision for the world? And how should we respond to that vision? Because it seems to me that asking dead authors to rest in peace voids the contract we make when we read their works: that they shall live forever. That “live forever,” of course, comes from Shakespeare: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
As I grieve for Achebe, I would amend Gikandi to say Achebe vitalized African literature: “By ‘vitality’ I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of human but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Bennett, Vibrant Matter). Achebe fostered African literature as “vibrant matter” by making it more readily available to act in, on, and around the world. Here, I borrow unabashedly from the tradition of the praise singer who writes and rewrites memory through song, transforming history into a litany of praises.
I cannot count the ways Achebe made me possible. In saying this, I echo millions of voices. Speaking with them, I say: we cannot count the ways Achebe made us possible.
And because endings are impossible, and because writing continues to live: Achebe’s being in the world continues to make the world possible.