I am sitting in a meeting in a room at the Oval, it is a cold March morning, the sky overcast and as I listen to the third in a series of presentations on the new arrangements for public health in England, my phone buzzes in my pocket. I sneak a discreet peek. It’s a text from Izu, a friend in Nigeria, asking if it is true, the news about Achebe. The room blurs as I hurriedly send back the words I hope not, but from then on, I struggle to concentrate, compulsively flicking through the news pages, Facebook, Twitter, on my phone. The more I browse, without seeing any confirmation, the greater the little flicker of hope that it is all a rumour grows.
It is not until another friend from Nigeria sends a text confirming the news that a deep darkness, a leaden sense of loss descends on me. I look round the room and wonder how we can still be talking about public health, giving Powerpoint presentations, when it feels as if a deep gash has opened in the fabric of the universe.
I was six years old, when I met him. First in his book, Things Fall Apart, and then later that same year, in person, when his family moved back from the United States into the house next door on the university campus in Nsukka where I grew up. Even before I had read his books, his name was commonplace, thrown around by my older cousins, aunts and uncles who were reading his books as they were set literary texts in secondary school as a signal of erudition, of intelligence. Are you Chinua Achebe? they would ask of a friend who was boasting of their intellectual prowess.
I do not remember Things Fall Apart as particularly life-changing at that age, I simply loved the story, this recreation of a world that seemed entirely familiar, that echoed the stories that my grandparents told. A few years later, I read No Longer at Ease, a battered early edition, missing a cover, illustrated by Bruce Onobrakpeya, the famed Nigerian artist some of whose etchings hung on the walls of our living room. I was unimpressed then by the non-realistic etchings with their stylized depictions of human beings but was utterly captivated by the story of Obi Okonkwo, who could easily have stepped out of one of my parents’ photograph albums. I imagined him in a fedora hat and suit, being met at the port on his return from England by his town union, the way my parents and many of their friends had been.
Along the way I also read his books for children, first Chike and the River, then the allegory of abuse of power How the Leopard Got Its Claws, co-written with John Iroaganachi and his collection of short stories Girls at War, which again resounded with familiar stories from my parents and their friends of their experiences during and just after the Biafran war.
And then I read Arrow of God and felt something deep and primal about the tragedy of Ezeulu, understanding for the first time, the power of literature to recreate a world, to present humanity in all its flawed glory
Reading his novels, I could hear the Anambra Igbo dialect echoing through the English words and sentences, and over the years, as I read and reread them, I came to appreciate the skill that allowed him to write Igbo in English.
Over the years, I returned again and again to his books, so often that the characters began to seem like old friends. His books told the story of my life, the story of my family’s lives, but it was not until much later that I realised what an extraordinary gift he had given to us, creating a space for us in the world, allowing us the chance to say: We too are here.
To mark his sixtieth birthday, the late Professor Edith Ihekweazu, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Nsukka invited the world tour small sleepy dusty town to mark his 6oth birthday in the fittingly titled Eagle on Iroko celebration. For a few heady days, it seemed that the centre of the literary world had moved to Nsukka and I like to imagine that a young Chimamanda Adichie watched too and was inspired.
Growing up in Nsukka we were also privileged to witness his utter devotion to his family, his quiet yet fierce support of his wife and children, his investment of time and resources to ventures like the literary journal Okike which often featured writing from people that I knew, people who lived near us. Reading their published poems and stories helped me believe that writers and artists were not otherworldly beings that they could be the uncle or aunt down the road and inspired my first feeble attempts at writing.
He was the antithesis of the Nigerian Big Man: softly spoken, thoughtful with a quiet dignity that echoed in his work. And he could be trusted to speak out when there were difficult things that needed saying. But they were also delivered with a dose of the subtle wit and humour that illuminated his being and his work.
All day I have fielded calls from distraught friends in different parts of the world. In tears, they echo my thoughts, our shock at the suddenness, our illogical hope that he would be always be here, a sudden wrenching feeling that something huge and irreplaceable has been lost; his passing a painful reminder that we are losing a generation of wise elders.
Who will speak out for us now? Who will ask the hard questions of us and the world that he did? Where are the drums and the flutes to dance a great masquerade on his homeward journey?
We will take solace in the words that he has left behind, words that will live on long after we have all gone, words that hopefully will continue to inspire us to acknowledge each other’s humanity; to be greater, to be more.
That will be his legacy.
Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan