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Simmons, campus welcome Achebe

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Newly appointed Professor of Africana Studies Chinua Achebe discussed his writings with the Brown community on Tuesday.

Correction appended.

Newly appointed Professor of Africana Studies Chinua Achebe was officially welcomed into the Brown community Tuesday afternoon with a public conversation between the celebrated Nigerian author and President Ruth Simmons.

Achebe, a world-renowned novelist, poet and critic, was named the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and professor of Africana Studies in September. He is best known for his 1958 work “Things Fall Apart,” which is widely considered the foremost African novel.

After several introductions, Achebe and Simmons began their discussion before a packed Salomon 101, spanning topics that included Achebe’s reflection on his most recent novel — “The Education of a British-Protected Child” — his critique of contemporary African political leaders and his role in establishing modern African literature.

During the discussion of Achebe’s most recent work, Simmons asked him what it meant to be a “protected child” when he was growing up in British-controlled Nigeria. Achebe answered, “When a handshake goes beyond the elbow, it becomes kidnapping,” drawing laughter from Simmons and the audience. “That’s what this protection seemed to me to signify.”

Achebe and Simmons also discussed the current state of democracy in Africa. When asked to recommend one democratic African leader who shows restraint, Achebe said naming one is “very rare (and) very difficult.”

“That’s the sad thing about it,” he said. “You want an example and you have to search.”
Achebe also touched on the Cold War’s lasting impact on Africa. He said that the “great expectations” Africans felt about democracy in their countries “failed very suddenly” after the collapse of governments backed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War “really killed our expectations,” he added.

Achebe also read one of his favorite excerpts from “Things Fall Apart,” which focused on the impact his father and great-uncle had on his life. “They were the people who I was grounded on growing up,” he said.

Once Achebe began taking questions, an audience member referenced his controversial critique of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” — in which he accused Conrad of being “a bloody racist” — and asked if the book inspired Achebe’s work. Achebe responded, “Inspired? I read the book and that was it.”

But Achebe added, “If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Don’t throw away any book ever. Read it.”

Before the forum, fellow writers and faculty from the Department of Africana Studies spoke, giving their personal reflections on Achebe, his work and his appointment.

“I am honored to write in a tradition which (Achebe) invented,” said John Wideman, professor of Africana studies and English, echoing the sentiments of the other speakers.

Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 officially welcomed Achebe as “Africa’s foremost cultural ambassador.”

He added that the Achebe’s addition to the Brown faculty will “put our students in touch with the international community.”

Kertzer also praised the Department of Africana Studies as among the best in the country at attracting great writers but noted humorously that acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison, who was attending the event, is a professor emerita at Princeton.

In his introduction, George Lamming, visiting professor in the Africana studies and literary arts departments, discussed Achebe’s roots in Nigeria’s Igbo ethnic group.

“A man who follows Igbo customs works not from the front or the back but from the middle ground,” Lamming said. “We think that this is a safe location for receiving the blessings of Brown University, and we are most joyfully happy with your choice.”

A previous version of this article referred to John Wideman as the Harmon Family Professor of Africana studies. In fact, he is a professor of Africana studies and English. Barrymore Bogues is the Harmon Family Professor of Africana studies. The Herald regrets the error.

 

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