Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chinua Achebe and It's Been a Long Time

Sorry for being so silent lately. But I went on Spring break and sequestered myself in a friend's condominium, with all meals provided by him, to complete the editing of my book manuscript, which will be published by the University of Illinois Press. Since I have training as a copyeditor, I find it difficult to let a manuscript go. Only a firm deadline will get me to release a manuscript, which is why I have always felt more comfortable with writing jounalism than scholarly pieces because journalists are pretty darn frim with deadlines: the paper is going to press, no ifs, ands, and buts about it.

But, I am placing the manuscript in the mail on Monday, and as I write this blog, chapter one is printing. Already I noticed that I inadvertently deleted the epigraph. I'll have to go back in and replace it. Oh, the book is about class and African American women's literature. It has been derived from my dissertation, a manuscript that I was determined not to shelve, but to give some other life outside of dissertation abstracts and microfiche since I sacrified my first born to get the dissertation written.

Had a wonderful time this past Monday night at the Washington Post attending a tribute to the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, and also to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the publication of "Things Fall Apart." Achebe was warm, engaging, and intriguing, and despite his confinement in a wheel chair it felt as if he were walking around the room touching everyone on the head and opening our consciences. He discussed the absence of language that he discovered among African characters in European fiction and how the impetus for his writing came out of this absence of language. Achebe argues that the longest sentence spoken by an African character in a European novel is in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and that sentence is eight words long. Otherwise, according to Achebe, African characters grunt or emit animalistic sounds from their mouths, but they do not talk.

Those of us who are familiar with the debate about language know that it is not only the absence of language among African characters in European fiction that fueled the literary imaginations of African writers, but also the debate about the absence of literature written in indigenous languages that has incited not only strident conversations but also chasms among some African writers that at times they seem unable to bridge. One only has to think of N'gugi wa Thiongo's conversations and writings about language to get a sense of how important language is to African writers. And the struggle continues.

There was a similar tribute to Achebe in New York City last month which I had purchased a ticket for, but was unable to attend because of a lack of transportation that fit the demands of my schedule. However, I would have loved to have attended that tribute because Morrison, too, examines the absence of language in African American characters in U.S. white writers' fiction in "Playing in the Dark." Just like African characters in fiction by European writers, African American characters are seen but not heard.

But enough for literature. All is well on the homefront. Rumor has it that my son has received a university scholarship to Howard's business school. His father and I are still trying to confirm this gracious award. The kid has worked hard, and he has never disappointed either me or his father. We are so proud of him. In the meantime, he is just trying to hold the ballast in the water and sail to port. He has some difficult classes his senior year, thanks to his overly ambitious mom strongly recommending that he register for such courses. But he is rising to the occasion and making my future prospects for retirement feasible.

I will be writing regularly now that the pressure of getting my book manuscript completed has subsided. So look for my daily blogs again. And please post comments, I'd love to read them.


E. said...

I read two really powerful pieces by Bessie Head about Botswana. A short story called Life and When Rain Clouds Gather.

I was so thankful that these characters were able to speak to me in English.

Still, my soul stirs for the rhythms of indigenous language that felt when I was in Africa. More than journey has a destiny to truly understand not only what is being said, but the spirit that informs the language.

Thanks again, as always for being such a wonderful guide.

peace 2 U Michele,


E. said...

And I'm excited about your book. Can't wait.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back!

M. L. Simms said...

E, I am teaching "When the Rain Clouds Gather" in a few weeks. Read Ngugi wa Thiong'o's book "Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature" for an in-depth discussion on the absence, presence, and controversies regarding indigenous languages in African literature. Ngugi's latest book, "Wizard of the Crow" was written in Gikuyu and then translated by him into English. He is a proponent and strong advocate for Africans writing in their indigenous languages.