Chinua Achebe remembered by Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina, Chinua Achebe's friend, colleague and fellow writer, recalls the inspirational Nigerian novelist

See the Observer's obituaries of 2013 in full here

I was in my 20s when I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I was a hunter-gatherer reader who resented the obvious hurrump hurrump books that filled my dad's bookshelves. The idea of Chinua Achebe was so ubiquitous that he shared the territory reserved by my imagination for presidential portraits, school-teacher lectures, family Bibles and Reader's Digest-condensed books. When I read it I was already older than he was when he wrote it, and was startled at how wise, fresh and radical it remained. Its readability, its ability to make Umuofia the centre of the world makes it everybody's African village. There is no staleness in this idea. Proverbs from the book pound the Twittersphere and countless conversations. In English-speaking Africa, only Bible parables are as widely used. His assault on the novel in English remains a big shock to the novel itself. Our generation has work to do.

I was a student in South Africa in the 90s, and newspapers that generally only reported the news of the white world (surfing in Sydney!) covered his birthday celebrations at Bard College in the US, where he spent many years. For years, I imagined Bard to be some kind of Harvard – a place crawling with wild-haired Einsteins and grim giant paintings of important people. Every year, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Toni Morrison would troop to Bard to meet him on a birthday that was as important to Africans as Nelson Mandela's.

At the turn of the millennium, before I even had a book out, I found myself sitting on a podium with Professor Achebe at the surprisingly small and quirky Bard, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart. His handshake was scary strong. I rubbed my hands in some pain afterwards.

I shat hot clay-fired bricks on the podium that day. The only African proverb my panicked mind could find for the looming conversation was "as black as my grandmother's cooking pot". It was coming, it was coming! He would turn, point at my heart and mind, and say something Pan-Africanly Naipaulian and I would turn, right there, into a giggling, sweaty colonial askari.

I did my reading, from How to Write About Africa, an essay I had written for Granta. He leaned to his side, grinned, mumbled something gravelly, winked, and nearly broke my hand. Then, when the panel started, he said (I paraphrase-ish): "You know, I have been talking about Things Fall Apart for 50 years. I have nothing to say." And he proceeded to ask me questions about my own work and I was forced to speak in self-important ahem ahems because much of my, erm, work lay procrastinating somewhere.

Mandela died a few days ago. They both had the same husky voice and a noble good that trapped them into permanent bronze images hardened by the intense desires of tens of millions.

When I worked as the director of the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard College, I found a lonely, humble artist who loved to be visited, who missed the company of others in a mostly white rural society. I read and fell in love with Arrow of God. I talked a lot. He listened a lot, sometimes looking at what I said incredulously. (Once, I was defending the liberating boom of the African Pentecostal movement.) When he spoke, his prose always cut through my heart. Like when he interrupted once and said: "You know, for years everything was wonderful, and then… and then… I don't know what happened, and everybody you knew was dead or compromised."


Binyavanga Wainaina

The GuardianTramp

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