When Amanda ReCupido and Tracy Bova went to Town Hall Monday night to observe the all-star tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, they weren’t allowed to take photos inside the event—but at least we have a glimpse of the crowd that gathered to honor the legacy of Africa’s most prominent literary figure, as a parade of authors humbly offered touching tales of how Achebe affected and ultimately changed their lives.
“Edwidge Danticat remarked that Achebe’s name alone helped remind her of her own heritage,” ReCupido reports. “Chris Abani, who first began his speech in his native tongue and then switched to ‘the more primitive language of English,’ told an amusing story of a woman in an airport asking him if he knew Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist, (because, don’t all Nigerian writers?). Abani recalled reading Things Fall Apart in four days, publishing his first short story in response to the novel two weeks later, and never stopping from there. ‘It’s central to everything we do,’ he said of the book.”
“Colum McCann offered Achebe’s own words: ‘If you don’t like someone’s story, tell your own,’ in discussing the impact that Things Fall Apart had on the way Africa and African literature was portrayed and received. He spoke of how the novel was ‘the pulse of the wound,’ and oftentimes ‘became the wound.’ Poet and political activist Suheir Hammad performed a poem, followed by a remarkably moving piece by the Francesa Harper Dance Project. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun, spoke of how Achebe’s writing reminded her of her complex past and encouraged her to stray away from the British books she grew up reading. ‘They all had blonde hair and blue eyes and a dog named Spot, and I was not like that,’ she remarked. She also disclosed that she grew up in a house in which Achebe once lived, which she regards as ‘the most important thing’ she’s ever told her editor.
“After a speech from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison about the importance of language, Achebe finally graced the stage to a standing ovation. He spoke of how ‘that book wrote me’ and how he worked under its spell. Of its impact, he commented that it ‘feels like a good dream’ and that he is ‘grateful again and again and again’ for what it’s become. Forever humble, Achebe remarked that he imagined the anniversary event to be a dinner with a small group of friends, which met with chuckles from the hundreds of audience members filling the seats and lining the back walls. In one anecdote, he described how he almost lost his one and only manuscript of Things Fall Apart to a typist in England. When asked what he would have done had he never gotten it back, he simply replied, ‘Probably the same thing that Okonkwo did.’”
Those of you who have read the novel can appreciate the hushed laughter that followed that remark.