Digging out my article, I was remembering that my interview with Achebe had not gone as well as I had hoped. He was not very talkative and he spoke so softly that at times I barely caught what he said. With every question I posed, he seemed to turn the conversation away from himself, talking instead about other writers, mostly African women writers that he wanted me to know about. He scoffed at the idea that he was called the father of African literature, insisting that he just had happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Just months before our meeting, Achebe had gone back to his homeland to support the reforms that were going on there and I asked him about his hopes for Nigeria. He said he was cautiously optimistic about the political changes, but he was taking a wait-and-see attitude. That 1999 trip had been painful, both physically (he was in a wheelchair) and morally (he had lost a lot of friends and family). But the journey had made him determined to return one day. After all, he told me, quoting a traditional Igbo adage, the whole essence of travel is to go back home.
I used that quote to end my article (posted below), but I don't think I fully appreciated what it meant until I re-read it today. Back then, I had been living nearly a decade in Florida, but was still feeling like an exile there. I was always imaging that one day I would go home. Now, 13 years later, I have at last begun to realize Florida has become my home. After all, wherever you go, there you are.
Achebe never did get back to Nigeria. He died in Boston.
The exile writes of home
By Margo Hammond, St. Petersburg Times Book Editor
Published June 25, 2000
One of Chinua Achebe's earliest childhood memories is of returning to his ancestral home "for the first time," as the African writer paradoxically puts it.
It was 1935. Achebe was 5 years old. "I had looked forward very much to this experience, but it was not working out right. Sitting in the back of the truck and facing what seemed the wrong way, I could not see where we were going, only where we were coming from," he writes in Home and Exile. "The dust and the smell and the speed and the roadside trees rushing forward as we rushed back finally overcame me with fear and dizziness. I was glad when it all finally came to a halt at my home and my town."
The town was Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, the home of his father's people, the Igbo. Achebe's father, an Anglican minister, was returning to build a church and raise his family after 30 years of missionary work. It was the home where the young Achebe would grow up, joyfully listening to the stories of his people. It was also the place where he painfully would learn how those stories - and the stories of a whole continent - could be usurped by other people.
Achebe now lives thousands of miles away from Ogidi, in upstate New York on the campus of Bard College on the banks of the Hudson River. The African writer and his wife, a fellow Nigerian who specializes in multicultural counseling, have lived on the Bard College campus for the past nine years. The dusty road of Africa has been replaced by a paved highway through northern pines. Except for the smells of an African meal drifting in from the kitchen, the Achebe's living room could be that of any modest suburban home. But when I visited Achebe there earlier this year, I discovered that Achebe's childhood memories are never far from his mind.
"When I was growing up there wasn't anything I could read about me," Achebe told me. Back then, he said, the story of Africa was told by Europeans, not Africans, and it was not a story Achebe could recognize as his own.
I had come to discuss Achebe's latest book, Home and Exile. Based on three lectures the African writer gave at Harvard University in 1998, the slim but powerful volume, published this month by Oxford University Press, describes how Achebe and other young Africans in the '50s rebelled against the centuries-old European version of Africa and created a literature of their own.
Ironically, it was the British decision to create the first university in Africa that sparked the rebellion, Achebe said. And it was sheer luck, he added, that he was the right age to take advantage of that opportunity: He had just graduated from high school when the university opened its doors.
Achebe may have been at the right place at the right time, but he also brought to that place a remarkable voice. From his bestselling novel Things Fall Apart (the first of a trilogy about the effects of colonialization on traditional African life) to his latest ruminations in Home and Exile on the need for Africans to reclaim their own stories, his writing moves confidently between dazzlingly simple metaphors, often gleaned from African oral tradition, and clear and precise analysis. His stories are African stories that you can't easily forget.
So why is this man who has been so militant about (and successful at) reclaiming the stories of his own people living in exile?
Exile, Achebe assured me, is not what he wanted.
During most of the nine years Achebe has been in exile, Nigeria had been subjected to the nightmarish dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha. "I've never had an easy relationship with authority in Nigeria," admitted Achebe who may have reasonably feared for his own safety if he returned. In 1995, fellow writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight members of his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People were hanged. But Achebe's nearly decade-long absence from the land that nourishes his writing did not just spring from his disgust with the brutal Abacha regime. A personal tragedy turned Achebe into a very reluctant exile.
In March, 1990, while traveling in a hired car with his son in the back seat, Achebe was in a terrible automobile accident. His son was safe, but Achebe was paralyzed from his waist down. He was flown immediately to Britain for treatment, but after six months in the hospital, two things became clear: He would never walk again, and he couldn't live in Nigeria. His condition required constant medical treatment, which was not available in a country where things had dramatically fallen apart.
So in order to be near adequate medical facilities, Achebe accepted an offer to teach at Bard, a progressive college in the Hudson River Valley. The college not only offered him a light load - one course in African literature - Bard built a wheelchair- accessible house for him right on the campus.
Last September, Achebe finally returned to Nigeria - but only for a visit. Invited to Lagos by Olusegan Obasanjo, the country's first civilian leader since 1983, Achebe wanted to lend his support to the shaky beginnings of democracy in his nation. He also returned to Ogidi where he visited family.
The five-week trip was arduous and painful for Achebe, but it made him all the more determined to return there some day. After all, he said, quoting a traditional Igbo saying, "The whole essence of travel is to go back home."