How Chinua Achebe is like Barack Obama

At Tuesday evening's sold-out tribute to Chinua Achebe, celebrating the 50th birthday of Things Fall Apart, Edwige Danticat (pictured left, afterwards, with Ha Jin) began by explaining why she liked Achebe before she'd ever read his books. "I loved his name," she said. "He seemed like family-- he has a strange name, too. Now I say that," she added, "about Barack Obama." (Big round of applause.)

Chimamanda Adichie also spoke of seeing herself in Achebe and his work. Her first stories, she said, which she wrote when she a small girl, were about "English children with blue eyes who ate apples, played in the snow, and had dogs named Socks." She hadn't learned, she said, that "people like me could exist in books." Achebe taught her that.

Chris Abani was drawn to Achebe for a different reason: to pick up girls. His older brother's "shtick for getting girls," he said, was to quote Achebe. And so Abani, looking for tips, read Things Fall Apart-- the first book he had read by an African writer, after spending his youth devouring everything from "The Silver Surfer to Dostoevsky."

Colum McCann read the Yeats poem "The Second Coming," from which Achebe got his title; Suheir Hammad performed one of her own poems; Ha Jin spoke about being a "migrant writer in the English language," and said that Achebe worked to "extend the frontier" of English through his "mastery of the language." Toni Morrison read some of Achebe's words on that subject-- out of an anthology she put together in the late '60s for high school classrooms (which, she noted ruefully, made it into very few classrooms).

Finally, Achebe himself took the stage, after an introduction from Leon Bottstein. He said that Things Fall Apart "wrote me," and then told an amazing story about sending his manuscript of the novel-- the only one he had!-- to England so that it could be professionally typed. He only got it back with the help of an English woman he knew in Nigeria. When asked what he would have done if it had been lost, he said, with dry, dark humor, "Probably the same thing that Okonkwo did."

Other reports on the evening here, here, and here.

PS. Remko Caprio raises some challenging points in the comments (scroll down), and has the most thorough overview of the evening I've seen over at his own site.


New Proust

"It is surprising but true: a polished, mature work by Marcel Proust that is unavailable in English translation-- until now."

So reads the book description for The Lemoine Affair, the newly available novella pointed out by Chad Post over at Three Percent. It will be published by Melville House as part of their wonderful "Art of the Novella" series:
In this overlooked comedic gem based on a true story, the author considered one of the most important writers of the twentieth century tells the tale of a con artist who claimed he could manufacture diamonds, with each chapter of the tale written in the style of a different French writer. This delicious spoof of Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand and others is presented in a sparkling, nuanced translation by the award-winning Charlotte Mandell.
(Mandell, by the way, has a detailed homepage over at PEN.org, one of many great translators in PEN's directory.)

This also gives me an excuse to link to Marilynne Robinson's piece on Proust from PEN America 2. Robinson begins by recalling the time her teacher, John Hawkes, called a paragraph of hers "Proustian":
He did this to shelter it from the criticisms of my fellow students, who were aflame then with a stern undergraduate passion for truth-telling, for tearing away veils and dispelling illusions. I was as impressed by this project as anyone, and I made certain poor attempts at it, which the formidable Mr. Hawkes discouraged by invoking this great name to approve one straying memory of my primordial Idaho.
PEN America 8 will include some remarks by Robinson on her interest in Iowan history-- which inspired not only Gilead, but also her upcoming novel, Home.

(The image aboves comes from the homepage for The Proust Society of America, "a permanent program of The Mercantile Library Center for Fiction.")


Short stories, performed

With a nod to Short Story Week over at The Millions, and the “Save the Short Story” campaign launched by One Story, here’s another great event happening in New York next week:


Wednesday, February 27 at 7:30 pm at Symphony Space

American Center co-presents this evening of powerful new short fiction by emerging writers Uwem Akpan and Nam Le about the challenges of growing up in the modern world. Readings are performed by Robin Miles and Ken Leung.

Uwem Akpan (above) was born in southern Nigeria and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 2003. He has a story collection coming out in June. You can read his story “An Ex-Mas Feast” over at The New Yorker. Nam Le (right) was born in Vietnam and grew up in Australia. His collection comes out in May.

This is part of the ongoing series, Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story. The performances are recorded and broadcast on public radio around the country. (In New York, the show is on at 4 PM on Saturdays and Sundays on AM 820.) There’s also a free podcast over on iTunes.

PS. PEN members get a discount to this event. Send an email to nick@pen.org for details.


Things Fall Apart, fifty years later

Mark Sarvas points to this excellent article about Chinua Achebe and his landmark novel, Things Fall Apart, which recently turned fifty. The article discusses, among other things, the influence of the novel on writers who came after Achebe:
One of the most celebrated young Nigerian writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, says that she read Things Fall Apart when she was around 8 and has periodically reread it. "I find that I liked the same things each time - the familiarity with it. I hadn't realized that people like me could be in a book," she explains.

Countless others have cited Achebe, from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who once called "Things Fall Apart," a "major education" for me, to Ha Jin, a Chinese-American novelist. Achebe himself recalls some letters he received about a decade ago from students at a women's college in South Korea.
As it happens, all three of these writers-- Adichie, Toni Morrison, and Ha Jin-- will be at the PEN tribute to Achebe taking place a week from today at Town Hall in New York. They'll be joined by Chris Abani, Michael Cunningham, Edwidge Danticat, Suheir Hammad, and Colum McCann. The evening will also feature a special performance by the Francesca Harper Dance Project with dancers from the Alvin Ailey School. And there are still a few tickets available.


Etgar Keret on grammar and hard-ons

Among the riches of PEN America 8 (shortly headed to the printer; subscribe here) is a conversation between George Saunders and Etgar Keret (pictured left in a photo from Time magazine available on Etgar's website). Both writers are smart and hilarious, and they don't disappoint.

The conversation is prefaced by a short, shrewd essay by Saunders and an explosive little Keret story from The Girl on the Fridge (out from FSG in May). It's followed by an older Keret story, "Rabin's Dead."

Here's how the conversation begins:

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I was amazed by your stories, by the quality and quantity of imagination, and the unbelievable overflow of ideas. So I wanted to ask a question that’s probably unfair. Can you pick a story, and talk us through the process—where the seed of the idea was, and how you arrived at the finished story?

ETGAR KERET: Well, there’s one story, I’m not sure I know its name in English correctly. I think it’s “Actually, I Do Have Hard-Ons Lately”? Something like that?

SAUNDERS: Oh yeah. It’s “The Quality of My Hard-Ons is Very Excellent Lately,” I think.

AUDIENCE: “Actually, I’ve Had Some Phenomenal Hard-Ons Lately.”

KERET: That’s it. With that story I can tell you something about the process. I was sitting in a café and somebody with a cell phone at a table nearby said that sentence. He really said, “Actually, I’ve had some phenomenal hard-ons lately.” I looked at him, and he asked for a beer, and then I left. And I kept saying to people I knew, “I was sitting next to this guy, and he said this sentence.” And they’d say, “Um, okay.” And I’d say, “No, no! I really feel that there is something in this sentence, something in the grammar of it.” If he hadn’t said the “actually,” say, it would have been a different sentence, you know?

So I tried to invent this guy in my head. And the first thing that came to mind was that he had an affair with a woman at work. And what makes him feel best about this affair is that whenever they go to dinner, he can ask for the receipt, and it’s tax-deductible because she works with him. So he can cheat on his wife and on the IRS at the same time.

SAUNDERS: Incredible aphrodisiac.

Etgar is coming back to the World Voices festival this year, and you can read more about him here.


A few Friday notes

Some matters of interest as we finish correcting the proofs on our next issue:

* A newly translated interview with Borges:
My father showed me his library, which seemed to me infinite, and he told me to read whatever I wanted, but that if something bored me I should put it down immediately, that is, the opposite of obligatory reading.
Tributes to Borges from Paul Auster and others can be found in PEN America 1: Classics.

* One of Lydia Davis's stories, provided in full by Amitava Kumar:

Happiest Moment

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.

Davis paid tribute to Proust (whom she has translated) in PEN America 2: Home & Away

Lastly, Open Letter continues to keep track of all the works of literary translation being published in the US this year. First up this time out: The Executor: A Comedy of Letters, by Michael Krüger, "about a literary executor who has to go through the papers of the recently deceased Rudolf, a scam of an academic who, nevertheless, leaves behind a unpublished masterpiece that will change the future of literature." This is the second of Krüger's novels to appear in English; Andrew Shields was a finalist for the PEN Translation Prize for translating The Cello Player, which was the first.


Another mixed week in China, and other news

News from our Freedom to Write program, which launched their China campaign in Demcember: the Chinese government has released Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong on parole from prison in Gangzhou, southern China, where he was serving a five-year sentence for espionage. Just a few days ago, another journalist, Li Changqing, who had served three years in prison for “spreading false and alarmist information,” was released when his sentence expired.

Not all the news is good, however:
Writer and human rights activist Lu Gengsong, who was arrested on August 24, 2007 after his articles critical of the authorities were published online, stood trial before the Hangzhou Intermediate People’s Court on January 22, and today was sentenced to four years in prison and one year’s deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power.”

On January 30, more than one month after his arrest, activist and blogger Hu Jia was formally charged with “inciting subversion of state power” by the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate. Under Chinese law, Hu can now be held without trial until after the Beijing Olympics. PEN has received reports that he is being denied access to his lawyers because the case involves “state secrets.” His wife, fellow blogger Zeng Jinyan, remains under house arrest, virtually incommunicado, with all communication lines to and from her home cut by Chinese authorities.
In better news:
President Bush has signed PEN-supported legislation that requires the United States to expand programs to resettle Iraqi refugees in the U.S., removing some of the major barriers that have left thousands of Iraqi writers, journalists, and translators stranded and vulnerable in Iraq and neighboring countries.
More information about PEN's efforts to resettle Iraqi writers and translators can be found here.

And for some entirely good news: PEN has added an event to the World Voices festival with Ian McEwan, "American Literature Seen from Abroad," which will be held in conjunction with The New York Times. More information here.