For some reason the student witch joined a Commonwealth literature course at university, back in the early 1980s. Or was it late 1970s? With no right to sit the exam (I had already passed the level at which it was set), I only joined the classroom discussions every week, presumably thinking it’d broaden my mind. Or something.
That’s where I was introduced to books by people I’d never heard of before, including Chinua Achebe. We read Things Fall Apart, which I don’t remember anything of, except that I didn’t understand it very well. I’ve always had this thing that I need to know where characters are coming from, and I didn’t know Africa at all.
Other authors included Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Canadian Mordecai Richler (whom the Resident IT Consultant found in the bookcase only the other day, and said he’d never heard of) and a couple of Australians, like David Malouf and David Ireland. Indian authors such as R K Narayan and Anita Desai. I’ve probably forgotten some, but it was only for one term, so the list won’t have been too long.
It was good, because these were the days when – even more than now – I stuck to what I knew. And these I didn’t know. Some, like Narayan, I simply could not get on with. At the time I almost wondered why I did it. I’m guessing it’s so that now I can know a little of what the world has lost with the death of Chinua Achebe.
Not being a native English speaker it was difficult to grasp how English was used back then, by people who had other first languages. And I suspect I expected anyone who wrote in English to somehow write as though they were English.
In more recent years, when seeing photos of Chinua Achebe, I’ve always been struck by how much he looked like my Uncle. Not skin colour, obviously, but apart from that. It made me feel closer, and occasionally I have wondered if I ought to re-read what I didn’t quite get in those days.
(I looked up my then tutor, Britta Olinder, to see what she’s up to these days. I remembered that she did her PhD on Dryden, but after that it seems as if she has stuck to her Commonwealth literature. Good to know I was in good hands. I mean, I knew that even then, but I like having it confirmed. Intrigued to see I narrowly missed meeting Salman Rushdie.)