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Archive for June, 2015

image in the skyOne for the craft

a kiss denoting

how exquisite, how broken

how full of life and tears and sighs

and stony words unspoken

 

One for the swing

the swirl of words

surrounding,

Where on the corner

of earth

and sky

I observe a singular grief

Is it you?

Or me, or both in weighted camouflage

Hiding from inevitability

Of understanding the word “death”

Its beauty, its dreamlessness

Its tears and gladness and marbleizing

Its crystalline shade

 

One for the Voice

that whispers

In the cool of the day

That weeps at

The voice of blood

crying from the ground

 

One for the Image lifted

Though dead

above the earth

beyond the sky

the cornerstone, forgotten

Balancing Pleiades, Orion

 

In its dance from east

to west

In its thundering whisper

In its majestic silence

In its symphonic crescendo

At the end of days

at the first breath of forever

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the flute of unokaMy last two posts were about the bestselling novel Things Fall Apart. The thing is, the thought of writing dialectical journals and literary analyses don’t always inspire creativity. Often, the required word count and outside sources cause my inspiration in writing to dwindle considerably, especially if the book is one that I would not have even read if given the choice.

But poetry seems to come naturally to me, especially when my emotions are touched by something. Now Things Fall Apart did not have many “touching” scenes. One scene … maybe. But as I read, I thought of the contract between Okonkwo, the main character, and his father, Unoka, who is only briefly mentioned in the first chapter. In my dialectical journal, I mentioned how Unoka seemed happier and more content than Okonkwo. Okonkwo was ruled by fear and driven by the passion of hating everything his father had loved.

That contrast struck me, and I began to write. A sort of conversation between father and son …

 

The might is right

I earn my way

And who I am

By the strength of my hand

 

My son

Can you not see

It was for you

I played the flute

And you did not dance

 

Planting and harvesting

Amassing wealth

As my soul’s worth

No time for mirth

 

Harvests will come

And go as they came

Nonjudgmental silence

We choose to bear shame

 

If not for my feats

The strength of my arm

What more can I be

Who am I beyond these?

 

You are warmth in the night

Protection from harm

Joy in a child’s laughter

Whistling in the dark

 

Betrayed by my tribe

All hope of life

Adrift, like kites

All is lost, alone

 

I too was betrayed

Still music I played

Beneath the wood’s shroud

There was joy

My son, dance along

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Achebe things fall apartResonance – the Power of a Story

At the announcement of his death, CNN journalists Laura Smith-Spark and Faith Karimi wrote of Chinua Achebe, “He was celebrated worldwide for telling African stories to a captivated world audience.” Speaking of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, they mentioned that it was “required reading in countless high schools and colleges in the continent, and has been translated into dozens of languages.” Nelson Mandela said that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world.” Things Fall Apart is a worldwide literary phenomenon; according to a Random House teachers’ guide, it has been translated into fifty languages and has sold over eight million copies throughout the world. Was this popularity simply due to the fact that it was the first novel of its kind – by an African author about Africa? Or does the acceptance of the novel bespeak a greater phenomenon, the resonance of the story in the hearts of its readers?

What is resonance? In the field of physics, resonance is “when the frequency of forced vibrations on an object matches the object’s natural frequency” and “a dramatic increase in amplitude occurs.” Resonance – this increase in amplitude – occurs whenever impulses match an object’s natural frequency. What, then, creates resonance in a story? How can an author create a story that resonates in the mind or heart of a reader, or of a million readers? The writer must have an understanding of the human condition, and be willing to tell his part of the story in an honest and empathetic way.

While discussing the “complexity of the human story” with an interviewer, Chinua Achebe said, “There’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, ‘This is it.’ Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing … this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.” In Things Fall Apart, Achebe wrote the story that resonated in his heart, and it resounded in the hearts of his readers worldwide. The novel resonated deeply with many readers due to its delving into and rendering of a variety of encompassing subjects that humanity has struggled with for centuries. These themes include family and belonging, rejection versus acceptance, questions and answers, fear, religion, and love.

Some of the primary themes in Things Fall Apart were the connected issues of family and belonging. The main character, Okonkwo, struggled with his “fear of himself, left he should be found to resemble his father.” He never felt a deep sense of belonging due to the fact that he could not accept himself for who he was, nor his father for who he had been. This deep-rooted passion to “hate everything that his father Unoka had loved” affected his relationship with others, especially his son, Nwoye, who at the age of 12 was “already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness.” It also affected Okonkwo’s decision to play a part in the murder of the young man who called him father, Ikemefuna.

Although Okonkwo’s close friend advised him, “Do not bear a hand in his death,” when Ikemefuna rushed towards the man he called father to protect him, Okonkwo wielded the final blow because “he was afraid of being thought weak.” Although few readers would likely recognize themselves in such drastic actions, those same readers understand the overarching search for belonging, and the deep need to feel connected to one’s family and be accepted by that family, particularly one’s father. In one interview, Chinua Achebe said that a shy American boy approached him once and said of Okonkwo, “That man is my father.” This young man was most likely one of many readers who saw similarities between that fictional African family and his own.

A similar thread runs through Things Fall Apart, in the form of rejection versus acceptance by the tribe at large. When Nwoye realizes that Ikemefuna was killed, the sorrow he feels brings to mind another memory, when he heard a baby crying deep in the woods and the women nearby fell silent. He learned that “twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest.” Such memories plagued Nwoye, until years later, when he heard what Achebe described as “the poetry of the new religion.” In Nwoye’s mind, he finally found the answer to the “vague and persistent questions that haunted his young soul—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul.” For this character, the banishment of innocent babies to die alone in the woods lodged as an unfair shunning in Nwoye’s mind until he found acceptance in the rhythm of this new religious conviction.

This theme is one that resonates within readers, as it is something that many people struggle with, discovering elements of their own story within the novel. Chinua Achebe mentioned that he received letters from a class of female college students in South Korea, whose overall message was that they recognized their own history in Things Fall Apart. Achebe said, “People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story, if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience.”

Not every character in the book found the same form of answers, or as easily; this is conveyed by the title of the book, Things Fall Apart. Even in this, the author brought out the theme of questions and answers, and how not every question is easily answered, and not every solution is provable or straightforward. In the novel, Okonkwo’s friend Obierika was described as “a man who thought about things.” After he and the other men destroyed Okonkwo’s home, he wondered, “Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently?” This question, rather than being answered, led Obierika to more difficult questions when, “He remember his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed?” For this particular character, the answer did not come.

Thirty-two years after publishing Things Fall Apart, in regards to religion, Chinua Achebe stated to a colleague, “I’m still in a state of uncertainty, but I’m not worried anymore. I’m not looking for the answers, because I believe now that we will never know. I believe now that what we have to do is make our passage through life as meaningful and as useful as possible, I think our contribution to the creation of the world is important.” It seems that, in spite of the characters struggling with unanswered questions, Achebe reached a state of harmony even surrounded by questions.

Finding peace with unanswered questions is another theme that runs through humanity at large, and particularly literature. Regarding questions, author Frederick Buechner says in Wishful Thinking, “We are much involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow …but we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always, life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value.” Interspersed throughout Things Fall Apart, sometimes the characters ask questions; more often, the questions on their hearts are lived out, whether they have the courage to ask them at all. The readers recognize their own unanswered questions and have to determine whether they will have the courage to search for answers, and the greater courage to accept and be at peace even when the answers do not come quickly … or at all.

God – interwoven with faith and religion – is a final theme Things Fall Apart. The tribal people of the Umuofia village have a form of spiritual religion that is deeply connected with their understanding of nature, as well as with their rendering of issues such as justice and equity. Throughout the novel, author Chinua Achebe gives insights to this belief system – aspects of their life that are at times fascinating and at other times repulsive. Some beliefs seem little more than superstition: don’t whistle at night. Don’t call a snake by its name. Others seem bordering on the dark arts: mutilate a dead baby so it won’t return to its mother’s womb. But others mirror beliefs held by others across nations and throughout time; universal truths some might call them.

Towards the end of Things Fall Apart, two minor characters compare the respective truths of their religions, and find similarities. One of the village men, Akunna, tells the missionary, “You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth … We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.” Chinua Achebe, through his characters, was not the only one to recognize similarities of truth across a variety of beliefs. In his book Windows of the Soul, author Ken Gire observes, “The waters of truth that run through this world sometimes flow through the most surprising channels.” He goes on to state, “There are no persons so pagan that God cannot speak through them. There is no place so remote that God’s voice cannot be heard there.” The village of Umuofia was, indeed, a remote place; yet it has gone down in history through the notable writings of Chinua Achebe.

The characters were flawed at best, yet they also have been remembered because of the resonance they bear in the lives of the readers. We read of a man who existence was beset by fear and remember our own fear of the dark, or of failure, or being misunderstood. We read of a young man seeking a place where he belongs and find it resonates deep within, for we all crave a place we can truly call home, where we are accepted and loved. We read of questions and think of the many unanswered ones in our own life. We read of religion and faith, of magic and mystery – and something, somewhere, somehow, whispers beyond all reason of the deep mystery of life that waits to be revealed.

How did Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, become so wildly popular, with a positive reputation that has endured for half a century? Perhaps because in the pages, we recognize an image of ourselves, no matter how distant or faintly traced. And in that resonant image, we recognize something else, even more faint. More distant. It seems to be a rendering of beauty; almost, if we could dare to imagine, a broken and stained reflection of perfection. It gives the feeling that – if we were to look long enough, or with the right eyes – somehow we might see through something more than a glass darkly. We might almost see the image of the invisible God; never completely understood, never quite accepted. For even when things fall apart, there remains the undying hope that whispers through creation, of all things being made new again.

 

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Harare: College, 1987. Print.

Brooks, Jerome. “The Paris Review.” Paris Review. N.p., Jan.-Feb. 1994. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. Print.

Gire, Ken. Windows of the Soul: Experiencing God in New Ways. Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPub. House, 1996. Print.

Hewitt, Paul G., John Suchocki, and Leslie A. Hewitt. Conceptual Physical Science. Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999. Print.

Morrow, Bradford. “Chinua Achebe, An Interview.” Conjunctions. Conjunctions Magazine, 17 Oct. 1991. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

“Random House | Catalog | Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.” Random House for High School Teachers. Random House, 2004. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

Smith-Spark, Laura, and Faith Karimi. “Chinua Achebe, Literary Icon and Author of ‘Things Fall Apart,’ Dies at 82 – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 22 Mar. 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

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things fall apartIn the spring, I took a class titled “Contemporary World Literature.” The professor asked us to keep a dialectical journal as we read the assigned books, as a dialogue with the book and our thoughts on it. I already shared my Dialectical Journal on “The Stranger“.

The second book assigned was “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. Here is the dialectical journal I kept while reading it.

 

Page 13 “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.”

It is sad, but true, how a singular event from childhood can cement one’s mindset and perspective on life. He was teased about his father being no better than a woman, without a title, without position, and formed his whole life and perspective upon his fear of becoming that same individual. The truth is, his father seemed happy – playing the flute, enjoying music and feasting and thought. From the beginning, it is clear that Okonkwo is not happy. How could he be, if his life is steeped in fear?

 

Page 33 “Yams stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.”

We still think the same way, don’t we? Judging ourselves, or others, by earnings and surface accomplishments, while forgetting the deep essence of a person and what they are worth … or what we are worth.

 

125 “Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? … He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed?”

Interesting questions. And deep. It seems that these questions are part of his “message” or theme of the book. The premise: “Why do we do all this? Is there even a reason?” And it is interesting because the deeper question is, “How is this justice?” This thread of justice runs deeply through every culture, no matter how far apart from other cultures. Almost as though it runs through our veins, this sense of right and wrong, that justice must be done, that someone must pay the price … perhaps sometimes even a spotless lamb.

 

134 “It is right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead. Your duty is to comfort your wives and children and take them back to your fatherland after seven years. But if you allow sorrow to weigh you down and kill you, they will all die in exile.”

The uncle knows that Okonkwo is not doing himself or his family any favors by wallowing. He really does have much to be thankful for, not least of which the opportunity to discover who he really is, without the scourge of title or position to confuse him. He has a chance to clear away the rubble of a foundation that he staked his life upon – one built on fear – and to start over again.

 

147 “It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul.”

This seems to be a key point, not only of Nwoye’s decision to convert, but possibly of the perspective the author had. Perhaps this was a glimpse into his own frame of mind, and what drew him into the “poetry” of faith in God. It answered questions that had gone unanswered for so long.

 

162 “It was going to be Okonkwo’s last harvest in Mbanta. The seven wasted and weary years were at last dragging to a close.”

The only truly “wasted” years are the years in which we learn nothing because we are waiting for them to end in anticipation of something seemingly “better.”

 

182-3 “Okonkwo’s return to his native land was not as memorable as he had wished. … Okonkwo was deeply grieved.”

Perhaps if he had a different perspective of his seven years in his motherland, rather than considering them a complete waste, he might not have been so devastated when he returned to Umuofia. He had been holding on to his return for so long and constructed an image of what it would be like. Things are never as we imagine. Things fall apart. The only time we have is now. How am I spending “now”?

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