Babel returns with Chinua Achebe

Welcome to the start of the sold out second season to Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel. Get out there and start roaming the internet and streets for scalpers because it is a series you won’t want to miss. If you thought last year’s inaugural line-up was good, you can’t fathom the heavyweights on this season’s bill. With Chinua Achebe kicking us off—his novel Things Fall Apart being a brilliant piece of literature—the ball got rolling, ushering in much of the same, but some brand new features as well. Chief among those extras include screenings of a mini-series based upon Chebe’s novel and even one of The English Patient on Oct 25 to coincide with Michael Ondaatje’s lecture that week.

From the introduction it is as though we will be seeing this outspoken troublemaker in the literary world and not the soft, amiable man with a keen sense of humor that came before us. The story of a much known comment towards writer Joseph Conrad and his book Heart of Darkness, the jist being that Achebe called him a racist, supposedly hangs over each of his public appearances. That aspect can be looked upon sadly if not for the gem of a quote we got as a result of the memory. Basically, Achebe was commenting on the fact that Conrad’s novel spoke of Africans having no language, just a series of animal sounds. This African-born writer of newly converted Christian parents took great offense because he knew how eloquent his people were. I don’t think any line can even come close to what he said tonight to describe what the Babel series is trying to teach us. He said, “The worst thing you can do to another human being is take away his power of speech.” Truer words were never spoken. Babel is here to show us the insights of international orators, storytellers of exotic cultures and backgrounds, bringing us the world we may never see outside of the printed page. Achebe later continues speaking about humanity’s access to art, that “Thinking you’re the only one in existence is not a crime, but if you act it…that’s another matter. There is no excuse to not know our neighbors.”

After a wonderful concert by Baba Ramon Sila (spelling?) as the audience filed in, Achebe treated us to some poetry, a passage from the novel he was there to speak about, and a special treat before the question and answer period. He helped clarify some Igbo cultural aspects from Things Fall Apart—for instance the importance of the kola nut—as well as showing how important speech was in the novel. A man that says he deliberately decided he would write differently from those which he read, the anecdotes he told along with the passages were just as intriguing. A couple treats being the reading of the poem “The Explorer”, one he used to never read and thought by a colleague to speak of the accident that left him without use of his legs, when in fact it was written before then, and of a work he wrote for a fallen friend Christopher Okigbo. The beauty of this was that after reading the translation in English he treated us with the original Igbo version, his native language yet rarely the one he uses to write with.

So, all in all, it was a banner opening to this year’s series. A minor audio problem at the start caused some trouble, (and honestly people, they know the mikes aren’t working so stop yelling and interrupting the speaker, it’s not his fault and you’re being rude), but otherwise no glitches. Books were signed at the end and there were no troubles exiting the premises despite the sold out crowd. Can’t wait to see the next three installments.

Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient – Oct 29, 2008
Marjane Satrapi – Persepolis – April 1, 2009
Isabel Allende – The House of Spirits – April 17, 2009

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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