BY HENRY AKUBUIRO
He had never visited Nigeria before, despite working with the late Professor Chinua Achebe for over a decade both as his literary agent and later publisher. Scott Moyers’ Penguin Press, USA, published Achebe’s controversial memoir, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, as well as re-publishing his trilogy in the US. The first time the publisher encountered Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was as a college student in America.
With his face crimson by the tropical heat, with beads of sweat, he recalls, “Already, Things Fall Apart was one of the most important novels written in the 20th Century.
I had a systematic understanding of the importance of Things Fall Apart as a book that helps to explain the agonies and ironies of colonial contacts from an African perspective, and the magnificent power of the book, especially its title.” Its worldwide significance, says the enthusiastic American, is already realized.
No wonder his heart shot up a new notch when he had to work closely with the departed legend. “So, when I first had a chance to work with Professor Achebe and help support his publications across the world is one of the greatest honours in my life,” he declares. Part of the popularity of Achebe’s works in America is partly attributed to Moyers, who helped sell his books in countries round the world and support his publications –the backlist.
He explains his role, “An author’s work is like a garden; you need somebody to help make sure publishers push new editions out, bring fresh attention. There is always a new book, the next book, and you have to find publishers in different languages and countries. This explains why some authors’ book works better in translation, say, in Germany, than in Italy. Sometimes it is luck. Yet you have to keep trying in different countries and different languages to find the best possible publisher.” On account of his work, Achebe’s works have garnered more translations worldwide.
“I think it is safe to say that, right now, the position of Chinua Achebe’s books in every language round the world has never been stronger and is actually getting stronger, even after his death,” he tells me. Moyers is cognizant of the controversy that trailed the release of There was a Country, especially in Nigeria. It did not, however, come to him as a surprise.
“I think it is an understatement everywhere about the significance of the civil war, to ask human rights questions; and anytime you have a great human right tragedy, the word ‘genocide’ is used and there is a history written by the victors, there is always the question: when is it going to be time reexamine, interrogate and wake up the history and connect it with generations with the truth –and I think it is always controversial, and many people just wanna let sleeping dogs lie.”
In America, for instance, the Nigeria Civil War, says Moyers, is understood as a big event not just in the history this great country but the history of relations between the world, the international community and human rights catastrophe, giving rise to questions such as: What is our responsibility? What is the international community’s responsibility to intervene when there is a human rights catastrophe, of the magnitude of Biafra?
“And I think it is because of the television, the way the war was reported, capturing the sufferings of children in this region, that captured the heart of the world that people remember that round the world, and that Chinua Achebe, of all people, told the story of the Biafran war from his perspective is monumental literary, cultural event,” he remarks.
In America, Moyers has read so much about Nigeria, both the good and the bad. However, he is particularly delighted by the warm reception he received in eastern Nigeria.
“This is wonderful region,” he says. “I am enjoying that: the legendary, generous hospitality. The stories are all true about the warmth of the people, and I am greatly moved to really see someone I knew (Achebe) and cared about deeply and coming here to see this generous, extraordinary week of celebration in his honour. We can’t honour this man enough.”
Though the seamy side of the Nigerian life dominates western reportage, Moyers explains why it is so, “Certainly. In fairness, bad news is defined as news; good news is not defined as news. So, our perception of everywhere in the world is distorted by what we hear about the bad news. Of course, right now, in America, the troubles (terrorism) in the north are widely reported, and, obviously, quite significant what is happening in this area, which is relatively Igbo and progressive with strong communities, I think, honestly, a given.
“I mean, the Nigerian community in the US, take for example, we all know, is probably the most successful individual community in the US and, fortunately, in many of the countries in the world: ordinarily, impressive, successful and well educated, and the Nigerian community in America has made an impact on America far beyond its number.
So, it is not surprising to come to Nigeria and be impressed by the community here. I think Lagos is pretty intense. But, in terms of what I have seen, from the perspective of a human being on the ground, I hope very much to come back sooner than later.” With Achebe’s death, Moyers doesn’t intend to rest on his oars, “One thing that is happening now and will continue to happen is that you shift your focus to schools and students.
Penguin US, for instance, has a strong outreach into schools and local governments which make decisions fro schools. However, it is hard to leave school in America without having read Things Fall Apart; very hard. Things Fall Apart is designed and required reading in classes across America.” The challenge, then, and the goal for Penguin is to expand on, so that Americans don’t just have to read Things Fall Apart alone but The African Trilogy comprising of his first three novels, his book of essays, poetry, short stories and other works, such as A Man of the People, The Anthills of the Savannah, etc.
“So, that’s the work,” he echoes. Which of Achebe’s book is most popular in the US? Moyers responds, “I think the first is Things Fall Apart and, second, Anthills of the Savannah, his final novel.” But he thinks There was a Country will be up there with those books in popularity soon. “Yes, it is selling very well.”
Already, over a hundred thousand copies of the book have been sold in the US, “a very significant threshold”, considering “we are just in its early days of publication.” What’s more, “It is a book that many people will have to read,” he says. What will he miss most about Achebe? “The first thing that comes to mind emotionally is his kindness, gentlemanliness, modesty and dignity. His human example of strength is very great – I hope never to forget,” he smiles.