March 2013


a man of the people

I learned this morning that Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer, had died at the age of 82 and I wept.

I never met him and only briefly heard him speak when he was honored in New York, on the 50th anniversary of his best known and widely published novel, THINGS FALL APART. What I recall so vividly from that evening in 2008 was the star-studded cast of writers who came to pay tribute to him which included Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Colum McCann and two other Nigerians, Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was fascinating to learn that Adichie grew up in a house on a university campus that Achebe once lived in and he’d since become a literary hero of hers, enabling her as she later described, “not to find my voice but to speak in the voice I already had.”

I felt so proud to be Nigerian that night. Instead of tales of corruption or attacks by a radical fundamentalist group, here we were packed into a sold out 1,500 person space in midtown paying tribute to literary genius who had published his first novel at the age of 28. THINGS FALL APART detailed the complexity of Ibo society and the ways in which the colonialism of the British sought to undermine and ultimately destroy this culture. More than 10 million copies have been sold – it’s been a phenomenon, something not even he could have envisioned when it was published.

Towards the end of that evening, Achebe himself appeared in a wheelchair, part of his every day experience since 1990 due to injuries he sustained in a serious car accident that occurred in Nigeria. As he thanked us for being there,  I couldn’t help but be reminded of my late father. They were a year apart in age and Papa too had had a serious disability in the latter years of his life. He wasn’t wheelchair dependent, but on his last trip to the US, we’d wheeled him around New York.

Achebe’s death is a poignant reminder that the men and women of my parent’s generation are slowly passing away one by one. This is the generation that came of age during independence in 1960 from Britain, those who were eager to invest their lives and hearts into their new nation, only to become disillusioned 6 years later with the first of what have become many coups…

I grieve Achebe’s passing.  I also celebrate his rich legacy: the novels, essays and poems he has left us; the courage he’s shown us. And the many Nigerians he’s inspired to speak in their own voices.

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Two weeks ago today (on President’s Day), I was heading back from a weekend trip to Boston on an Amtrak train. As the sky turned into a variety of pinks and purples while the sun dipped into the west, I decided to google “new york writers conferences”. I was feeling the need to attend a conference but didn’t want to travel away from home for it. After just a few minutes, I stumbled upon the NYC writer’s workshop website (www.newyorkwritersworkshop.com)  and learned about their upcoming “pitch” conference for non-fiction writers. It offered a view of the publishing side of the writer’s life, something I know next to nothing about. The draw for me was a chance to meet with several editors and the opportunity to hear a panel of agents talk about the sort of work they are looking for.  When I looked at the dates, and realized the Friday, Saturday & Sunday commitment would only require me to re-schedule one appointment, I decided to see if they were still accepting applications.  Discovering they’d had several cancellation, I sent in my 100 word pitch, paid  $425, and secured a slot.

It was money well spent.  Sitting in a room with 9 others, hearing their stories and  their passion, and workshopping our pitches together, tweaking and tightening them from session to session, was hugely inspiring. It was like plugging into a whole new network of fellow travellers who all love to write. And seeing and hearing different agents – who all happened to be women – was a window into the various types of personalities that are in the business and the kinds of agencies they represent.  Some are definitely  much more controlling than others (read: beware). Others view the relationship between writer and agent as a “mutual partnership”, one that is intimate on both a financial and emotional level. Watching them interact made me realize that finding an agent is as much about “fit” as it is about connecting with someone who you think can “sell” your project.

Two and a half days and three editors later, my ‘African Pearl’ project got interest from two editors, one from Penguin and one from St. Martin’s Press!  Of course, our fearless instructor, Charles Salzberg (www.charlessalzberg.com), author of 25 books (!), cautioned us that the chances of being published – even when an editor expresses interest in a project – is very slim. But the key is not to rush to send your work out. Instead, concentrate now on finding an agent by submitting a killer, hard-to-resist query letter to someone who has represented work that is similar to yours. Be ready to follow that up with a well-crafted proposal. (We heard a talk about how to write a book proposal on Friday during lunch.) And once that’s accepted, you’ll be well on your way.

The take home message: Believe in your story, hone your craft, and don’t give up. There are agents and editors out there looking for new, fresh work. Just remember, it only takes one.