Sept. 19, 2005

Famed novelist Chinua Achebe meets with student winners of 'Things Fall Apart' essay contest

Chinua Achebe talks with the winners of an essay contest
Robert Barker/University Photography
Chinua Achebe talks with the winners of an essay contest on his book "Things Fall Apart" at a reception Sept. 15 in the Pennsylvania Room of the Statler Hotel. In the background, from left, are graduate student Robert Turner, who helped judge the essays, and essay winners Jennifer Bailard, Paul Scanlon and Steven Sachs.

"In essence, the European 'reforms' to the African culture reflected a complex attempt to subvert the Ibo people's way of life in Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart,' replacing the established society with a new European-dominated system under the philosophy of Kipling's analogy of the 'white man's burden.'"

This excerpt from an essay by David Vautin, a College of Engineering freshman, was read by Provost Biddy Martin during a Sept. 15 reception honoring Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and the 10 student winners of the first reading project essay contest.

After reading excerpts from each essay, Martin called them a "testimony to the depth of intellectual engagement among students in the reading project and the richness of the novel." It was the first time students had been invited to compete in a writing contest since the New Student Reading Project was launched five years ago. The response was nearly overwhelming.

More than 2,600 essays were submitted -- many of them top notch, according to Michael Klotz, one of two graduate students who gave close readings to 1,300 essays. Graduate student Robert Turner, government, shared the other half of the task. They narrowed the submissions to 40, and Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education, chose the finalists -- with a little help from a member of the Cornell English Department.

The winners, besides Vautin, were: Jennifer L. Bailard, Maya Cohen, Terrance Fedigan, Devin Kennedy, Hector Lopez Marquez, Preeta Ragavan and Paul Scanlon, all students in the College of Arts and Sciences; Stephen C. Clipp, College of Architecture, Art and Planning; and Steven Sachs, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Each received a $200 gift certificate for books at the Cornell Store and a bound collection of the complete winning essays.

"The reading project was an excellent ice breaker for me," said Clipp. "I met more people in the small group discussions than through any other orientation program. And it was intellectually reaffirming [to win]. It reminded me that I could still stand out in a sea of excellent students."

The reception was held in the Statler Hotel a few hours prior to Achebe's reading, of which a video stream is available on the Web, at http://reading.cornell.edu/achebe_visit.html. Achebe, the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, impressed a standing-room-only audience in the Statler Auditorium with his reading as well as his thoughtful responses to questions that followed.

Chinua Achebe
Chris Hallman/University Photography
Chinua Achebe reads from his book "Things Fall Apart," Sept. 15 in Statler Auditorium, to a standing-room-only audience.

He likewise gave full attention to the student essay winners who gathered around Achebe and his wife, Christie, following Martin's presentations. Achebe said he has observed the perennial acclaim of his famed novel, published in 1958, "with profound gratitude and surprise."

"It is humbling, really. I had no idea how it was going to turn out when I started to write it," he told the students, speaking in a soft voice that invited a close listening. "I wasn't highly educated, in terms of knowing about human nature and the ways of the world -- but it was almost as if I was possessed by the book. And now, it has gone places where I cannot follow."

Achebe said he continues to get letters and e-mails, especially from high school students, asking him to elucidate on aspects of the book. He said he couldn't possibly reply to them all "because I would have to set up an office" just for that alone.

Those queries aren't going to fade away anytime soon. Nearly 5,000 students from 59 high schools in 17 New York counties and New York City also are reading "Things Fall Apart" as part of a statewide pilot program coordinated through Cornell Cooperative Extension and the reading project.

When asked about her husband's reaction to finding out his novel had been selected for the Cornell reading project, Christie Achebe said she had learned from three Cornell alumni who attend her church that "Things Fall Apart" had been chosen -- even before her husband was aware of the honor.

"At the end of the service, the pastor asked if there was any news to share, and three hands went up," she said. "They were the alumni."

Some 24,000 Cornell alumni from 31 class years also have been reading the book, joining in what is now an annual rite of passage for incoming freshmen and transfer students at Cornell.