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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe

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ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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15 Facts About Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire
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In a sweltering New Orleans, a wilted Southern belle collides with the dysfunctional marriage of her sweet sister and brutish brother-in-law. This is the plot of Tennessee Williams's classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947. But the story of its making and legacy is even wilder than Stanley Kowalski's screaming.

1. WILLIAMS SET THE PLAY IN HIS CHOSEN HOME.

The boy born Thomas Lanier Williams III lived in Columbus, Mississippi, until he was 8 years old. From there, his traveling salesman father bounced the family around Missouri, moving 16 times in just 10 years before abandoning them. As he forged a path of his own, Williams wandered from St. Louis's Washington University to the University of Iowa to the New School in New York City, and even spent some time working on a chicken ranch in Laguna Beach, California. But at 28, he found his “spiritual home” in New Orleans. There he officially changed his given name to the college nickname he'd come to prefer. Inspired by the culture of the French Quarter, he wrote short stories and what would become one of his most popular plays. There he became Tennessee Williams, in more ways than one.

2. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS NAMED AFTER A REAL STREETCAR LINE.

Named for its endpoint on Desire Street in the Ninth Ward, the Desire line ran down Canal Street onto Bourbon and beyond. It operated from 1920 to 1948—meaning that shortly after becoming famous on Broadway, it was retired in favor of buses that were quieter and put less stress on the streets and surrounding buildings. Gone but not forgotten, one of the Desire cars was restored in 1967, and was made a tourist attraction. In 2003, the city even proposed resurrecting the streetcars and this famous line's name, but this dream died when federal funding was denied.

3. STANLEY KOWALSKI WAS INSPIRED BY TWO MEN.

The name "Stanley Kowalski" was borrowed from a factory worker Williams met while living in St. Louis. But the playwright's true muse was Amado ‘Pancho’ Rodriguez y Gonzales, a Mexican boxer who was once Williams's lover, and who argued the character he inspired should be Latino, not Polish.

Ten years his junior, Gonzalez met Williams when the writer traveled to Mexico City in late 1945. Entranced by the macho 24-year-old, Williams invited Gonzalez to move into his New Orleans home. Their relationship lasted only two years. By the time Streetcar Named Desire hit Broadway, Williams had moved on to who would be the love of his life, aspiring writer Frank Merlo.

4. BLANCHE MAY HAVE BEEN A STAND-IN FOR WILLIAMS.

As a gay man, the writer had been mocked all his life, called "sissy" by sneering peers, and “Miss Nancy” by his drunken, abusive father. In some respects, he was like Blanche, a gentle Southern soul, thirsty for love and kindness, yet dangerously fascinated by gruff men. Elia Kazan, who directed both the original Broadway production of Streetcar and its movie adaptation, once said of Williams, "If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley….Wasn’t he [Williams] attracted to the Stanleys of the world? Sailors? Rough trade? Danger itself? Yes, and wilder. The violence in that boy, always on a trigger edge, attracted Williams at the very time it frightened him.”

The closest Williams came to commenting on this comparison was saying of his work, "I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.”

5. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS WILLIAMS'S SECOND BIG BROADWAY HIT.

In 1945, Williams broke through with his groundbreaking autobiographical drama The Glass Menagerie. Just a year and a half after this acclaimed production closed, A Streetcar Named Desire opened to even greater praise. Reportedly, the standing ovation lasted for 30 minutes after the curtain descended on opening night.

6. THE PLAY WAS DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FROM ITS BROADWAY CONTEMPORARIES.

In her historical essay on Williams, critic Camille Paglia notes that A Streetcar Named Desire was a total change from The Glass Menagerie. Where the former had a "tightly wound gentility," the latter boasted "boisterous energy and eruptions of violence." But more than that, "Streetcar exploded into the theater world at a time when Broadway was dominated by musical comedies and revivals." She adds, "the shocking frankness with which Streetcar treated sex—as a searingly revolutionary force—was at odds with the dawning domesticity of the postwar era and looked forward instead to the 1960s sexual revolution."

7. IT CEMENTED WILLIAMS'S REPUTATION AS A MAJOR VOICE IN AMERICAN THEATER.

The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson proclaimed, "Mr. Williams is a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human." A Streetcar Named Desire went on to run for more than 800 performances, and would win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Jessica Tandy earned a Tony Award for originating the role of Blanche, and Williams was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

8. STANLEY KOWALSKI LAUNCHED MARLON BRANDO.

At 23, Brando was a method actor who was drawing praise in a string of Broadway roles. The year before A Streetcar Named Desire debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York critics had voted him "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" because of his powerful performance in Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Café. His portrayal as Kowalski delivered on that promise, and then some. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote that he seemed "a tiger on the loose, a sexual terrorist … Brando was a brute who bore the truth." And this intensity was captured in the 1951 film adaptation, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination for what was only his second film role.

9. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE REDEEMED WILLIAMS'S HOLLYWOOD REPUTATION.

Following the success of The Glass Menagerie's Broadway run, Warner Bros. hired Williams to draft an adapted screenplay for a movie version. But seeking a more commercial offering, they hired another writer to tack on a happy ending, behind Williams's back. The result was a critically panned dud that the playwright denounced as a "travesty." Nonetheless, Williams returned to Warner Bros. with A Streetcar Named Desire. This time, however, the director and most of the cast from the Broadway show were kept on for the film, which went on to earn an impressive 12 Academy Award nominations, winning four, including Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter) and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh).

10. JESSICA TANDY WAS THE ONLY LEAD OF THE BROADWAY PLAY NOT CAST IN THE MOVIE.

Hollywood didn't care about her Tony or her rave reviews. Warner Bros. needed a big name to assure the film's success. So Tandy was dropped in favor of Leigh, who'd played the role of Blanche in a London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but more importantly was a household name thanks to her first Oscar-winning role, that of Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's historical epic Gone With The Wind.

11. THE FILM WAS TAMER THAN THE PLAY.

With mounting pressure from a public concerned about the influence movies have on children, Hollywood created The Motion Picture Production Code, a series of guidelines about what was acceptable and not in film. Thus, A Streetcar Named Desire's movie adaptation was forced to tone down some coarser language, and cut some of its most scandalous elements, like Blanche's promiscuity and her late husband being a closeted homosexual. For instance, in the play Blanche demands of her sister, "Where were you? In bed with your pollack!" In the film, she says, "In there with your pollack!"

12. WILLIAMS FOUGHT TO KEEP BLANCHE'S RAPE FROM BEING CUT.

Following their climactic confrontation, the play implies Stanley rapes Blanche. But Warner Bros. felt this was too dark for the movie. Williams and Kazan sparred with the studio over this. The former argued, "[The] rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the savage and brutal forces of modern society." Like in the play, this grievous crime occurs between scenes, but its implication is clear by the violent events that lead up to a fade to black.

13. ONCE AGAIN, HOLLYWOOD TACKED ON A HAPPY ENDING.

The compromise on including the rape was that Stanley would have to be punished for the act. So just as they did with The Glass Menagerie, Warner Bros. softened the end of William's acclaimed tragedy with a script change. In this case, a line is included, where Stella declares she won't go back to her abusive husband. It's a stark contrast to the play, which concludes with the stage direction "He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse," as Stanley coos to her. Williams would go on to say the adaptation was "only slightly marred by [a] Hollywood ending."

14. THE FILM MADE A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE ICONIC.

Brando's tour de force performance may not have won him the Oscar, but his brutish performance, tight white t-shirt, and signature "Stella!" cry made the movie one that would not be forgotten. Today, the play is considered a classic, and has been revived on Broadway eight times. In 1999, the movie adaptation was added to the National Film Registry, which aims to preserve "culturally, historically or aesthetically" works of cinema. And in 2005, the American Film Institute included Kowalski's agonized scream of "Stella! Hey, Stella!" among its 100 greatest movie quotes of the last 100 years. It came in at number 45.

15. EVERY SPRING, NEW ORLEANS THROWS A FESTIVAL IN HONOR OF THE PLAY.

Called the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, the annual five-day event celebrates Williams's world-famous work, showcases emerging writers, and provides educational opportunities for literary students. It also offers tours of the French Quarter locations where Williams walked, conversed and worked, like the Hotel Maison de Ville, the restaurant Galatoire's, which gets a mention in Streetcar; and the apartment where he lived with Pancho, which overlooked the Desire line.

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