Coming Together: On the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe reflects on his intentions and his influence

PETER MONAGHAN – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Copyright The Chronicle of Higher Education
Fifty years after he published Things Fall Apart, his first novel, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe recalls having modest hopes for the book. At the time, he was a young university graduate who had found a job at the Nigerian Broadcasting Company, in Lagos. “I was alone in my room, scribbling away, and if nobody had paid any attention at all to me, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised,” Achebe recalls with a quiet chuckle, here in his home on the campus of Bard College.
Yet the towering achievement of Things Fall Apart has been to become arguably the most influential work of fiction by an African writer. Since William Heinemann Ltd. first issued it in London, the novel has sold about 11 million copies in some 50 countries and as many languages. (This month Anchor Books will issue a 50th-aniversary edition.) In the United States, in an era of multiculturalism, it has become a fixture on college and high-school reading lists — for Americans, the quintessential novel about Africa. The influential critic Harold Bloom included it in 1994 in his selection of the canonical works of world literature, along with two of Achebe’s later novels dealing with Nigeria’s transition through colonization to troubled independent nationhood, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God…
…In a 1975 lecture, and then in an essay, Achebe took Conrad to task for emerging in his seminal short novel, Heart of Darkness, as a “thoroughgoing racist” even as he denounced imperialism. Achebe pointed out that Conrad had deprived his African characters of any voice, granting them only eight caricaturing words in the whole short novel. Pointing, still today, to those meager eight words, he says: “That’s all that Africa has, of language; the rest is screaming, shrieking, howling — animal sounds, you see.”
His criticism of Conrad drew vigorous protest from the author’s defenders. But Achebe says his intention was simple: to ask “why does one go to Africa for this kind of exoticism that demeans people, makes them less than their worth?”
Things Fall Apart does not idealize Nigerians; far from it. In Okonkwo, for example, Achebe depicts courage and nobility but also ignorance and cruelty. The mighty Okonkwo beats his wives and kills a child. Fellow villagers leave twin infants in the bush to die because twins are considered evil, and mutilate the bodies of dead children so that their ogbanje, or spirits, do not return to torment their mothers again.
“There are some very hard things going on there,” says Achebe. “I knew that I had to be truthful. I don’t know why, because it’s just as easy to make the thing up a little. But I refused. I went out of my way to pick up, to find out, to learn as much of the bad things that were going on, and bring them in, deliberately.” His characters, he says, “have a dark side, if you like. But I dare you to say they are not human, in spite of that.”
Just as some African critics originally chided Achebe for writing in English, the language of the colonizer, some feminists also objected that female characters were not fully realized in Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s supporters responded that such criticism fell into the undergraduate trap of criticizing a work for what it was not, rather than viewing it for what it was. Achebe’s female characters, his defenders said, were crucial to the plot, and anything but stereotypes.
In later novels, Achebe would point to greater respect for women, and attention to the knowledge they had, as one possible way ahead for Nigerian society. He also inspected the toll of corruption in the new nation-state, and imagined alternative forms of social and governmental organization — multi-ethnic, -linguistic, and -religious, led by enlightened intellectuals — that drew from indigenous customs.
But even there, Achebe was hardly wishful. In his third novel, Arrow of God (1964), for instance, he portrayed a traditional village priest who seeks an accommodation with British administrators provided they do not compromise his standing with his people or with his gods. “I wanted to see what would happen if this story of the coming of the white man were told again, and you had a different person confronting them,” says Achebe. “Unfortunately, what I discovered was that it didn’t matter. He also came to a sticky end. In other words, what has come to the Igbo people is bigger than they can deal with.”
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