Updated: Jan 11
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) at 70 (Photo: ABAYOMI ADESHIDA/AFP via Getty Images)
Written in 1958, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to receive international acclaim, and perhaps Achebe was among the first of modern African authors to teach us about writing African fiction for westerners. A complex cultural exploration of Nigeria’s Igbo people, Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, a leader in an Igbo village in Nigeria in the 1890s, who deals with his personal struggles against the backdrop of British colonialism.
Considering the depth of the Igbo tradition in the novel, it’s a wonder that western audiences embraced the work so whole-heartedly. According to R. Victoria Arana, a professor of English at Howard University, Things Fall Apart was transformational. “It had a profound re-ordering of the imaginative consciousness for people in Africa,” she said. “The book was a part of the re-storying of people who had been knocked silent.”
Writing on Achebe’s genius, philosopher and intellectual Kwame Anthony Appiah encapsulates it beautifully: ” . . . Achebe solved a problem that these earlier novels [like Palm Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola] did not. He found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. Achebe enables us to hear the voices of Igboland in a new use of our own language. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.” In the question of whether “true” African literature should belong to African language only, Achebe was quite clear that, “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”
There is, indeed, a subtlety, complexity, and nuance in Achebe’s voice, and many African authors have tried to emulate it to varying degrees of success. It’s rather like trying to lasso a whale: it will escape every time even if it’s within your grasp. Things Fall Apart seems to have been written entirely on its own terms. I’m skeptical that such is the case for African novels nowadays, i.e. that the African voice has completely free rein to roam. I suspect that fiction from Africa is more commercially driven than it was back in the 1950s, so that the Westerner must at all costs understand the work for it to be financially successful.
The mid-20th-century renaissance