Things Fall Into Place

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. Chinua Achebe has been asked to consider a simple thought experiment:

Suppose someone had told him, 50 years ago, that his first novel soon would be known all over the world? That "Things Fall Apart," published in 1958, would go on to sell around 11 million copies in something like 45 languages? That at the dawn of the 21st century, his own daughter would be teaching it to American college students?

What would he have said?

"I don't think there was anybody who would have thought that up," he replies. "If anyone did, I would say they were out of their mind."

At this, the writer who changed the way the world looked at Africa throws back his head and laughs.

Achebe is sitting in the living room of his modest, wheelchair-friendly house on the campus of Bard College. Silver-haired and frail at 77, 18 years removed from the Nigerian car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, he speaks in a voice so quiet that a tape recorder at times has trouble picking it up.

But his laugh -- infectious and accompanied by a wide grin -- comes through every time.

In a few days he will travel 110 miles down the Hudson to Town Hall in Manhattan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of "Things Fall Apart." Toni Morrison will speak, as will, among others, his fellow Nigerian-born writers Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Abani will remind the packed house that they've come together "because we are in awe of the way in which one human being's imagination can intervene in all our lives."

But right now, the owner of that life-shaping imagination is trying to explain that he is not entirely certain just how "Things Fall Apart" came into the world.

"It's a little mysterious in some ways," he says. The book "seized me, and almost wrote me. I'm not quite sure I wrote it."

Looking to elaborate, he invokes his "chi," the personal spiritual guardian that Achebe's people, the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, believe accompanies each individual from birth to death. The concept is hard to translate, but one's chi, in effect, personifies one's fate.

"It was almost like my chi was making me into what I was to be," Achebe says.

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