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.
"Namely, a writer of our story."'A New Kind of Writing'
What Chinua Achebe was to be, according to innumerable writers, scholars and admirers, was the father of modern African literature, a writer who would evoke the continent's true nature both for the world at large and for Africans themselves.
When Achebe says "our story," he explains, he means "the story of our meeting with Europe, and particularly the suffering that our people went through in that encounter, and the loss."
"No European writer could have written 'Things Fall Apart,' " says Ernest Emenyonu, who chairs the department of Africana studies at the University of Michigan at Flint. It was "a new kind of writing," for two reasons:
The first was the way Achebe made the colonizer's language his own. By incorporating Igbo speech patterns, proverbs, folk tales and beliefs, he invented an English that could "articulate African aesthetics and African poetics." The second was that he "explored the psychology of imperial conquest" and challenged Eurocentric views.
In other words: Part of what Africans suffered at European hands was the loss of control over their own narrative.
Achebe took back that narrative.
In interviews given a few years after "Things Fall Apart" was published, Achebe pointed to a key motivating factor in his decision to write the book: his outrage at encountering "Mister Johnson," a novel by the Anglo-Irishman Joyce Cary. The Nigerian title character, Achebe has said, seemed to him nothing but "an embarrassing nitwit," while Cary's portrait of Africa amounted to "a contagion of distaste, hatred and mockery."
"I said to myself, this is absurd," Achebe told fellow writers Wole Soyinka and Lewis Nkosi in a 1963 interview. "If somebody without any inside knowledge of the people he is trying to describe can get away with it, perhaps I ought to try my hand at it."
Achebe's "Mister Johnson" story is part of his legend, but he sometimes wishes he had never told it -- because while true, it's too simple a version of how he found his calling. "Even if Joyce Cary had not been born," he says, "I think what I did would still have been done."
The full story begins with a shy boy exploring his home town, recording information in what he calls "a mental notebook."'The People of Nothing'
Achebe landed in the town of Ogidi at the age of 5 when his father, a fervent converted Christian, returned home after 30 years spent spreading the Gospel around Nigeria. As "people of the church," the Achebe family looked down on adherents of traditional Igbo religion, calling them "heathen" or "the people of nothing."
But this didn't stop young Albert Chinualumogu Achebe from being curious about their beliefs.
He was "anxious about how it all began, what we were doing before the Christians came." He asked questions and soaked up information on Igbo customs and cosmology from overheard conversations. Filling his mental notebook became "the main preparation for my mission, which I didn't know was a mission."
Meanwhile, he applied himself so diligently to his formal education that schoolmates called him "Dictionary." This effort won him admission to a British-run boarding school with an excellent library. There Achebe, who loved the Igbo tales his mother and sister had told him, was entranced by a new kind of story: "Treasure Island," "Gulliver's Travels," "Ivanhoe."
Moving on to the University of Ibadan, he set out to study medicine. This proved a mistake. "I was abandoning the realm of stories," he has explained, "and they would not let me go." He switched to English, history and religion.
The study of English in those days involved no creative writing instruction whatsoever. At one point, however, the department did announce a story competition. Achebe entered. No prize was awarded, but his story was judged a worthy effort.
"I wanted very much to learn what to do," Achebe says, so he sought feedback from the instructor in charge. She said he had violated the short story form. He tried and failed to get her to explain. Finally, she told him she had read his story again and decided there was no form problem after all.
Translation: If he wanted to write, he was on his own.
He graduated in 1953, taught school for a bit, then joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corp. as a radio producer. By this time, he had dropped his European first name and started to contemplate a novel about the collision of Europe and Africa.
As Achebe first conceived "Things Fall Apart," it was to follow an Igbo family through three generations: the pre-colonial generation the British encountered when they arrived in Nigeria in the late 19th century; the generation that produced the first wave of Christian converts; and his own generation, impatient for the independence that would arrive in 1960.
In 1956, he traveled to England for a BBC training course, bringing the handwritten manuscript of his novel. He showed it to a lecturer who was also a novelist. Impressed, the man offered an introduction to his publisher.
Not yet, Achebe said. It still wasn't what he wanted it to be.
Reading it over, he had realized that "it was too thin." Cramming in three generations meant "leaving out too many things." In particular, he wanted to expand the opening section that shows "the way the people lived" before the colonizers came. He took the manuscript back to Nigeria for more work.
This decision proved crucial.
The expanded opening section became the first two-thirds of the published book. In it, the protagonist, Okonkwo, strives to attain a position of respect and power in his home town. His story pulls the reader, as only a compelling narrative can, deep into the intricate web of Igbo political, social, economic and religious beliefs. As a result, when the colonizers finally show up -- tearing the Igbo world apart -- even non-African readers can see what has been lost.
As Okonkwo's friend Obierika explains, the white man "has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart."
Achebe would end up cutting the second- and third-generation parts of his original draft entirely. But before "Things Fall Apart" could be published came a near-disaster so frightening that Achebe can scarcely believe he emerged whole.
Ready to submit his revised manuscript, he realized that it needed to be typed first. Foolishly, he mailed his only copy, along with a sizable payment, to a company in England to have this done.
Months went by. Letters of inquiry went unanswered.
"I lost a lot of weight," he says.
Finally his boss at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corp., a no-nonsense Englishwoman heading home on leave, volunteered to investigate. For years afterward, Achebe's British editor, Alan Hill, dined out on the story of how the manuscript, inadvertently mislaid, had been found "lying in the corner, gathering dust."
Achebe admired Hill, so he let the editor tell the story his way. But he uses it now to highlight the different perspectives of colonizer and colonized. Because the woman who got the typing firm to cough up his manuscript, he says, told him nothing about dusty corners or innocent mistakes.
Those details were invented, Achebe believes, by a man who couldn't grasp the possibility that a British company might have deliberately set out to cheat an African.'Okonkwo Was Well Known'
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . . ."
Colum McCann, one of the writers invited to speak at the Town Hall celebration -- put together by PEN American Center, Bard and Achebe's American publisher -- is reciting William Butler Yeats. As a student, Achebe read and loved the Irish poet, and he took his novel's title from "The Second Coming."
"The best literature is connected. We are word-linked," McCann says. "Yeats, Achebe -- their words unravel and remake us."
"One of the first things I loved about Chinua Achebe," Edwidge Danticat tells the roughly 1,500 people in the audience, "was his name. For someone with a name like mine, he feels like family. 'He has an unusual name, too,' I used to tell my high school friends as we read 'Things Fall Apart' in class." Then Danticat reads from Achebe's opening chapter, beginning with its famous first sentence: "Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond."
Chris Abani has a story to tell. As a boy, he was desperate to attract girls the way his elder brother seemed so easily to do. To that end, he copied a florid love letter from a book and offered it to one object of his affection.
"You're a really good writer. Almost as good as your brother," she told him. "You should read the novel he's writing." So Abani sneaked into his brother's room, "and I found a composition notebook full of handwriting and I stole it. And I was captivated from the first sentence: 'Okonkwo was known in all the nine villages . . .' "
The crowd roars.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a story, too. Adichie, who's 30, grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, in a house Achebe and his family had previously occupied. A precocious reader, she absorbed "mostly British children's books in which all the characters were white and ate apples and played in the snow." When she started writing her own stories, also precociously, she used these same apple-eating characters, because "I didn't know that people like me could exist in books."
Then she read "Things Fall Apart."
Shocked and delighted by a book that "so accurately captured my bilingual world," she returned to it again and again. "I was educated in a system that taught me nothing of my pre-colonial past," she says, so Achebe's novel "became strangely personal. It became the life that my great-grandfather had lived."
Later, when she read books that portrayed pre-colonial Africa as "a place of anarchic darkness" and defined today's continent "by what it did not have" -- books that stirred in her "that peculiar African feeling of vulnerability and defensiveness that comes with having to somehow prove your humanity to others" -- Adichie turned once more to "Things Fall Apart."
"It served as a gentle reprimand," she says. "What it said to me was: Don't you dare think that you did not have a complex past."'I Want to Sort of Scream'
Take Adichie's experience, multiply it many thousands of times, and you can begin to see the effect Achebe's novel had as it began to be read in schools across Africa.
It didn't happen right away. Heinemann, the British firm that published "Things Fall Apart," printed just 2,000 copies, and they stayed in Europe. There was no market for novels in Nigeria in 1958.
Achebe credits Hill, his detail-inventing editor, with helping to change that.
Hill kept the novel in print by republishing it in paperback, a highly unusual strategy in those days. And he made it the first in an unprecedented series of works by African writers, which Achebe helped edit.
Looking back on the explosion of African literature led by "Things Fall Apart," Achebe has cited Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, Mongo Beti and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, among many others, as pioneering peers. But there's no doubt whose book was most influential.
In fact, Achebe's first novel became so iconic that it has overshadowed everything else he has done.
In 1960, he published "No Longer at Ease," using material cut from the original "Things Fall Apart"; it explored his generation's struggle to define its post-independence role. In 1964, "Arrow of God" took readers back into history with the story of a chief priest of the traditional religion and his failed attempt to come to an understanding with the colonizers.
Then came "A Man of the People," with a plot so contemporary it almost got Achebe killed.
The novel centers on a corrupt politician and ends with a military coup. In 1966, just as it was published, a real coup was attempted, and some read Achebe's fictional exercise as a sign that the author -- still working in radio -- had been one of the plotters.
At his Lagos home one morning, Achebe recalls, "I had a call from the broadcasting house." His staff told him that "armed soldiers have just been here looking for you. They said they want to see which is stronger, your pen or their guns." He and his wife, Christie, grabbed their children and went into hiding.
The following year, the eastern region of Nigeria declared itself the Republic of Biafra. A horrific three-year civil war ensued. Achebe found himself traveling abroad to plead the Biafran cause. He also found that, while he could write poetry and short stories in wartime, he couldn't write novels.
After the war, the novel-writing drought continued as Achebe shuttled between academic jobs in Nigeria and the United States. "I don't write something just because it's time," he says by way of explanation. But his homeland's catastrophe may have disoriented him as well.
In 1983 he published "The Trouble With Nigeria," a sharp-edged analysis of how the country had gone wrong since independence. (Short version: Selfish leaders abdicated responsibility for the welfare of ordinary Nigerians.) Writing it may have liberated him to try a novel again.
"Anthills of the Savannah," published in 1987, offers a fictional examination of acute leadership failure. It also features Achebe's strongest female character -- created, some have claimed, in response to feminist criticism of Achebe's first book, whose protagonist beats his wives and generally behaves in an aggressive fashion.
Asked about this, Achebe displays irritation for the only time in a two-hour interview.
"I want to sort of scream that 'Things Fall Apart' is on the side of women," he says. "And that Okonkwo is paying the penalty for his treatment of women; that all his problems, all the things he did wrong, can be seen as offenses against the feminine."
To see Okonkwo beating his wives "as something I have done," he adds, is "not to read fiction."
Achebe's daughter, who teaches "Things Fall Apart" to her African history students at Michigan State, agrees. The character in the novel who comes closest to representing her father's point of view, Nwando Achebe says, is Obierika, who chastises Okonkwo for macho excesses.
So is it true, the writer is asked, that he put some of himself into his portrait of Okonkwo's friend?
"Yes, yes," he says. "I think my daughter's reading is right." But it's important to note, he adds, that as a literary vehicle, Obierika has a fatal flaw.
"He is not exciting," Achebe says, laughing. "And that's the trouble with good people in books, isn't it?"'It Feels Like a Dream'
At Town Hall, the guest of honor appears at last, introduced, to a prolonged standing ovation. "This is an amazing evening for me," he says. "It feels like a dream -- a good dream, the way 'Things Fall Apart' felt 50 years ago."
He thanks Bard's president, Leon Botstein, for offering him a home as he lay paralyzed in a hospital in 1990, uncertain what his future would hold.
He recalls the "heady excitement of creating a language for my own use" as he wrote his masterpiece.
He tells a version of the missing manuscript story. "It nearly killed me," he says. "But there was luck. 'Things Fall Apart' brought me a lot of good luck."
"It's a great, great honor that you've done me," Chinua Achebe says. And now there are shouts and cheers and ululations as the man whose chi made him a great, great writer of the human story prepares to leave the stage.