Chinua Achebe died on 21 March 2013. He was 82 years young.
It’s not often we can look back on our life and pinpoint that definitive moment, person or thing that, in retrospect, changed our life. But Chinua Achebe did that for me.
I’ve always been a reader. In primary school I think I read every book that Enid Blyton ever wrote—from Noddy to the girls at Mallory Towers. In high school I did what every good English Lit student did—I read the classics and Shakespeare—ploughing my way through Dickens and Austen, and moving on to Tolstoy and Chekhov. The cult books of Tolkien and Mervyn Peake held my attention for a while but nothing really left a lasting impression—or grabbed my heart so tight that I never, ever, forgot.
Until I found Chinua Achebe.
By now I had moved from England to Australia and was studying for the HSC (equivalent to A levels in the UK), and one of my subjects was, not surprisingly, Literature. A list of books was provided and we were told to choose one. I looked at the list and came across one I’d never heard of. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. ‘Who’s this?’ I asked—not even sure I could pronounce his name. ‘African writer’ said the teacher, ‘…very powerful book’.
The book blurb told me that Achebe was Nigerian and this was his first novel. He’d written the book in 1958 and it had become one of the first African novels written in English to achieve global acclaim. Interestingly, Achebe took his title from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming* which I had read. So I chose Achebe’s book and it came home with me.
Set in the 1890s, the main protagonist is Okonkwo, a tribal leader and champion among his people, the Ibo. Okonkwo’s life is good and he is comparatively wealthy, when an accident causes his family to be exiled from the village for seven years. On his return he discovers the white men have arrived in his village and have introduced religion to the people. Okonkwo tries to rally the people to fight the white men but then he realises that his people will no longer fight and have accepted the white men’s teachings.
I remember how I felt when I read it. I felt Okonkwo’s rage and anger, then his despair and desperation as he realised the history and culture of his people were being debased and subsumed and he was powerless to stop it. But I also felt sad for Okonkwo and his inability to cope, and work, with the changes and development offered to his people—medicines, education, and equality.
The village could have been anywhere; Okonkwo could have been anyone, and times change, and some people cope and some don’t. It still happens today for everyone one of us.
For me, this book opened my eyes to the real power of words.
It grabbed my heart.
Thank you, Chinua Achebe.
*The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.