Farewell to Chinua Achebe

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On March 21, Chinua Achebe, the groundbreaking African writer whose work has been read by millions, died in Boston. I heard about his death early on the morning of March 22, and slipped my copy of Things Fall Apart, his first and arguably most famous novel, from my bookshelf to look through it again in tribute to this great author.

Achebe, 1970

Credit: © KEYSTONE Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS.com

My copy of the novel is bleached nearly white on the spine, has yellowed pages barely held at the center, and it has a naira price tag stapled to its flyleaf.

My copy of Things Fall Apart

Credit: Genie Gratto

That price tag triggered a long-forgotten memory of browsing through a strange and struggling bookstore in the heart of Lagos with my father, who picked up the Achebe paperback that has been such an important part of my library, handed it to me, and told me how important it was that I read the novel. The book changed everything I thought about the continent on which I had landed.

We had moved to Nigeria for my father's job with the U.S. Information Agency, and of all the posts I'd lived at, it was the strangest. From the instant I disembarked into the cacophony of the crowded Murtala Muhammed International Airport, I felt as if my brain had uncoupled from everything I'd known before. Everything from the mangy, stray horses wandering outside our gated home on Victoria Island to the required tennis whites at the Ikoyi Club made no sense to me. My until-then childhood in Europe had not prepared me for life in postcolonial Africa.

My father encouraged me, quietly and consistently, to read the book, and in seventh grade, I finally picked up the copy for the first time to read for a book report assignment. The story chronicles the brutal yet ordered world of the Igbo community led by the protagonist Okonkwo, and what happens when colonists take over the community.

As the daughter of a Foreign Service Officer, I had grown up thinking very differently about the role of the U.S. government around the world—I saw us as a force of unequivocal good. But Things Fall Apart brought into sharp relief for me that sometimes even good intentions are not enough—that there are many oft-harmful costs to bringing one's culture and values and imposing them on another's.

I should note that this shift in understanding is exactly what I think my Foreign Service Officer father wanted me to grasp, even at 11 years old. Certainly there is much more to Things Fall Apart—Okonkwo himself suffers from an inability to adapt to changes within his own community, for example—but it became a guiding document to me as I continued figuring out my place in our global society, and how to tread carefully on new cultural ground.

I will forever be grateful to Chinua Achebe for giving me that gift, but also for giving it to me wrapped in such a vivid story. I've read and re-read Things Fall Apart more times than any other book, and each time, I am blown away by the way Achebe painted a picture of a complex culture that had not been depicted in such an honest way in English-speaking literature to that point.

I realized something else as I flipped through my copy of the book on Friday. I was a kid who constantly dog-eared my books, but in this book, every page is pristine—not a single folded corner. It speaks to the reverence with which I have bookmarked the pages every time I have read the novel. It speaks to how much I have loved this specific volume from the first time I picked it up.

Achebe, 2006

Credit: © Beowulf Sheehan/ZUMAPRESS.com

I am far from the only blogger who wanted to pay respects to this great author at his passing. Evette Dionne of Clutch remembered Achebe's strong critique of both Western colonialization of Africa and the narrative that arose from that history:

He penned hundreds of powerful short stories, essays and poems rooted in his native Nigeria, including the hard-hitting 1975 critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” reduced Conrad’s work to a tool of European oppression. He described Heart of Darkness’ description of Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril,” and then asked the question, “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”


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