Things Fall Apar t is being brought back to center stage after 50 years for its role in shaping modern African literature.
As a 26-year-old English teacher in 1958, Chinua Achebe had no idea that the book he was writing would become a literary classic, not only in Africa but also throughout the world.
“There was no example to go by,” says Achebe. “There was no way I could gauge.”
He could only try to articulate the feelings he had for his countrymen and women. Achebe had a burning desire to tell the true story of Africa and African humanity. He remembers thinking that this feeling he had “must not be allowed to go to waste. I must use this opportunity to decide what to write and how to write it, and the language in which to write it.”
The language in which he decided to write his book would prove to be pivotal, because in stories about African people African people in the 1950s, they rarely spoke like humans.
“They made animal sounds,” Achebe says. “They shrieked, shouted, they screamed. So that was one thing that I knew I had to do. I had to insist on the language similar to what I heard in my village; the language of the elders who were eloquent. I had to attempt to do it. But would it succeed? I had no way of knowing.”
Achebe fused English and Igbo (pronounced “EBO”), the language spoken by the Ibo people, a cultural group in Nigeria, using English words with Igbo syntax, idioms and proverbs. The end result was one of the most acclaimed novels in literary history: Things Fall Apart. It was an instant classic. A literary masterpiece. The archetypal African novel.
Things Fall Apart has become a required text in schools throughout Africa and the English-speaking world. It has been translated into more than 50 languages and more than 10 million copies have been sold. It’s often included on lists of the top 100 novels from Africa to the United States.
Commemorating a Milestone
This year marks the 50-year anniversary of Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958 by London’s Heinemann Press, commemorative events have already taken place and others will be held throughout the world to observe the anniversary of the novel and to honor the 77-year-old Achebe, who teaches at Bard College in New York.
The Association of Nigerian Authors is planning a two-day celebration in the country. The University of London is hosting a two-day conference in October titled “Things Fall Apart, 1958-2008.” Bard College, hosted a panel earlier this month titled “Revisiting Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” One of the events in New York was held in February at the PEN American Center, as Toni Morrison, Ha Jin and other literary luminaries paid tribute to both the author and the novel. Achebe, along with Princeton University’s Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, spoke at an event in part organized by the university’s Center for African American Studies. Furthermore, a local program Princeton Reads also encouraged the community to read Things Fall Apart in March. In addition, events have been or will be held in France, Ghana, India, Kenya, Portugal, South Africa and a number of other countries.
A Spark in African Literature
Scholars have described Things Fall Apart as the spark that ignited the proliferation of modern African novel writing. There is an “innumerable list of writers and critics — including myself — who have been inspired to contribute to the growth of African literature and make it a force to be reckoned with among the literary achievements of mankind,” says Dr. Isidore Okpewho, a Nigerian novelist and State University of New York at Binghamton distinguished professor of Africana Studies, English and comparative literature. “I doubt that we could have done this without Achebe’s bold and pioneering work.”
Not only did Things Fall Apart clear the rough terrain for other novels to follow, but it “has contributed more than any other single book in establishing both the Ibo and the African continent as a normal society, a society of culture, tradition, law and government,” says Obiwu Iwuanyanwu, director of the writing center at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, who has written extensively on Achebe. He is currently working on the anthology Fifty Years of Things Fall Apart, a commemorative collection of essays on the groundbreaking novel.
“Men and women are usually expected to be great warriors and athletes in their youth, but it is not always the case that a young man is expected to define the global fate and recognition of his community by writing a book at the fledgling age of 26 as Achebe did with Things Fall Apart,” Iwuanyanwu adds. “For such a phenomenon, the historically maligned and marginalized Black race has found itself in the eternal debt of Chinua Achebe. Joseph Conrad defined the colonial world with his Heart of Darkness in 1900; Chinua Achebe redefined the postcolonial world with Things Fall Apart in 1958.”
Just as readers have extolled Things Fall Apart with the highest honors over the past 50 years, there have been critics. One school of thought, led by Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, has argued that African novelists should be writing in indigenous African languages.
“The problematics of language and literature are very much alive in the discourse of African literature,” says Iwuanyanwu of Central State. “The tenor has changed, and even Chinua Achebe is now following the steps of Ngugi wa Thiong’o by his reported effort at translating Things Fall Apart into the Igbo language.”
Currently, there are about five known translations of Things Fall Apart into Igbo going on simultaneously, and it has already been translated into five other African languages, including Kikuyu and Yoruba, Iwuanyanwu notes. The novel still made an “effective contribution” in English, says Okpewho, who wrote Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. “Those who criticized Achebe for using English have still not convinced us that he made the wrong choice.”
Achebe remains resolute that he made the right choice because Things Fall Apart has served as his professional foundation. “What it did was to provide a model to me of what I should do and how I should set about telling this story that was missing,” Achebe says. “Things Fall Apart cannot be done again. It has achieved what I had set out [to do], which was to create a language in which to tell my story. And having done that, the other books then went ahead to continue that story in its many variations.
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