“We must hear all the stories…And by hearing all the stories, we will find points of contact and communication, and the world story, the Great Story, will have a chance to develop,” Chinua Achebe in There Was a Country.
Two days ago, the literary world lost a legend. Many people don’t know of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer and teacher whose 1958 novel Things Fall Apart is one of the most well-renowned works in African literature. So in his memory, I’d like to celebrate the life of this influential man.
I read Things Fall Apart my freshman year of college, and after tutoring for a couple years after graduation, I’m pleased to hear that it’s showing up in more high school’s curricula now. Most students aren’t accustomed to reading authors of color, as schools still adhere predominantly to the Western canon (or as I described it to my students–“those dead white guys”).
I’m certainly not discrediting the dead white guys. But let’s remind ourselves that while their work is commendable, their merit has been elevated through their social status. Literature has historically been reserved for men who were wealthy and educated enough to read, write, and gain respect from fellow elites. Everyone else had work to do and mouths to feed.
Reading about other cultures highlights history through unique, under-represented lenses, thereby broadening your mind. It can definitely be a disorienting experience: We’re vaguely aware of how cruel and bigoted Western civilization has been toward the rest of the world, but not until we hear first-hand accounts of imperialism and racism do we recognize the extent of white privilege.
Achebe’s work, and his conscious decision to share his work in English, has opened the eyes and ears of people across the globe, who otherwise would be oblivious to Africans and their struggles. Things Fall Apart, in particular, showcases an African village’s tragic transition from tribal autonomy to white colonialism and religious conversion.
Although the novel has been criticized for its representation of a misogynistic society, I’d argue that history has always been sexist, whether we’re looking at the African man with multiple wives or the white conqueror who then rapes those wives and sells them into slavery. Analyzing the past critically can be painful and controversial, but Achebe manages to do so with poetic finesse.
Achebe is also not one to shy away from pointing out the perceived racism of other authors. His hatred for Joseph Conrad, the author behind Heart of Darkness (1899), is among the most studied literary feuds. Granted, Conrad died about six years before Achebe was even born, so this feud is clearly one-sided and will remain disputed among literary critics since Conrad was never able to address Achebe’s scathing remarks.
I’ve read both novels, and I encourage you all to do the same so that you can understand how imperialism is seen through race. To some extent, Conrad will always be subject to his viewpoint as a white man–regardless of any anti-colonial sentiment–so I can understand Achebe’s side. However, I feel that both authors’ writing is very nuanced, and that this debate is more complicated than it seems on face value, which is why I suggest my fellow book bloggers to decide for themselves.
Ultimately, you don’t have to be a student of African studies to appreciate Achebe’s talents. Please do your part in making this world more progressive by reading outside your racial comfort zone. And help me do the same by recommending some other fantastic writers of color! I’d greatly appreciate it!