Saturday 10 August 2013

Tribute to Chinua Achebe

For me, “Things Fall Apart” was just a novel. I came to it with no baggage, my shoulders unweighted by the colonial portmanteau of my parent’s generation, my mind decolonised and unintimidated by crinolines, English accents and bread and butter pudding. At fifteen, I read the novel in one sitting. Okonkowo threw Amalinze in my bedroom, murdered Ikemefuna in my kitchen and rather bathetically, swung from a tree in my toilet, oblivious to my sister’s knocking and shouting, “Chibundu come out. I need the bathroom.”

I had been running away from ‘Thing’s Fall Apart’ for many years. Its reputation preceded it, outdistanced it, ruined it in my opinion. A book about which there was so much hype could not but disappoint. And so I walked past Achebe whenever I saw him on a shelf until I reached that age when I started reading certain books because you ‘had to read them.’ Certain Victorian novelists, or certain Nobel Laureates, or certain ‘masters of the form.’ I would trudge through pages of text, understanding little, glad to finally reach the end so I could say, ‘Oh I’ve read so and so.’ Thus I came to Chinua Achebe as one would come to some traditional rite of passage. Not particularly enjoyable but you had to get on with it.

And then I read it and realised that Things Fall Apart was that rare and wonderful thing: a book that needed no reputation. The author’s background was irrelevant, his awards and accolades and sales figures and reviews and book club listings and Amazon rankings, all this was immaterial.  All you needed to do was pick up Things Fall Apart as a novel, just a novel, nothing more, nothing less and it would deliver on that. Save context for a second reading.

Yet, for those like my parents who lived closer to the slights and condescensions of imperialism, Things Fall Apart could never be just a novel. I asked my father what the book meant to him. The distance between my father and I is not just one of age or generation. Coups, pogroms, civil wars, structural adjustment programmes, Festac 77, wars against indiscipline, first republics, second republics, Federal Republics, Federal Democratic Republics: all these lie between my father and myself. For him, Things Fall Apart was bound up with identity. ‘He showed the good. He showed the bad.’ That was how my father put his thoughts. There were good things in Igbo culture before colonialism came and there were bad things. Just like in any society, in any culture, in any civilization. For a generation like my fathers, that had to prove that they were as good as, as smart as, as human as, Things Fall Apart was seminal. 

It’s a privilege to be able to put aside the context of Achebe’s work if I so choose and revel in nothing more than the words on the page. Yet I salute him for what he meant to a generation, the confidence he added to their stride and the assurance he gave them about their past. And then I salute him again, for what he did for many African writers, the inspiration he gave us, the doors he opened, into publishing houses and into the recesses of our imagination, as we drew on images and stories that we once thought bush, boring and unsophisticated. And finally, I salute Chinua Achebe, for what he meant and will mean to the world. For when those readers who understood the context of his times are long dead and when their children are long dead, there will still be those who will delight in the throwing of Amalinze and weep for the death of Ikemefuna.   

Read at the Africa Writes Literary festival in the British Library. Photos courtesy Carmen McCain.


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