Thursday, July 9, 2009

Marking 50 Years of Achebe's Things Fall Apart - Maintaining a Proud Presence in World Literature

50 years ago in 1958 a young Nigerian, Chinua Achebe, at the young age of 28, made major breakthrough for African Literature with the publication of his novel Things Fall Apart. This novel became widely read and recommended in schools and colleges all over the world. I could remember reading it for two years in succession 30 years ago when I was in secondary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and all of us in the class were as thrilled not only by the events but by the infectiously fresh idioms and imageries used to describe characters and scenes.

Up to now the imageries that lard the texture of the narrative still have place in the lexicon of my students. The most common included that comparing the speedy growth of Okonkwo's reputation and power: to "a bushfire in the harmattan" and that if a man should say yes his chi, his personal god, should also say yes, in accord with him. Unoka, Okonkwo's father, the "agbala" soon had his counterparts identified amongst us as much as were the fools and weaklings dubbed 'efulefus'. But Unoka was not seen as such a hateful character as his son was trying to make him, for he seemed like a lively fun-lover who had no problem with anyone, except of course his son who was ever burning with the hatred of a failed parentage and heritage as his father spent most of his time playing flute and drinking palmwine unmindful about tomorrow. I have had to read, teach, lecture, discuss, read and reread with new layers of meaning and interpretations unveiling themselves to me at each stage in that joyful cycle of engagement with it, with the text taking a permanent place in the imagination.

I am still trying to retrieve an essay I wrote whilst doing my masters on Achebe's unique style across his novels, then restricted to Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People and Arrow of God. For Anthills of the Savannah had not yet been written. So when I read the preamble to Joyce Ashuntantang"s interview of the literary sage in "50 Years After "Things Fall Apart": A Chat with Chinua Achebe" it was as if she was a spokeperson for our experience which I expect might be one all across Africa, especially. She recalled many secondary school children who were not macho enough ending up with the nickname "agbala" which meant womanly, a derogatory reference to a man in Umuofia who had not taken any titles as was the case with Unoka. Another name she identified was "efulefu" meaning worthless person,

Many of the proverbs from the text have flown beyond Umuofia to Anglo-literate communities across Africa like ours in Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Ghana and Gambia. For example, "The lizard that jumped from the high Iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did"; "Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing I have learned to fly without perching"; "A child who washes his hands can dine with elders"; "An old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb".

Chinua Achebe's fate was being sealed from 1948, when in preparation for independence, Nigeria's first university, now the University of Ibadan, opened, as an associate college of the University of London.

Achebe obtained such high marks in the college entrance examination that he was admitted in its first intake with a bursary to study medicine.

After a year of gruelling work, however, deciding that science was not made for him, he changed to English, history, and theology. But this switch cost him his scholarship. He now had to pay his tuition fees. Luckily, he received a government bursary, which helped him halfway together with money contributed by his family. His older brother, Augustine, gave up money for a trip home from his job as a civil servant to enable Chinua continue his studies. From its inception, the university had a strong English faculty which attracted the brightest intakes including those who like Achebe were to become famous writers like Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, John Pepper Clark, Christopher Okigbo and, Kole Omotoso.

In 1950 Achebe made a further advance towards his literary goal when he wrote his first piece entitled,"Polar Undergraduate" for the University Herald even serving as its editor during the 1951-2 school year.Through irony and humour it celebrates the intellectual vigour of his classmates. He followed this with other essays and letters about philosophy and freedom in academia, some of which were published in another campus magazine, The Bug.

Achebe then wrote his first short story, "In a Village Church", which combines details of life in rural Nigeria with Christian institutions and icons, a style which was to be of much use in many of his later works. Other short stories he wrote during his time at Ibadan include "The Old Order in Conflict with the New" and "Dead Men's Path" which examine conflicts between tradition and modernity, with an eye toward promoting dialogue and understanding on both sides. Professor Geoffrey Parrinder's arrival at the university to teach comparative religion, set Achebe on exploring the fields of Christian history and African traditional religions.

He was now becoming critical of European literature about Irish novelist Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, about a cheerful Nigerian man who was working for an abusive British store owner for which Achebe and some of his classmates could not conceal their dislike . One of his classmates even went as far as announcing to the professor that the only enjoyable moment in the book is when Johnson is shot . In amother move to cultural nationalism, Achebe renounced his British name, Albert, replacing it with his indigenous name "Chinua."

At the end of his undergraduate studies in 1953 Achebe was so disappointrf at being awarded a second-class degree and not the first class that he had been expecting that he became uncertain as to how to proceed after that. So he returned to his hometown, Ogidi, to sort through his options. There, a friend from the university who visited him convinced him to apply for an English teaching position at the Merchants of Light school at Oba, a ramshackle institution with a crumbling infrastructure and a meagre library built on what the residents called "bad bush" or evil forest as a similar area in Things Fall Apart is called - a section of land thought to be tainted by unfriendly or evil spirits which was what was allocated to the Christian missionaries to build their church with the hope that they would not survive the evil spirits..

As a teacher, Achebe encouraged his students to be original in their work and read extensively. As the students did not have access to the newspapers he had read as a student, he made his own available in the classroom. But after four months here he grabbed an opportunity which arose in 1954 to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS), in Lagos, and left.

Achebe was assigned to the Talks Department, where he was responsible for preparing scripts for oral delivery, a task which helped him master the subtle nuances between written and spoken language, thus enabling him later to write realistic dialogue with ease.The city of Lagos, a huge conurbation teeming with recent migrants from the rural villages also made a significant impression on him, as it did on Ekwensi. Achebe revelled in the social and political activities around him later drawing upon such experiences when describing the city in No Longer At Ease.

While in Lagos, Achebe started work on a novel though quite a challenging task, since very little African fiction apart from Amos Tutuola's Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City (1954) had been written in English. While appreciating Ekwensi's work, Achebe worked hard to develop his own style, even as he pioneered the creation of the Nigerian novel itself. Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Nigeria in 1956 which brought issues of colonialism and politics further to the surface, was a significant moment for Achebe.

His first trip outside Nigeria also in 1956, when he was to undergo training in London at the Staff School run by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).was an opportunity for Achebe to advance his technical production skills, and to solicit feedback on his novel. In London he met a novelist, Gilbert Phelps, to whom he showed the manuscript. Phelps with great enthusiasm, asked Achebe if he could show it to his editor and publishers. Achebe declined, insisting that it needed more work.

On his return to Nigeria, Achebe started revising and editing it, now titled Things Fall Apart drawn from a line in the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming". He concentrated only on the story of a yam farmer, Okonkwo, adding sections, improving various chapters, and restructuring and tightening the prose.

By 1957 having sculpted it to his liking, he took advantage of an advertisement offering a typing service to send the only copy of his handwritten manuscript (along with the #22 fee) to the London company. He waited several months without receiving any communication from them, and began to worry.

So when his boss, Angela Beattie, was going to London on her annual leave he requested her to visit the company and act on his behalf which she did rather decisively, angrily demanding why it was lying ignored in the corner of the office. The company quickly sent a typed copy to Achebe. Beattie's intervention thus rescued and revived Achebe's spirit thus enabling him to continue as a writer. Had the novel been lost, he would have been so discouraged that he would probably have given up altogether.

In 1958 Achebe sent his novel to the agent earlier recommended by Gilbert Phelps in London. The agent upon receiving it sent it to several publishing houses. Some rejected it immediately, claiming that fiction from African writers had no market potential. Finally it reached the office of Heinemann. Executives there hesitated until an educational adviser, Donald MacRae, - just back from a trip through west Africa - read it and forced the company's hand with his succinct report: "This is the best novel I have read since the war"

In the book Okonkwo haunted by the failure of his father - a shiftless debtor fond of playing the flute and drinking palmwine - tortures himself not to resemble him in any way by working hard and not showing any feelings or compassion. It also evplores the complications and contradictions that arise within him and in the wider community when white missionaries arrive in his village of Umuofia. Exploring the cultural conflict, particularly after the first encounter between Igbo tradition and Christian doctrine and European administration that ensues, the novel shows the crumbling of the infexible and inhumane structures of Umuofia along with the equally infexible Okonkwo. Achebe thus retold the history of colonization from the point of view of the colonized, in reversal of previous images presented. For Achebe's emergence as "the founding father of African literature ... in the English language," is traceable to his reaction to Joyce Cary's novel Mister Johnson, set in Achebe's native Nigeria which he studied at the University College in Ibadan. In a curriculum full of Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Mister Johnson stood out as one of the few books about Africa which Time magazine recently declared the "best book ever written about Africa," but Achebe and his classmates had quite a decidedly hostile reaction to. For they saw the Nigerian hero as an "embarrassing nitwit," as Achebe writes in , Home and Exile, and detected in the Irish author's descriptions of Nigerians "an undertow of uncharitableness ... a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery." Mister Johnson, Achebe writes, "open[ed] my eyes to the fact that my home was under attack and that my home was not merely a house or a town but, more importantly, an awakening story."

Home and Exile, which describes this transition to a new era in literature is then both a kind of autobiography and a rumination on the power stories have to create a sense of dispossession or to confer strength, depending on who is wielding the pen. Achebe depicts his gradual realization that Mister Johnson was just one in a long line of books written by Westerners that presented Africans to the world in a way that Africans didn't agree with or recognize, and he examines the "process of 're-storying' peoples who had been knocked silent by all kinds of dispossession." He hopes -- that this "re-storying" will continue and will eventually result in a "balance of stories among the world's peoples."

Things Fall Apart marked a turning point for African authors, who began to take back the narrative of the so-called "dark continent."

The style of Achebe's fiction draws heavily on the oral tradition of the Igbo. He weaves folk tales into the fabric of his stories, thus illuminating community values in both the content and the form of the storytelling. The tale about the Earth and Sky , for example, emphasises the interdependence of the masculine and the feminine. Although Nwoye enjoys hearing his mother tell the tale, Okonkwo's dislike for it is evidence of his imbalance. Later, Nwoye avoids beatings from his father by pretending to dislike such "women's stories".

Achebe' s free but deft use of proverbs, which often illustrate the values of the rural Igbo tradition. sprinkled throughout the narratives, repeating points made in conversation is deft. For Achebe, however, proverbs and folk stories are not the sum total of the oral Igbo tradition. In combining philosophical thought and public performance into the use of oratory - "speech artistry" -, his characters exhibit what he called "a matter of individual excellence ... part of Igbo culture." as Okonkwo's friend Obierika voices the most impassioned oratory, crystallising the events and their significance for the village.

Ceremonial dancing and the singing of folk songs also reflect the realities of Igbo tradition. The elderly Uchendu, attempting to shake Okonkwo out of his self-pity, refers to a song sung after the death of a woman: "For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for whom it is well." This song contrasts with the "gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism" sung later by the white missionaries.

Okonkwo's tragedy perhaps could be seen as emanating from his furious manhood overpowering everything feminine in his life, including his own conscience. For example, when he feels awful after killing his adopted son, he asks himself: "When did you become a shivering old woman?" All things feminine are distasteful to him, in part because they remind him of his father's laziness and cowardice. The women in the novel, meanwhile, are obedient, quiet, and absent from positions of authority - despite the fact that Igbo women were traditionally involved in village leadership. Nevertheless, the need for feminine balance is highlighted by Ani, the earth goddess, and the extended discussion of "Nneka" ("Mother is supreme") in chapter fourteen. Okonkwo's defeat is seen by some as a consequence of his suppression of a balancing feminine ethos.

Heinemann published 2,000 hardcover copies of Things Fall Apart on 17 June 1958. According to Alan Hill, employed by the publisher at the time, the company did not "touch a word of it" in preparation for release. The book received such a rousing reception that merits a whole book or at least an article to detail.Mean while as we celebrate 50 years of Things Fall Apart the book keeps moving into new corners of the globe while holding and tickling the imagination of those of us who have grown and fed on it for decades.

Born and schooled in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Arthur Smith has taught English for over thirty years at various Educational Institutions. He is now a Senior Lecturer of English at Fourah Bay College where he has been lecturing for the past eight years.

Mr Smith's writings have been in various media. He participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature in the U.S. in 2006. His growing thoughts and reflections on this trip which took him to various US sights and sounds could be read at

His other publications include: Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and 'The Struggle of the Book'

Habits To Prevent Losing Things

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