“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
– Chinua Achebe
Literary giant and educator Chinua Achebe passed away on Thursday at age 82.
I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart back-to-back with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness sometime during the last decade. These were the kind of books they were supposed to have handed me in high school but the racial themes and horrific imagery of colonialism had gotten them removed from the curriculum at some point in the early-90’s excessive Political Correctness era.
But I found them on my own – and although Conrad’s harrowing novel about the evils of European corporate exploitation in the jungles was far more gruesome, it was Achebe’s masterpiece that truly haunted me – stuck with me to this day. Things Fall Apart is the story of an African man struggling in a time during which an entire culture is coming unglued, unmoored from the most elemental traditions and precedents. Outside influences, specifically the arrival of the white man, have turned his village and his way of life upside-down. It is a story about coping with change and it is universally relevant no matter who is reading it or when they first pick it up.
The title actually comes from a William Butler Yeats poem called The Second Coming, the context is this:
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That anarchic set of stanzas serves as the perfect reference point for the rapidly unraveling world Achebe’s protagonist finds himself in. One chapter in and the book grabs us, the chaos and conflict found within enables the reader to contextualize the change happening in our own world.
Achebe wrote the book in 1958 in his late twenties. He realized that the stories the world had about Africa and her cultures and history were not by and of the African people. Writing one’s own story is one of the most powerful things you can do in this world. Achebe once described literature as his weapon, and once remarked that “Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am – and what I need – is something I have to find out myself.”
This idea about putting my own narrative out into the world and writing to discover more about myself has always been in the back of my mind – somewhere along the line I must have internalized it, even if subconsciously. Almost everything I write is a manifestation of it.
I suppose I can count myself amongst the millions who’ve been inspired by Chinua Achebe over the last fifty years. May he rest in peace.
Check out Things Fall Apart on Amazon