Things Fall Apart
African literature does not appear here nearly as much as it deserves – because while it has had tremendous impact upon cultural studies and among writers and critics, this little list project is not about what should be noticed but what what has marked western culture generally, and (sadly) Africa is way underrepresented in that regard. African music, dance and oral traditions and political struggles are felt all around us; the continent’s textual contributions? Not so much. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, though, has left an indelible mark. Over 50 years after its publication, it remains the most widely-read and most famous book in African literature.
Okonkwo, a wrestler and respected village leader, becomes guardian to a boy who is taken by his village as part of a settlement following a murder that would otherwise upset the peace between two villages. As the boy matures, village elders determine he must be killed, and advise Okonkwo to play no role given his status as second father to the boy. Okonkwo, however, chooses to participate in the killing with his people so as to protect his reputation of strength and masculinity. Yeah, as you’d expect, it all starts to go bad at that point, and the village determines that Okonkwo has been cursed and his offense to the gods must be appeased. Okonkwo and family go into exile, returning some years later to find that the tentacles of colonialism have reached his region in the form of European missionaries. And then the encroachment of village land, and then the colonial military presence, and then the question of resistance. We’ll leave it there so as not to give away the ending.
The centrality of justice in Nigeria’s Igbo tradition; the relationship between individual and collective, family and village; the destabilization of economic, spiritual, family life by the colonial machine; the conflict of tradition and modernity – these are a few of the themes Achebe deals with. More generally, he challenges the portrayal of Africa in western literature, adopting the novel form and English as the language of literature to re-deploy them against the cultural empire that has so devastated Nigeria and its neighbours. His status is unmatched in African literature, and by way of the African Writers Series he edited, he provided a much expanded international audience to a wide range of voices from across the continent, becoming in the process not only a major influence on what has come to be called ‘post-colonial literature’ but a shaper, critic, educator and mentor for writers, artists and thinkers from across Africa and the African-diaspora broadly.