Chinua Achebe The Writer Lives On

By Mukoma Wa Ngugi

“Sir, I am very happy to finally meet you in person – I have read all your books,” a man gushed to my father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi. My father loves talking with people, but he also does not mind a compliment or two and so we stopped to chat. “Your books, especially Things Fall Apart…” 

And on another occasion my friends and I were sitting in a bar in Madison Wisconsin when a drunken student stumbled to our table. “I hear you are the son of that famous African writer?” He asked me.

“Yes, I happen to be,” I replied and sat up straight to cheerfully receive a few proxy compliments.

“We just finished reading Things Fall Apart in class – now that Okonkwo character…”

Suffice it to say then that Chinua Achebe has been around all my life – from the Heinemann Series poster of a smiling, serious, bemused, pipe smoking Achebe that was framed in our family sitting room, to cases of mistaken identity, to my own work as a writer and teacher.

In fact just last month, I was teaching Things Fall Apart alongside Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The question at hand was – how does Achebe counter and answer Conrad’s Africa? One word comes to mind – voice. To my ear Achebe’s voice is always measured even at its most defiant.

It’s a voice strong enough to speak for a continent denied its voice by colonial racism. It’s the voice of a humble listener who is moved into action by what he sees and hears around him. There Was A Country is as much about Biafra as it is about how Achebe answered the question – what is the role of the African writer in a decolonizing Africa? Jump into your times with both your feet and pen.

Thinking about the African literary tradition and the humility to listen, Achebe never accepted the title, “father of African literature” that we are now forcefully bestowing on him. When asked about it in 2009, he told the Brown Daily Herald that he “strongly resisted” the title because “it’s really a serious belief of mine that it’s risky for anyone to lay claim to something as huge and important as African literature … the contribution made down the ages. I don’t want to be singled out as the one behind it because there were many of us – many, many of us.”

With Achebe, Nelson Mandela and others who have challenged the way we live and think about the world, there will be areas of disagreements. So with Achebe there are questions around his stand on the role of African languages in African writing. Things Fall Apart has been translated into 50 languages – how many of them are African languages? How many of the translations are in a Nigerian language? There is also much to be argued about in regards to his representation of the Biafra war and Ibo nationalism in There was a Country.

But there is a counter-argument to be made that the work of my generation of African writers is to shine a light on his blind spots. We can give Things Fall Apart new lives in African languages. And we should tell our histories in as many different ways as we can so that there are multiple mirrors reflecting our tragedies and triumphs.

The bottom line for me is this – We are all better off because he lived and beautifully wrote his conscience. A writer who has left so much of himself in the world and on whose shoulders others will stand for generations to come cannot be said to be truly dead.

Achebe the man has died. Achebe the writer lives on.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat (Melville, 2011) and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi (Melville, 2013).

14 thoughts on “Chinua Achebe The Writer Lives On

  1. The legacies of Achebe are already speaking for him. Achebe, was fortunate to have enjoyed the praise of his generation while he lived. His is not the case where people only “praise the dead” because the person is no more. Perceived differently by different people, Chinua Achebe remains a great phenomenon that generations will keep drawing from. Above all, I’m glad he gave us There was a Country; A Personal History of Biafra before his exit. Thank you, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, for sharing this enduring story of your encounters with him. I’m sure even at death, Achebe will be pleased with your teaching Things Fall Apart along side Heart of Darkness to properly situate the discourses of colonialism and representations of the “other” from mainstream media/books. His argument with Conrad will continue on the other side!!! sleep well, the Ogidi of Ogidi, Ugonabo na Ogidi, and Odelu Igbo na Enugwu-Ukwu.

  2. I value the sentiment behind the asking for Things Fall Apart to be made available in African languages. Practically however, it is an unnecessary wish. The fact that our African languages rely on the European alphabet, along with the legacy of colonialism, makes it so that our native languages are merely vocal, they don’t live on paper. It is so therefore, that anyone who can read and write an African language, reads and writes it less well than they do the European language in which they were educated. In that case, it is a moral victory of sorts to claim a copy of Yeuff yi yakuna (Things fall apart in wolof) in my library and show it ,proudly to my friends, but wouldn’t it be to most of us akin cozying up in our favorite chair to read a technical manual?.

    • Po, while this may be the case for Wolof or your own experience, I don’t think you can make this kind of generalization for ALL African languages. There is, for example, a thriving market of Hausa literature, of thousands and thousands of novels that are eagerly read by many who cannot speak or read in English. (I also know of a good deal of literature in Swahilli and Yoruba, as well as many other African languages including Gikuyu that Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes in.) On this topic, I was delighted to hear from a Hausa author I really admire that he has a completed translation of Things Fall Apart that he has not yet published. At a conference last year, I also heard that there is a completed translation of Things Fall Apart in Igbo, although it may not be authorized.

      • I stand corrected, Carmen. I realize I have overlooked some of the major African languages, such as Hausa, which are based on the Arabic script and remain independent of either French or English. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  3. Growing up in Zimbabwe – half under a white Rhodesian government, and half under a government that we thought then was astounding but aren’t quite so sure about now, my first encounter with Achebe via a Heineman copy of a set text – Things Fall Apart – was like a lightning strike. It opened the world to me. Not everything came from outside. And so shaped my life – and remains one of my enduring favourites. I haven’t picked it up for years, but was struck by unutterable sadness to hear of Chinua Achebe’s passing. And was not alone in this, to judge from the number of mails in my inbox and posts on my facebook page. He shaped our lives – and yes, it was around this text too that I first got engaged in a really heated debate around language, but its impact (which includes raising the language debate for young first time readers of it) transcends language. A truly great author whose death I mourn, but whose life and achievements I celebrate.
    Go well, great man.

  4. Come home and teach it to us here in Africa too! Our great African writers – where are they? Are they in Africa? Do they still connect with us here and inspire us here to write?

  5. the question about how many african and nigerian languages achebe’s book is translated in needs a little more investigation. are we looking for a token translation of things fall apart into igbo, yoruba, hausa, or arguing that a translation will make them more widely read in these languages?
    these languages are ultimately oral languages, only recently attaining written status. most of the people, that i know, who would probably be able to read in these nigerian languages are more likely more fluent in english as a written language. nigerian languages have never really been a medium for written communication, their beauty is in their spoken cadence, the writing part came after.

    we don’t always have to revert to a place of equality based on inherited presumptions. #imjustsayingtho

  6. Thank you Mukoma for this well deserved tribute. In short, we cannot imagine the Pan-African impact of the fathers of African literature like Achebe,Ngugi,Soyinka,etc. Achebe and Ngugi for example have made me more aware of my Africanity than all our “fathers of the nations” whose aim is to entrecnch us behind national fixities and who only exploit pan-African sentiments to hide the skeletons and avoid the ICC. I identified with Nigeria through Things Fall Apart in the same way as I became a Cameroonian-Kenyan thanks to I Will marry when I want. Not to talk of Armah’s the Beautyful Ones for whose safe birth we are still struggling to provide adequate midwifery after several miscarriages.

  7. A terrific article. I remember interviewing Mr. Ngugi’s father in London over 20 years ago. We partly talked about Mr. Ngugi’s decision to write in Gikuyu instead of English. Mr. Ngugi made persuasive arguments in favor of the change. But then he closed that part of our discussion by saying: “Chinua Achebe doesn’t agree with me, and he has a strong argument on his side. Make sure you get his point of view as well.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s