It is strange and rare for a serious author to achieve the sort of near-universal good will that Chinua Achebe was granted. After all, as Chinua said, “Writers don’t give prescriptions, they give headaches!”
Oh, yes, Chinua’s friends loved him: Nigerian poet J.P. Clark and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote, “No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives.”
But also millions of others, readers and half-readers and not-really-readers, turned him into an icon for anti-imperialism, or for “multiculturalism,” or for a “positive” Africa, or for something else entirely. Chinua was an author many of us read at a formative age — in Nigeria, in the US, in the UK — and his books became part of our interior landscapes. We don’t necessarily remember the details of Things Fall Apart, but we remember that we read it. Maybe we remember the awful cover, the smell of the book, Okonkwo’s iron fist, the person we were when we first opened the novel.
I, like legions of others, read Things Fall Apart as a university student, in a “Politics of Black Africa” course. The book was not just itself — that would have been enough. It was also the re-alignment of large swaths of my mind.
I, like legions of others, taught Things Fall Apart (sandwiched between Joseph and Ngugi, after the usual fashion), in a US literature course. Most of my students connected with the book in some way. After all, it’s a story well told. It’s a story that goes down easily, is deceptively simple.
Perhaps for some few of my students, the book also had radical side-effects. Perhaps it was the first African novel they had read (I put it early in the syllabus) or it was the first time they had ever considered colonialism (and it was easier to swallow than Jamaica’s A Small Place, which they might remember more clearly and with less fondness). It was a novel that didn’t seem on its face to say j’accuse, although it opened many doors into many new rooms.
I, like all so many others, felt an immediate and personal loss when I heard that Chinua had died. What? My Chinua?