JEFFREY BROWN: For a long time, the story of Africa was told almost exclusively through the words of European writers. That began to change in the 1950s, as African countries achieved independence and African writers began to tell their own stories.
One book in particular, “Things Fall Apart,” published in 1958, has become a classic of world literature, translated into some 50 languages, selling 11 million copies.
It was set in a village in what is now Nigeria, just as the Ibo people there had their first encounters with European Christian missionaries.
Chinua Achebe was just 28 when he wrote the book, his first novel. He’s since written numerous other works of fiction, mostly set in post-colonial Africa, as well as nonfiction and poetry, and last year was named winner of the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for Fiction.
Achebe was partly paralyzed in a car accident in Nigeria in 1990. For most of the years since then, he’s lived and taught at Bard College in New York.
In Washington recently, I asked him what he’d set out to do 50 years ago.
CHINUA ACHEBE, Author, “Things Fall Apart”: I knew that something needed to be done.
JEFFREY BROWN: Something needed to be done?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what was that?
CHINUA ACHEBE: That was my place in the world, my story, the story of myself, the story of my people. I was already familiar with stories of different people.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because you grew up reading English literature…
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, and having an English education and encountering accounts of events of people. And, at some point, I began to miss my own. Think of it in terms of a gap in the bookshelf, you know, where a book has been taken out and the gap is there.
JEFFREY BROWN: And so you set this story, “Things Fall Apart,” at that moment in the 19th century, sort of the end of one time and the beginning of another?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And why then?
CHINUA ACHEBE: I wanted that moment of change, in which one culture was in contact, in conflict, in conversation with another culture, and something was going to happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Certainly, in the portrait of village life before the Europeans come, you don’t paint an idealized vision there. The main character, Okonkwo, is thoughtful, but violent.
Telling truth through fiction
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, I was doing that deliberately. Young as I was, I knew that I wanted the story to be true, true in the way fiction can be true.
JEFFREY BROWN: The way fiction can be true.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, in...
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean by that?
CHINUA ACHEBE: In a very profound way, there is -- even as you're making up a story, you're making it up, but there's a way you do it, and it tells you, something rings in my ear, you know, this is wrong, this is true, this is false, and I wanted to avoid that.
I wanted it to be seen in all its grandeur and all its weakness. And that seemed to me very important.
JEFFREY BROWN: When that clash of civilizations comes, it's really over religion first.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And I was interested to read that your own parents were converts to Christianity...
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: ... and then missionaries traveling around the country.
CHINUA ACHEBE: That's right. That's right. I was steeped in religion, the religion of the foreigners, because I wasn't there when my father converted, and so that was one aspect of life.
I wasn't questioning it. In fact, I thought that Christianity was very a good and a very valuable thing for us. But after a while, I began to feel that the story that I was told about this religion wasn't perhaps completely whole, that something was left out.
There was no attempt to understand what was behind the Ibo religion. It was simply dismissed as the worship of stones and, you know, not as good as Christianity.
Telling the human story
JEFFREY BROWN: I suppose it's ridiculous to ask you whether you were surprised by what happened to this book, "Things Fall Apart," that it would become read by so many people. How could you have known?
CHINUA ACHEBE: No, I couldn't have.
JEFFREY BROWN: But can you explain it?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, I can guess. I think what it is -- I suspect, from some of the things readers from abroad say to me, that they find something in this book which resonates with their own history, people in different places.
An example is a school, a class in a women's college in Korea. This whole class wrote to me many years back, because they just read "Things Fall Apart," and what they said was, "It's our history, our," their own.
JEFFREY BROWN: Even Korean? These are Koreans?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Even Korean, yes, and went on to explain that they were colonized by the Japanese. And for them, that was enough.
And so there must be things that are universal in the human story which one can use, one can hit upon, in telling your own peculiar story, the local and the universal.
JEFFREY BROWN: And Africa's story, of course, had been told by European writers.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes. The whole tradition of storytelling was created simply to tell the story of Africa. And the reason for that is not very far from the reason for the slave trade, because it's as deep as that, to present a people's story in such a way as to make them look bad.
JEFFREY BROWN: Where is the balance now? Are you satisfied with the development of an authentic African voice?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, it's only the beginning. It will take more time. But more people must get into it, and they are getting into it.
In fact, after my novel, "Things Fall Apart," was published, it just looked as if people had been waiting everywhere, in Africa, in Nigeria, in Ibo-land, to tell their own version of their story, as if something was holding them before. And it seems to me that that's a very good thing, indeed.
JEFFREY BROWN: The 50th anniversary of "Things Fall Apart," Chinua Achebe, thank you for talking to us.
CHINUA ACHEBE: Thank you.