Chinua Achebe, writer of the book Things Fall Apart is dead at 82, according to the latest news reports. He was – and is – one of the most celebrated authors to come out of Nigeria, and Africa.
I remember the first time I read his debut novel, Things Fall Apart, I was studying English literature at university and was grappling with my own white history as an Afrikaner from South Africa. The book is a powerful illustration of the effects of colonialism on African traditional life. It follows the story of a proud Igbo leader who seeks to uphold the traditions of his tribe, only to see them slip away once the white men arrive. Rather than ascribe to the new rules of a new and unwelcome people, Okonkwo (the main character) chooses to hang himself instead. But in the very act of evading the white man’s rules, he breaks the traditions of his own people — suicide is seen as a deeply shameful act and not worthy of a warrior.
This story truly moved me on so many levels. Not only does it portray, in devastating detail, the truly terrible cultural decimation that occurred at the white man’s arrival in Africa, but it also refuses to idealize the pre-colonized way of life. Okonkwo’s actions, inspired by the advice of an oracle, are truly horrific when he takes part in the killing of his own adopted son. He also shows little sympathy for his father, Unoka, a man at the opposite end of the masculinity spectrum. Unlike his son, Unoka is no warrior – he is a gentle soul with seemingly little ambition – and as a result he has little social standing in his village.
The characters feel like real, flesh and blood, human beings, who make mistakes, but try to live honest lives as best they can. Despite his violent, warrior-like temperament, Okonkwo is heroic. Here is a man who seeks to live according to the rules of a bygone age: as a proud, hard-working, stoic warrior. His raw humanity enhances the tragic quality of the book. It isn’t as simple as saying that pre-colonized life was a kind of garden of Eden and that the white man was the snake in the grass. Life is more complicated than that, and the social inequalities and class/gender divides are highlighted within a society that is as complex as any colonized society.
Struggling with my own gender identity, I remember reading this book and wanting to know more about Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. To my queer sensibilities, he felt like part of my gender variant tribe. Of course, he exists in a context so different, where terms like queer, gay/lesbian, bi and trans mean nothing — applying modern sensibilities to this world has limited use.
Ultimately, the book is a tragedy, an evocative illustration of the trauma the African people are still struggling to recover from. As a white man from Africa, I confess, the book makes me feel uncomfortable about the legacy of my people. But while the book is clearly of and about Africa, it is, at its core, a book about being human in an ever-changing world and the complex moral landscape that each of us must navigate as we find our place in it.