During my freshman year at Kent State University, I was a little wary when I saw one of the books listed on my syllabus in my English class: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. My tongue stumbled over his name and I sat there trying all the possible pronunciations until I figured it might be best to just ask the professor.
I grabbed the book from the university bookstore and went back to my dorm to read a few chapters. Instead, I finished the whole book that evening.
Set in Nigeria, highlighting the conflict between traditional Igbo culture and colonialism, Things Fall Apart hooked me in a way that few books have since. The story of Okonkwo and his quest to be noble and respected, unlike his father Unoka, deeply resonated with me and millions of other readers. Whenever I would hear the book being discussed, I would interject myself into the conversation (despite my introverted nature) because I simply couldn’t get enough of the story.
It was his most famous work, going on to sell more than 10 million copies around the world. He inspired an entire generation of authors, including our 2007 winner for fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In late 2012, Adichie wrote an essay detailing his influence on her life and work:
I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had.
I am so deeply sad to hear of his passing, but feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with his work. There is nothing more I can say but, thank you.
Below is a short video, of CNN’s “African Voices” program from 2009, which profiled Chinua Achebe.