The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia

By M. Keith Booker | Go to book overview
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Foreword: Chinua Achebe and the Institution of African Literature

Simon Gikandi

The appearance of this encyclopedia (in a series that has previously devoted volumes to such authors as Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison) represents still another step in the inexorable rise of Chinua Achebe to canonical status in world literature. While Achebe's enshrinement in the company of such Western authors has its problematic aspects, the critical attention that Achebe has received in the West has, by and large, been a positive development in the sense that it has brought needed recognition and respect to African literature and culture as a whole. Indeed, Achebe's leadership in this respect is only one of the many ways in which he might be said to have founded and invented the institution of African literature.


I have never met Chinua Achebe in person, but every time I read his fiction, his essays, or his critical works, I feel as if I have known him for most of my life. If the act of reading and re-reading establishes networks of connections between readers, writers, and context, and if texts are indeed crucial to the modes of knowledge we come to develop about subjects and objects and the images we associate with certain localities and institutions, then I can say without equivocation that I have known Achebe since I was thirteen years old. I can still vividly recall the day when, in my first or second year of secondary school, I encountered Things Fall Apart. It was in the early 1970s. We had a young English teacher who, although a recent graduate of Makerere University College, which was still the bastion of Englishness in East Africa, decided to carry out a literary experiment that was to change the lives of many of us: instead of offering the normal literary fare for junior secondary school English, which in those days consisted of a good dose of abridged Robert Louis Stevenson novels, Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, and Barbara Kimenye's popular readers, we were going to read Things Fall Apart. We would read a chapter of the novel every day, aloud in class, until we got to the end. Once I had started reading Things Fall Apart, however, I could not cope with the chapter-a-day policy. I read the whole novel over one afternoon, and it is not an exaggeration to say that my life was never the same again, for reading Things Fall Apart brought me to the sudden realization that fiction was not merely about a set of texts that one studied for the Cambridge Overseas exam, which, for my gen-


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