Linguistic Power: Encounter with Chinua Achebe

By Gallagher, Susan VanZanten | The Christian Century, March 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Linguistic Power: Encounter with Chinua Achebe


Gallagher, Susan VanZanten, The Christian Century


While studying English literature at the University of lbadan, Chinua Achebe was appalled by the "superficial picture" of Nigeria that he found in many novels and resolved to write something that viewed his country "from the inside." The stunning result was Things Fall Apart, a novel that demonstrates the linguistic and social sophistication of precolonial African societies.

First published in 1958, the book's account of the gradual destruction of a traditional Igbo village brings to mind Yeats's lines, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Employing such anomalous traditions as African proverbs and Greek dramatic structure, Achebe lyrically portrays the destruction wrought by the complex intermingling of Westernization, colonization, Christianization, indigenous beliefs and tribalism.

Over 3 million copies of Things Fall Apart have been sold, and it is frequently studied in university, college and high school literature courses. Achebe, who has written four other novels, numerous short stories and two influential books of criticism, is commonly acclaimed as "the father of African literature."

The 65-year old Achebe lives and teaches in New York; like so many African intellectuals, he is an exile because of the political unrest in his homeland. Five years ago, when he was in Nigeria to celebrate his birthday, Achebe barely survived an automobile accident on one of West Africa's notoriously dangerous roads. The accident left him a paraplegic, and he now negotiates life in a wheelchair. At a recent literary conference held at West Chester University, just outside Philadelphia, Achebe spoke to a crowd of several hundred, who listened intently to the frail gentleman dashingly clad in a black and white dashiki, a brilliant red beret and stylish leather bicycle gloves.

Achebe's books both celebrate the richness of traditional Igbo culture and acknowledge its limitations; they both criticize the excesses and abuses of Westernization and acknowledge its positive contributions.

A similar alternation between tolerance and criticism emerged in his talk. His topic was language. In response to the now infamous declaration of Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o that African writers should write in African languages, Achebe commented: "The British did not push language into my face while I was growing up." He chose to learn English and eventually to write in English as a means of "infiltrating the ranks of the enemy and destroying him from within."

Since one of Achebe's intentions in writing Things Fall Apart was to demonstrate to European readers and writers their own incomplete and distorted view of African culture, he needed to write in English. English also enabled him to address a Nigerian audience, Achebe said, for he needed to use a lingua franca, not a tribal language such as Igbo. (Other prominent Nigerian tongues include Yoruba -- Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka's mother tongue -- and Hausa. …

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