Chinua Achebe's classic novel, Things Fall Apart, is celebrating its 50th year. A common read in high school curricula, the novel was enjoyed by both of my children. When the kids came home and told me that Achebe himself was going to read from the novel, I figured we would check it out. Chris, the kids, and I went to George Mason University to hear him read from his works. We also were treated to a traditional libation ceremony performed in his native Ibo language.
I had not ever read the book, so I spent time doing just that before the event. I'm glad I did. The book packs quite an emotional wallop, and I can only imagine how shocking a book it must have been when it came out in 1958.
Okonkwo, Achebe's main character, is a Nigerian who has grown to be a man, a husband (to multiple wives), and a father (to many, many children) following the mores, customs, and laws of his people. But his world is changing, faster than he is willing to recognize and accept. A harsh man, he reacts fiercely to adversity. Through his story, we learn about another land, another way of life.
Kids today often read books about other cultures, other lands, but in 1958, this was not the case. Described as Africa's first story by some, Things Fall Apart, flew in the face of Conrad's description in Heart of Darkness of African men as people of no language, no storytelling. Achebe mentioned that specifically before reading to us.
"When you write a book and read from it often, you learn new things all the time. I learned for instance that I was clearly reacting to Conrad when I wrote Things Fall Apart."
In addition to reading some of his poetry, some in English and some in his native Ibo, Achebe read one of my favorite passages from Things Fall Apart. In the story, one of Okonkwo's elders on his mother's side asks him a question: "Why is it that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka or 'Mother is Supreme'?"
"It is true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme."
Achebe's courtly manner and his lilting accent heightened the impact of the words as he answered the question.
When asked why he named the book Things Fall Apart, Achebe said he was "showing off." He drew the title from Yeats' "The Second Coming":
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Achebe graciously signed copies of his books for the many, many people who waited in line. It's always a thrill for me to listen to authors read their own words. In the case of an iconic work like Things Fall Apart, it was also a privilege.