Chinua Achebe: 'Things Fall Apart' Author Wrote The First Major English Novel From An African Perspective

By | June 14, 2020

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(History Today)

Prior to the 20th century, almost every English novel about Africa was written from the perspective of a white person. Because of that, Africans were presented as primitive, impacting the English-speaking world's perceptions of a whole continent full of people with a wide variety of cultures. When Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, he not only wrote the first widely released English novel from African perspective, he demolished the idea that its people were some kind of alien species who lacked the complexity of their white counterparts. Following its release, Things Fall Apart quickly rose to its status as one of the greatest novels ever written.

He Discovered (And Detested) European Literature In College

Born on November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe grew up in the Nigerian town of Ogidi among the Igbo people. At the time, Achebe was surrounded by Protestant missionaries and family members who had converted to Christianity. He was called "Albert" for much of his young life, but he was drawn towards the Igbo culture, specifically their long-cultivated tradition of storytelling.

Achebe attended primary school at a Christian institution before moving on to University College in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1948. Initially, he wanted to study medicine, but after he was exposed to European literature in the school's library, he couldn't shake his disgust at the way African characters were written. They were painted as either savages or goodhearted simpletons, never as nuanced as white European characters. Following this discovery, Achebe changed his major to English and theology and began writing short stories about his early life in Ogidi.

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(New York Review Of Books)

From Teacher To Media To Fiction

After taking a job at the Merchants of Light school at Oba, an institution that was coming apart at the seams, Achebe was determined to raise his students' literacy rate and enhance their literary education. He printed copies of newspapers for them and brought in any book he could get to supplement the poor selection at the school library.

Four months after taking the job, however, he moved on to the Talks Department of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. It was in this position that Achebe came to understand the subtle differences between the written language of English and the printed version, using this new information to begin his first novel. At the time, few African writers had produced work in English, so he ventured into the unknown territory of what an African-English novel should look and sound like.