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experience.’ First published in 1958, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reshaped both African and world literature. This African novel, written in English, tells the story of the rise and tragic demise of the great tribal warrior Okonkwo, centred on the moment of first contact between his tribe and the European missionaries and colonial governors. A seminal piece of post-colonial literature, Things Fall Apart was intended to “re-educate both the Africans and their colonizers on true African cultures and civilization” (Ogbaa, 1999: 159). Chinua Achebe’s aim as a writer of post-colonial literature was to give the African people back the dignity lost during the colonial period by showing them in human terms what happened to them and what they had lost. To achieve this aim, Achebe elected to employ the novel form, previously seen as a hugely important tool of colonisation. As a literary genre, it had been implicit in the imperial project, and was viewed as a Euro-centric mode of expression, articulating Europe as far more advanced in terms of history and society while projecting the ‘other’, such as Africa, as peripheral, barbaric, and uncivilized. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe seizes the colonial form of the novel and uses it to challenge the colonisers claim to culture, to demolish the cultural presumptions of European writers of novels about Africa. He also seeks to reappropriate the history of his homeland by revealing the stories the novel traditionally did not tell. Over the course of this brief essay it is my aim to illustrate exactly how the author adapts and reshapes the novel form to express the African experience. In terms of post-colonial literature such as Achebe’s, and what it aims to achieve, one of the most contentious features is the language the work is written in, language being the “fundamental
site of struggle for post-colonial discourse because the colonial process itself begins in language” (Ashcroft, 1999: 283). The fact that Things Fall Apart is presented to us in a language and form inherited from the colonial power gives rise to the complex debate over whether post-colonial literature should be written in the language of the coloniser, English in Achebe’s case, or the writer’s native tongue. This argument is one which has cast its shadow over Achebe's work his entire career, yet one to which he has willingly and eloquently contributed. In their Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Childs and Williams neatly sum up the overall nature of this debate when they say that “on the one hand, using European languages and European forms such as the novel in order to oppose European ideologies and representations on their own terrain can be a very powerful act; on the other, continuing to use non-native forms can seem like a compounding of European devaluing of indigenous languages and cultural practices” (1997: 107). While Achebe represents the most famous exponent of the former argument, it is the exiled Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who embodies the later. For Ngugi, to be post-colonial and to write in the language of the coloniser is oxymoronic, and doing so fails to establish a true post-colonial identity. Ngugi views language and culture as primarily fixed and sees them “as the carrier of essential and unchangeable ideological values” (Williams and Chrisman, 1993: 375). To escape from these and establish a post-colonial identity, he has elected to write in his native language of Gikuyu rather than English, unlike Achebe. Ngugi sees various connections between language and culture, and views the continued use of the coloniser’s language as leading to an overlap between political and cultural identities, and so believes that the use of English does not allow for true expression of the African experience. (Loomba, 2005: 80).
Achebe takes the opposite, albeit more controversial stance however, and maintains that African writers can, and indeed should, Africanise European languages as a form of “national selfdetermination and inter-ethnic communication”, because there are great advantages to writing in a world language (Williams and Chrisman, 1993: 375). It is this vision that allows Achebe to adapt the novel form, and the language of the coloniser, to express the African experience. In his famous essay on the subject, The African Writer and the English Language, he unapologetically states that “I have been given this language, and I intend to use it”, while also saying that he sees the production of African literature in English as representative of a “new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language” (Achebe in Williams and Chrisman, 1993: 434). For Achebe then, although it is implicitly bound to the imperial process, he views language and culture itself as far more fluid elements of identity than Ngugi does, especially on a continent with such complex tribal and national relationships as Africa, and believes that “history does not dictate the cultural values and forms which can attach to the language” (Williams and Chrisman, 1993: 375). In his adaptation of the novel form, Achebe remains convinced that English language will be able to carry the weight of his African experience, but that it will have to be a “new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home, but altered to suit its new African surroundings” (Achebe in Williams and Chrisman, 1993: 434) In order to Africanise English then, Achebe develops a form of language that employs the rhythms, phrases and syntactic devices of the Igbo language. Therefore, he forces the English tongue into a hybrid that is at once universal while at the same time capable of carrying and expressing the African consciousness. Achebe’s indigenous novel is infused with African culture through its folk tales, proverbs and colloquial songs. While we may read the novel in
English words, the Igbo culture represented in the novel is given voice through these, along with proper Igbo names, rituals and festivals. The proverb, notable by its absence in the European literary canon, becomes a prominent feature of Things Fall Apart. Achebe himself describes proverbs as “the palm-oil with which Igbo words are eaten”, illustrating their centrality to the Igbo oral and written discourse, and their prominence here imbues this novel with a sense of the African experience (Ogbaa, 1999: 8). Achebe’s characters’ speech is also pocked with the phrases that remain in the Igbo language, such as obi, ekwe, ogene, uli and iba, inviting the reader to enter into the Igbo world through the medium of the novel, lead by an insider to their culture - Achebe. Throughout Things Fall Apart, the author expertly constructs a work complete with traditional formal elements of the novel (such as plotstructure, setting, characters, symbols, language etc.), but he deploys these within a unique vocabulary of ‘Africanness’, which according to Kalu Ogbaa, “makes the novel a hybrid genre in terms of verbal art, cultural elements and overall contents – a quality that separates it from the British corpus” (1999: 3). The manner in which Things Fall Apart splices English with Igbo rhythms, proverbs and words was revelatory and is a major element in his successful adaptation of the novel form to express the African experience. All of this illustrates how Achebe Africanised and adapted the language of the coloniser in order to express a uniquely African way of encompassing reality. As well as his choice and use of language, another feature of Achebe’s adaptation and reshaping of the novel form is his overall representation of Africa. The African space offered to us in Things Fall Apart is at odds with previous renderings of the continent by traditional novelists, most famously Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s novel functions as a riposte to the colonial
discourse on Africa, and as I have outlined, sought to re-appropriate the representation of Africa and demolish the cultural presumptions of European writers of novels about Africa. Typically, Africa was presented as a blank space without a culture worth speaking of, and was set up as a foil to Europe, in contrast with “Europe’s own state of spiritual grace” (Achebe, 1977: 18). Conrad, and other writers of the traditional European novel concerned with Africa, had presented the continent as devoid of history, social structure and civilisation: “But there was one yet – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after” (Conrad: 1995, 21). The African natives were also dehumanised by this representation and described as “savages”, “black shadows” and “primitives”, and perceived as lacking a credible language of their own. It was not just in the novel that Africa suffered this misrepresentation however, for even esteemed thinkers such as Hegel opined that the continent “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit…. Africa is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped spirit” (Hegel, 2001: 17). In response to this, Achebe uses his novel to show that African history “was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (Achebe, in Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin. 2002: 125). The author achieves this by populating this previously ‘blank’ space with people, culture, history, civilization, legends, communities and very human characters such as Okonkwo and Obierika. From the opening chapter of the book the reader is given insight into the history of Okonkwo and Umuofia, place names such as Mbiano are mentioned, Igbo legends such Amalinze the Cat re-told, indigenous musical rhythms fills the air, while local traditions and customs are revealed. This pattern is repeated throughout the book, with Achebe forcing his reader into acknowledging the rich and vital history and culture of Africa, which stands in stark contrast to the ‘blank’ space
presented by Conrad. The ending of Achebe’s novel also serves as a retort to the traditional colonial discourse on Africa, with the Commissioner ironically confining the history revealed in Things Fall Apart to a mere paragraph in his work The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, echoing Conrad’s Kurtz’s pamphlet Suppression and Savage Customs. By giving voice to those who were given no right of reply by the arbitrary gaze of the European novel, and revealing the hidden cultures, Chinua Achebe readjusts the boundaries of this literary form and manages to express the African experience. Another adaptation of the novel form made by Things Fall Apart that manages to capture the African experience is Achebe’s distinct use of the oral story telling traditions of the Igbo culture. For the postcolonial African writer, to create art that is at once part of the novel tradition and at the same time distinct from it, there is a great importance in “recovering a sense of the importance of African oral art as the indigenous equal of the European literary tradition”. (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin, 2002: 126) The western narrative technique Achebe adapts to tell his story is laced with the Igbo narrative technique. Therefore, while Conrad may have mistakenly searched for a written history, what Achebe presents us with in Things Fall Apart is a folk history every bit as legitimate, and in doing so “gives lie to the one-sided and murky images of Africa that British novelists” such as Conrad and Joyce Cary created in their novels (Ogbaa, 1999: 2-3). This aspect of Achebe’s work has been lauded by certain group of African commentators known as the ‘bolekaja’ critics. In the past, this group of writers have criticised African authors in English such as Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark, who they have lambasted for their “old fashioned, craggy, unmusical language … and a plethora of imported imagery” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin, 2002: 127). However, they have been vocal in their advocacy of the work of Chinua Achebe for its
simplicity, directness and use of the genuine oral traditions of African culture. In this, we see another example of how Achebe managed to adapt the traditional format of the novel in order to express the African experience. Throughout the book, Achebe also manages to remove the novel from the sphere of the individual and uses it as a tool of the community. Although Okonkwo is the central figure of the work, Things Fall Apart is ultimately the story of a community, and those within it. The action of the novel is united and book ended by scenes of community: it opens with Okonkwo in a community activity, wrestling, and closes with Okonkwo in another community scenario when he deliberates about the communal response to the elders being put in jail by the British. In their work, The Empire Writes Back, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin make the point that this “insistence on the social role of the African artist and the denial of the European preoccupation with the individualistic experience has been one of the most important and distinctive features in the assertion of a unique African experience” (2002: 124). This is a view that had previously been put forward by Achebe himself in his early essay, Africa and her Writers. In this, he made the point that the principal feature which set African artists apart from those of the European tradition was that they privileged “the social function of writing over its function as a tool of individual expression” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin, 2002: 125). The traditional body of European work reveals a trend of writing concerned with individual from its earliest roots such as Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist. However, as I have outlined Achebe departs from this style and incorporates the communal element of African life into his novel, thus conveying the African experience more fully. Overall, as I have repeatedly outlined in this essay, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart adapts and reshapes the traditional novel form in
order to fulfil the author’s aims and to truly express the African experience. Achebe creates what can be seen as a traditional novel, yet recreates it through his insightful use of language, customs and characters, the oral tradition and traditional African sense of community, all brought together skilfully by the renowned writer. As well as this, Achebe re-appropriates the historical portrait of Africa and the Igbo tribe and puts forward a fair and balanced vision of their culture, in response to previously biased representations. African critic Kalu Ogbaa best sums up the achievement and impact of Achebe’s novel in his study of the work, when he says that “the local colour that Achebe gave to the standard aspects of the novel in Things Fall Apart became a model for other Nigerian and African novelists” (1999: 187)
Reference List Achebe, Chinua. ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’. Massachusetts Review, 1977. Achebe, Chinua. ‘The African Writer and the English Language’, (1975) in Williams and Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and PostColonial Theory: A Reader. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Penguin, 2001. Ashcroft, Bill. (ed) The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1999. Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth and Tiffin, Helen (eds.). The Empire Writes Back. London: Routledge, 2002. Childs, Peter and Williams, Patrick. An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1995. Hegel, GWF. The Philosophy of History. Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2001. Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/ Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 2005.
Ogbaa, Kalu. Understanding Things Fall Apart. London: Greenwood Press, 1999.
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