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Things come together

February 27, 2008 |  4:13 pm

Chinua "Things fall apart, things come together," Colum McCann said Tuesday night from the stage at New York’s Town Hall, not quite halfway through the PEN American Center tribute to Chinua Achebe and the 50th anniversary of his revolutionary novel, "Things Fall Apart." When Achebe’s first novel was published in 1958, African literature was nonexistent territory; by looking at the effects of colonialism on tribal culture, he literally dreamed an entire genre into being.

McCann was just one of a number of writers who came to Town Hall to pay homage to the work. Chris Abani--like Achebe, a Nigerian--opened his remarks by speaking in Ibo before switching to what he called "the more primitive language" of English. Abani recalled that, as a boy, his brother hand-copied "Things Fall Apart" into a notebook to impress a girlfriend with the novel; it was the first time, Abani said, that he ever understood the aphrodisiac power of the written word.

The tribute’s most affecting moments were almost entirely personal: Edwidge Danticat noted that Achebe was the first writer she’d ever came across with a name as strange as hers; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about growing up in Nigeria and identifying with the white boys and girls in her English children’s books, as if it were inconceivable that her own stories could ever exist on the written page.

This is one of the key legacies of "Things Fall Apart," that it offered permission to a half-century’s worth of writers, declaring forcefully and without apology, that literature could encompass any and all stories, that everyone should have a stake. Fifty years later, it hardly seems a stretch to suggest that without Achebe’s novel, we would be a literary culture with fewer voices, less engagement, less of a sense of how wide a world that writers can (and ought to) engage.

Of course, Achebe wrote "Things Fall Apart" in English, which was a source of controversy in itself. Why tell a tribal story in the language of the colonizers? Didn’t this make him a collaborator in some way? Both Ha Jin and Toni Morrison addressed this issue at Town Hall, Morrison by reading part of a 1960s essay in which Achebe argued that such designations were always overly simplistic, that it was impossible to strip away the language of the oppressors even if the oppression itself were systematically destroyed. In that sense, "Things Fall Apart" is not just the starting point of an African literature, but also of a modern African literature: contemporary, hybrid, global in its implications, influenced by everything, and richer in its evocation of the world.

At the end of the evening, Achebe, now 78, appeared onstage in his wheelchair, wearing a black beret. He spoke briefly, slowly, noting his surprise that a tribute to a novel about Africa could fill a 1,000-seat theater in New York. He described how the book had changed him and said that he had not written it, but it had written him.

Things fall apart, things come together. If you want to know what books mean, you could do a lot worse than to start with Achebe.

David L. Ulin

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