Things Fall Apart
I just finished reading Things Fall Apart. It tells the story of an Igbo clan in what’s to become southern Nigeria as the first white man arrives, bringing the dissolution of their integrity as a people. Achebe’s anger against the white church and government is palpable, but he writes in English, himself having been educated in colonial British system, a son of converts. How did he feel about his parents’ conversion? About his own success afforded by his use of English?
Earlier today I tried to talk to my mom about the book because I think it would be interesting for her to read something from the other perspective of the spread of religion. But the book would only reinforce Africans’ primitive barbarity to anyone who is not already open-minded about cultures that don’t resemble one’s own: wicked children that die young are mutilated to discourage them from coming back into their mothers’ wombs again only to die again; a child singled out by the Oracle’s prophesy must be slaughtered without hesitation or deliberation; Okonkwo, the protagonist, wins high prestige in his clan due to the number of men he killed in a fight with another village, as well as his dragging home one of the heads for all to see. Okonwko’s son, Nwoye, chooses Christianity over his own traditions, thinking of the twin babies that were left in the bush to die and the fierce masculinity that was expected of him. He leaves to study in the colonial school. Who does Achebe identify more with?
On a personal note, it is easy for me to accept that some people perform practices that I would not be able to stomach or ever agree to for myself or my family, at least in theory. After some years studying anthropology, reading of the violence of the Igbo considered necessary came as no surprise, and it was not difficult for me to sympathize with their need to protect their customs. I even grimaced when the converts were forced to accept the dreaded outcasts of their society as equal children of the white God, though doing so violated their traditions. But that same feeling turned against me when I considered how the outcasts themselves must have felt in finding a paradigm that would subvert the one that had deemed them eternally sullied and taboo. In Things Fall Apart, converts to the white system were voluntary, so what they provided was actually meeting a need that was felt by enough members that Umofia were rent apart.
Achebe is subtly expressing delicate and nuanced feelings towards British colonization. Things were falling apart, but in the book it’s admitted that white medicine works much faster than the Igbo kind.
The fact that Achebe chose to live in the United States and write in English is telling, but what it tells is not obvious, either. I believe he’s navigated a very complex and difficult identity as successful subaltern in the world, a success that is the product of the clash of his traditional way of life and colonialism. Colonialism may not have been right, but it did not come without its silver linings.