by Chris Abani
Igbo culture is comprised of a cosmology, philosophy of self and the world, environmental awareness, symbiotic relationship to the earth and the natural and supernatural world, ritual, social contracts and conduct and so much more, all woven into a language of being that is only nominally transactional, but which instead performs a profound reach into the ineffable.
Everything in Igbo is inferential and malleable and ever evolving. In Igbo we call this Omenala and it is transmitted in its entirety in the language. Achebe is easily the greatest novelist of that language and culture and one of his greatest achievements as a writer was in creating an English syntax in his novels that could not only imitate the tonal speech qualities of Igbo, but he also has been able to translate Omenala and give it a life outside its own immediate culture, reaching out to a larger wider world.
Every writer hopes to write the definitive book of their career, but we all secretly hope that it is the last book we write before we pass on. For Chinua Achebe this remained true. For his true fans, those of us who read everything he wrote, “Arrow of God” and “Anthills of the Savannah” remain his best novels, as an essayist he excelled, and the last installment of his memoir was some of his best and most honest work.
The unfortunate thing for Achebe is that “Things Fall Apart” eclipsed all his other work in terms of its reception and readership, and in many ways also eclipsed even its writer’s name. This is both a blessing and a drawback for the creative artist because it means that most readers will never explore the amazing evolution of Achebe’s work. But he remains beloved and deeply respected by every Nigerian because “Things Fall Apart” marked such a moment of cultural pride for us. Chinua Achebe changed the world’s perception of continental Africa and Africans and gave every African writer who came after him a compass heading to steer forward from.
As a writer I have fought with Achebe. Railed against the anthropological bent of some of his work. Struggled with his complicated positioning of gender. Chaffed against his statements that were often presented as unassailable truths. Tried to push “Things Fall Apart” out of the sun a little so that other writers from Eddie Iroh, Festus Iyayi, Okphewo to the more recent ones can also grasp and command the world’s imagination (and I am grateful Adichie has succeeded in the ways she has in this regard) such that we do not remain a people caught in the beautiful yet anachronistic moment of “Things Fall Apart.” And yet in the end, I have to admit that I did not only admire him, at some level, as a literary son, I loved him. Everything that I have described is the complicated struggle between father and son. And in the same way as it is with fathers and sons, I realise only after his death just how much I loved him.
In Omenala the ending of things is as important as their beginnings. Achebe ended his life like an elder, a man with dignity. In his books we have the collected wisdom of a life well lived, and his books will allow us to visit with him always, even in death.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Chris Abani, a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, for Wall Street Journal