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Chinua Achebe’s Significance to Me

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Acebe speaking in Buffalo, NY Sept 25, 2008. Photo by Stuart C. Shapiro.

Around the world, people are reflecting on Chinua Achebe and mourning his death.  One of my favorite NPR reporters, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, did this beautiful report from Lagos, Nigeria.  I want to add my own appreciation to the mix.

Through his novel Things Fall Apart, Achebe introduced the world to the colonial experience from the perspective of the colonized.  He resisted any temptation to paint an idealized portrait of traditional Igbo society.  The main character, Okonkwo, brings suffering on himself and others through lack of impulse control and deep seated fears, and there is no refuge for the son who can’t live up to his expectations.  There is a violent conflict with another village and an oracle orders the death of a very appealing young man.  On the other hand, there is a justice system and a sense of social order; children are cared for, food is grown and bought and sold, people entertain each other and work together most of the time.  It is a civilization that looks completely different from that of the western world, but Achebe makes it make sense to western readers.

If we were to visit the world of this novel on our own, most of us would be utterly lost.  Achebe, however, was one of those rare and magnificent communicators who can reach across a great gulf of understanding and bring people to the other side.  Such people have made an enormous difference in my life–people in Greece and Israel and India and Durham, NC who have helped me understand what was going on around me, who have given me access to different ways of thinking and living.  Achebe will continue to do that for millions of readers.  What a wonderful gift to the world!

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