caption: Girl on Globe 2, Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare
N4 artists explore how Achebe's novel about colonialism speaks to our post-colonial era.
Why Read Things Fall Apart?
Emmanuel Iduma is the author of A Stranger’s Pose, a travel memoir. His essays and art criticism have been published in The New York Review of Books, Aperture, Best American Travel Writing 2020, Artforum, and Art in America. I Am Still with You, his memoir on the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war, is forthcoming.
No matter the historical significance of a story, what remains in our memory are the human beings who moved within it. Things Fall Apart is no exception. Though it was set in pre-colonial Ibo society, before the British arrived hyping their customs as being superior, modern, and God-sent, and renamed it Nigeria, and though it has immense significance in the worlds of history and English literature, its most lasting imprint is that of one man’s fight against forces of change that he was powerless to resist alone. Until Things Fall Apart was published, no other book by a Nigerian (and some would say African), captured the pre-colonial time with such an eye for the anarchy “loosed upon the world,” to quote the Yeats poem from which the book gets its title. On the face of it, Things Fall Apart is the story of how one man’s life, Okonkwo’s, falls apart when he is confronted with once-in-an-epoch change. Yet much more is at stake in the novel. The first part tells us how the Umuofia people lived, and what they valued: wrestling and war, worth as measured by farmland and the number of wives one marries, the worship of their own gods, feasts, ceremonies of marriage etc. In other words, their own way of life. The detailed accounts of those customs provide the necessary background for what follows. When we read the quick paced incidents of the second and third parts, Okonkwo’s tragedy at the end represents a greater, communal one. Okonkwo resents the change the missionaries bring. His self-destructive ambition is to be the hero who would return his village to an unchanged time. Yet, at such a complex time in history—and we could say the same of any generation in any country, undergoing its own peculiar changes—no one can be a self-appointed hero. No one can claim to know what is best for a community without the input of its members. It is far too late when Okonkwo realizes that his murderous action will not stir his village to war against the whites as he had hoped. He is utterly alone. In his other essays, Achebe has spoken of “the middle ground,” that is necessary in order to understand our personal and global histories. Things Fall Apart can therefore be read as Achebe’s story of a Nigerian society caught between the past and unpredictable future, and his invitation for us to consider what it means to be in a middle-ground. Why does a “middle-ground” matter for those who read Things Fall Apart when it was first published, and those who encounter it all these years later? Achebe, it seems, recognized that a middle ground allows for the characterization of those who endured the violence of such eras, to show that they were complicated humans—ambitious, prone to mistakes, full of fear, sometimes selfish, sometimes selfless. In one word, complex.
And why does it matter to read Things Fall Apart now, especially in a country other than Nigeria, where the circumstances and histories that informed the novel are distant, maybe incomparable? Consider how you will act when all you know about yourself—including your spirituality, sense of the future, how you are governed—is threatened by a new political order. Imagine if you find yourself in a society ruled by a dictator. Things Fall Apart teaches us that in unexpected and devastating moments, we are, for better or for worse, shaped by our conviction as individuals.
Questions and Understandings for a Unit
Students could explore the following questions:
How can we...
Students could investigate the following understandings:
Sample Teaching Ideas
What Happens When a Community Falls Apart Achebe’s novel begins before the colonizers arrive and over half the book is devoted to this time in the village. We come to understand the cohesion of this community so that when it is disrupted, we recognize the loss of a community falling apart. It is very clear to the people in this Ibo village that they are losing a way of life, but all around us in modern life we are losing lifeways without being fully conscious of what’s being lost. How do we go through great trouble and survive it, carrying forth something new and beautiful?
Assignment: As a class, first consider the examples of grieving and healing rituals in the novel as well as examples like these:
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Research grieving and healing rituals from a culture you have ancestral connections to. Describe the ritual adhering as closely as possible to the perspective of those who use/used it. Reflect on what we have to grieve as individuals and collectively today and how the act of grief can help us move forward.
Assignment: Identify a modern art piece you love with a social message and its connection to tradition. It can be anything – a sitcom, a TikTok video, a song, a sculpture, a dance, etc. How is that art reimaging tradition for the present moment? How might you create your own work that does the same?
The Fractals at the Heart of African Designs When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized, calling it “primitive.” It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn't even discovered yet. Ron Eglash is an ethno mathematician: he studies the way math and cultures intersect. He has shown that many aspects of African design — in architecture, art, even hair braiding — are based on perfect fractal patterns. You can learn more here: Ron Eglash: The fractals at the heart of African designs | TED Talk. Assignment There are two ways this idea could be explored. 1) Learn more about fractals and how they play out in nature and technology. 2) Explore the European assumption of “primitive” as a missed opportunity for learning and growth. What does this suggest about lost knowledge? Consider exploring something that you have been dismissive about and generate questions to help identify its value. Can we define a framework to approach something unfamiliar with the lens of curiosity rather than judgment?
Assignment Collect other instances of time, and time passing, in the novel, and examples of time from your daily life. Share these with your peers and discuss our attitudes towards time, why we structure it that way and how that structure defines how we live.