I am a major bookworm! I’m currently in the final month of the final year of my undergraduate course in English Literature and my dissertation explores the representation of the father in West African literature. Of course one of my primary texts is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. So when I saw that the Southbank Centre was hosting a live reading of this monumental text this Sunday, I had to find out more.
This event will mark both 60 years since its publication in 1958 and the reopening of Southbank Center’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Curated and abridged by editor and literary critic, Ellah Allfrey, the stage will be shared by stars such as Adesua Etomi, Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, award-winning Nigerian authors Chibundu Onuzo and Ben Okri OBE and publisher Margaret Busby OBE.
I spoke with Ellah Allfrey (a Zimbabwean-born editor and literary critic) and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Ugandan novelist) about Things Fall Apart.
How old were you when you first read Things Fall Apart?
EA: I really don’t remember. All I know is that it is a book that was always in my father’s study and from an early age I read and re-read all those titles. I do remember, however, being at my desk as a very junior editorial assistant at Penguin Books (I was in my early thirties when I came into publishing) and noting, with dismay, that it was not on the Classics shelf. Finding a way to bring it there was my first taste of the potential for change when one finds oneself at the right desk, at the right time and with a voice.
JNM: I was eight. I had run out of reading material that day and was rummaging through my father’s bookshelf for something readable when I came upon it. I picked it up because it was thin. I had never read an African novel. It was so engrossing I felt trapped in the realness. For all the abridged Brontes, Dickens, Twain I had read, the characters/places were not real. This was too real. I knew all the characters. They lived in my village. After Ikemefuna’s death, I put it away. Too much anxiety. That day when my father came home I followed him around the house looking at his hands, just to remind myself that he loved me. At the time, that book was not fiction: it was too, too real.
What were your first thoughts?
EA: It’s a powerful book. Beautifully structured and meticulously crafted. Along with the story – one that is both of its time and timeless – the language throughout is exhilarating in its originality and moulding of English to speak an African tongue.
JNM: Why don’t Africans write happy novels? I held Achebe responsible for Ikemefuna. If I had met him then, I would tell him, you killed Ikemefuna; it was wrong. Okonkwo should have been romantic. Unoka should have been a local celebrity. Later, I read The River Between and I thought Ikemefuna should have married Nyambura – crazy!
On re-reading recently, what resonated with you most?
EA: I was very interested in how Achebe writes of women – with great subtlety. I read all the accounts of the quotidian domestic tasks of village life as an acknowledgement of the role that people play. He is equally crafty in that every time a man is belittled for being ‘effeminate’, rather than this being merely a put-down, it allows great insight into the flaws of the character making the remark. And so we see a critique of masculinity that is entirely embedded in character. That takes a writer of remarkable skill.
JNM: Most recently I thought how feminist, how queer this novel is! Am I mad? Am I the only one seeing it? That novel is a chameleon.
Has Achebe influenced your work in any way? If so, how?
EA: I am inspired by all the writers and publishers of previous generations who had the audacity to claim the novel as our (Africans across the continent and diaspora) own and to bend and cajole the form to tell necessary stories.
JNM: I don’t write happy novels either. More seriously, Achebe gave me permission to harass the English language without letting up. I’ve also discovered that a book unlocks its secrets slowly. Re-reading is wonderful.
Margaret Bubsy also shared a few words with me on this timeless text. Busby was the youngest and first black female publisher in the UK, completely changing that diversity means in publishing.
In the 60s she co-founded publishing company Allison & Bubsy and went on to edit Daughters of Africa, a collection of fiction, essays and other literary forms. This text includes the work of over 200 women from across the African continent and diaspora. This publisher is currently working on New Daughters of Africa, due to be released next year and I am very excited for it! When speaking of Achebe and his text she had this to say:
I first read Things Fall Apart when I was a teenager in the 1960s. Achebe had a profound influence on me. He was the first African writer I bought – I hadn’t read any African/Black writers in my formal curriculum at school or when studying English at London University. Starting with Things Fall Apart, I began to collect all the Heinemann African Writers Series titles.
Achebe – like other early writers such as Flora Nwapa, Ngugi, etc – was a trailblazer for other writers I would go on to publish, such as Buchi Emecheta. It was inspiring to meet him in his hometown Ogidi in 1983 and to have his participation in an Africa edition of The Guardian magazine I co-edited in 1989. Taking part in [the South Bank Centre’s] event is a way to honour him and how much he has meant to so many people over the past 60 years.
I am currently counting down the hours until Sunday! Will you be joining these women and many others in celebrating the work of this brilliant writer? For more information about this event and to reserve your tickets, click here.