Dispatches | June 20, 2007

One week ago today, the Man Booker International prize, now in its third year of existence (the biennial prize was first given in 2005, to Albanian Ismail Kadare), was awarded to the seventy-six-year-old Nigerian literary icon Chinua Achebe. The award carries a 60,000-pound cash prize, along with the obvious international acclaim that may help to compensate for the fact that Achebe has never won the Nobel Prize. Shortlisted for the award was an impressive group of writers that included Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Michael Ondatje, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Amos Oz and seventy-eight-year-old Carlos Fuentes, who was reportedly Achebe’s closest rival for what is shaping up as a new and important lifetime literary achievement award.

I had the pleasure of revisiting Achebe’s early-career masterpiece two years ago, when I taught Things Fall Apart in an eight-week literature class for adult learners at a local college. I have taught literature to adult learners for a number of years. Typically my students have not done well in high school, and so they decided college wasn’t for them. Or finances or early pregnancies or marriages prevented them from going on to higher education at the usual time. If they don’t always come to my classes with honed critical abilities, they have life experience beyond their years. As a consequence, they engage with literature in intense and sometimes unusual ways.

The class I was teaching, a survey of British (and colonial) literature from the late eighteenth century to the present, was atypical in that there were more black students than white. I can’t remember what work by what white person I had planned to wind up with, but on the first day of class, looking at the racial mix and wondering how much connection my students were going to find with the Romantic poets that led off the curriculum, I made a fast switch. Things Fall Apart was in our anthology. I hadn’t read it in many years, but it seemed only right to end with something African.

As the course drew to a close, I was apprehensive. My students have jobs, families, not much time to read. Some of them are very slow readers. I seldom teach novels, even short ones. Would they read the whole book? This was especially worrisome because I had allotted several days to discussion of the novel. But I found that just as I was mesmerized by the dignified tragedy of the book, so were my students. They were also angry and argumentative in a way that I had forgotten it was possible to be about an invented story. They had a little trouble leaping the cultural boundaries, but that made the discussions very lively. What was wrong with Okonkwo that he treated his wives like that? How could he beat his youngest wife during the Week of Peace? A turning point in the story is Okonkwo’s decision to ignore advice and participate in the killing of Ikemefuna, a youth originally given to the village as a peace offering. Ikemefuna has been living with Okonkwo’s family and is like another son to him, yet Okonkwo kills the boy without hesitation to demonstrate his strength and obedience to an oracle. My weakest student and reader, who had barely hung on all semester, became so involved with the novel that she knew every detail—things the rest of us didn’t pick up on. She told me that on the evening when she read about Okonkwo killing Ikemefuna she was so upset that she couldn’t sleep all night.

To have written a book that remains relevant almost fifty years later, that engages weak readers and non readers and disturbs to the point of sleeplessness, is an incredible thing to have done. Those are among the criteria for a literary masterpiece. In itself even writing a masterpiece does not make one worthy of an international literature prize of this caliber, but the body of Achebe’s work as a whole and his position as a lifelong opponent of Western influence and Western stereotypes of Africa have earned him deserved recognition.

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