This month’s speaker at the Jung Society of Atlanta is Jungian Analyst Susan Olson, who will be presenting a lecture titled When Things Fall Apart – Holding our Center in a Broken World. She will be sharing with us a Jungian perspective on how to develop the psychological attitude required to hold our center as the world around us falls to pieces, a timely message for these extraordinary times.
The African Trilogy
It got me thinking about one of my favorite books from high school, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is part one of the African Trilogy that includes Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease. I remember growing up with these books and seeing them, and others from writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Meja Mwangi, and Alex Haley, in our family bookcase (my father was and still is an avid reader), but I never got to read them until I was in high school. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone from my generation who didn’t read Things Fall Apart as a “set book” in high school in Kenya. It was also in high school that I got to know of other authors in the “African Writers Series”, including Francis Imbuga, Ali Mazrui, and Shaaban Robert (remember Kusadikika?).
Recently, I was thrilled to learn from my friend’s daughter that American high schoolers today are reading Achebe in their African literature classes. It is inspiring that so many generations across the world continue to enjoy Achebe’s storytelling, just like I did decades ago. Here is what some of my favorite people have said about Achebe’s work:
Toni Morrison: “His courage and generosity are made manifest in the work”.
Nelson Mandela: “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down”.
Barack Obama: “A true classic of world literature….A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.”
Reading Achebe’s masterpiece in Form 1 was for me pure joy, and made for some memorable memories from my high school days (shout out to Mrs Linge and Mrs Gathenji). We took turns to read aloud, discussed the story and characters, laughed at their foibles, memorized and recited parts of the book that we loved, and learned Igbo phrases and proverbs. A class favorite was: “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said it would praise itself if no one else did”, which I translate as permission for me to highlight my own achievements, whether or not the world acknowledges them.
Achebe’s title for his novel was inspired by W.B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
In the novel, Achebe describes the fate that befalls our tragic hero, Okonkwo, and his community in Umuofia, as they reckon with the forces of colonialism that descend upon them, creating and exacerbating divisions among the people, testing their values, identity, traditions, and their vision for their future. Achebe writes that although Okwonkwo was young, “he was clearly cut out for great things….As the elders said, if a child washed his hands, he could eat with kings.” (Achebe, 1958, p. 9).
What I love about Achebe’s writing is his ownership and command of language and use of African expressions in such a natural and vivid style that he takes us right into the village with Okonkwo, sitting with the elders, eating kola nut, watching the wrestling matches, gossiping with the wives, contemplating the fate of the people.
Lately I’ve been feeling inspired by the novels of my youth, which keep showing up unexpectedly in my conversations and readings. So I decided to buy Achebe’s African Trilogy and reread it. I can’t wait to immerse myself in Achebe’s masterful writing and rediscover the words and stories that delighted me so many years ago. (And brush up on my Igbo proverbs.)
Achebe, Chinua. (1958). Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann.
W. B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming from the Poetry Foundation.