The very first African novel I ever read was Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It was (very thankfully) part of my ninth grade world literature curriculum. It was the first out of three or four times that I would read the novel (so far) in my life, and the first of stacks and stacks of African novels from across the continent that I would eventually read.
When the author, Achebe, was a student he read many of the great European classics, and books written about Africa by white Europeans, but he was frustrated to find that there was nothing written from an African perspective. One of his professors challenged him to write, to be the first, and Things Fall Apart was born in 1958.
The thing that stuck out the most in the book for me is the last paragraph. I’ve had discussions with other people who have read the book, who weren’t as haunted by the last few lines, but it always lingered for me…
For those of you who have not read the book, the novel is about Okwonkwo, an Igbo villager whose lifespan straddles the time period before the arrival of Europeans to just after their arrival. It is an entire book which describes his life in detail, his exploits as a wrestler and yam farmer, participation in village life, and conflicts of social taboos and Igbo culture.
[Spoiler alert] At the very end of the novel, chaos ensues, and the new white commissioner of the area observes the final vestiges of the story. The book ends with the white foreigner, who is in the middle of writing his own book about Africa, imagining the circumstances of Okonkwo’s death as an interesting “chapter…perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate” in his book. The last line is, “He had already chosen the title of the book… The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”
It haunted me because in so many ways it rang true, how little “outsiders” really know about a culture, and how an entire complex book about a man’s life could so easily be brushed off as a passing anecdote in another man’s story. It’s like how we can watch the nightly news and be removed enough from stories about the Pakistani floods to not be moved to tears and horrified by the images.
Achebe’s message of “it’s time for us to write our own stories” gives me a bit of an internal struggle. I whole heartedly agree that others shouldn’t be spoken for, I love reading stories in the voices of people who come from that culture and can truly understand its context.
But then there is me… a person who is interested in other cultures, who (at least on this blog) writes about a culture that is not my own.
I certainly have enough posts that come from my genuine perspective as a person trying to interact with Nepali society, but I also have posts commentating on history and culture where I am removed and the point is to explain more about Nepal in general to an audience who might not be as familiar. I don’t want to speak on behalf of a whole other nation or culture(s), and I certainly welcome people to correct me when I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or incorrectly wrote something, but I also want to share all of the interesting stories, experiences and insights that I too have learned over the years, and to use writing to prompt me to investigate and learn more for myself.
This also comes on the cusp of when I’ve almost grown enough confidence to try and start writing a story whose characters are all Nepali. I wonder out loud if this is kosher?
So I was thinking about all of this stuff when my boss forwarded me a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a young Nigerian author whose novels I admire. She talked about the “danger of the single story” in her twenty minute speech:
I like to think that I am expanding the “single story” about Nepal for people who are not from there, but are interested to know more. It’s more than just Mt. Everest and Sherpa porters (Can You See Everest From Your House?, “Identity” by Bhuwan Dhungana), more than just colorful festivals and Tibetan prayer flags. And I hope our intercultural life also gives insight to others.
So those are my jumbled thoughts early on a Thursday morning.