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Things Fall Apart

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

I’m sorry to say, the first time I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, I did not understand what all the fuss was about. It was required reading as a part of a university course called African History that I did not enjoy, despite my general interest in the subject matter. First of all, yes, they were trying to fit an entire continent’s history into one semester. Secondly, the professor’s teaching and communication style did not suit me at all.

I remember being crammed into a tiny classroom while the professor stood at the front using an overhead projector to display her handwritten notes while she quickly read through her illegible writing. I did not keep up. In fact, I did okay in the class only because I studied with my friend Todd who took copious notes and was much smarter and better at paying attention. (Thanks, Todd.)

So years later, when I was no longer being tested on the material, I read it again. It was like I was reading it for the first time. Not only did I remember nothing from my first time through (that class must have really killed my reading buzz), but I was shocked that I hadn’t fallen in love with it immediately -- despite my challenges with the class.

There’s a reason this book is a classic. Filled with suspense, tragedy, beauty, and conflict, it tells the expansive and complex story of colonialism through the life of one family and community.

The story captures nuance so well. Each character is neither fully good nor fully bad. Every person and community has a sympathetic side, but is also deeply flawed. Okonkwo, the main character, is a tragic hero. He elicits empathy, but I also found him infuriating. The novel illustrates how closely colonial ventures were tied to religion and how authentic faith can be twisted into manipulative oppression. The storyline rightfully criticizes colonialism but doesn’t make the previously-existing society seem utopian (a society does not have to be perfect for its racially motivated overthrow to be tragic and unjust).

I’ve read classics where I understood logically why they were highly acclaimed -- but they didn’t move me or draw me in. This was not one of those books.

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