(image taken from The Guardian)
(image taken from Bibliojunkie)
For our summer reading, before sophomore year of high school, the class was assigned three different staples in what was generally categorized as world literature: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya, and, what would become my favorite of the group, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I was fifteen years old, born and raised in a, relatively speaking, predominantly white and homogeneous community; while I could certainly easily identify South Africa, India, and Nigeria on the map, thanks to a Cold War-era globe discarded in my basement, where the Soviet Union loomed, formidable and frightening, in pale pastels, I had little to no concept on the rich sociopolitical and artistic history of these places. They were, quite simply, without the pedantic and often patronizing associations, completely exotic and foreign to me. Despite being an avid reader, voraciously devouring even assigned school texts with a greedy fervor, these books were ones that I was unlikely to select on my own accord. Mostly because of the element of unfamiliarity. I did not know the titles or the authors prior to being delivered the required summer reading list from my new school.
That summer, while reading about lands far away, in both geographic space and physical time, I was preparing for a less glamorous, but not insignificant, journey, the transition from a small, exclusive private school for girls, where I had endured a successful but miserable freshman year, and the large, inclusive but prestigious public school, where all of my friends from childhood had funneled. Excited to be rejoining my peers and my friends, I was also apprehensive. On a more microscopic scale, I would be entering a new world, in some senses, equally foreign in its social, political, and historical forces and dynamics, as the lands about which I was reading. Not a place experiencing monumental strife, in the throes of imperialization, the first steps of a coerced globalization, but, still, a place of psychological and physiological strife. Where children were trying to become adults, to maneuver who they were as individuals and who they would be, or could be, to others. Nervous as I was confronted with this very real and present problem, I dove into the literary worlds of our assigned books.
Okonkwo, the protagonist of the clenchingly beautiful Things Fall Apart, is the first character I can, still today, recall encountering as a young woman who I simultaneously loathed and felt such a deep sympathy towards. His unbelievable pride, stubborn and unrelenting, like the locked jaw of a pit bull, wild and willed, that cannot budge and open no matter the circumstance, was inspiring and terrifying. To see this man with such resolve, such conviction, sometimes morally guided and rational, sometimes deranged and irrational, moved me. I wanted to shout and beat him with my fists when he abused his wives, his children, and I was furious; at the end though, at his ultimate demise, refusing to yield to the invading Western ideologies, I wept. In other works of literature, I had confronted complex and in some cases unlikable characters, but generally, they had been shifted to a less prominent role in the narrative; they were not, metaphorically, necessarily the hero of the tale. Okonkwo and I, this powerful man, a leader in his tribe, with acerbic anger, little patience, a steadfast and sometimes myopic, but strong, mind, we were so different, and yet, from the weaving of the words, I felt I knew him. I felt I understood his decisions by the end, even those that I had found, initially, so abdominal.
At that point, I had barely ever left my home state, let alone the country; other than seeing it, curved along my antiquated globe, Nigeria was not a tangible place to me. In this book, in Achebe's character, flawed and so marvelously human, I was transported not only into a world so contrary and unlike my own, but into a fictional body so contrary and unlike my own. I remember in the first few weeks of class after that summer, September still hot and suffocating, my peers complained about the choice of books; the pain and the turmoil that they were forced to contend with, the ugliness that introduces itself to so many others when they first come, naked and screaming from between the legs of their mother. From a literary perspective, the books were challenging, but from a cultural perspective, they were, for some, unbearable. Despite their protests and the occasionally stagnant collective conversations, I enjoyed the time we spent on each text in class, the time spent lingering on this man Okonkwo, still strange and alluring, still infuriating, still so pathetic and so awesome.
At a similar juncture in my personal, emotional, and academic life, the book was again assigned; once again a summer reading assignment, this time just before embarking on my days at university. It was the one book that the entire student body was intended to read prior to congregating on campus, forming friendships and other more strategic alliances, prior to attenuating to the flows of weekly ritual. Chinua Achebe came and gave a lecture, an experience that is beyond compare. He seemed old and fragile then, in physical frame, but commanding and sage; there was no doubt that the brutal Okonkwo, his triumphs and his trials, sprang from the mind of this man.
I sincerely hope in large and small towns, cities, communities, in this country and others, this book continues to be assigned, to be recommended, or, better yet, to be discovered among a stack of many at the library or a dusty used book store, and continues to be consumed with an equal sense of fascination, for what lays beyond, before this time and after this time, for the sense of past and of future, of here and of there, but also for what lays within. The power of narrative, of words, as Achebe showed me at an early age, has no bounds.