Achebe’s Death Reminded Me

Friday morning I learned Chinua Achebe had died.

photo by Stuart C. Shapiro, used under GNUFDL

Upon hearing this news, I was instantly taken back to a Postcolonial Literature course I took as an undergraduate. That was such an amazing class. Looking back, there were two college courses that had a profound impact on me, classes which (with professors who) really stretched and challenged my mind: 20th Century Harmony, and Postcolonial Literature.

As it is in many Postcolonial Lit classes around the country, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was required reading. I loved it, how the sentences were simply stated yet expressed so much. I’m pretty sure I read the entire book in one sitting. When the semester was over, I didn’t sell it back to the bookstore as I usually did. Things Fall Apart was granted a permanent place on my bookshelf.

The professor of this class was born and raised in Cameroon. She experienced the impact of French and British colonial rule on her country, and shared those memories with us. She had a melodic voice and an elegant way of speaking, and I hung on every word. Her first-hand experiences added an entirely new dimension to our class discussions, which truly felt like discussions, not lectures. Here in front of us was someone who could attest to the fact that this literature was inspired and shaped by reality. That yes, people really felt this way. People really had these struggles.

I majored in Music Performance and wasn’t required to take the Postcolonial Lit class; it was simply an elective. But I’ve thought about the books and stories we read and discussed that semester so many times over the past 14 years, much more than I ever thought I would. Achebe’s death reminded me of this one semester in my life, when I first started to understand his words: “Literature, whether handed down by word or mouth or in print, gives us a second handle on reality.” (from “What’s Literature Got To Do With It?” in Hopes & Impediments)