Chris Abani delivered the following speech at PEN’s 2008 Tribute to Chinua Achebe. It appears in PEN America 9: Checkpoints, along with other excerpts from the event. 

By the time I was ten years old I had read everything from The Silver Surfer to Dostoevsky, but I had never read an African novel. My brother Charles was sixteen at the time, and a ladies man, and I, a bookish nerd, was in awe of him. I had crushes on every one of his girlfriends. There was one in particular called Chinue, with whom I was completely in love. So I read a book which was very popular at the time, and which all the older boys told me would work. It was by a Nigerian writer and it was called How to Write Love Letters and Win Girls’ Hearts. I copied out the first paragraph, adding Chinue’s name. “Dear Chinue,” my note read. “I am writing to you from sugar mountain, on coee island, across the milky ocean, broadcasting on this evening breeze the intent of my heart, which is love.” 

Chinue laughed when she read this. “You’re a really good writer,” she said, “almost as good as your brother Charles. You should read the novel he’s writing.” So I snuck into Charles’s room and I found a composition book crammed full of writing, and I was captivated from the first sentence. “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages,” it read, “and even beyond.” Charles had copied out by hand nearly the entirety of Things Fall Apart. This was his shtick for getting girls—and that, I think, is the highest compliment a writer can receive. 

When I finally discovered what Charles had done, I got hold of the actual book and read it in four days. Two weeks later I wrote my first short story. It was called “The Lion” and it was published two weeks after I wrote it. I haven’t stopped since. In many ways—and I don’t think I’m alone in this—I owe my writing career to Chinua Achebe and to Things Fall Apart. 

There is no way to be a writer—and not just an African writer, but a writer in the world, a serious writer—without responding to this book. You’re either working against Things Fall Apart or you’re speaking to Things Fall Apart or you hate Chinua Achebe because he wrote Things Fall Apart and you didn’t. It is central to everything we do. Achebe wrote the first modern African novel, a book which, for the first time, centers on one African individual and addresses all the complexities of the human. It is akin to what Sappho did for poetry when she wrote those lyrics years and years ago in Greece. It has not only shaped the African imagination, but continues to shape the world imagination. 

At the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a couple of years ago, a woman  who was completely covered walked up to me. She said, “I saw you read—you’re a Nigerian writer.” “Yes,” I said. “Do you know Things Fall Apart?” she asked me.  “Yes.”  “Did your family know Okonkwo?” she asked. This character that Achebe created is so alive in the world. He is a testament to the remarkable way one human being’s imagination can intervene in all of our lives.