Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 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. 

I grew up in Nsukka, on the campus of the University of Nigeria. My father was a professor, my mother was an administrator. My mother says I started to read at age two; four is probably closer to the truth. At first, I read mostly British children’s books, in which all the characters were white and ate apples and played in the snow and had dogs called Socks. I was also an early writer and wrote stories in exercise books and illustrated them with crayons. All my characters were white and blue-eyed and played in the snow and ate apples and had dogs called Socks. This despite the fact that we lived in a town in eastern Nigeria where it rained instead of snowed and where we ate mangoes and cashews instead of apples. I didn’t know that people like me could exist in books. I had assumed that books, by their very nature, had to have English people in them. 

Then I read Things Fall Apart. For me, it was a glorious shock of discovery. Here was a book with characters who had familiar names like Okonkwo and Ezinma. Here was a book that had expressions I found familiar. “When a man says yes, his chi says yes, also,” the book read—and I knew the Ibo version. I grew up bilingual, speaking Ibo and English at the same time, often speaking Ibo and English in the same sentence—and here was a book whose aesthetics so accurately captured my bilingual world. Yet despite its familiarity, the book was also exotic. These characters did not have cars or telephones, things I took for granted. And they had foufou for breakfast: I considered foufou too heavy, inappropriate for breakfast. 

Only years later, looking back, did I realize what a huge mental shift the discovery of Things Fall Apart was for me. It did not happen overnight, but slowly I stopped writing about the England I did not know at all and started to write about the small slice of Nigeria I did know. 

I was educated in a system that taught me nothing of my precolonial past—and so Things Fall Apart became strangely personal. It became the life that my great-grandfather had lived. Later I read other books about Africa— books which said we had no history; accounts of Africa as a place of anarchic darkness until colonialism came; accounts in which Africa was defined by negatives, by what it was not and what it did not have; accounts in which I was told that Africa was dying and I was never told how Africa lived. I would feel almost overwhelmed by that peculiarly African feeling of vulnerability and defensiveness that comes with somehow having to prove your humanity to others. And so I would turn to Things Fall Apart. 

And when, turning to this novel, I wanted to reach in and smack Okonkwo when he beat his wife; when I identified with the wonderful, brilliant, fierce Ezinma; when I felt a deep affection for the gentle, flute-playing Unoka; when I read the many beautiful proverbs; when I encountered its stark, sheer poetry—Achebe’s novel would serve as a gentle reprimand. What it said to me was: “Don’t you dare think that you did not have a complex past.” 

I know I’m not the only one for whom Things Fall Apart is personal. I have often heard many Nigerians argue quite fiercely about whether Okonkwo really should’ve killed Ikemefuna and whether or not Nwoye was a good son. What has always struck me is how Okonkwo and Nwoye and Ikemefuna are spoken about in these arguments as though they are real. And indeed, they are. Chinua Achebe created characters that are real because they are vibrantly alive in our imaginations. 

On the campus of the University of Nigeria, the staff lived in houses owned by the university. The year that I turned six, my family moved into a bigger house with a staircase that at first terrified me. The family that had just moved out, I learned later, was the Achebe family. I’m not sure if I realized how significant a coincidence this was until I mentioned it some years ago to an editor before my first novel came out. “You know,” I said to her, “it’s really interesting that I grew up in a house that Chinua Achebe had previously lived in.” She stopped and stared at me and said, “No, it’s not interesting. It’s the most important thing you’ve told me. It’s more important than your university degree. It has to go in the bio at the back of your book.” Since then, the fact that I grew up in a house that Chinua Achebe previously lived in has become possibly the most important fact that people know about my life. I’m so often asked, “What was it like?” and I find myself remembering things: waking up at night to go to the bathroom and stopping near a staircase and hearing literary spirits whispering secrets in my ear, secrets about plot and character and sentence structure. 

All right, I made that up. That is part of my imagination. But what isn’t part of my imagination, and what I know for sure, is that I would not be the writer I am if it wasn’t for Chinua Achebe.