‘That Book Wrote Me’
Chinua Achebe delivered the following speech at the close of PEN’s 2008 Tribute to Chinua Achebe. It appears in PEN America 9: Checkpoints, along with other excerpts from the event.
The other day a journalist came to interview me—one of scores of journalists I’ve been entertaining in the past couple of weeks—and he asked me what I was like as a child. It was a shock; I felt as if I was remembering for the ﬁrst time what I was like. Then he asked, “Were you shy?” God, I was very, very shy. What was it that turned me into this man sitting before you? What was it that gave me the audacity to come before such a distinguished group of people, over a thousand people, and tell them what they must do to be saved? It was Things Fall Apart. It brought me joy and pain in equal measure, to say nothing of anxiety and the heady excitement of creating a language for my use—my own use. When people ask me about writing Things Fall Apart, I tell them, “That book wrote me.” This may sound pretentious, but I did work under its spell—and, in the end, it changed me.
On the other hand, can you imagine the foolishness, the rashness, the naïveté of this young man with no experience of the world, his one and only manuscript in his hands, the only manuscript in the entire world, in existence, who went to a post oﬃce in Lagos, Nigeria, to send it oﬀ to England to have it typed? It’s a long story, but it nearly killed me. There was no guarantee that I would see that manuscript again. There was luck, however: Things Fall Apart brought me a lot of good luck. In this case, there was an English woman who was my boss at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. I had begun to lose weight because my typists were not responding to my letters, and I ﬁnally told my boss (she was a no-nonsense woman), and she said, “Give me the name and the address.” She was going back home on leave. So she went there and when they saw a real person come out of the vagueness of the British colonies, they knew it was no longer a joke. So they returned my manuscript—but you see how close I came. Someone asked me what I would have done if it had not been found, and I said that I probably would have followed Okonkwo’s example.
My people have a custom where you stand up before a large gathering of elders, you should salute each of them individually by their praise names. So if there were four hundred, you’d have to know and remember four hundred praise names. The Ibo people are very practical, and they know it’s impossible. So they devised a way around this; instead of calling everyone by their praise names, you get up and greet the elders general and say “everyone and his own.” So to everyone and his own, thank you.