Achebe freed me to tell my own story

He demonstrated the importance of finding your own voice.

Chinua Achebe, who has died aged 82, writes of his protagonist in Things Fall Apart: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievement.” At the age of 27, Achebe most likely had no idea just how much of his own life that opening sentence of his debut novel was prophesying. Things Fall Apart has since sold more than 12 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

The book’s publication in 1958 was deservedly a huge cultural event. Published two years before Nigeria gained independence, at a time when questions of identity and nationhood preoccupied colonised nations throughout the continent, it firmly moved Africans from the margins of their own narrative to the centre.

It tells the story of the colonial intervention from the African point of view and eloquently challenges the notion of the “discovery” of a people who already existed, and whose well-established civilisation has come under attack by the “discoverers”. “The white man is very clever,” Achebe writes. “He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Like everyone else I know, I remember the first time I read Things Fall Apart. I could not have been more than ten when I read an older sibling’s copy. I was struck even then by the simplicity and beauty of the prose, and how the village it described seemed very much like mine. It captivated me and opened up for me a world of expansive possibilities. In it, I – who had been fed on the stories of Enid Blyton, and instructed at school on the history of post-colonial Nigeria – found a space where I could exist, one in which my forefathers existed as people worthy of respect. They were not pagans, running around wildly in the dark, cursed by God for not being Christians, as a pamphlet I had discovered around the same period asserted.

That revelation was a liberating and refreshing experience. Nelson Mandela has been quoted as saying that Achebe was the one writer in whose company his prison walls came down. For me, it was in his company that my world opened. And it would be many years before I would describe it as “coming home”.

Achebe became my idol and I sought him out diligently. I read him carefully, savouring his wisdom. His later works continued the interrogation of the tension between old and new, but also became increasingly critical of the Nigerian government. His last book, There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra (2012), traces the trajectory of the country’s leadership problems and offers an honest and biting criticism of contemporary Nigeria.

No matter what his subject, Achebe wrote with an unflinching honesty and with elegance. From Things Fall Apart to There Was a Country, he has reminded me of the importance of not only owning my own story, but also articulating it, transcribing it, and, more importantly, of finding my voice. That is his enduring legacy, for which I – and many others – are immensely grateful. Achebe is gone, yet he lives not only in his works, but in those of generations of writers all over the world for whom he continues to be an influence.

Chika Unigwe won the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature for “On Black Sisters’ Street” (Vintage, £8.99)

Chinua Achebe and Nelson Mandela in 2002. Photo: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis