“I’m a practised writer now. But when I began, I had no idea what this was going to be. I just knew that there was something inside me that wanted me to tell who I was, and that would have come out even if I didn’t want it.” – Chinua Achebe
…I knew I loved stories, stories told in our home, first by my mother, then by my elder sister—such as the story of the tortoise—whatever scraps of stories I could gather from conversations, just from hanging around, sitting around when my father had visitors. When I began going to school, I loved the stories I read. They were different, but I loved them too. My parents were early converts to Christianity in my part of Nigeria. They were not just converts; my father was an evangelist, a religious teacher. He and my mother traveled for thirty-five years to different parts of Igboland, spreading the gospel. I was the fifth of their six children. By the time I was growing up, my father had retired, and had returned with his family to his ancestral village.
Then I grew older and began to read about adventures in which I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.
I began with science, then English, history, and religion at The University of Ibadan. I found these subjects exciting and very useful… I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.
I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.
In 1957 I was given a scholarship to go to London and study for some months at the BBC. I had a draft of Things Fall Apart with me, so I took it along to finish it. When I got to the BBC, one of my friends—there were two of us from Nigeria—said, Why don’t you show this to Mr. Phelps? Gilbert Phelps, one of the instructors of the BBC school, was a novelist. I said, What? No! This went on for some time. Eventually I was pushed to do it and I took the manuscript and handed it to Mr. Phelps. He said, Well . . . all right, the way I would today if anyone brought me a manuscript. He was not really enthusiastic. Why should he be? He took it anyway, very politely. He was the first person, outside of myself, to say, I think this is interesting. In fact, he felt so strongly that one Saturday he was compelled to look for me and tell me. I had traveled out of London; he found out where I was, phoned the hotel, and asked me to call him back. When I was given this message, I was completely floored. I said, Maybe he doesn’t like it. But then why would he call me if he doesn’t like it. So it must be he likes it. Anyway, I was very excited.
When I got back to London, he said, This is wonderful. Do you want me to show it to my publishers? I said, Yes, but not yet, because I had decided that the form wasn’t right. Attempting to do a saga of three families, I was covering too much ground in this first draft. So I realized that I needed to do something drastic, really give it more body. So I said to Mr. Phelps, OK, I am very grateful but I’d like to take this back to Nigeria and look at it again. Which is what I did.
When I was in England, I had seen advertisements about typing agencies; I had learned that if you really want to make a good impression, you should have your manuscript well typed. So, foolishly, from Nigeria I parceled my manuscript—handwritten, by the way, and the only copy in the whole world—wrapped it up and posted it to this typing agency that advertised in the Spectator.
They wrote back and said, Thank you for your manuscript. We’ll charge thirty-two pounds. That was what they wanted for two copies and which they had to receive before they started. So I sent thirty-two pounds in British postal order to these people and then I heard no more. Weeks passed, and months. I wrote and wrote and wrote. No answer. Not a word. I was getting thinner and thinner and thinner. Finally, I was very lucky. My boss at the broadcasting house was going home to London on leave. A very stubborn Englishwoman. I told her about this. She said, Give me their name and address.
When she got to London she went there! She said, What’s this nonsense? They must have been shocked, because I think their notion was that a manuscript sent from Africa—well, there’s really nobody to follow it up. The British don’t normally behave like that. It’s not done, you see. But something from Africa was treated differently.
So when this woman, Mrs. Beattie, turned up in their office and said, What’s going on? they were confused. They said, The manuscript was sent but customs returned it. Mrs. Beattie said, Can I see your dispatch book? They had no dispatch book. So she said, Well, send this thing, typed up, back to him in the next week, or otherwise you’ll hear about it. So soon after that, I received the typed manuscript of Things Fall Apart. One copy, not two. No letter at all to say what happened. My publisher, Alan Hill, rather believed that the thing was simply neglected, left in a corner gathering dust.
That’s not what happened. These people did not want to return it to me and had no intention of doing so. Anyway, when I got it I sent it back up to Heinemann. They had never seen an African novel. They didn’t know what to do with it. Someone told them, Oh, there’s a professor of economics at London School of Economics and Political Science who just came back from those places. He might be able to advise you. Fortunately, Don Macrae was a very literate professor, a wonderful man. I got to know him later. He wrote what they said was the shortest report they ever had on any novel—seven words: “The best first novel since the war.”
So that’s how I got launched. – Chinua Achebe (16 November 1930 – 21 March 2013)