Telling the stories of others

Chinua Achebe’s death has brought me back to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. It is a beautiful piece of literature that has helped me understand the nature of inter-cultural work. But one part of it stops me cold each time I read it. It comes at the very end when the colonial District Commissioner comes across the suicide of the novel’s protaganist and thinks:

The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate.

The irony, of course, is that the comments come at the end of an entire book about the protagonist.

As someone who has written a book about a community of Africans, these words are a constant warning to me. Everyone’s story is full of complexity and I am always trying to find ways to be honest to the story yet not let the writing get bogged down in that complexity. It is not an easy task.

Ultimately, however, Achebe was best known for encouraging Africans to tell their own story—that is what he modeled and it is what his growing number of successors continue to do so eloquently. This, I think, is the key: how do we create a world in which everyone has the ability to tell their own story, free from outside interference and the attempt to shape the narratives of others?

While we’re working on creating that world, I am constantly humbled by the District Commissioner’s thought: in what ways, am I reducing the stories of others to paragraphs and chapters when whole books are needed?

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