An introduction on “When Things Came Together”

Note: Special thanks to Dr. Vicky Hartnack, a faculty member of the University of Lisbon, who posted this book to us which served as a valuable reference for writing this introduction.

Nasrin Pourhamrang


“When Things Came Together” is a book inspired by the 2008 International Lisbon Conference held at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon in tribute to Chinua Achebe upon the 50th anniversary of the publication of his novel “Things Fall Apart”, which is a masterpiece in not only the African literature but also the world literature. The book opens with a quotation from Nelson Mandela about Chinua Achebe which goes, “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe, in whose company the prison walls fell down.”

“A select few works of literature have become seminal landmarks in world history. Their titles vary not only according to what civilization we belong to but also to our reading preferences. But hundreds of years from now it is indeed likely that Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart will also continue to be essential reading,” cites Dr. Vicky Hartnack, the co-convenor of Lisbon Conference, in her introduction to the book.

After the introduction, the book provides a short biography of Professor Chinua Achebe and his best-selling novel “Things Fall Apart” which has been translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time.


Next part is dedicated to the opening words released by high-ranking officials such as the former Minister of Culture of the Republic of Angola, the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to Lisbon, the Ambassador of South Africa to Lisbon, and also Chinua Achebe's wife, Professor Christie Achebe. In this section, a message from Chinua Achebe delivered by his wife is also included in which he thanks the prominent guests and the organizers of the conference and apologizes for not being able to attend due to some health reasons.


“Chinua Achebe is undeniably one of the greatest African writers due to the contribution he has given by introducing, projecting and disseminating the literature of his country internationally, particularly after he had published his first novel, things fall apart in 1958,” said the former Minister of Culture of the Republic of Angola and noted author Boaventura Cardoso in the opening speech.


In Another part of his speech, Cardoso pointed at one of the distinctive features of Achebe's style: “his style is rooted in traditional African discourse and his language is expressive, charged with emotion, symbolic and figurative, vividly coloring and lending fascination to the environment surrounding the action and characters.”


The next speech was given by Ambassador Emmanuel Mbanefo Obiako of the Federal Republic of Nigeria who confirmed that Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart is common literary material which all the Nigerian students must study.


In her approval of the unique qualities of Things Fall Apart, Ambassador Thandiwe Profit-McLean of the Republic of South Africa stated, “Ignorance about Africa was astounding. Achebe removed the scales not only from European eyes but also from African eyes.”


The next chapter of the book is dedicated to the speech delivered by Nigerian poet, Professor Niyi Osundare about Achebe's outstanding novel. In his speech, he talked about the eternal value of Things fall apart, saying that the novel is “connected so magically, so instantly, with us that we began wonder why it had taken so long for the book to reach our hands.”


Believing that the novel demonstrated not only “the truth of fiction” (in Achebe's own words), but also the fiction of certain “truths”, he gave the following reasons for his argument:


What passed for Europe's “truth” was the representation of Black people as cultureless, history-less savages for ever wallowing in the Conradian heart of darkness. “Things Fall Apart” came as an antidote to this poison.  Achebe presents an African society in which human beings live in complex harmony with one another and with cosmic forces, one in which law enhances the cause of order; a confident self-sufficient society with thriving arts and culture.


Elsewhere in his speech, Professor Osundare mentioned the extraordinary ability of the novel's writer, saying that “I have never stopped wondering that how a 26-year old Chinua came about the stupendous originality that produced a novel of this world-historic significance.”  


João Ferreira Duarte, teacher of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Lisbon, was the next presenter who delivered a speech titled “Transculturation and Dialogism in Things Fall Apart”. Somewhere in his speech, he referred to the internal focalization of characters by means of free indirect speech in the novel, mentioning that this quality “works to generate the impression that the reader is gaining non-mediated access to the characters' mindset: their desires, fears, doubts, memories, ideas.”


Chapters four, five and six of the book are dedicated to the description of three panels, each of them investigating one aspect of Achebe's Things Fall Apart. In the first panel, five keynote speakers present us different aspects of the novel and provide valuable information about it. The first presenter is the English poet and university lecturer, Stewart Brown, who looks at the way Achebe's “Collected Poems” serves as a kind of counter-commentary on the issues and ideas explored in his novels and essays.


Next presenter is Mr. Bamisile Sunday Aderunji, Nigerian doctoral student in Portugal, who analyses socio-cultural commitment as portrayed in Things Fall Apart. Introducing Achebe as a committed writer, he says, “As a writer, Achebe stresses the importance of educating African people about their glorious past and creating awareness about Africa's Cultural heritage. He wants to introduce this culture to the people of the world.”


The third presenter is Don Burness, co-convenor of the 2008 Lisbon Conference, who makes a comparison between Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and José Saramago's “O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis” and talks about the similarities between the two works. Mentioning that both novels look back at history and both are set about half a century before the time they were written, he continues: “Achebe looks at the impact of British Colonialism on the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria; Saramago looks at 1936 and the rise of messianic fascism in Europe, the Europe of Hitler, Mussolini, Salazar and Franco.” He also refers to the ability of both writers in writing effective novels, asserting that “Both writers illustrate that literature is capable of 'creating an enormous human group, much better than any nation, civilization, or social collective.'“


José Boaventura Cardoso, the former Minister of Culture of the Republic of Angola, gave a lecture titled “God and gods in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart”. Referring to the beliefs of African people about afterlife, he said, “The African (and we are referring to more in particular to the African living in his traditional community or living under its influence) firmly believes that after death life goes on, thus depicting his desire to become immortal. This ontological continuity and belief that a single 'Supreme Being' exists form the basic foundations of the traditional African religion.”


The last presenter of the first panel was Inocěncia Mata, chairperson of the Organising Committee of the Conference, who gave a lecture entitled “The Trouble with Umuofia”. In her speech, she talked about the setting of the novel. “Umuofia is the setting of this fable about a world of customs and traditions some of which are oppressive although they are unquestionably accepted by Okonkwo, the village's illustrious son, and which embody one of the weaknesses of this “imagined community,” she said.


In the second panel titled “History in Fiction Nwando Achebe,” Chinua Achebe's daughter gives a presentation about “Balancing Male and Female Principles” in Things Fall Apart.  Admitting that the most central theme of the novel is the clash between two cultures and the resulting outcome of this encounter, she believes that there are other hidden themes in Things Fall Apart, such as a making a balance between femaleness and maleness which is a result of female roles as in fact complementary rather than subordinate to male roles.


Chelva Kanaganayakam, Director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, gave his presentation with the title “Postcolonial Sri Lanka and Things Fall Apart”. In his lecture, he looked at the significance of Things Fall Apart in relation to the postcolonial history of Sri Lanka, its ethnic conflict, and its literary history.


Next presenter is Fernanda Gil Costa, head of the Portuguese language and Literature Department at the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Letters. In her lecture titled “Can Fiction do it better than History?”, she discussed  the way some African writers like Chinua Achebe (the Arrow of God) and Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (Ualalapi) seem to deal with historical imperfection and oblivion in their writing about the Africa's past. She claimed that such writers turn to fictionality in order to look at history as a project and not as a mere result.


José Luís Pires Laranjeira, Associate Professor at Coimbra University, was the last presenter of the second panel who delivered a lecture titled “Things Fall Apart: Change in the Ibo World”. In his admiration of Chinua Achebe's novel he said, “The fascination of reading of Things Fall Apart lies in the use of two basic techniques: a) several secondary stories within the main story, all mapping out simple although strong outlines which in turn are steeped in the history of the Igbos before and after the white man's appearance in their lands; b) all the stories are extremely visual, dynamic, and true-to-life, where they seem to want to be filmed or drawn. The discourse of Things Fall Apart is simple and efficient as it describes actions and events in a fast-moving, simple way that the reader understands at first reading.”


The third panel was dedicated to presentations related to Achebe's Generation and four lecturers gave their speeches. Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, the first post-apartheid Vice Chancellor at the University of Forte Hare, was the first presenter in this panel and gave his speech “Culture and Social Environment in the pre-colonial era: Perspectives from orature”. In his speech, he talked about the qualities of the main character, Okonkwo, and all the qualities that Igbo society values. He believes that “Okonlwo is a product of his social environment and in many respects an embodiment of the solid cultural values of Igbo society.” Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane pointed at the value system Africans believe in, asserting that “Achebe demonstrates that Africans have value systems that colonialism, segregation, and apartheid could distort and suppress but never eradicate. Their value systems underpin Africa’s unfolding culture of liberation, a resilient culture that withstood over three centuries of brutal repression.”


Paul Angoli Latte, doctorate student of Cultural Science at the Padre Manuel Antunes European Institute of Science and Culture (University of Lisbon), presented the next lecture titled “The third generation of African Culture and Literature”. Using the literary works of two prolific African writers “Les Soleils des independence” by Ahmadou Kourouma and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, he analyzed the question of identity and culture from a comparative perspective. In some part of his presentation, Mr. Angoli referred to the Third Generation of African culture and literature, affirming that “the Third Generation of African culture and literature is a product of cultural conjunction between two continents- Africa and Europe.”


“In understanding this phenomenon, we are encouraged to ask in first place about the history of the Europeans’ arrival in Africa and the sequence of events which gave birth to travel literature, causing African culture and civilization to be denied and destroyed,” he added.


 Next presenter was Landeg White, a teacher at the Open University in Lisbon, who gave his lecture about “Negotiating Independence”.


“Things Fall Apart presented us with a cast of intelligent, articulate, dignified, manifestly civilized characters, perfectly capable of managing their own affairs. The so-called ‘new men’ had always been there, as the ancestors of those currently negotiating independence. As for colonial intervention constituting some kind of ‘civilizing mission’, it was actually experienced as the destruction of a long-established polity as things fell apart,” he said in reference to Achebe’s novel.


Vicky Hartnack, co-convenor of the Conference, gave that last presentation of the third panel, named “Chinua Achebe’s Generation: South Africa Writings in English”. In her paper, she looked at the 1950s -- Achebe’s Generation-- its predecessors and its constitutors in South Africa Literature by using Homi Bhabha’s concept of the Third Space, to see how the literary production in the English language was situated between the violence of the colonizing farce and a minority racist government, and the violence of the struggle for freedom fought by the colonized.


In the next part of the book, the writers participating in the panel interviewed Chinua Achebe by video conference. Chinua Achebe appeared on the screen at Bard University, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and talked to the writers about the history of his writings. He answered their questions and finished his speech by thanking all of them and saying that he is indebted to people who welcomed his works.


At the end of the book a pictorial exhibition of some of the conference events was provided which gave an overall view of what had happened during the conference.