Chinua Achebe, the grandfather of modern African literature, first began telling stories as a means to reaching the truth. Fiction, he knew, could sometimes strike deeper than real life.
More than 50 years ago Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, a novel about an African tribe's fatal brush with British colonialism in the 1800s that told the story of colonialism for the first time from an African perspective.
Written in English, Things Fall Apart told a world audience about the upheaval that Africa had endured. It was translated into 50 languages and sold more than 8 million copies worldwide.
In my mind, fiction has a level of truth which it must meet. This is what I learned in the process of writing, Achebe, 78, said during an interview in his bungalow in the small riverside town of Annandale-on-Hudson, north of New York City. Sometimes the truth of fiction is more profound than the truth of journalism.
Wheelchair-bound after a 1990 car accident that cost him the use of his legs, Achebe still recognizes the importance of stories, both national and personal.
In October, he will release his first book in more than 20 years, The Education of a British-Protected Child, a collection of old and recent essays that piece together the arc of his literary life. His story, and that of his native Nigeria, are closely entwined.
He attributes the lack of novels over the past 20 years to style. You might say why have I not written 50 books, he said. I write with caution. Less speed and more caution.
RETURN TO CHILDHOOD
The Education of a British-Protected Child begins with an essay about Achebe's childhood, growing up under British colonial rule, and moves into the sphere of ideas -- the problem with Nigeria, its lack of leadership, the legacy of colonialism.
It is an attempt to fill in the details of my life, he said. It is not to stand up and talk about who I am but tell stories in which I may not even appear but somehow if you read deeply I hope that you will encounter ideas and thoughts that will tell you how life has treated me.
In old age, Achebe is sharp but softly spoken, slowly spoken. He laughs easily.
Annandale-on-Hudson, where he teaches African literature at Bard College, is a long way from home. There are probably few places on Earth less like his native Nigeria, he said, than this leafy, well-kept campus village on the Hudson River.
His bungalow, fit with ramps for his wheelchair, sits at the end of a quiet wooded driveway on the Bard campus.
From his modest, low-lit living room, he makes sense of his life through anecdote. He remembers reading English books as a boy that told tales of Africa from the outside, depicting Africans as savages. In Things Fall Apart he sought to redress that imbalance.
The story of my people was not the story of those African romances, the books written by British adventurers in which the white man was always the winner, he said. It was going to be a different kind of story.
Achebe, in his new book, as in person, digs a moat around his personal life. Two stories that touch on family -- one about his daughters and another about his father -- are the shortest in his new collection.
The story of the car accident barely gets a mention. It is better to talk about the things that belong to all of us. One is more comfortable doing that, Achebe said, running his hands down his still legs.