Chinua Achebe

Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic

Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930March 21, 2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic. His first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), is the most widely read book in modern African literature.

You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the egret perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break.

Quotes

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  • The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.
    • Arrow of God (1988)
  • For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas … I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence.
(Page numbers in parentheses refer to the 1969 Fawcett Premier edition.)
  • Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.
    • Chapter 1
  • When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.
    • Chapter 2 (p. 14)
  • We shall all live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the egret perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 22)
  • A proud heart can survive general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 27)
  • The Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly, so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.
    • Chapter 4 (p. 29)
  • But he was not the man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error. And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan. His enemies said that his good fortune had gone to his head.
    • Chapter 4 (p. 32)
  • Even the village rain-maker no longer claimed to be able to intervene. He could not stop the rain now, just as he would not attempt to start it in the heart of the dry season, without serious danger to his own health.
    • Chapter 4 (p. 35)
  • No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 52)
  • "When did you become a shivering old woman," Okonkwo asked himself, "you, who are known in all the nine villages for your valor in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed."
    • Chapter 8 (pp. 62–63)
  • "You sound as if you question the authority and the decision of the Oracle, who said he should die."
    "I do not. Why should I? But the Oracle did not ask me to carry out its decision." [...]
    "The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her mesenger," Okonkwo said. "A child's fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm."
    • Chapter 8 (p. 64)
  • After such treatment it would think twice before coming again, unless it was one of the stubborn ones who returned, carrying the stamp of their mutilation--a missing finger or perhaps a dark line where the medicine man's razor had cut them.
    • Chapter 9 (p. 75)
  • And when, as on that day, nine of the greatest masked spirits in the clan came out together it was a terrifying spectacle.
    Okonkwo's wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them to themselves. The egwugwu with the springy walk was one of the dead fathers of the clan.
    • Chapter 10 (p. 85)
  • "Beware Okonkwo!" she warned. "Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks? Beware!"
    • Chapter 11 (p. 95)
  • The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.
    • Chapter 13 (p. 115)
  • If the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled all the others.
    • Chapter 13 (p. 118)
  • It was like beginning life anew without the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, like learning to become left-handed in old age.
    • Chapter 14 (pp. 120–121)
  • "We have heard stories about white men who make the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true." [said Obierika]
    "There is no story that is not true," said Uchendu. "The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others. We have albinos among us. Do you not think that they came to our clan by mistake, that they have strayed from their way to a land where everybody is like them?"
    • Chapter 15 (p. 130)
  • Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, called the converts the excrement of the clan, and the new faith was a mad dog that had come to eat it up.
    • Chapter 16 (p. 133)
  • "Let us give them a portion of the Evil Forest. They boast about victory over death. Let us give them a real battlefield in which to show their victory." [...] They offered them as much of the Evil Forest as they cared to take. And to their great amazement the missionaries thanked them and burst into song.
    • Chapter 17 (p. 139)
  • Okonkwo was popularly called the "Roaring Flame." As he looked into the log fire he recalled the name. He was a flaming fire. How then could he have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate? [...]
    He sighed heavily, and as if in sympathy the smoldering log also sighed. And immediately Okonkwo's eyes were opened and he saw the whole matter clearly. Living fire begets cold, impotent ash. He sighed again, deeply.
    • Chapter 17 (p. 143)
  • The white man is very clever. He came quietly 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.
    • Chapter 20 (p. 162)
  • As a man danced so the drums were beaten for him.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 170)
  • Eneke the bird was asked why he was always on the wing and he replied: "Men have learned to shoot without missing their mark and I have learned to fly without perching on a twig."
    • Chapter 24 (p. 203)
  • Whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, then know that something is after its life.
    • Chapter 24 (p. 186)
  • In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. [...] One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate.
    • Chapter 25 (p. 191)
(Page numbers in parentheses refer to the 1969 Fawcett Premier edition.)
  • A man who lived on the banks of the Niger should not wash his hands with spittle.
    • Chapter 1 (p. 17)
  • Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions. A real tragedy takes place in a corner, in an untidy spot, to quote W. H. Auden.
    • Chapter 5 (pp. 43–44)
  • You cannot plant greatness as you plant yams or maize. Who ever planted an iroko tree — the greatest tree in the forest? You may collect all the iroko seeds in the world, open the soil and put them there. It will be in vain. The great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there, so it is with the greatness in men.
    • Chapter 5 (p. 57)
  • If one finger brings oil it soils the others.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 75)
  • A man to whom you do a favor will not understand if you say nothing, make no noise, just walk away. You may cause more trouble by refusing a bribe than by accepting it.
    • Chapter 9 (p. 87)
  • When there is a big tree small ones climb on its back to reach the sun.
    • Chapter 10 (p. 95)


  • He looked as bright as a new shilling in his immaculate white robes.
    • Chapter 4 (P.36)
  • We had all accepted things from white skins that none of us would have brooked from our own people.
    • Chapter 4 (p.41)
  • A man of worth never gets up to unsay what he said yesterday.
    • Chapter 5
  • In Chief Nanga’s company it was impossible not to be merry.
    • Chapter 6 (P.58)
  • What mattered was that a man had treated me as no man had a right to treat another—not even if he was master and the other slave; and my manhood requires that I made him pay for his insult in full measure.
    • Chapter 8 (p.73)
  • That’s all they cared for,’ [Max] said with a solemn face. ‘Women, cars, landed property. But what else can you expect when intelligent people leave politics to illiterates like Chief Nanga?
    • Chapter 8 (p.73)
  • Although he was still only a child it looked as though the deity had already marked him out as his future Chief. Even before he had learnt to speak more than a few words he had been strongly drawn to the god’s ritual.
    • Chapter 1 (P.4)
  • When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing.
    • Chapter 1 (p.13)

Conversation with James Baldwin (1981)

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Anthologized in Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Louis H. Pratt and Fred L. Standley (1989)

  • The total life of man is reflected in his art. And so when people come to us and say, "Why are you... you artist so political?" I don't know what they are talking about. Because art is political. And further more I'd say this, that those who tell you "Do not put too much politics in your art," are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is. And what they are saying is not don't introduce politics. What they are saying is don't upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It's only that they are on the other side. Now in my enthusiasm, art cannot be on the side of the oppressor.
  • What art tries to do is domesticate whatever is around and press it into the service of man. Morality is basic to the nature of art.
  • we are not gladiators. But there is something we are committed to of fundamental importance, something everybody should be committed to. We are committed to the process of changing our position in the world. This is what our literature is about. There is a certain position assigned to me in the world, assigned to him [Baldwin] in the world, and we are saying we are not satisfied with that position. This is important to me-to everybody. I think you see it is important to me. You may not see that it is important to you but it is. We want to create the new man. Mankind tries all kinds of ways, all kinds of solutions; some of them leading that far and no farther and it is wise that we try something else. We have followed your way and it seems there is a little problem at this point. And so we are offering a new aesthetic. There is nothing wrong with that...Picasso did that. In 1904 he saw that Western art had run out of breath so he went to the Congo-the dispised Congo-and brought out a new art. Don't mind what he was saying before he died: that much is entirely his business. But he borrowed something which saved his art. And we are telling you what we think will save your art. We think we are right, but even if we are wrong it doesn't matter. It couldn't be worse than it is now.


  • Well there is an assumption there that Conrad's...Heart of Darkness is great art and I don't accept that. Great art flourishes on problems or anguish or prejudice. But the role of the writer must be very clear. The writer must not be on the side of oppression. In other words there must be no confusion. I write about prejudice; I write about wickedness; I write about murder, I write about rape: but I must not be caught on the side of murder or rape. It is as simple as that.
  • A number of very young people in Kenya have adopted the Marxist analysis of society. And I cannot quarrel with that. But I can't help feeling at the same time... that my own aesthetic definition, which I gave earlier on, would be a little uneasy about the narrowing of things to a point where we no longer accept the truth of the Ibo proverb that "Where something stands, something else will stand beside it," and that we become like the people we are talking about the single-mindedness which leads to totalitarianism of all kinds, to fanaticism of all kinds. And I can't help the feeling that somehow at the base, art and fanaticism are not loggerheads. And so I don't dismiss the Marxist interpretation. I think it is valid in its way. But when somebody says "I am the way, the truth, and the light.... "Now my own religion, the religion of my people says something else. It says, "You may worship one god to perfection and another god will kill you." Wherever something is, something else also is. And I think it is important that whatever the regimes are saying that the artist keeps himself ready to enter the other plea. Perhaps it's not tidy perhaps we are contradicting ourselves. But one of your poets has said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well."
  • [W]hatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism. (p. 154)

Quotes about Chinua Achebe

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  • Camara Laye’s The Dark Child and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because they gave me a glorious shock of recognition. Until I read them, I was not consciously aware that people who looked like me could exist in books. I grew up in a Nigerian university town, and all the books I read before then were foreign children’s books with white characters doing unfamiliar things.
  • When I read Things Fall Apart which is about an Ibo tribe in Nigeria, a tribe I never saw, a system-to put it that way or a society, the rules of which were a mystery to me, I recognized everybody in it. And that book was about my father. How we got over I don't know, we did!"
    • 1981 interview in Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Louis H. Pratt and Fred L. Standley (1989)
  • Achebe is a great writer. He is the father of our English literature. You can't take that away from him. His work is highly original. When I was doing my degree here, I used Arrow of God, which I think is his best work. But the critics seem to think everything should be like Things Fall Apart. Everytime you want to read Achebe, you feel you want to study it as literature. You don't pick it up as though you want to enjoy the literature. That is why for a very, very long time, if you went to the African Writers Series, you had the feeling that this is not for the common people.
    • Buchi Emecheta In Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock (1992)
  • I rank Achebe very highly, especially his Arrow of God, and I consider it a tragedy that he has had to live under such disturbed conditions and writes so little.
    • 1979 interview in Conversations with Nadine Gordimer edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour (1990)
  • He has begun to resuscitate and reinstate the past, the precolonial era. I'm thinking of Arrow of God, which to my mind is perhaps the best novel to come out of Africa. I think it is an absolutely wonderful novel. And if you look at that novel, it really has almost nothing to do with the impact of the white man. It is about black life, black civilization, before the period of conquest. The period of conquest is just on the horizon, so to speak. But there are not many people who have tackled that kind of theme. There are not many black writers who have done it yet.
    • 1979 interview in Conversations with Nadine Gordimer edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour (1990)
  • Chinua Achebe was a real education for me, a real education.
    • 1986 interview in Conversations with Toni Morrison edited by Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie (1994)
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