In April, BBC Culture asked writers around the globe to pick stories that have endured across generations and continents – and changed society. Experts around the world nominated up to five fictional stories they felt had shaped mindsets or influenced history. “We received answers from 108 authors, academics, journalists, critics and translators in 35 countries – their choices took in novels, poems, folk tales and dramas in 33 different languages, including Sumerian, K’iche and Ge’ez” BBC Culture said.
Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart” was placed in the top 5. The African literary giant passed away in 2013, but his works continue to make headlines as his first novel Things Fall Apart (1958) has been named in the list of BBC’s 100 stories that shaped the world.
In April, just months after the 60th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart, the novel was named one of 12 novels considered “the Greatest Book Ever Written” in a list which was compiled by Encyclopaedia Brittanica. In the same month, Things Fall Apart was also named in the list of 100 Books to feature in ‘The Great American Read’ TV Series. Things Fall Apart, which is widely considered his magnum opus, has proven to be the most widely read book in modern African literature.
The classic chronicles the pre-colonial life in Nigeria and the arrival of the Europeans during the late nineteenth century. According to BBC, “telling the story of the colonisation of a Nigerian tribe from the point of view of an African, Things Fall Apart exploded stereotypes about Africa and brought to life the true impact of cross-cultural misunderstandings. Achebe said that “this was the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, ‘rudimentary souls’” – many of those who responded to our poll agreed, and it reached number five.”
Other great African literary works on the BBC’s 100 list include Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga’s “Nervous Conditions”, placed at number 66 and which won the African category of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989. The novel illustrates and interrogates the dynamic themes of race, colonialism, and gender during the post-colonial conditions of present-day Zimbabwe, and is considered one of the 12 best African novels ever written.
Children of Gebelawi written by Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz is ranked 76 on the BBC list. Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature for his works “rich in nuance”, which “formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind”. Mahfouz was the second African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, after Nigerian author and poet, Wole Soyinka who received the Prize in 1986.
BBC Culture says the list is not definitive but its aim is “to spark a conversation about why some stories endure; how they continue to resonate centuries and millennia after they were created. And why sharing those stories is a fundamental human impulse: one that can overcome division, inspire change, and even spark revolutions”.
Of Things Fall Apart, Dominica Dipio, Associate Professor of Literature at Makerere University in Uganda says it’s “an empowering African novel: it brought African experience to the world like no other African fiction has”. Noun Fare, a novelist and journalist from Togo, calls Chinua Achebe’s 1959 novel “a milestone in African literature. It has come to be seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, and is read in Nigeria and throughout Africa”.
By changing the filter through which the continent was seen, Things Fall Apart could help combat prejudices. “The novel showed readers what an African world looked like when it was not being reduced to canned images animated by racist assumptions,” says Ainehi Edoro-Glines, a Nigerian academic. “Achebe’s innovation was to change the conventions of modern storytelling so that instead of seeing darkness any time readers looked at Africa, they’d see what every novel was designed to show – a complex representation of life.”