What is the role of a storyteller?

One of the worst things about human memory is its enduring habit of playing elaborate tricks on itself. Dialogue gets rewritten, plots get revisioned, sets get rebuilt and whole lives are restaged.

So maybe it’s not surprising that I remember meeting Chinua Achebe in my freshman year at Michigan State University.

It wasn’t Achebe, the ground-breaking, award-winning Nigerian novelist whom I met that year. It was Okonkwo — the flawed, tragic hero of Achebe’s classic, pre-colonial novel “Things Fall Apart.”

That’s right. I read a book. It was that simple.

Nor was I special in that regard. Since the initial publication of “Things Fall Apart” in 1958, the book has sold more than 8 million copies in scores of countries around the world. It has been translated into more than 50 languages. I’m one reader among millions.

So why did Achebe’s death this month feel so personal?

Maybe because it was. Maybe this is one of the most personal relationships human beings can share — that of audience and performer or more precisely story hearer and storyteller.

Certainly Achebe considered it personal. As a writer, he made it plain that there is a vital link connecting who we are, what we fight for and the stories we tell.

When we are telling stories, we are not only at our most dangerous but at our most free, Achebe said: “Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right to freedom of the human spirit …”

It‘s a writer‘s duty to make people uncomfortable, he said. “Writers don‘t give prescriptions,” he wrote in one of his later novels. “They give headaches!”

And perhaps most penetrating was the observation he made in his most famous novel, “There is no story that is not true.”

So there I was, off on my own for the first time in my life, a boy on the edge of manhood, reading Achebe’s account of the clash between pre-colonial Africa and European colonisers. His story, written in English because it was the only language he knew that would do the job, was rife with Igbo folk tales, proverbs and songs. But it had something else, too — a new way of looking at life. It provided me with brand new definitions of what it meant to be human and vulnerable and civilised and afraid. And I remember finishing the last page and closing the book and trying my best to pretend that something wasn’t leaking from my eye.

And now decades later it’s impossible to pretend that this writer from a far-off land hasn’t somehow staked a claim in my personal world. All right, maybe he wasn’t a friend, and maybe he wasn’t a father. But he was no stranger either. It’s hard to define who he was.

Apparently others had that problem, too. In 1980, the famous African-American novelist James Baldwin met Achebe and recognised something in him. “It’s very important that we should meet each other, finally, if I must say so, after something like 400 years,” Baldwin said.

Achebe died after a short illness in Boston, Mass. He was an Igbo, a Nigerian and a citizen of the world.

He spent his last two decades teaching literature in the United States. So maybe it was just bad timing that I didn’t really meet him face to face in my freshman year.

Or maybe I met him in exactly the way I needed to — through a story of amazing power that disturbed me, plagued me with questions and rewrote a chapter of my life.


•Clayton Hardiman is a Chronicle columnist.



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