Onyeka Nwelue is the king of African literary controversy. In the age of political correctness, Nwelue dishes out a steady stream of unfiltered comments about African writing and literary culture.

In a recent interview with Wealth Ominabo Dickson, Nwelue essentially dismisses Things Fall Apart as a not very intelligent piece of juvenilia—an work of questionable quality written in his youth. Whereas the rest of the world hold up Achebe’s debut novel as one of the great things ever written in the English language, Nwelue says it is inferior compared to Achebe’s later writings.

You really have to read the exchange between Nwelue and the interviewer to appreciate the unique flavor of Nwelue’s intellectual persona.

Wealth: Your profile speaks of a multivalent persona; how many other dimensions are there to Onyeka Nwelue, besides that of the writer, the filmmakers, the traveller, the professor, the artistic/cultural events organizer, the editor and the controversial critic? 

Onyeka: I think I will take every other description apart from that of the “controversial critic.” I don’t see anything controversial in what I say; I try to air my opinion in every honest way. Maybe they stink?

Wealth: Not really, but you have made some controversial statements about Achebe and Soyinka.

Onyeka: I will still stand by what I said. I won’t change it. Achebe’s own even gets worse every day when people mention his name. I think Things Fall Apart should be buried and never made to resurrect. Yes, Anthills of the Savannah is a very beautiful book; it’s well written. But I don’t agree withThings Fall Apart being called the great African novel by everybody. There are better books.

Wealth: What are your reasons for saying this?

Onyeka: If you’ve read Things Fall Apart and have read what young people write these days – people like Helen Oyeyemi, Diekoye Oyeyinka and Chigozie Obioma – you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.

Full interview

To some readers, this claims might appear outrageous. Is Nwelue being ignorant, they may wonder. The answer is no.  Nwelue who has served as visiting professor of postcolonial literature in India knows his African literature. We can assume that he is speaking from the position of an expert. There is something to be said for taking a stand against tradition and critiquing the fact that we’ve privileged or, rather, deified Things Fall Apart in the history of modern African fiction. At the end of the day, he is simply asking that we re-evaluate Achebe’s body of work and come up with new ways of understanding what Achebe’s achievements are. Nothing wrong with that!

The only thing we would ask for is intellectual rigor. We would love to read a measured and well-articulated literary analyses. He should carry out a comparative analysis of Achebe’s novels to demonstrate the inferiority of Things Fall Apart. He should also explain exactly how Helen Oyeyemi and Chigozie’s writings prove that “Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart was not intelligent.”

His honesty is refreshing. But we would also like to have richer, more nuanced intellectual conversations about African literature.

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I'm finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

6 Responses to “Things Fall Apart should be buried and never made to resurrect” Subscribe

  1. Innocent Chizaram Ilo 2016/08/26 at 11:25 am #

    Onyeka Nwelue is delightfully stupid. An impish overfed he-goat of Literature. Because he wrote one crappy ‘The Abyssinian Boy’ that nobody read we cannot breath again. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 and has more with, style, grace and elegance than any book Nwelue will ever write.
    In 1958 nobody taught Achebe rules like Show don’t tell, no semicolons, short and direct sentences, running spell-checks on Microsoft Word, checking grammatical aptness on Hemingway App, bla bla. The Igbos say it’s only an overfed bird; Nza, that challenges his elders after a plate of jollof rice and dodo.

  2. ife 2016/08/26 at 1:07 pm #

    There is proper criticism of Achebe’s work and legacy—which is frankly long overdue—and there’s being insolent just for the attention it attracts, which is what the intention of Mr Nwelue. For, while one can imagine he is being ‘intellectual’ by some definition of the word in saying Things Fall Apart’s status as the great African novel (whatever that is) should be debated, proceeding to claim Achebe, at his age, was neither intelligent nor exposed because of the work of more contemporary writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Chigozie Obioma is just a dumb, stupid thing to say. The only reason we’re debating this at all is because of our penchant (and perhaps rabid thirst at this point) for drama.

    Things Fall Apart’s greatness as a work of literature is quite clear to see, for a cursory look at the work in the context of its writing and writers it has subsequently inspired (Toni Morrison, anyone?) and continues to inspire is enough proof of the enormity of Achebe’s accomplishment. If anything, the impact of his legacy and the value of his work as a defining point of ‘African’ literature is a much better point of departure in speaking about the outsized shadow Achebe casts on writing from the continent.

    The more baffling thing, and this perhaps requires clarification from Mr Nwelue, is his claim that Achebe’s intelligence was below his age. This can be read as being ordinary mentally, or as an euphemism for Achebe having cognitive problems, or being flat-out retarded. Whatever degree of intellect the man was interested in, exposition on that is what should be required of him, given his pedigree that was carefully pointed out by Ms Paper (even if one senses an ironic tone in the telling).

    Also, Mr Nwelue obviously thinks precocity counts for anything in the world beyond the mere fact of it. He mentions his age and his perceived success as a young man enough for one to figure out how much value he places on his ‘prodigious’ talent. Now, this part of his character is not one for literary discussion. It is simply a matter of wisdom—which one hopes the mystery of passing time and life’s ephemerality, coupled with the departure of the illusion of precocity, will help him discover soon enough.

  3. ife 2016/08/26 at 1:08 pm #

    *…attention it attracts, which must be the intention of Mr Nwelue.

  4. William Moore 2016/08/26 at 4:24 pm #

    What utter nonsense. How is this even on Brittle Paper? What Achebe achieved with Things Fall Apart set the backdrop for more or less every other work after it as regards to African identity. In that little book, he managed to explore the notion of African identity and how it was redefined by colonialism without pandering to the British or Africans. It takes the finest of writing mind to be able to handle such an issue with the level of objectivity Achebe went with. As for use of language, Achebe’s style has always been rather direct and angular, and I actually prefer that to a lot of what passes for literature these days where they want to kill us with descriptions and try to use flowery imagery to hide weak plot lines and hollow philosophical themes. So disrespectful.

  5. Henry 2016/08/28 at 7:51 pm #

    If only words aren’t slaves to men’s folly they would protest some extravagant measures of it.

  6. Olu 2016/09/02 at 1:32 am #

    Onyeka needs to start seeing a therapist asap. He’s unstable (absolutely no offence intended)

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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