Chinua Achebe’s canonical novel, Things Fall Apart, is often the first and only exposure to African literature for many American students. The accessibility, visibility, and literary merit of this text make it an effective tool for teaching analysis of World Literature at the secondary and post-secondary level. However, just because the text is demonstrably “teachable” does not mean that it can be taught unproblematically. On the contrary, students often produce ethnocentric interpretations of TFA that reinforce the oppressive hierarchy of Western education. Further, the novel is typically not taught (especially at the secondary level) in the context of other African or Postcolonial literature. That is, TFA is not a “gateway” into African literature in the way that Gatsby, for example, is an introduction to the literary cannon of the Lost Generation. The lack of context is especially problematic when one considers what is at stake in African literature: the culture and history of several countries on an entire continent, the legacy of colonialism, narratives of oppression and liberation. The visibility of this Nigerian tragedy disguises these features of African literature, reduces them to the life and death of Okonkwo. Clearly, something is missing from the treatment of African literature in American classrooms, but what? How might instructors address this lack in the general curriculum or even at the level of individual assignment?
Using a combination of archival research and close reading, this project will attempt to identify what is explicitly included and implicitly excluded from the pedagogical treatment of TFA. In order to locate common themes in this treatment, I will seek out teaching materials such as course syllabi, lecture notes, study guides, quizzes and exams. From these materials, I will ascertain the most frequently cited portions of the text and the interpretive lens(es) teachers use in the classroom. Then, using the critical literature from our Modern African Novel course, I will perform close readings of the same portions and compare the interpretive conclusions. Of particular interest to me are the differences between reading TFA as historical fiction and as “allegory,” such as Eileen Julien suggests in “The Extroverted African Novel”. I am curious to see if the allegorical reading draws out features of that are excluded or reduced in the traditional treatment of the text.