Photo by Michael Prince/NY Times
Interview by Deborah Solomon/New York Times
Since its publication in 1958, “Things Fall Apart,” the story of a Nigerian yam farmer who is unable to accept the changes wrought by British colonialism, has become the best-selling novel ever written by an African.
Well, I hear such exaggerated comments. I just leave them alone.
It’s a staple of American high-school English classes, and it has supposedly sold more than eight million copies.
That would be possible. I’m not grumbling; I have done well. But don’t imagine I’m a millionaire.
Things are again falling apart in Nigeria, which was in the news this month, when a predawn massacre occurred near Jos and all the world saw images of Christian villagers, many of them women and children, laid out in mass graves. Do you think the incident is related to the spread of Muslim extremism?
It is, but it is other things as well. My own explanation would be the failure of the authorities in Nigeria to address the issue. The nation cannot be trusted to use the machinery oflaw and order. And in that kind of situation, all kinds of people who are normally sort of put aside suddenly find an opening for evil.
What do you think of Nigeria’s acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, who just dissolved the cabinet?
He suddenly doesn’t seem to bring good luck. He is weak. A strong man in any position in Nigeria should be horrified by what happened in Jos. Shamed is what we should feel. We don’t seem to have any government. People don’t know where their president — before the present acting president — where he went or where he is.
You’re referring to President Umaru Yar’Adua, who left Nigeria in November for a three-month stay in Saudi Arabia.
Presidents do not go off on leave without telling the country.
As the son of a Christian missionary, were you aware of conflicts between Christians and Muslims when you were growing up?
No, they lived in another part, and so there was no reason for me growing up to know very much about Muslims. It was not an issue.
If you had the chance to say something to the so-called underwear bomber, the Nigerian man who tried to blow up a plane approaching Detroit on Christmas Day, what would it be?
I would say to him: “That is insane. Drop it. You cannot solve any problems by blowing up innocent people.”
As a professor at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., you yourself live in exile, as do many other Nigerian writers, including the playwright Wole Soyinka and the young novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
If you were in Nigeria and had cause to go to a hospital or to see a doctor, you would then immediately understand why so many people are abroad.
You’ve been wheelchair-bound since 1990, as a result of a car accident that left you paralyzed from the waist down.
Yes. I was in Nigeria when the accident happened. I was flown to England for treatment. They tried to put me together, then they recommended that I go to America for a follow-up, and that’s why I came to America.
How old are you now?
I’m approaching 80. I don’t care about age very much. I think back to the old people I knew when I was growing up, and they always seemed larger than life.
What do you consider the most important thing about yourself?
Oh, the most important thing about myself is that my life has been full of changes. Therefore, when I observe the world, I don’t expect to see it just like I was seeing the fellow who lives in the next room. There is this complexity which seems to me to be part of the meaning of existence and everything we value.
Are you still writing every day? What are you working on?
I’m working on this interview.