Books

Of searching and finding

By Lydia Koh
April 07, 2013

KUALA LUMPUR, April 7 — Things fell apart for me when I read that Nigerian author Chinua Achebe passed away recently.

You see, his first novel Things Fall Apart played a pivotal role in my becoming a writer.

Instead of Shakespeare, our English literature class spent two years studying his book for SPM. Even though it was an academic requirement, I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

At 16, it was a world away from my library of Sweet Valley, Nancy Drew, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and R.L.Stine. Growing up with Western media, it was my first exposure to African literature.

Achebe was an amazing storyteller. He was not afraid to use African words or proverbs to describe the Ibo culture and traditions that would otherwise be lost in translation if it was in English.

“Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”—Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeThings Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeThe custom of breaking the kola nut, the festivities the Ibo celebrated and the importance of winning wrestling contests fascinated me.  

But what struck me the most in Things Fall Apart was the central character, Okonkwo. Achebe created Okonkwo to be a very strong character who seemed fearless and was feared by many.

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.” - Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Somehow or rather at that age, I could relate to Okonkwo. I was facing a fear of my own, the fear of the unknown. The impending SPM examinations, whether I could pass or not. The uncertainty of what to study next in college.

Well, the SPM examinations came and went. My results were not bad but they weren’t good either. My friends already knew what they wanted to do next in life, they picked out the college they wanted to go to, enrolled in courses they wanted to be in.

Young and lost, I couldn’t decide what to study. Although my parents never pressured me to have good grades, I live in a society that practises meritocracy.

“Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.” - Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

A couple of my friends were enrolled in a pre-university course at a well-known college. Not wanting to miss the boat when the new semester started, I applied for the course as well. I signed up not knowing what lay ahead of me. Soon, I found myself trying to keep my head above water as I couldn’t cope with my studies.

I dropped out of the course after one semester. Speaking to the school counselor, I was advised to take on another pre-university course that wasn’t so exam-oriented. I also selected subjects that were more suited for my skill set.

A year later, I managed to graduate from the course but the same feeling of uncertainty hovered over me again. What next? Naturally, the next step is to choose a degree at a university but I still didn’t know what I was good at or what I wanted to do.

Most people would choose a degree that can earn them big bucks. I heard from my mom that her friend’s daughter studied business and IT, and she was raking in a five-figure salary that most could only dream of. Hearing that and heeding my dad’s advice to study business, I applied for a business and IT course at one of the leading Australian universities that just opened in Malaysia.

Once again, I found myself barely passing. Two years later, I saw that it wasn’t going anywhere with me failing and I didn’t want to burden my parents with the costly tuition fees anymore. I explored my options. What am I good at? What do I like to do?

I’ve always loved reading, spending hours in my room devouring words like chocolate. As soon as I learned how to write, I’ve kept a journal where I would jot down my thoughts and write poetry. Then I remembered how much I enjoyed English literature in secondary school. How I explored different types of books outside my comfort zone, including Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Long story short, I decided to become a writer. I studied mass communications, majoring in journalism and communications, technology and policy. I realised that at the end of the day, it wasn’t about making more money or choosing a career path that was “safe” and “acceptable” to society. It was about doing what I love, something that would make me happy.

Back then it was probably not easy and rare for an African to write English books and become successful.

But Achebe did it because it was something he loved.