skip to Main Content

Things Fall Apart

By Maame Blue


Things fall apart but we keep going. This is not a simplistic interpretation of Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel of the same name but is instead in reference to the last 18-plus months of our collective lives. Where we fell apart. Where I fell apart.

‘Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart.’

The thing that broke us in the beginning was an airborne virus, but what has endured is something greater, that carries more grief and is still revealing itself. So, when I speak of things falling apart, I am speaking solely of the self and of the things we once held as a certainty that have been split in two, dissected, found wanting and we have been unable to get back together again. The classic Humpty Dumpty tale without the catchy song to help us remember, then forget our woes.

We’re so good at forgetting as a society in Britain. We remember what makes us look great and discard the rest if we can. We’re only human, after all. But it’s hard to pretend that things haven’t fallen apart when they’re in the midst of falling. And I, like many other writers, creatives, human beings across the world, eventually fell apart during this Covid pandemic. My falling was a form of burnout – a sort of creative blindness that meant I could no longer picture words, no longer hope for stories or even write my own name and believe that what was written was the truth. It was way less poetic than that of course – it was painful and unexpected; albeit, completely inevitable.

We have been collectively traumatised, watching the ticking counter of the death toll – looking doubtfully at those close to us making decisions we deem risky or selfish, feeling trapped in our own homes whilst also grateful that we have a home, and then resentful and then grateful again. We’ve been pushed to our limits, our sense of safety stolen in the blink of an eye, or rather in the droplet of a cough. We fell apart. I fell apart.

In burning out, you can feel spent, empty, burned hollow, waiting desperately for something new to spring forth from the ash. But that requires you to identify and then somehow end the thing that pushed you into the fire in the first place. I was overworked, as many of us have been. I brought a lot of it on myself because, if I could control nothing else, at least I could control how much I produced, right? My value still lived in what I could create and turn into goods and services – things and stuff that I thought would fulfil me. I wasn’t aware how much this was taking from me, this powering through, keeping it pushing, always hustling. Even as I write this, it feels exhausting to think back over it again.

In the end, it was art that replenished me. Funny how it can do that. We take so much of it for granted, but often an artist’s interpretation of something we think we already know, can cut straight to the heart of a thing, in a way that words can’t. 

I speak specifically of a piece I saw at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House – an annual fair running for almost a decade now and showcasing artists from 54 African countries, this time on a grey October weekend in London.

There were gut-punching pieces that caught my eye, pieces that left me with questions, many that made me feel uncomfortable. But it was a piece by an artist called Anjel that brought clarity to my state of mind.

Things fall apart – Anjel (Boris Anje) – 2021 – Out of Africa Gallery

Anjel (Boris Anje) is of dual identity – Igbo and Cameroonian – and created this piece in response to the novel Things Fall Apart by the Igbo-Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I stood in front of it for a long time, wondering at my own sense of duality (British-Ghanaian, for example), my own fractured self, my struggles to keep going, to keep at least looking alive, as if I were still part of the world. The novel, set in the late nineteenth century, describes how twins are considered to be a curse by the Igbo community, and for this reason are often brutally abandoned in the forest as babies. When the colonisers arrive with their Anglo-Christian beliefs and their bibles, they save the babies, bringing the grieving Igbo mothers on side, successfully shattering the community’s pre-existing religious beliefs and solidarity by appealing to those in a state of despair.

There were many men and women in Umuofia who did not feel as strongly as Okonkwo about the new dispensation. The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.

This is what came to mind when I looked at this image. The ways in which we discard ourselves in favour of the world around us, how we try to keep up with the outside of everything. How we might split ourselves in two to get the job done, and in so doing lose ourselves completely, until we are unrecognisable – two of the same but not quite the same. To the untrained eye we can seem to be living our best lives, with multi-coloured armour and the world our bright, patchwork oyster. But we’re tired. Working on too much, overwhelmed by everything, and trying desperately to see ahead, to point the way forwards, even if the direction is unclear.

The figures in Anjel’s Things fall apart mirror each other, pointing left and right, their skins a different hue but their gaze the same. They are well dressed, coiffed, ready to be rolled out and seen, but still, tired. Perhaps I only saw exhaustion and weariness, because that is what I felt at the time. I saw a reflection of my world, staring back at me, challenging me to see something different.

‘Umuofia was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffling the silent, ominous air and not knowing which way to run.’

Even so, it reinvigorated me, showed me that even when things fall apart, they can be reclaimed if we bear witness to the falling. If we open our eyes to it, and reflect on who we were before it, and who we could be afterwards.

Main image: Bisa Butler, The Warmth of Other Sun – courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery