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Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: The Evolution of Cover Design

Considered his magnum opus, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is arguably the most widely circulated text in the African literary canon. It was published as part of controversial, educational-minded Heinemann’s controversial African Writers Series where African English-language titles were made to produce money, and material, for the UK market. In an interview with David Chioni Moore and Analee Heath on the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication, the dearly departed Achebe discussed how little a say he had on the cover designs.

Published in 1958 London by C.W Bacon, the first cover sports a striking green background. The vibrant colours and the intentional placement of the two men backdropped against a missionary church alludes to the novel’s overarching theme of colonisation. We can also, regrettably, see the fetishisation of exotic tribal culture, a major problem in illustrated book covers depicting colonised subjects that persists to this very day. The accompanying blurb that describes the Igbo people as “primitive” reinforces these racial stereotypes of colonial and postcolonial British society.

The first US edition was published in 1959 by New York House, McDowell Obolensky. This one offers a darker, emotional contrast to the colourful British edition, featuring the first mention of that famous tagline, “The Story of a Strong Man”, which has been used to characterise the novel throughout the decades. In the aforementioned interview, Achebe asserts that this cover gained more attention than the UK edition, which Heinemann considered cutting off at 2000 copies. Indeed, this cover sets an appropriate dark tone for a novel in which the protagonist, Okonkwo, and his family go through a mammoth mental strain that makes them question their very existence. While Achebe finds that the Nigerian may be authentic, it was not his favourite cover.

The novel was first published as part of the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1963 Britain. Dennis Duerdon, the cover artist for this British paperback, opted for a more toned-down colour palette. The orange, however, was cleverly used to allude to the Vintage Penguin Classics series in order to rouse interest. Set in the late 1890s, the majority of the story takes place within the fictional village of Umuofia, situated west of Onitsha in Nigeria. The novel’s Igbo culture reflects that of Achebe’s own experience growing up in Ogidi, where Igbo-speaking people lived in independent villages.

This 1976 African Writers Series edition leaves a bold impression. Achebe notes: “we started in 1958 with a blurb about primitive society from the inside, then moved to late '60s and '70s more revolutionary, more violent, more politicised imagery, on to more abstract 1980s presentations, and finally an august world literature treatment here in 2008.” Clearly a publisher ploy to cash-in on contemporary politics, this cover alludes to the KKK’s burning crosses and escalating racial tensions. The culturally deaf, near-anachronistic machete is but one example of how this edition warped the novel for marketability, playing into fears of the savage African. Another can be found in the blurb, where “Ibo” is mistakenly transcribed as “Obi”, a mistake which persists for decades and went on to sully future editions.

One of Achebe’s favourite editions is the Hardcover Everyman’s Library cover of 1992. The illustrious format announced Achebe as a leading figure in the canon of world literature and the author of a key text taught across the world. In lieu of depicting the novel’s character, Achebe graces the sleeve in a design that is far more respectful than previous attempts. As Achebe notes, a paperback – easily distributed and accessible – is unable to command the respect of this elegant Everyman hardcover which effortlessly reinforces his status as a renowned author.

This 2006 edition by Penguin Books differs greatly from previous editions, notably by virtue of its focus on mental, and physical, breakdown. The splitting of Okonkwo’s face and the soil, perhaps a metaphor for social breakdown within the novel’s communities, represents the its themes accurately. While the novel offers a detailed exploration of tribal suffering under colonisation within the third section, the book is first and foremost an exploration of Okonkwo’s life and that of his family. The authoritative Mandela quote at the bottom of the cover further marks it as an influential classic.

Unlike many Western authors of the time, Achebe portrayed his community in a sympathetic light, causing a revolutionary stir in world literature. As expected, the evolution of its cover design mirrors the trajectory of the text’s literary perception: 21st century readers have grown to be a little more culturally aware.

It was Achebe’s hope that in future, “… references to the exotic or the primitive or the Other will have gone ... and that whatever is happening in Africa will be handled just as something happening in Australia, America or elsewhere.”

You can find the full interview here.


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