|Written by:||Meshack Masibo|
Few names, if any, carry as much weight when it comes to African Literature than Chinua Achebe. The late writer is considered by many critics and teachers to be the most influential African writer of his generation. His writings, including the novel ‘Things Fall Apart’, have introduced readers throughout the world to creative uses of language and form, as well as to factual inside accounts of modern African life and history. Achebe has helped reshape the perception of African history, culture, and place in world affairs. The first novel of Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, is recognized as a literary classic and is taught and read everywhere in the English-speaking world. The novel has been translated into at least forty-five languages and has sold several million copies.
But behind the glitz and the ink who was Chinua Achebe?
Achebe was born in the Igbo town of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria on November 16, 1930, the fifth child of Isaiah Okafor Achebe and Janet Iloegbunam Achebe. His father was an instructor in Christian catechism for the Church Missionary Society. Nigeria was a British colony during Achebe’s early years, and educated English-speaking families like the Achebes occupied a privileged position in the Nigerian power structure. His parents even named him Albert, after Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. (Achebe himself chose his Igbo name when he was in college.)
After becoming educated in English at University College (now the University of Ibadan) and a subsequent teaching stint, Achebe joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1961 as director of external broadcasting. He would serve in that role until 1966.
‘Things Fall Apart’
In 1958, Achebe published his first novel: Things Fall Apart. The groundbreaking novel centers on the clash between native African culture and the influence of white Christian missionaries and the colonial government in Nigeria. An unflinching look at the discord, the book was a startling success and became required reading in many schools across the world.
‘No Longer at Ease’ and Teaching Positions
The 1960s proved to be a productive period for Achebe. In 1961, he married Christie Chinwe Okoli, with whom he would go on to have four children, and it was during this decade he wrote the follow-up novels to Things Fall Apart: No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), as well as A Man of the People (1966). All address the issue of traditional ways of life coming into conflict with new, often colonial, points of view.
In 1967, Chinua Achebe and poet Christopher Okigbo co-founded the Citadel Press, intended to serve as an outlet for a new kind of African-oriented children’s books. Okigbo was killed shortly afterward in the Nigerian civil war, and two years later, Achebe toured the United States with fellow writers Gabriel Okara and Cyprian Ekwensi to raise awareness of the conflict back home, giving lectures at various universities. Through the 1970s, Achebe served in faculty positions at the University of Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut and the University of Nigeria. During this time, he also served as director of two Nigerian publishing houses, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd.
On the writing front, Achebe remained highly productive in the early part of the decade, publishing several collections of short stories and a children’s book: How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972). Also released around this time were the poetry collection Beware, Soul Brother (1971) and Achebe’s first book of essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975). In 1975, Achebe delivered a lecture at UMass titled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ,” in which he asserted that Joseph Conrad’s famous novel dehumanizes Africans. When published in essay form, it went on to become a seminal postcolonial African work.
The year 1987 brought the release of another book called ‘Anthills of the Savannah’. His first novel in more than 20 years, it was shortlisted for the Booker McConnell Prize. The following year, he published ‘Hopes and Impediments’. The 1990s began with tragedy: Achebe was in a car accident in Nigeria that left him paralyzed from the waist down and would confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Soon after, he moved to the United States and taught at Bard College, just north of New York City, where he remained for 15 years. In 2009, Achebe left Bard to join the faculty of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, as the David and Marianna Fisher University professor and professor of Africana studies.
Chinua Achebe won several awards over the course of his writing career, including the Man Booker International Prize (2007) and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010). Additionally, he received honorary degrees from more than 30 universities around the world. Chinua Achebe died on March 21, 2013, at the age of 82, in Boston, Massachusetts.