Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, aka Chinua Achebe is Nigerian novelist whose down-to-earth depictions of how the imposition of Western customs and values upon traditional African society socially and psychologically left the continent disoriented.
His particular concern was with emergent Africa at its moments of crisis; his novels range in subject matter from the first contact of an African village with the white man to the educated African’s attempt to create a firm moral order out of the changing values in a large city.
Things Fall Apart (1958), Achebe’s first novel, concerns traditional Igbo life at the time of the advent of missionaries and colonial government in his homeland. His principal character cannot accept the new order, even though the old has already collapsed.
Published 60 years ago this year by Heinemann in London, Things Fall Apart has sold more than 10m copies and been translated into more than 50 languages. It follows Okonkwo, a renowned warrior from a fictional Igbo village in early 20th-century eastern Nigeria. In straightforward and evocative prose, Achebe depicts how a culturally rich and well-governed society is destabilised by the arrival of Christian missionaries and British colonialists. Okonkwo is a flawed hero, but his attempts to confront the forces transforming his village speak to a long history of anti-colonial resistance.
Now considered essential reading in many African Studies and English Literature courses, Things Fall Apart can hardly be dissociated from the emergence of the African novel and modern African writing in general. However, Achebe’s debut also sparked a formative debate on language and African literatures. With English so intimately entwined with colonial history, the fact that the novel hailed as inaugurating a modern, independent Africa’s literature was also written in English became a point of contention. Was Things Fall Apart upholding a Western model, or confronting and subverting it?
In the sequel No Longer at Ease published 1960, Achebe portrayed a newly appointed civil servant, recently returned from university study in England, who is unable to sustain the moral values he believes to be correct in the face of the obligations and temptations of his new position.
In Arrow of God (1964), set in the 1920s in a village under British administration, the principal character, the chief priest of the village, whose son becomes a zealous Christian, turns his resentment at the position he is placed in by the white man against his own people. A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) deal with corruption and other aspects of postcolonial African life.
Achebe also published several collections of short stories and children’s books, including How the Leopard Got His Claws (1973; with John Iroaganachi). Beware, Soul-Brother (1971) and Christmas in Biafra (1973) are collections of poetry. Another Africa (1998) combines an essay and poems by Achebe with photographs by Robert Lyons. Achebe’s books of essays include Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), Hopes and Impediments (1988), Home and Exile (2000), The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009), and the autobiographical There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012). In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize.
Achebe was one the first graduates of the University of Ibadan. So English was indeed a part of his identity in ways not every Nigerian would have shared. But Achebe was therefore all the more aware that education and religion were complex facets of colonialism. Things Fall Apart dramatises this with nuance in the character of Nwoye, who rebels after his brother’s death by converting to Christianity.
Achebe advocated a “both” rather than an “either/or” approach in his 1965 essay The African Writer and the English Language. He argued that the African writer, in “fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience”, would bring about a far more subtle rejection of the historical dominance standard English represented.
Ultimately, English was one factor that helped Things Fall Apart, as it did other works of African literature, to transcend national boundaries for six decades. But these probing political and cultural questions were carried right along with it – and they informed a legacy of African thought on the meaning and purpose of literature, which the continent’s contemporary voices can stand on today.
When African writers choose to contribute to literatures in their mother tongues, this can only be positive. But when they chose to reach the world’s Anglophone readers, it is as Achebe envisioned it: with “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings”.
Born November 16, 1930 into a family of Christian converts in Ogidi, eastern Nigeria, Achebe grew up in Ogidi and was educated in local Anglican schools. After studying English and literature at University College (now the University of Ibadan), Achebe taught for a short time before joining the staff of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos, where he served as director of external broadcasting in 1961–66.
In 1967, he cofounded a publishing company at Enugu with the poet Christopher Okigbo, who died shortly thereafter in the Nigerian civil war for Biafran independence, which Achebe openly supported. In 1969 Achebe toured the United States with fellow writers Gabriel Okara and Cyprian Ekwensi, lecturing at universities. Upon his return to Nigeria he was appointed research fellow at the University of Nigeria and became professor of English, a position he held from 1976 until 1981 (professor emeritus from 1985).
He was director (from 1970) of two Nigerian publishers, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd. After an automobile accident in Nigeria in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed, he moved to the United States, where he taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. In 2009, Achebe left Bard to join the faculty of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
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