Last reviewed: June 2017
Nigerian author, professor, poet, and literary critic.
November 16, 1930
March 21, 2013
Chinua Achebe (ah-CHAY-bay), who became known as the founder of the modern African novel, was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in Ogidi, eastern Nigeria, on November 16, 1930. His father, Isaiah, was a Christian church teacher, but other relatives retained the traditional beliefs of their Igbo tribe. Young Achebe was educated at the local mission school, then at Government College, in nearby Umuahia, and finally at the national University College at Ibadan, where he received his BA in 1953. Following his graduation, Achebe worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation for a period of twelve years, rising from talks producer in the capital of Lagos to controller in Enugu to director of external broadcasting in Lagos again. During this period, he also began to write novels, initially in an effort to correct the picture of Africa given by the English writer Joyce Cary in Mister Johnson (1939), which Achebe had read while studying literature in college.
Achebe published his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958, two years before Nigerian independence. Set around the turn of the century, the book shows the arrival of the first English missionaries in an Igbo village named Umuofia. Countering the misconception that precolonial Africa was a void, Achebe gives a vivid, realistic description of Igbo culture that reveals certain factors in the culture (such as cult slaves and the ritual killing of twins) that made some members susceptible to conversion to Christianity, which often divided a tribe and rendered it unable to resist colonial takeover. The hero of the novel, Okonkwo, defends the traditional ways to the point of obsession because his personal status depends on them. When he violates some of the tribe’s rules in pursuit of his goal, he harms the very tribal integrity he had been attempting to preserve. In the end, he hangs himself. Okonkwo’s tragedy is partially caused by European imperialism, which exposes and takes advantage of the weaknesses in the tribe and its members. Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the "Babel: Season 2" series.
Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the "Babel: Season 2" series.
Things Fall Apart was translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies, a level of success that led to some undervaluation of Achebe’s later novels. In 1960, Achebe published No Longer at Ease, whose hero, Obi, is Okonkwo’s grandson. This work is set in the period from 1955 to 1957, when Nigeria was moving toward self-rule. In Arrow of God, published in 1964, Achebe again returns to earlier times. Here he describes the downfall of Ezeulu, the chief priest of the god Ulu in the Igbo village of Umuaro during the 1920s, a time when the British were creating "warrant chiefs" to implement their policy of indirect rule. Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People, published in 1966, portrays corruption in an unnamed postindependence African country, presumably Nigeria. The book ends with an army coup designed to oust the bribe-taking politicians.
A Man of the People proved prophetic, since it was published in the same month, January, when Major General John-son Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, took control of the Nigerian government and mounted an anticorruption drive. Six months later, General Yakubu Gowon from the northern Hausa tribe succeeded in a countercoup, which unleashed a wave of anti-Igbo violence. Achebe was forced to leave Lagos and return home. A three-year civil war ensued as eastern Nigeria attempted, and failed, to break away as the independent country of Biafra. During the war, Achebe went on several missions to Europe and the United States as a fund-raiser for the Biafran cause. He also became associated as a Senior Research Fellow with the University of Nigeria in Nsukka from 1967 to 1972. Following the war, he was a visiting professor in the United States for four years at the Universities of Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 1976, he returned as a professor of English to Nsukka, where he became a professor emeritus in 1985. In 1986, he was named pro-chancellor of Anambra State University of Technology in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria. An automobile accident in 1990 left Achebe partially paralyzed. Afterward, he held visiting positions in universities in Europe and the United States. In the mid-1990s, for example, he and his wife taught at Bard College in New York.
During the war and in the years following, Achebe found it difficult to write novels, but he remained productive, publishing a book of short stories, a volume of poetry, several works for children, and two collections of essays. In 1987, he brought out his first novel in more than twenty years. Anthills of the Savannah tells the story of three friends in the fictional country of Kangan as they come into conflict against a background of political turmoil and corruption. Many critics regard this novel as Achebe’s attempt to deal with the death of the Nigerian poet Okigbo.
Achebe believed it to be his duty to teach Europeans and Africans about the richness and validity of traditional African culture. The novels in which he does so, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, are written in a direct, simple, and realistic style, yet by using a combination of Western literary devices and African oral traditions, he portrays his characters with subtlety and complexity.
In order to reach a wider audience, even within his own country, Achebe deliberately chose to write in English; he felt the English language could be shaped to express African reality. That reality is disturbing, and Achebe was unflinching in his depiction of the corruption and violence that trouble contemporary Africa. He blamed African leaders for their failures, but he also saw the harmful economic manipulation on the part of European countries. Although bleak, Achebe’s outlook was not hopeless. He found worth in ordinary human beings, in African culture, and in the human capacity to remember and to imagine.
Achebe achieved significant acclaim throughout his career, including several major literary prizes. These included the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2010. He was given honorary degrees from institutions worldwide. He continued to write and publish into the twenty-first century, though mainly focusing on nonfiction and poetry. After suffering from health problems and being hospitalized for a time, Achebe died at the age of eighty-two in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 21, 2013.
Achebe’s influence on younger African writers has been enormous. He was very active as an editor and publisher. Perhaps more important has been his example as a writer. He established models of certain fictional situations, such as the initial colonial encounter, that have been much imitated. He has set standards of literary quality for others to emulate. Achebe’s critical essays, among them an analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), influenced not only African but also European perspectives of colonialism and racism. His work continues to challenge and influence readers of all cultures.