Chinua Achebe is a recognized name in literature across the world, author of the most notable novel in African literature, Thing Fall Apart. His unique writing style, use of English fused with Igbo language enabled him narrate the African story from an African point of view, earning him several literary prizes throughout his career. His work influenced many writers and encouraged many novelists to tell their stories in their native languages. As a professor, he lent his wisdom at various universities both in Nigeria and the US, receiving several honorary degrees from all over the world.
Chinua Achebe was born to his Igbo parents, Isaiah Okafo Achebe and Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam Achebe in Ogidi, a south-eastern Nigerian town in Anambra state. Achebe attended St. Philips’ Central School in 1936 and was accepted into the Government College in Umuahia in 1944. His high level of his intelligence, earned him a double-promotion in his first year thereby completing secondary school in four years instead of the standard five years.
In 1948, Achebe attended University College, Nigeria’s first university now known as University of Ibadan. His intention was to study medicine, however, Achebe became critical of European literature about Africa after encountering Joyce Cary’s 1939 work Mister Johnson. He was dissatisfied with how the book portrayed its Nigerian characters, so in order to change the narrative he decided to become a writer.
Achebe first literary work entitled Polar Undergraduate was published in 1950 in the University Herald newspaper, which he later became the editor during the 1951–52 academic year. In 1953, Achebe graduated with a second-class degree and on September 10, 1961, he married Christiana Chinwe (Christie) Okoli on the university campus. Achebe co-founded a publishing company with Christopher Okigbo, called the Citadel Press in 1967 and was also the director of two Nigerian publishing houses, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd. Achebe joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut in 1975 and shortly after that, returned to the University of Nigeria as a research fellow from 1976-1981, later joining the faculty as a professor of English.
Achebe’s literary work often touch on areas of African identity and decolonization. In 1958, Achebe published Things Fall Apart, which went on to become one of the most important books in African literature, selling over 12 million copies and translated into more than 50 languages. Before the novel was released in 1958, most novels about Africa were authored by Europeans who often described Africans as savages who required enlightenment. But through his debut novel, Achebe squashed this skewed view by finding an eloquent and effective mode to describe a realistic social, cultural and historical situation of modern Africa. Another beauty of Things Fall Apart is that it provided a different perspective about European colonization previously undescribed.
Achebe published more novels, short stories and works of poetry, which include his 1960 novel No Longer at Ease, which he dedicated to his wife, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), shortlisted for the Booker McConnell Prize, How the Leopard Got His Claws (1973) a children’s book and There Was a Country, his 2012 novel which he recounts his experiences during the Nigerian civil war. Chinua Achebe won several awards over the course of his writing career, including but not limited to the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1982), Man Booker International Prize (2007) and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010). A comprehensive list of his literary work are listed below:
Things Fall Apart (1958)
No Longer at Ease (1960)
Arrow of God (1964)
A Man of the People (1966)
Anthill of the Savanna (1987)
Beware Soul Brother, and Other Poems (1971)
Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memoir Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1978)
Another Africa (1988)
Collected Poems (2005)
Marriage is a Private Affair (1952)
Dead Men’s Path (1953)
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (1953)
Chike and the River (1966)
How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972)
The Novelist as Teacher (1965)
Morning Yet On Creation (1975)
The Trouble With Nigeria (1984)
Hopes and Impediments (1988)
There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012)
Role during the Nigerian Civil War
In May of 1967, war broke out in Nigeria when Biafra declared themselves independent of Nigeria. Committed to the cause, Achebe moved from Enugu to Abia, the Biafran capital and agreed to serve as foreign ambassador. Though he continued to write and publish mostly works of poetry, the relationship between Nigerian and Biafran writers went sour due to conflicting opinions and support for the warring sides. In spite of that, Achebe showed support for Wole Soyinka when he was imprisoned for meeting with Biafran officials. Achebe criticized the Nigerian government led by General Yakubu Gowon for events leading to the war that forced Biafra to secede. He also alluded to Nigeria’s past colonial masters as engineers of the turmoil Nigeria was going through at the time.
By September 1968, the war worsened; the city of Aba fell to Nigerian forces and Achebe was forced to move to Umuahia, the new seat of Biafran government. He became the chair of the National Guidance Committee set up to draft principles and ideas for the post-war era. To raise awareness about the critical situation in Biafra, Achebe and fellow writers Cyprian Ekwensi and Gabriel Okara went on a tour in the United States in October 1969 and by January 1970, the war ended and saw the end of Biafran State.
Achebe returned to his hometown Ogidi, which was destroyed during the war and joined the faculty at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Due to his allegiance to Biafra, his passport was revoked denying him access to travel outside of the country. Achebe recounts his experiences during the Nigerian civil war in his 2012 novel, There Was a Country. Though Chinua Achebe won several awards and received honorary degrees from over 30 universities around the world, he never received a Nobel Prize despite his scholarly achievements and the global importance of his work.
On 22nd March, 1990, Achebe was involved in a car accident on his way to Lagos which left him paralyzed from the waist down confining him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Not long after that, he moved to the United States and became the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, north of New York City, a position he held for 15 years. In 2009, Achebe left Bard to become the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Achebe passed away on March 21, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. He is survived by four children and six grandchildren.
Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), is a masterpiece, regarded as the most successful and most widely read book in modern African Literature. The novel was listed in Time Magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 and has been translated into more than 50 languages. Achebe’s work, particularly Things Fall Apart, paved the way for many African novelists and encouraged many novelists to tell their stories in their native languages.
Amongst notable writers who regard Achebe as mentor is Booker Prize-winning novelist, Hilary Mantel who listed Things Fall Apart as one of her five favorite novels in the genre of Favorite Historical Fictions. Other outstanding writers influenced by Achebe’s work include Caine Prize winners Binyavanga Wainaina (Discovering Home ), Helon Habila (Waiting for an Angel ), Uzodinma Iweala (Beasts of No Nation ), Okey Ndibe (Arrows of Rain ), Chimamanda Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun ). In a 2006 interview, Chimamanda commented on Achebe’s influence, “Chinua Achebe will always be important to me because his work influenced not so much my style as my writing philosophy: reading him emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well.”
- “Chinua Achebe Biography”. Biography.com. A&E Television Networks LLC. Web. 25 May. 2016. <http://www.biography.com/people/chinua-achebe-20617665>.
- “Biography of Chinua Achebe”. Gradesaver. Gradesaver LLC. Web. 24 May. 2016. <http://www.gradesaver.com/author/chinua-achebe>.
- “Chinua Achebe”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 25 May. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinua_Achebe>.
- Booker, M. Keith. “The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia”. Westport, Connecticut. Greenwood Press. 2003. ISBN 978-0-325-07063-6
- Booker, M. Keith. “Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe” [Critical Insights]. Pasadena, California. Salem Press. 2011. ISBN 978-1-58765-711-5