Chinua Achebe (born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) was an internationally celebrated Nigerian novelist, poet, educator and critic whose first novel Things Fall Apart – is the most widely read book in modern African literature, with over eight million copies sold worldwide and translations into more than fifty languages.
Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 in the town of Ogidi in present-day Anambra State. He was the fifth of six children. His parents, Isaiah Okafo Achebe and Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam, were convinced by the British colonial authorities to abandon their traditional religion and follow Christianity and they became converts to the Protestant Church Mission Society (CMS). However, they maintained many of their traditional cultural practices, a decision which had a significant impact on their children, especially Chinualumogu (meaning "May God fight on my behalf"- a prayer for divine protection and stability). He was brought up as a Christian but remained curious about traditional Nigerian faiths. Achebe's mother, as well as his sister Zinobia Uzoma, told him many stories as a child. Storytelling is a mainstay of the Igbo tradition and an integral part of the community and this also played a significant role in shaping Achebe’s life. In October 1961, he married Christie Chinwe Okoli. They had four children.
Achebe enrolled at St Philips' Central School in 1936. Despite his protests against Christianity, he spent a week in the religious class for young children but was quickly moved to a higher class when the school's chaplain took note of his intelligence: one of his teachers described him as the student with the best handwriting and reading skills. He also attended Sunday school every week and special evangelical services held monthly, often carrying his father's bag. A controversy erupted at one such session, when apostates from a new church challenged the catechist about the tenets of Christianity. Achebe later incorporated this incident into Things Fall Apart. His education was furthered by the collages his father hung on the walls of their home, as well as by almanacs and numerous books, including a prose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream and an Igbo version of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim's Progress. Achebe also eagerly participated in traditional village events such the masquerade ceremonies, which he would later include in his novels and stories.
At the age of twelve, Achebe moved away from his family to the village of Nekede, four kilometres from Owerri in Imo State. He enrolled as a student at the Central School where his older brother John taught. In Nekede, Achebe gained an appreciation for Mbari, a traditional art form which seeks to invoke the gods' protection through symbolic sacrifices in the form of sculpture and collage. In 1944, Achebe sat entrance examinations for and was accepted at both Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha, Anambra State and the even more prestigious Government College in Umuahia,Abia State. Once there, Achebe was double-promoted in his first year, completing his first two years of studies in one, and ended up spending only four years in secondary school (instead of the standard five). Achebe was unsuited to the school's sports regimen and belonged instead to a group of six exceedingly studious pupils. So intense were their study habits that the headmaster banned the reading of textbooks between five and six o'clock in the afternoon.
Achebe started to explore the school's library where he discovered some of the books would shape his writing such as Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up From Slavery; classic novels such as Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield, andTreasure Island; and tales of colonial-era explorers such as H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain and John Buchan's Prester John.
In 1948, Nigeria's first university opened. Known as University College (now the University of Ibadan), it was an associate college of the University of London. Achebe obtained such high marks in the entrance examination that he was admitted as a Major Scholar in the university's first intake and given a bursary to study medicine. After a year of gruelling work, he changed to English, history, and theology. This cost him his scholarship but with the assistance received from his family – his older brother Augustine gave up money for a trip home from his job as a civil servant – coupled with a government bursary, Achebe was able to continue his studies.
In 1950, Achebe wrote a piece for the University Herald entitled "Polar Undergraduate", his debut as an author, which used irony and humour to celebrate the intellectual vigour of his classmates. He followed this with other essays and letters about philosophy and freedom in academia, some of which were published in another campus magazine, The Bug. He served as the Herald's editor during the 1951–52 school year.
While at university, Achebe wrote his first short story, "In a Village Church", which combines details of life in rural Nigeria with Christian institutions and icons, a style which appears in many of his later works. Other short stories he wrote during his time at Ibadan (including "The Old Order in Conflict with the New" and "Dead Men's Path") examine conflicts between tradition and modernity. When Geoffrey Parrinder arrived at the university to teach comparative religion, Achebe began to explore under his tutelage the fields of Christian history and African traditional religions.
It was also during his time at Ibadan that Achebe began to become critical of European literature about Africa. He read Irish novelist Joyce Cary's 1939 book Mister Johnson, about a cheerful Nigerian man who (among other things) works for an abusive British storeowner. Achebe recognised his dislike for the African protagonist as a sign of the author's cultural ignorance. He graduated in 1953 with a second-class degree.
Work and Beginnings of Writing Career
After a teaching stint at the Merchants of Light School at Oba, Achebe proceeded to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London to study broadcasting in 1956, having joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Enugu as a radio producer in 1954 and later worked as a director of external broadcasting, the position he served in until 1966. One of his first duties was to help create the Voice of Nigeria radio network. The station broadcast its first transmission on New Year's Day in 1962 and worked to maintain an objective perspective during the turbulent era that followed independence.
Discontented with the books about Africa written by British authors such as Joseph Conrad and John Buchan and their inaccurate and insulting descriptions of African people, Achebe decided to come up with a story that would portray Africa in its real sense. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, is the story of a traditional warrior hero who is unable to adapt to changing conditions of the early days of British colonial rule. The ground-breaking novel centres on the cultural clash between native African culture and the culture of the white missionaries and colonial government. The book's title was taken from William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming".
The novel was nearly lost before it was ever seen by the public. When Achebe finished his manuscript, he sent it to a London typing service, which misplaced the package and left it lying in an office for months. When it was finally found through the intervention of his boss at the NBC and shopped to publishing houses in London, the book was received coolly as many doubted the appeal of fiction from Africa. Finally, an educational adviser at Heinemann who had recently travelled to West Africa read it and declared that it was the best novel he had read since the Second World War. The book was published in 1958 and won immediate international recognition and later became the basis of a 1997 play by Biyi Bandele. A dramatic radio program titled Okonkwo was made of the novel in April 1961 by the NBC, featuring Wole Soyinka in a supporting role.
In 1987, the book was made into a successful miniseries directed by David Orere and broadcast on Nigerian television. It starred several established film actors, including Pete Edochie, Nkem Owoh and Sam Loco. Years later, in 1997, the Performance Studio Workshop of Nigeria put on a production of the play, which was then presented in the United States as part of the Kennedy Centre’s African Odyssey series in 1999. The book has also become required reading in many schools across the world and has been translated into fifty-six languages.
The success of Things Fall Apart led to the publication of two further novels, No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God(1964), which, together with Things Fall Apart, formed what is often referred to as The African Trilogy.
By the mid-1960s, Nigeria faced a number of political problems. The Igbos, who had played a leading role in independence-era Nigerian politics, began to feel that the Hausa people of northern Nigeria viewed them as second-class citizens. This period coincided with the publication of Achebe’s fourth novel A Man of the People (1966). The book drew the ire of the ruling establishment because it addressed the issues of corruption and ineptitude that marked the politics of the First Republic. The book, which ends with a military coup, was seen as prophetic because its publication coincided with the January 1966 coup which overthrew the civilian government of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; some Northern military officers suspect that Achebe had played a role in the takeover.
When the Nigerian Civil War broke out, Achebe moved his family from Enugu to the Biafran capital of Aba (in present-day Abia State). During the war years (1967–70), he served as an ambassador for Biafra. He travelled to different countries discussing the problems of his people. He wrote articles for newspapers and magazines about the Biafran struggle and co-founded the Citadel Press, a publishing company which was intended as a platform for Africa-oriented children's books, with renowned Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo (who was killed during the war).
During this period, Achebe wrote three volumes of poetry and collections of short stories. In 1969, Achebe toured the United States with Gabriel Okara and Cyprian Ekwensi, giving lectures at thirty universities and conducting countless interviews to raise awareness about the dire situation in Biafra.
After the fall of Biafra in 1970, Achebe took a job at the University of Nigeria and devoted time to the Heinemann Educational Books' African Writers Series which was designed to promote the careers of young African writers. He also helped start two magazines: the literary journal Okike, a forum for African art, fiction, and poetry; and Nsukkascope, an internal publication for the university. Achebe and the Okike committee later established a cultural magazine, Uwa Ndi Igbo, to showcase the indigenous stories and oral traditions of the Igbo community.
In 1972, he came to the United States to teach English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (where he would return in 1987). In 1975, he joined the faculty of the University of Connecticut. In the same year, Achebe gave a lecture at the UMass Amherst titled "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," in which he asserted that Joseph Conrad's famous novel dehumanises Africans.
Achebe returned to the University of Nigeria in 1976. He became a research fellow and taught English from 1976 to 1981. During this time, he also served as the director of two Nigerian publishing houses: Heinemann Educational Books and Nwankwo-Ifejika & Co. In 1982, Achebe retired from the University of Nigeria, choosing to devote more time to editing Okike. He also joined the People's Redemption Party (PRP); in 1983, a year with elections marked by violence and fraud, he became its deputy national vice-president.
He spent much of the 1980s delivering speeches, attending conferences, and working on his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah. In 1986, he was elected president-general of the Ogidi Town Union; he reluctantly accepted the position and began a three-year term. In the same year, he stepped down as editor of Okike.
1987 marked the release of Anthills of the Savannah, which was shortlisted for the Booker McConnell Prize (now known as the Man Booker Prize). The following year, his essay collection Hopes and Impediments was published. After its release, Achebe returned to the United States and took up teaching positions at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and a number of other universities.
While in Nigeria in 1990 to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, Achebe was involved in a car accident which left him paralysed from the waist down. Doctors recommended he return to the United States for good to receive better medical care, so he accepted a teaching position at Bard College, where he remained for fifteen years. In 1999, after a nine-year absence, Achebe visited his homeland and was honoured by his village Ogidi for his dedication to the myths and legends of his ancestors. In 2000, Achebe's nonfiction book Home and Exile was published by Oxford University Press.
In 2009, Achebe left Bard to join the faculty of Brown University, serving as a professor of Africana Studies as well as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor.
Achebe’s literary output includes several short story collections such as Girls At War and Other Stories (1973) and poetry anthologies (Beware Soul Brother (1971), Christmas in Biafra) (1973) and Another Africa (1998)).
Achebe also wrote for children: his children’s books include Chike and the River, How the Leopard Got His Claws, The Flute and The Drum.
He also published a number of landmark critical essays, including “The Novelist as a Teacher” (1965), “The Trouble with Nigeria” (1983) and “Morning Yet on Creation Day” (1975). His last book, There Was A Country, was published in 2012. Subtitled A Personal History, it explores Achebe’s development as a writer, his critical positions, political visions and his intercessory roles in Igbo life (especially during the Nigeria Civil War).
Achebe's writing style was noted for its simplicity which hid layers of complexity. Realistic and brief, it conveyed as closely as possible in English the cadences of the Igbo language. By sprinkling in proverbs, folk tales and other cultural references, Achebe introduced his readers to Igbo culture. Achebe wrote his novels primarily in English and defended the use of English, a "language of colonisers," in African literature. This stance pitted him against Ngugi wa’Thiongo, a Kenyan writer who has urged the use of indigenous African languages. Some of Achebe’s most memorable quotations can be found here.
Achebe has been called "the father of modern African writing", and many books and essays have been written about his work over the past fifty years. In 1992, he became the first living writer to be included in the Everyman's Library Collection published by Alfred A. Knopf. His sixtieth birthday was celebrated at the University of Nigeria by many celebrated figures of African literature. Many contemporary African writers view his work as having paved the way for them.
Outside of Africa, his impact resonates strongly in literary circles. Novelist Margaret Atwood called him "a magical writer – one of the greatest of the twentieth century". Poet Maya Angelou praised Things Fall Apart as a book wherein "all readers meet their brothers, sisters, parents and friends and themselves along Nigerian roads". Nelson Mandela, recalling his time as a political prisoner, once referred to Achebe as a writer "in whose company the prison walls fell down."
Achebe won several awards over the course of his writing career, including the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize in 1959 for Things Fall Apart; the Jock Campbell/New Statesman Award in 1965 for Arrow of God; the Commonwealth Poetry Prizein 1972 for Beware, Soul Brother; the first-ever Nigerian National Merit Award in 1979; the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010). A Man of the People was included on Anthony Burgess's 1984 list of “Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in England since 1930”. He also received honorary degrees from more than thirty universities around the world.
Achebe was offered the Nigerian national honour of Commander of the Federal Republic in 2004 and 2011 but rejected the award on both occasions. In a letter addressed to the Vanguard newspapers arts section in 2011, Achebe wrote that: “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again.”
Achebe died on March 21, 2013 at the age of 82 in Boston, Massac