Literary community bereft after ‘father of African literature’ dies

Chinua Achebe best known for breakthrough novel ‘Things fall Apart’

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist, poet, and essayist, who died last week at the age of 82. Photograph/Brown University

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist, poet, and essayist, who died last week at the age of 82. Photograph/Brown University


Nigerian novelist, poet and essayist Chinua Achebe, who died last week at the age of 82, was seen by many as the father of African literature.

Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, called him an “utterly remarkable man”.

“Chinua Achebe is the greatest of African writers and we are all desolate to hear of his death,” he said.

Achebe was perhaps best known for his first novel , Things Fall Apart , which was published in 1958. The story of Igbo warrior Okonkwo and the colonial era, it has sold more than 10 million copies around the world and has been published in 50 languages. Achebe depicts an Igbo village as the white men arrive at the end of the 19th century, taking its title from the WB Yeats poem, which continues: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one,” says Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, in the novel.

The poet Jackie Kay hailed Achebe as “the grandfather of African fiction” who “lit up a path for many others”.

Achebe won the Commonwealth poetry prize for his collection Christmas in Biafra , was a finalist for the 1987 Booker prize for his novel Anthills of the Savannah , and in 2007 won the Man Booker international prize. Chair of the judges on that occasion, Elaine Showalter, said he had “inaugurated the modern African novel”, while her fellow judge, South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, said his fiction was “an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the postmodern breaking of sequence”.

‘Walls came down’
Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, has said that Achebe

“brought Africa to the rest of the world” and called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”.

The author is also known for the influential essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad ’s Heart of Darkness (1975), a hard-hitting critique of Conrad in which he says the author turned the African continent into “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”, asking: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”

The author was born in 1930 in Ogidi, in the southeast of Nigeria, won a scholarship to the University of Ibadan and later worked as a scriptwriter for the Nigeria Broadcasting Service. He chose to write Things Fall Apart in English – something for which he has received criticism from authors including Ngugi wa Thiong’o – but Achebe said he felt “that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But . . . altered to suit its new African surroundings.”

His fourth novel, in 1966, A Man of the People , anticipated a coup that took place in Nigeria just before the book was published. “I’d ended the book with a coup,” said Achebe, “which was ridiculous because Nigeria was much too big a country to have a coup, but . . . that night, we had a coup. And any confidence we had that things could be put right were smashed. That night is something we have never really got over.”

Mix of memoir
His most recent work was last year

’s mix of memoir and history, There Was a Country , an account of the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970.

Achebe was a supporter of Biafran seccession, but after the end of the civil war in 1970 he took what he described as a “sojourn” in politics. There he found that “the majority of people were there for their own personal advancement”, deciding instead to devote himself to academia.

He went on to write what he called a “limited harvest” of five novels – the most recent of which was 1987’s Anthills of the Savannah . “I go at the pace of inspiration and what I can physically manage,” he said.

In 1990 a car accident in Nigeria left him paralysed from the waist down, and forced his move to the US. “I miss Nigeria very much. My injury means I need to know I am near a good hospital . . . I need to know that if I went to a pharmacist the medicine there would be the drug that the bottle says it is,” he said in 2007.

Achebe twice rejected the Nigerian government’s attempt to name him a Commander of the Federal Republic – a national honour – in 2004 and 2011. In 2004 he wrote that “for some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the presidency ? Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must . . . protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 honours list.”
– ( Guardian service)