Chinua Achebe, the internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident who gave literary birth to modern Africa with Things Fall Apart and continued for decades to rewrite and reclaim the history of his native country, has died. He was 82.
Achebe died following a brief illness, said his agent, Andrew Wylie.
Achebe was a moral and literary model for countless Africans and a profound influence on such American writers as Toni Morrison, Ha Jin and Junot Diaz.
As a Nigerian, Achebe lived through and helped define revolutionary change in his country, from independence to dictatorship to the disastrous war between Nigeria and the breakaway country of Biafra in the late 1960s. He spent much of his adult life in the United States, but never stopped calling for democracy in Nigeria or resisting literary honors from a government he refused to accept.
His public life began in his mid-20s. He was a resident of London when he completed his handwritten manuscript for Things Fall Apart, a short novel about a Nigerian tribesman’s downfall at the hands of British colonialists. Turned down by several publishers, the book was finally accepted by Heinemann and released in 1958 with a first printing of 2,000. Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture.
“It would be impossible to say how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing,” the African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once observed. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians. Achebe didn’t only play the game, he invented it.”
Things Fall Apart has sold more than eight million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. Achebe also was a forceful critic of Western literature about Africa, especially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, standard reading for millions, but in Achebe’s opinion, a defining example of how even a great Western mind could reduce a foreign civilization to barbarism and menace.
His first novel was intended as a trilogy and the author continued its story in A Man of the People and Arrow of God. He also wrote short stories, poems, children’s stories and a political satire, The Anthills of Savannah, a 1987 release that was the last full-length fiction to come out in his lifetime.
Achebe never did win the Nobel Prize, which many believed he deserved, but in 2007 he did receive the Man Booker International Prize, a $120,000 honor for lifetime achievement. Achebe, paralysed from the waist down since a 1990 auto accident, lived for years in a cottage built for him on the campus of Bard College, a leading liberal arts school north of New York City where he was a faculty member. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature.
Achebe, a native of Ogidi, Nigeria, regarded his life as a bartering between conflicting cultures. His father worked in a local missionary and was among the first in their village to convert to Christianity. In Achebe’s memoir There Was a Country, he wrote that his “whole artistic career was probably sparked by this tension between the Christian religion” of his parents and the “retreating, older religion” of his ancestors. He would observe the conflicts between his father and great uncle and ponder “the essence, the meaning, the worldview of both religions.”
Best Africna novel ever
After graduating from the University College of Ibadan, in 1953, Achebe was a radio producer at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corp., then moved to London and worked at the British Broadcasting Corp.
He was writing stories in college and called Things Fall Apart an act of “atonement” for what he says was the abandonment of traditional culture. The book’s title was taken from poet William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming, which includes the widely quoted line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
The opening sentence was as simple, declarative and revolutionary as a line out of Hemingway:
“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.” Africans, Achebe had announced, had their own history, their own celebrities and reputations.
Achebe could be just as critical of his own country. The novels A Man of the People and No Longer at Ease were stories of corruption and collapse that anticipated the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70 and the years of mismanagement that followed. He not only supported Biafra’s independence, but was a government envoy and a member of a committee that was to write up the new and short-lived country’s constitution. He would flee from Nigeria and return many times and in 2004 refused the country’s second-highest award, the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, in protest over conditions under President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Besides his own writing, Achebe served for years as editor of Heinemann’s “African Writer Series,” which published works by Nadine Gordimer, Stephen Biko and others. He also edited numerous anthologies of African stories, poems and essays. In There Was a Country, he considered the role of the modern African writer.
“What I can say is that it was clear to many of us that an indigenous African literary renaissance was overdue,” he wrote. “A major objective was to challenge stereotypes, myths, and the image of ourselves and our continent, and to recast them through stories — prose, poetry, essays, and books for our children. That was my overall goal.”
Rwandans pay tribute
Andrew Shyaka, journalist
It’s a great loss to all people who love reading books and especially to Africa because he made African problems known in his books like “Things Fall apart”.
Connie Bwiza, Lawmaker
He was a Pan-African, who has always fought for values, peace, justice in Africa. He will not pass away because he leaves behind him a monument, from which young people should learn.
Miriam Ingabire, public servant
He spent his entire life urging Africans to safeguard our beautiful African culture. He also advocated for peace; not only in his native country but everywhere.
Jean de Dieu Nsanzabera, writer
We learnt from him, that we have to defend our values and culture.
Clever Kanyankore, writer
I am so touched by his death; he was a hero, and an activist writer for us.