Novelist, Poet, Professor, Critic and more. Chinua Achebe was born Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe, on the 16th of November 1930. Chinua Achebe’s parents, Isaiah Okafo Achebe and Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam, were converts to the Protestant Church Mission Society (CMS) in Nigeria. Though the elder Achebe was converted to Christianity, he however respected the traditions of his ancestral beliefs. Achebe’s unabbreviated name, Chinualumogu (“God fights on my behalf”), was a prayer for divine protection and stability; a name believed to have been influenced by the Elder Achebe’s new found faith.
Early Life, Education and Early Rise as a Writer
Raised by his parents in the Igbo town of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship to study medicine, but changed his studies to English literature at University College (now University of Ibadan). In 1936, Achebe was enrolled at St. Philips’ Central School. Despite his protests, 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 teacher described him as the student with the best handwriting in class, and the best reading skills. He also attended Sunday school every week and the special evangelical services held monthly, often carrying his father’s bag.
Achebe debuted as a writer in 1950 when he wrote a piece for the University Herald entitled “Polar Undergraduate”. It used irony and humour to celebrate the intellectual vigour of his classmates. While at the 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”), examining conflicts between tradition and modernity, with an eye toward dialogue and understanding on both sides.
Achebe: ‘The Great’ Whom The Greats Consider ‘The Great’
Achebe has been called “the father of modern African writing” and Africa’s greatest storyteller. 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 represented in the Everyman’s Library collection published by Alfred A. Knopf. His 60th birthday was celebrated at the University of Nigeria by “an international Who’s Who in African Literature”. One observer noted: “Nothing like it had ever happened before in African literature anywhere on the continent.”
Achebe provided a “blueprint” for African writers of succeeding generations. In 1982, he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Kent. At the ceremony, Professor Robert Gibson said that the Nigerian writer “is now revered as Master by the younger generation of African writers and it is to him they regularly turn for counsel and inspiration.” Even 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 ‘lauded 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”, and that his work ‘Things Fall Apart’ inspired him to continue the struggle to end apartheid. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has noted that Achebe’s work inspired her to become a writer and “sparked her love affair with African literature”.
Achebe was the recipient of over 30 honorary degrees from universities in England, Scotland, Canada, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States, including Dartmouth College, Harvard, and Brown University. He was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982), a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002), the Nigerian National Order of Merit (Nigeria’s highest honour for academic work), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Man Booker International Prize 2007 and the 2010 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. He was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Population Fund in 1999.
‘Things Fall Apart’: A Classic for All Classes
Achebe’s book ‘Things Fall Apart’ is a classic; perhaps, if there were better words to describe it, then classic will be an understatement. This is because, the book has become one of the most important books in African literature; selling over 20 million copies around the world, it has been translated into over 57 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time and the book, often considered his best, is the most widely read book in modern African literature.. Furthermore, the book, in recognition of its universality, appears in the Bokklubben World Library collection “proposed by one hundred writers from fifty-four different countries, compiled and organized in 2002 by the Norwegian Book Club. This list endeavors to reflect world literature, with books from all countries, cultures, and time periods.” The book is also included in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of “12 Novels considered the ‘Greatest Book Ever Written'”. Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has described the work as “the first novel in English which spoke from the interior of the African character, rather than portraying the African as an exotic, as the white man would see him.”
His other novels include; No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe wrote his novels in English and defended the use of English, a “language of colonisers”, in African literature. In 1975, his lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” featured a famous criticism of Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist”; it was later published in The Massachusetts Review amid some controversy. His last novel, ‘There Was a Country’ was originally published in (2012). Achebe also published several collections of short stories and children’s books. ‘How the Leopard Got His Claws’ (1973; with John Iroaganachi). ‘Beware, Soul-Brother’ (1971) and ‘Christmas in Biafra’ (1973) are his collections of poetry. Another Africa (1998) combines an essay and poems by Achebe with photographs by Robert Lyons. Achebe’s books of essays include ‘Morning Yet on Creation Day’ (1975), ‘Hopes and Impediments’ (1988), ‘Home and Exile’ (2000), ‘The Education of a British-Protected Child’ (2009), amongst so many other books, poems, essays, short stories etc.
In October 1979, Achebe was awarded the first-ever Nigerian National Merit Award. However, He twice refused the Nigerian honour Commander of the Federal Republic, in 2004 and 2011.
Chinua Achebe died on the 21 March 2013 and on 16 November 2017, Google showed a Doodle in Nigeria and the U.S. for what would have been Chinua Achebe’s 87th birthday.
Sallah, Tijan M. and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (2003). Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press.
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