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Chinua Achebe: The father of African literature

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 6/20/2013, 11:37 a.m.
Chinua Achebe: The father of African literature

His next work was "Arrow of God," which continued his exploration of the conflicts of traditional Igbo tradition with European Christianity. In 1966 came "A Man of the People." Military and political unrest in Lagos forced the Achebe family to resettle in Enugu, where he and friend Christopher Okigbo started the publishing house Citadel Press. Achebe's next work was "How the Leopard Got His Claws."

In 1967, civil war erupted in Nigeria as the southeastern region seceded to form the Republic of Biafra. Achebe's house was bombed and his partner Okigbo was killed on the war's frontline. The family left for the Biafran capital of Aba. Achebe turned to poetry, calling it "something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood." His poems were collected in his 1971 book "Beware, Soul Brother."

As the city of Aba fell to the military, the Achebes moved once again to Umuahia, where he chaired the National Guidance Committee and was responsible for drafting ideas for the Biafran post-war era. As the state of Biafra surrendered to the Nigerian government, ending the war, Achebe returned to Ogidi. He returned to academia, helping start two magazines. His 1972 collection of short stories, "Girls at War," was the 100th title in Heinemann's African Writers Series.

The family then moved to the United States, where Achebe became a professor at the University of Massachusetts. Achebe continued to criticize the image of Africa as presented by Europeans. At the second Chancellor's Lecture given at Amherst on Feb. 18, 1975, Achebe took sharp aim at Joseph Conrad's book "Heart of Darkness," in which he depicts Africa as "the other world." Here is an example from the work, which Achebe offers to highlight Conrad's description of an African:

"And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap.

"He squinted at the steam gauge and at the water gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity--and he had filed his teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge."

Achebe's lecture caused a firestorm of controversy. When interviewed on National Public Radio in October 2009, Achebe's scorn remained consistent though tempered slightly. Achebe contended, "Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction."

Achebe spent the 1980s delivering speeches and attending conferences. He retired from the University of Nigeria and from politics, dismayed by the corruption. In 1987, Achebe released his fifth novel, "Anthills of the Savannah." The acclaimed work was a finalist for the Booker Prize.