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'Father of African Literature,' Chinua Achebe, dead at 82

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 6/20/2013, 1:10 p.m.
For readers and students of African literature, one name soared above all others--Chinua Achebe. His...
'Father of African Literature,' Chinua Achebe, dead at 82

For readers and students of African literature, one name soared above all others--Chinua Achebe. His trilogy of books--"Things Fall Apart," "No Longer at Ease" and "Arrow of God"--were required reading. Achebe not only introduced the world to African literature, he also put an incomparable stamp on it. Achebe, 82, died last Thursday in Boston after a brief illness, according to his literary agent.

There were certainly other African writers before Achebe, but when "Things Fall Apart" appeared in 1958, it was a game-changer.

From that auspicious beginning--along with his powerful essays that challenged the canonization of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as the end-all of African literary expression--Achebe set the pace for the arrival of other African writers, particularly from his own native Nigeria.

"We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughy fighter," said two fellow notable Nigerian writers, Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark, in a joint statement. Now, the writers continued, only they remain of a quartet of writers--including the late Achebe and the late Christopher Okigbo--who have pioneered their nation's literature.

While Achebe was seen by many as the "Father of African Literature," he rejected such a designation in his typically self-effacing manner. Even so, said Mukoma wa Ngugi, a Kenyan author of similar renown, "it is hard to imagine what the landscape of African literature would be like without him at its center."

"His seminal novel, 'Things Fall Apart,' is at once about colonization and the breakdown of African societies, and Okonkwo, a tragic hero struggling against forces greater than him in the Homeric tradition ushered in socially conscious African writing that was also aesthetically pleasing," Ngugi said.

Anti-colonialism is at the heart of this first great novel, and Achebe made explicit references to the invasion of the Europeans, who took the land and gave the Bible to the indigenous peoples.

"Achebe was perhaps the first to give voice with elegance, poetic prose and startling insight to the other side of the world, which most Western readers encounter in Joseph Conrad," said Leon Botstein, the conductor, scholar and president of Bard College, where Achebe once taught.

Born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe on Nov. 16, 1930, in the Igbo town of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, the author excelled as a student, winning a scholarship to pursue his higher education. He began his writing career during his employment at the Nigerian Broadcast Service and subsequently moved to Lagos.

He was 28 when he completed "Things Fall Apart"; he wrote in long hand, sent it away to be typed for him and then nervously waited while the lost manuscript was soon recovered.

Because he was an Igbo, he supported the break-away movement to make Biafra a separate nation. When the floundering independence action began to fall apart, his voice was among the strongest to appeal for help. When things ruptured socially and politically, Achebe packed his bags and moved to the United States in the 1970s.

In the states, he continued to write. His fourth novel, "A Man of the People" (1966), was so prescient about the roiling political climate in Lagos that his enemies felt he might have played a role in the coup attempt.