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.
Achebe was a versatile writer, excelling in essay and poetry. His collection of poems, “Beware Soul Brother” (1971), earned him the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and his collection of short stories, “Girls at War” (1972), was also highly touted.
In 1990, Achebe experienced some of the tragedy endured by his characters–especially Okonkwo–but unlike his protagonist, death did not come, even though the writer was paralyzed from the waist down. “At least I’m alive,” he told reporters. He accepted his misfortune in the Nigerian car accident with aplomb, noting, “I walked for 60 years; some folks have never walked.”
Throughout his glorious career, Achebe–the writer, the teacher and the griot–was always kind and considerate of others who were struggling to perfect their craft, something he apparently did with relative ease. As he wrote of Okonkwo, whose “fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan,” Achebe’s magisterial flight, his stay with us burned with a brilliant intensity and will forever be with us through the profundity of his work.
“No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives,” said Soyinka and Clark. “His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry and retrogression.”