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Chinua Achebe, African Novelist, Activist Dies at 82

  in  ·
March 23, 2013

Referred to as ‘the father of modern African literature,’ Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe died March 22 in the United States, where he lived since 1990.

Achebe wrote about Western versus traditional African values. His upbringing in the Igbo town of Ogidi was a mixture of his parents’ Protestant Christian beliefs and respect for African traditions.  He was influenced by stories his mother would tell him as a child and by the western literature in his father’s collection of books, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

He excelled in school, receiving high marks and earning entrance to University College, an associate college of the University of London and newly opened in anticipation of Nigeria’s independence.  After graduation he taught for a short time, urging his students to read.  In his own description of the many books he read, he was repulsed by the African characters found in western classics such as Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island, where he would find himself taking sides “with the white characters against the savages.”

Achebe began writing his first novel after moving to Lagos to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. In 1958, Things Fall Apart was published to critical acclaim.  Through his vivid portrayal of Igbo life, Achebe achieved telling a traditional African story from the African perspective.  The novel would eventually sell over 10 million copies around the world.

His 1975 Amherst lecture, An Image of Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness, drew intense opposition for its criticism of Joseph Conrad, calling the author a “bloody racist” and asserting that the novel dehumanized Africans.  Some say Achebe’s comments may have prevented him from winning the Nobel Prize for literature, which many believed he deserved.

Achebe was an activist during the Biafran War when he spoke out on behalf of Nigerians in the southeastern region of the country.  His home was bombed and his family was forced to move many times to avoid attack.  Opposing the Nigerian government’s crackdown on the breakaway Republic of Biafra, he traveled to the US to speak at colleges and raise awareness about the conflict.

Achebe spent the last years of his life in the United States, where he taught at Bard College in New York and at Brown University in Rhode Island.  He received the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2007.  In October of last year, Achebe released his long awaited memoir, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.

Books by Chinua Achebe:

Things Fall Apart

No Longer at Ease

Arrow of God

A Man of the People

Anthills of the Savannah

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

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