Chinua Achebe

BORN: 1930, Ogidi, Nigeria NATIONALITY: Nigerian, African GENRE: Novels, poetry, essays MAJOR WORKS: Things Fall Apart (1958) No Longer at Ease (1960) Arrow of God (1964) A Man of the People (1966) Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

Overview Chinua Achebe, whose work has been published in some fifty languages, is among the founders of contemporary Nigerian literature. Achebe, an ethnic Igbo, writes in English, but alters it to reflect native Nigerian languages. He does this to develop an appreciation for African culture in those unfamiliar with it. Although he has also written poetry, short stories, and essays—both literary and political—Achebe is best known for his novels, in which he offers a close and balanced examination of contemporary Africa and the historical forces that have shaped it. Works in Biographical and Historical Context Early Life in a Colony Pushing for Its Independence Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on November 16, 1930, in the village of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria to Janet Iloegbunam Achebe and Isaiah Okafor Achebe. At the time, Nigeria was a British colony, and Western educational and economic models dominated. Achebe’s father taught religion for the Church Missionary Society. Chinua Achebe was eight when he began to learn English and fourteen when he went to the Government College at Umuahia in

southeastern Nigeria, considered one of the best schools in West Africa. He enrolled in 1948 at University College, Ibadan, Nigeria, intending to study medicine, but soon switched to English literary studies. Achebe rejected the British name ‘‘Albert’’ and took his indigenous name ‘‘Chinua’’ in 1948, a time of growing Nigerian nationalism and increased pressure on Great Britain to grant the colony independence. He contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald, which were later published in Girls at War and Other Stories (1972). After graduating, Achebe taught for a year and then began a twelve-year career as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1957, he went to London to attend the British Broadcasting Corporation Staff School. One of his teachers there was the British novelist and literary critic Gilbert Phelps, who recommended Things Fall Apart for publication. Achebe was appointed director of the Voice of Nigeria (external broadcasting) by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1961. That same year, on September 10, he married Christie Chinwe Okoli. They would have four children. Nigerian Literary Renaissance Things Fall Apart (1958) is an account of colonial history from the point of view of the colonized rather than the colonizer: The perspective is African instead of Eurocentric, something highly unusual in English-language literature. The novel explores the philosophical principles of an African community, which is self-governing at the outset of the story. The novel was published early in the Nigerian literary renaissance, two years before Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. The timing of the novel’s release helped ensure its success: While Nigerians looked forward with excitement and optimism to the political freedom they would attain after more than a half century of British colonial rule, Achebe understood the need to show his countrymen the strength of their own cultures to assist in the task of nation building, a strength greatly diminished by the imposition of an alien culture. Achebe’s second novel, No Longer at Ease (1960), is set in modern Nigeria in the days immediately before independence from British colonial rule. It reveals the changes to Nigerian society that result from foreign intervention— the extent to which things have fallen apart. The main character’s experiences testify to the oppressive weight of doubt, guilt, and regret that the colonial experience has created. Achebe returns to the past in Arrow of God (1964). He evokes a world rich in the complexities of daily domestic, social, political, and religious living further complicated by the now-institutionalized religious and political rules that the colonial force had introduced into Igbo society. The novel is a meditation on the nature and uses of power, and on the responsibility of the person who wields it. Although the consequences of the loss of predictable political power at the village level can bring personal tragedy, at the national level the consequences are more widespread and longer lasting. It is to this latter reality that Achebe turns in his fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), which is set in the postcolonial period in an independent African country. The governance of the country is, nominally, in the hands of the people, and it is the quality of the leadership and the response of the people to that leadership that concern Achebe. Nigerian Civil War and Politics Publication of A Man of the People coincided almost exactly with the first military coup d’etat in Nigeria, sparked by ethnic tensions between differing populations in the southern and northern parts of Nigeria. The worsening political situation led to the persecution of the Igbo people, which resulted in a series of massacres. Achebe resigned from his job with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation after these acts of violence and returned to his homeland. The Eastern Region declared itself an independent state, called Biafra, in 1967, shortly after a thirty-month civil war began. Throughout the war Achebe traveled widely on Biafran affairs to Europe and North America. There was neither time nor inclination to write long fiction during this period. Rather, Achebe produced most of the poems in the volume Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems (1971; later revised, enlarged, and republished in the United States as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973). Thirteen of Achebe’s short stories, collected as Girls at War and Other Stories, were published in 1972. In 1975 Achebe published a volume of fifteen essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day, written between 1962 and 1973, on various literary and political subjects. In 1983, in the face of an impending federal election, he published The Trouble with Nigeria. The final chapter, ‘‘The Example of Aminu Kano,’’ comments on the qualities of the ideal leader for Nigeria in Achebe’s view, and praises Muslim politician Aminu Kano. Kano died before the election, and Achebe was asked to become a presidential candidate. Instead he became the deputy national president, an honorary title. Before the election was held, however, the military intervened, resulting in a coup. It has been suggested that Achebe’s words in part prompted this action. In 1986 Achebe was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award for the second time. In his acceptance speech he acknowledged that literature is central in the quest to achieve the goal of creating a modern Nigeria. Later Work Emphasizing West African Traditions Achebe confirmed his place as the leading African novelist with the publication of Anthills of the Savannah (1987). One of Achebe’s primary interests in the novel is the way in which Nigeria’s oral tradition, devalued by European colonizers and considered inferior to the tradition of written literature in Europe, is withering. This novel is set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, which resembles Nigeria. Achebe aims at reclaiming the art of storytelling in a society in which oral wisdom is in danger of dying out because of the increasing development of modern technocratic society. The communal and public act of storytelling also is yielding to the private form of the printed word. Anthills of the Savannah reveals that the two distinct forms of communication can meet and assist in closing the gap between the educated and the uneducated, so that the story is capable of fulfilling its traditional role. In this way, Achebe seems to be suggesting that Nigeria can make economic and social progress in the modern world without abandoning its cultural heritage in favor of European models. Anthills of the Savannah was well received and earned Achebe a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. Achebe’s next book, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–1987 (1988), essays and speeches written over a period of twenty-three years, is perceived in many ways to be a logical extension of ideas in Anthills of the Savannah. In this collection, however, he is not addressing the way Africans view themselves, but rather how Africa is viewed by the outside world. The central theme is the destructive impact of racism that is inherent to Western traditional attitudes regarding Africa. Still Writing and Working Despite Injury In 1990, only weeks after attending a celebration for his sixtieth birthday, Achebe was paralyzed in an accident in Nigeria. Despite this, he has continued to publish, teach, and appear in public. He moved to the United States for therapy and has lived there, ‘‘a reluctant refugee,’’ according to Oluwole Adujare in an African News Service review, during a dark time of Nigerian dictatorship. At Achebe’s seventieth birthday celebration at Bard College, Wole Soyinka commented that ‘‘Achebe never hesitates to lay blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs.’’ In 2007 he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for fiction. Works in Literary Context Africa, as an exotic place filled with ‘‘unknowable’’ people, has figured prominently in European literature and in the European imagination. Achebe has distinguished himself as a writer by presenting Africa from an African perspective and by pointing out the ways in which European cultural prejudices have affected not only the way Africa and Africans have been portrayed in literature and popular culture, but how Africa and Africans have been treated by imperial powers. The Decision to Write in English In order to recognize the virtues of precolonial Nigeria, chronicle the

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