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Chinua Achebe (pronounced /ˈtʃɪnwɑː ɑːˈtʃeɪbeɪ/), born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe (November 16, 1930 - March 21, 2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet and critic. He is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which is the most widely-read book in modern African literature.2

Raised by Christian parents in the Igbo village of Ogidi in south Nigeria, Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship for undergraduate studies. He became fascinated with world religions and traditional African cultures, and began writing stories as a university student. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and soon moved to the metropolis of Lagos. He gained worldwide attention for Things Fall Apart in the late 1950s. Achebe wrote his novels in English and has defended the use of English, a language of colonizers, in African literature. In 1975, his lecture "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" became the focus of controversy, for its criticism of Joseph Conrad as "a thoroughgoing racist."

When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Achebe became a devoted supporter of the secession and ambassador for the people of the new nation. The war ravaged the populace, and as starvation and violence took its toll, he appealed to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid. When the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved himself in political parties but soon resigned due to frustration over the corruption and elitism he witnessed.

Achebe's novels focus on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of Christian influences, and the clash of values during and after the colonial era. His style relies heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory. He has also published a number of short stories, children's books, and essay collections as well as serving as the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Biography

Achebe's parents, Isaiah Okafo Achebe and Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam, were converts to the Protestant Church Mission Society (CMS) in Nigeria.3 The elder Achebe stopped practicing the religion of his ancestors, but he respected its traditions and sometimes incorporated elements of its rituals into his Christian practice. Chinua's unabbreviated name, Chinualumogu ("May God fight on my behalf"4), was a prayer for divine protection and stability.4 The Achebe family had five other surviving children, named in a similar fusion of traditional words relating to their new religion: Frank Okwuofu, John Chukwuemeka Ifeanyichukwu, Zinobia Uzoma, Augustine Nduka, and Grace Nwanneka.4

Early life

Chinua was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in the Igbo village of Nneobi, on November 16, 1930.4 His parents stood at a crossroads of traditional culture and Christian influence; this made a significant impact on the children, especially Chinualumogu. After the youngest daughter was born, the family moved to Isaiah Achebe's ancestral village of Ogidi, in what is now the Nigerian state of Anambra.1

Map of Nigeria's linguistic groups. Achebe's homeland, the Igbo region (sometimes called Ibo), lies in the central south.

Storytelling was a mainstay of the Igbo tradition and an integral part of the community. Chinua's mother and sister, Zinobia Uzoma, told him many stories as a child at his repeated requests. His education was furthered by the collages his father hung on the walls of their home, as well as almanacs and numerous books-including a prose adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1590) and an Igbo version of The Pilgrim's Progress (1678).5 Chinua also eagerly anticipated traditional village events, like the frequent masquerade ceremonies, which he recreated later in his novels and stories.6

Education

In 1936 Achebe entered St. Philips' Central School. Despite his protests, he spent a week in the religious class for young children, but was quickly moved to a higher class when the school's reverend took note of his intelligence.7 He also attended Sunday school every week and the special evangelical services held monthly, often carrying his father's bag. A controversy erupted at one such session, when apostates from the new church challenged the catechist about the tenets of Christianity. Achebe later included a scene from this incident in Things Fall Apart.89

At the age of 12, Achebe moved away from his family to the village of Nekede, four kilometers from Owerri. He enrolled as a student at the Central School, where his older brother John taught.10 In Nekede, Achebe gained an appreciation for Mbari, a traditional art form which seeks to invoke the gods' protection through symbolic sacrifices in the form of sculpture and collage.11 When the time came to change to secondary school, in 1944, Achebe sat entrance examinations for and was accepted at both the prestigious Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha and the even more prestigious Government College in Umuahia.12

Modeled on the British public school, and funded by the colonial administration, Government College had been established in 1929 to educate Nigeria's future elite.12 It had rigorous academic standards and was vigorously egalitarian, accepting boys purely on the basis of ability.12 The language of the school was English, not only to develop proficiency but also to provide a common tongue for pupils from different Nigerian language groups.13 Achebe described this later as being ordered to "put away their different mother tongues and communicate in the language of their colonizers".14 The rule was strictly enforced and Achebe recalls that his first punishment was for asking another boy to pass the soap in Igbo.13

Once there, Achebe was double-promoted in his first year, completing the first two years' studies in one, and spending only four years in secondary school, instead of the standard five.15 Achebe was unsuited to the sports regimen of the school and belonged instead to a group of six exceedingly studious pupils. So intense were their study habits that the headmaster banned the reading of textbooks from five to six o'clock in the afternoon (though other activities and other books were allowed).16

Achebe started to explore the school's "wonderful library."17 There he discovered Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901), the autobiography of an American former slave; Achebe "found it sad, but it showed him another dimension of reality."16 He also read classic novels, such as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), Charles Dickens' David Copperfield (1850), and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) together with tales of colonial derring-do such as H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain (1887) and John Buchan's Prester John (1910). Achebe later recalled that, as a reader, he "took sides with the white characters against the savages"17and even developed a dislike for Africans. "The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts."17

A 2007 street scene in Ibadan

University

In 1948, in preparation for independence, Nigeria's first university opened.18 Known as University College, (now the University of Ibadan), it was an associate college of the University of London. Achebe obtained such high marks in the entrance examination that he was admitted as a Major Scholar in the university's first intake and given a bursary to study medicine.18 After a year of grueling work, however, he decided science was not for him and he changed to English, history, and theology.19 Because he switched his field, however, he lost his scholarship and had to pay tuition fees. He received a government bursary, and his family also donated money; his older brother Augustine even gave up money for a trip home from his job as a civil servant so Chinua could continue his studies.20 From its inception, the university had a strong English faculty and it includes many famous writers among its alumni. These include Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, novelist Elechi Amadi, poet and playwright John Pepper Clark, and poet Christopher Okigbo.21 In 1950 Achebe wrote a piece for the University Herald entitled "Polar Undergraduate," his debut as an author. It used irony and humor to celebrate the intellectual vigor of his classmates.22 He followed this with other essays and letters about philosophy and freedom in academia, some of which were published in another campus magazine, The Bug.23 He served as the Herald's editor during the 1951-1952 school year.24

While at the university, Achebe wrote his first short story, "In a Village Church," which combines details of life in rural Nigeria with Christian institutions and icons, a style which appears in many of his later works.25 Other short stories he wrote during his time at Ibadan (including "The Old Order in Conflict with the New" and "Dead Men's Path") examine conflicts between tradition and modernity, with an eye toward dialogue and understanding on both sides.26 When a professor named Geoffrey Parrinder arrived at the university to teach comparative religion, Achebe began to explore the fields of Christian history and African traditional religions.27

It was during his studies at Ibadan that Achebe began to become critical of European literature about Africa. He read Irish novelist Joyce Cary's 1939 book Mister Johnson, about a cheerful Nigerian man who (among other things) works for an abusive British store owner. Achebe recognized his dislike for the African protagonist as a sign of the author's cultural ignorance. One of his classmates announced to the professor that the only enjoyable moment in the book is when Johnson is shot.28

After the final examinations at Ibadan in 1953, Achebe was awarded a second-class degree. Rattled by not receiving the highest result possible, he was uncertain how to proceed after graduation. He returned to his hometown of Ogidi to sort through his options.29

Teaching and producing

While he meditated on his possible career paths, Achebe was visited by a friend from the university, who convinced him to apply for an English teaching position at the Merchants of Light school at Oba. It was a ramshackle institution with crumbling infrastructure and a meager library; the school was built on what the residents called "bad bush"-a section of land thought to be tainted by unfriendly spirits.30 Later, in Things Fall Apart, Achebe describes a similar area called the "evil forest," where the Christian missionaries are given a place to build their church.31

As a teacher he urged his students to read extensively and be original in their work.32 The students did not have access to the newspapers he had read as a student, so Achebe made his own available in the classroom. He taught in Oba for four months, but when an opportunity arose in 1954 to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS), he left the school and moved to Lagos.33

Lagos in 2007

The NBS, a radio network started in 1933 by the colonial government,34 assigned Achebe to the Talks Department, preparing scripts for oral delivery. This helped him master the subtle nuances between written and spoken language, a skill that helped him later to write realistic dialogue.35

The city of Lagos also made a significant impression on him. A huge conurbation, the city teemed with recent migrants from the rural villages. Achebe reveled in the social and political activity around him and later drew upon his experiences when describing the city in his 1960 novel No Longer At Ease.36

While in Lagos, Achebe started work on a novel. This was challenging, since very little African fiction had been written in English, although Amos Tutuola's Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City (1954) were notable exceptions. While appreciating Ekwensi's work, Achebe worked hard to develop his own style, even as he pioneered the creation of the Nigerian novel itself.37 A visit to Nigeria by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 brought issues of colonialism and politics to the surface, and was a significant moment for Achebe.38

Also in 1956, Achebe was selected for training in London at the Staff School run by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His first trip outside Nigeria was an opportunity to advance his technical production skills, and to solicit feedback on his novel (which was later split into two books). In London he met a novelist named Gilbert Phelps, to whom he offered the manuscript. Phelps responded with great enthusiasm, asking Achebe if he could show it to his editor and publishers. Achebe declined, insisting that it needed more work.39

Things Fall Apart

Back in Nigeria, Achebe set to work revising and editing his novel (now titled Things Fall Apart, after a line in the poem "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats). He cut away the second and third sections of the book, leaving only the story of a yam farmer named Okonkwo. He added sections, improved various chapters, and restructured the prose. By 1957 he had sculpted it to his liking, and took advantage of an advertisement offering a typing service. He sent his only copy of his handwritten manuscript (along with the ₤22 fee) to the London company. After he waited several months without receiving any communication from the typing service, Achebe began to worry. His boss at the NBS, Angela Beattie, was going to London for her annual leave; he asked her to visit the company. She did, and angrily demanded to know why it was lying ignored in the corner of the office. The company quickly sent a typed copy to Achebe. Beattie's intervention was crucial for his ability to continue as a writer. Had the novel been lost, he later said, "I would have been so discouraged that I would probably have given up altogether."40

A spiral stack of the 1994 Anchor Books edition of Things Fall Apart

In 1958 Achebe sent his novel to the literary agent recommended by Gilbert Phelps in London. It was sent to several publishing houses; some rejected it immediately, claiming that fiction from African writers had no market potential.41 Finally it reached the office of Heinemann, where executives hesitated until an educational adviser, Donald MacRae-just back in England after a trip through West Africa-read the book and forced the company's hand with his succinct report: "This is the best novel I have read since the war."42

Did you know?Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" is regarded as the archetypal modern African novel written in English

Heinemann published 2000 hardcover copies of Things Fall Apart released on June 17, 1958. According to Alan Hill, employed by the publisher at the time, the company did not "touch a word of it" in preparation for release.43 The book was received well by the British press, and received positive reviews from critic Walter Allen and novelist Angus Wilson. Three days after publication, the Times Literary Supplement wrote that the book "genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside." The Observer called it "an excellent novel," and the literary magazine Time and Tide said that "Mr. Achebe's style is a model for aspirants."44

Initial reception in Nigeria was mixed. When Hill tried to promote the book in West Africa, he was met with skepticism and ridicule. The faculty at the University of Ibadan was amused at the thought of a worthwhile novel being written by an alumnus.45 Others were more supportive; one review in the magazine Black Orpheus said: "The book as a whole creates for the reader such a vivid picture of Ibo life that the plot and characters are little more than symbols representing a way of life lost irrevocably within living memory."46

In the book Okonkwo struggles with the legacy of his father-a shiftless debtor fond of playing the flute-as well as the complications and contradictions that arise when white missionaries arrive in his village of Umuofia.47 Exploring the terrain of cultural conflict, particularly the encounter between Igbo tradition and Christian doctrine, Achebe returns to the themes of his earlier stories, which grew from his own background.

Things Fall Apart has become one of the most important books in African literature.48 Selling over 8 million copies around the world, it has been translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time.4950

Marriage and family

In the same year Things Fall Apart was published, Achebe was promoted at the NBS and put in charge of the network's Eastern region coverage. He moved to Enugu and began to work on his administrative duties. There he met a woman named Christie Okoli, who had grown up in the area and joined the NBS staff when he arrived. They first conversed when she brought to his attention a pay discrepancy; a friend of hers found that, although they had been hired simultaneously, Christie had been rated lower and offered a lower wage. Sent to the hospital for an appendectomy soon afterwards, she was pleasantly surprised when Achebe visited her with gifts and magazines.51

Achebe and Okoli grew closer in the following years, and on September 10, 1961, were married in the Chapel of Resurrection on the campus of the University of Ibadan.52 Christie Achebe has described their marriage as one of trust and mutual understanding; some tension arose early in their union, due to conflicts about attention and communication. However, as their relationship matured, husband and wife made accommodations to adapt to one another.53

Their first child, a daughter named Chinelo, was born on July 11, 1962. They had a son, Ikechukwu, on December 3, 1964, and another boy named Chidi on May 24, 1967. When the children began attending school in Lagos, their parents became worried about the world view-especially with regard to race-expressed at the school, especially through the mostly white teachers and books that presented a prejudiced view of African life.54 In 1966, Achebe published his first children's book, Chike and the River, to address some of these concerns.55 After the Biafran secession and war, the Achebes had another daughter on March 7, 1970, named Nwando.56

No Longer at Ease and fellowship travels

In 1960, while they were still dating, Achebe dedicated to Christie Okoli his second novel, No Longer at Ease, about a civil servant who is embroiled in the corruption of Lagos. The protagonist is Obi, grandson of Things Fall Apart's main character, Okonkwo. Drawing on his time in the city, Achebe writes about Obi's experiences in Lagos to reflect the challenges facing a new generation on the threshold of Nigerian independence. Obi is trapped between the expectations of his family, its clan, his home village, and larger society. He is crushed by these forces (like his grandfather before him) and finds himself imprisoned for bribery. Having shown his acumen for portraying traditional Igbo culture, Achebe demonstrated in his second novel an ability to depict modern Nigerian life.57

A map of areas using the Swahili language

Later that year, Achebe was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship for six months of travel, which he called "the first important perk of my writing career";58 Achebe set out for a tour of East Africa. One month after Nigeria achieved its independence, he travelled to Kenya, where he was required to complete an immigration form by checking a box indicating his ethnicity: European, Asiatic, Arab, or Other. Shocked and dismayed at being forced into an "Other" identity, he found the situation "almost funny" and took an extra form as a souvenir.59 Continuing to Tanganyika and Zanzibar (now united in Tanzania), he was frustrated by the paternalistic attitude he observed among non-African hotel clerks and social elites.60

Achebe also found in his travels that Swahili was gaining prominence as a major African language. Radio programs were broadcast in Swahili, and its use was widespread in the countries he visited. Nevertheless, he also found an "apathy" among the people toward literature written in Swahili.61 He met the poet Sheikh Shaaban Robert, who complained of the difficulty he had faced in trying to publish his Swahili-language work.62

In Northern Rhodesia (now called Zambia), Achebe found himself sitting in a whites-only section of a bus to Victoria Falls. Interrogated by the ticket taker as to why he was sitting in the front, he replied, "if you must know I come from Nigeria, and there we sit where we like in the bus."63 Upon reaching the waterfall he was cheered by the black travelers from the bus, but he was saddened by the irony that they felt unable to stand up to the policy of segregation.64

Two years later, Achebe again left Nigeria, this time as part of a Fellowship for Creative Artists awarded by UNESCO. He travelled to the United States and Brazil. He met with a number of writers from the U.S., including novelists Ralph Ellison and Arthur Miller.65 In Brazil, he met with several other authors, with whom he discussed the complications of writing in Portuguese. Achebe worried that the vibrant literature of the nation would be lost if left untranslated into a more widely-spoken language.66

Voice of Nigeria and African Writers Series

Once he returned to Nigeria, Achebe was promoted at the NBS to the position of Director of External Broadcasting. One of his first duties was to help create the Voice of Nigeria network. The station broadcast its first transmission on New Year's Day 1962, and worked to maintain an objective perspective during the turbulent era immediately following independence.67 This objectivity was put to the test when Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa declared a state of emergency in the Western Region, responding to a series of conflicts between officials of varying parties. Achebe became saddened by the evidence of corruption and silencing of political opposition.68

In 1962 he attended a conference of African writers in English at the Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. He met with important literary figures from around the continent and the world, including Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, and US poet-author Langston Hughes. Among the topics of discussion was an attempt to determine whether the term African literature ought to include work from the diaspora, or solely that writing composed by people living within the continent itself. Achebe indicated that it was not "a very significant question,"69 and that scholars would do well to wait until a body of work were large enough to judge. Writing about the conference in several journals, Achebe hailed it as a milestone for the literature of Africa, and highlighted the importance of community among isolated voices on the continent and beyond.70

While at Makerere, Achebe was asked to read a novel written by a student (James Ngugi, later known as Ngugi wa Thiong'o) called Weep Not, Child. Impressed, he sent it to Alan Hill at Heinemann, which published it two years later to coincide with its paperback line of books from African writers. Hill indicated this was to remedy a situation where British publishers "regarded West Africa only as a place where you sold books." Achebe was chosen to be General Editor of the African Writers Series, which became a significant force in bringing postcolonial literature from Africa to the rest of the world.71

As these works became more widely available, reviews and essays about African literature-especially from Europe-began to flourish. Bristling against the commentary flooding his home country, Achebe published an essay titled "Where Angels Fear to Tread" in the December 1962 issue of Nigeria Magazine. In it, he distinguished between the hostile critic (entirely negative), the amazed critic (entirely positive), and the conscious critic (who seeks a balance). He lashed out at those who critiqued African writers from the outside, saying: "no man can understand another whose language he does not speak (and 'language' here does not mean simply words, but a man's entire world view)."72

Arrow of God

Achebe's third book, Arrow of God, was published in 1964. Like its predecessors, it explores the intersections of Igbo tradition and European Christianity. Set in the village of Umuaro at the start of the twentieth century, the novel tells the story of Ezeulu, a Chief Priest of Ulu. Shocked by the power of British intervention in the area, he orders his son to learn the foreigners' secret. As with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart and Obi in No Longer at Ease, Ezeulu is consumed by the resulting tragedy.

The idea for the novel came in 1959, when Achebe heard the story of a Chief Priest imprisoned by a District Officer.73 He drew further inspiration a year later when he viewed a collection of Igbo objects excavated from the area by archaeologist Thurstan Shaw; Achebe was startled by the cultural sophistication of the artifacts. When an acquaintance showed him a series of papers from colonial officers (not unlike the fictional Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger referenced at the end of Things Fall Apart), Achebe combined these strands of history and began work on Arrow of God in earnest.74 Like Achebe's previous works, Arrow was roundly praised by critics.75 A revised edition was published in 1974 to correct what Achebe called "certain structural weaknesses."76

In a letter to Achebe, the U.S. writer John Updike expressed his surprised admiration for the sudden downfall of Arrow of God's protagonist. He praised the author's courage to write "an ending few Western novelists would have contrived."77 Achebe responded by suggesting that the individualistic hero was rare in African literature, given its roots in communal living and the degree to which characters are "subject to non-human forces in the universe."78

A Man of the People

A Man of the People was published in 1966. A bleak satire set in an unnamed African state which has just attained independence, the novel follows a Minister of Culture named Nanga. As the protagonist is seduced by corruption and the satisfaction of his personal desires, the nation around him falls victim to a military coup. Upon reading an advance copy of the novel, Achebe's friend John Pepper Clark declared: "Chinua, I know you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a military coup!"79

One year later, Nigerian Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu seized control of the northern region of the country as part of a larger coup attempt. Commanders in other areas failed, and the plot was answered by a military crackdown. A massacre of three thousand people from the eastern region living in the north occurred soon afterwards, and stories of other attacks on Igbo Nigerians began to filter into Lagos.80

The ending of his novel had brought Achebe to the attention of military personnel, who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup. When he received word of the pursuit, he sent his wife (who was pregnant) and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of Port Harcourt. They arrived safely, but Christie suffered a miscarriage at the journey's end. Chinua rejoined them soon afterwards in Ogidi. These cities were safe from military incursion because they were in the southeast, part of the region which would later secede.81

Once the family had resettled in Enugu, Achebe and his friend Christopher Okigbo started a publishing house called Citadel Press, to improve the quality and increase the quantity of literature available to younger readers. One of its first submissions was a story called How the Dog was Domesticated, which Achebe revised and rewrote, turning it into a complex allegory for the country's political tumult. Its final title was How the Leopard Got His Claws.82 Years later a Nigerian intelligence officer told Achebe, "of all the things that came out of Biafra, that book was the most important."83

Map of the Biafra secession

Civil War

In May 1967 the southeastern region of Nigeria broke away to form the Republic of Biafra; in July the Nigerian military attacked to suppress what it considered an unlawful rebellion. Achebe's partner, Christopher Okigbo, who had become a close friend of the family (especiall

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