Chinua Achebe, groundbreaking Nigerian novelist, dies at 82


Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet, at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he was a professor in this 2008 file photo. (Craig Ruttle, File/Associated Press)
March 22, 2013

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, essayist and poet who largely invented modern African fiction and shaped generations of writers worldwide, foremost with his groundbreaking book “Things Fall Apart,” died March 21 in Boston. He was 82.

The death was announced by Brown University in Providence, R.I., where Mr. Achebe had been a professor of Africanastudies since 2009. No cause was reported. Mr. Achebe made his home in the United States since 1990 following injuries from a car crash in Lagos that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

With singular mastery and poetry, Mr. Achebe attempted to describe what he knew: the struggle of his fellow Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria to adjust to the British colonialism eroding their way of life. The theme of conflict between traditional values and modern culture would define his work.

After many African countries such as Nigeria gained independence in the post-World War II years, Mr. Achebe used books such as “A Man of the People” (1966) to satirize the despots and corrupt bureaucrats who filled the gap and failed their own people. His 1983 polemic “The Trouble With Nigeria” (1983) judged that “Nigerians are what they are only because their leaders are not what they should be.”

In a literary and academic career spanning six decades and three continents, Mr. Achebe’s seminal book was his first, “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which has sold millions of copies in 45 languages and has become a staple of college reading lists.

Taking its title from a line in William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” “Things Fall Apart” was a monumental rebuke to the Western tradition of portraying Africans as savages and whites as noble. Its hero, Okonkwo, is a champion wrestler and brave leader in a fictional Nigerian village who is unable to bend to the culture introduced by British colonizers and missionaries.

His inability to assimilate ultimately leads to his suicide, a fate that results from Okonkwo’s own failings as well as the insidiousness of colonialism. Mr. Achebe considered the tragic ending “almost inevitable,” and also the beginning of the story of post-colonial Nigeria (which began in 1960).

The novel won moderate praise from Western literary critics but was eventually considered among the most important works of 20th-century fiction, lauded by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz. Morrison said she found the work liberating, once telling the Guardian newspaper: “He inhabited his world in a way that I didn’t inhabit mine — the things he could take for granted — insisting on writing outside the white gaze, not against it.”

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, long jailed during apartheid, once said he drew strength from Mr. Achebe as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.” He added, “Both of us, in our differing circumstances within the context of white domination of our continent, became freedom fighters.”

Mr. Achebe won literary awards throughout his career, including the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2007. The Nobel Prize — awarded in 1986 to a friend, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka — eluded him.

Mr. Achebe’s early success enabled him to devote considerable energy to championing the work of other African writers when he became editor of the British publisher Heinemann’s African Writers Series, a post he held for some 20 years from the early 1960s.

“First of all, he is Africa’s greatest novelist, there is no question about that,” said Charles R. Larson, an emeritus professor at American University and a leading scholar of African literature. “He shaped the vision of Africa in the world by the books he accepted for this African Writers Series. There is no writer on any continent who has had so much of an influence on the writing of one continent.”

‘This is our story’

The fifth of six children, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born Nov. 16, 1930, in Ogidi, an Igbo village. The country was then under British colonial rule, and his father became one of the village’s earliest converts to Christianity, although much of his extended family remained steeped in Igbo traditions and stories.

Mr. Achebe would later describe the tension between the Christians and those Igbo who did not adopt the religion.

“We were called in our language ‘the people of the church,’ ” Mr. Achebe once wrote, “and we called the others — with the conceit appropriate to followers of a higher religion — ‘the people of nothing.’ ”

He attended University College at Ibadan, then worked for the Ni­ger­ian Broadcasting Co. in Lagos. In his schooling and free time, he devoured books from the Western literary tradition: Shakespeare, Tennyson, Dickens and Conrad, among others. He adored Yeats, whom he described as a “wild Irishman” whose poetry had a kind of magic that he said reminded him of fantastical Igbo stories.

He gradually came to feel a strong disillusionment with the Western canon for its portrayal of Africans. The turning point was reading “Mister Johnson,” a novel by the Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary that depicted “an embarrassing nitwit” of a Ni­ger­ian protagonist. The book won great praise among Western critics.

“This book was not talking about a vague place called Africa but about southern Nigeria,” he told the Guardian in 2000. “I said, ‘Wait, that means here; this is our story.’ It brought the whole thing home to me. This story is not true, so is it possible the others are not either? It opened up a new way of looking at literature.”

His revenge was “Things Fall Apart,” whose lead character Okonkwo was as sensitive and brave as Cary’s “Mister Johnson” had been a buffoon. By that time, Mr. Achebe had dropped his Christian name, Albert, which he called a “tribute to Victorian England.”

In 1961 he married the former Christiana Chinwe Okoli. They had four children, one of whom Chinelo, became a writer. Complete information on survivors could not be learned.

Mr. Achebe’s “No Longer at Ease” (1960) was a sequel to “Things Fall Apart,” and his subsequent books included “Arrow of God” (1964), in which a Ni­ger­ian priest wedded to his traditional beliefs sets in motion a tragic collision with British authorities.

In 1966, political chaos erupted in Nigeria when Igbo army officers staged a coup, killing the prime minister and other top officials. A successful counter-coup led by officers from the mostly Muslim northern region helped ignite what would soon become a bloody and protracted civil war, including the attempted succession of the Igbo into a new country calling itself the Republic of Biafra.

Mr. Achebe’s novel “A Man of the People,” whose plot involved a coup, had seemingly anticipated the civil war and led to charges by government officials that the writer had somehow been complicit.

His home was bombed, and one of his best friends, poet Christopher Okigbo, was killed. Mr. Achebe and his family went into hiding in Biafra.

“Suddenly it occurred to me that I was living abroad; I was not at home,” he told The Washington Post in 1968. “This was a great shock. We had thought we were in our own nation. We knew there were problems but we thought they were the problems of growing up, problems that would be solved.”

After Ni­ger­ian forces crushed the rebellion in 1970, Mr. Achebe continued to pour out fiction, poetry collections and essays and began a series of lecturing jobs in the United States. He stayed away from Nigeria for long stretches in the hope that a civilian government would return to power.

Abroad, he found himself a cause celebre in an era when black authors were beginning to find greater mainstream acceptance. In a 1975 lecture on “Heart of Darkness,” he famously berated author Joseph Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist.”

At least one professor in the audience stormed off. In a later essay, “An Image of Africa,” Mr. Achebe explained that he saw in Conrad a “perverse arrogance. . . . Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its tooth.”

Kindling of hope

In 1987, Mr. Achebe made a celebrated literary return with his fifth novel, “Anthills of the Savannah” (1987), set during a military dictatorship and concerning the nature of propaganda and moral compromise. “Anthills” was shortlisted for the Booker prize.

After the serious car accident in 1990, he taught at Bard College in upstate New York. He returned fleetingly to his homeland after the 1999 election of a new civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler. He told a reporter he found Lagos “confusing and very depressing,” a place where only after a bitter argument could he obtain a wheelchair to get off the airplane.

Only in his long-form writing about Nigeria did he express a kindling of hope. As a character says in “Anthills of the Savannah,” “Only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.”