BORN: 1930, Ogidi, Nigeria
NATIONALITY: Nigerian, African
GENRE: Novels, poetry, essays
Things Fall Apart (1958)
No Longer at Ease (1960)
Arrow of God (1964)
A Man of the People (1966)
Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
Chinua Achebe. Achebe, Chinua, 1988, photograph. AP Images.
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 Kan- gan, 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.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Achebe's famous contemporaries include:
Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1938- ): Kenyan novelist who argues that African writers should write in their native languages, not English, in order to rebuild the African literary tradition.
Vaclav Havel (1936- ): Czech playwright who helped lead the Velvet Revolution that ended communism in Czechoslovakia; elected the first president of the Czech Republic (1989).
V. S. Naipaul (1932- ): British novelist and travel writer of Indian and Trinidadian descent, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2001), and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II (1990).
Kofi Atta Annan (1938- ): Ghanian diplomat and seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations; co-recipient (with the United Nations) of the Nobel Peace Prize (2001).
Bernard Kouchner (1939- ): French physician who cofounded Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) as a result of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra during its brief independence.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (1938- ): President of Liberia; the first elected female head of state in Africa.
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 ongoing impact of colonialism on native cultures, and expose present-day corruption, Achebe had to clearly communicate these concerns first to his fellow countrymen but also to those outside his country. Instead of writing in his native language, Achebe judged the best channel for these messages to be English, the language of colonialism. He did so because he wished to repossess the power of description from those, like Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary, and H. Rider Haggard, who had, as he said, secured ‘‘an absolute power over narrative’’ that cast Africans as beasts, savages, and idiots. Achebe views the English language not as an enemy, ‘‘but as a tool.’’
Reclaiming the Oral Tradition. Since the 1950s, Nigeria has witnessed ‘‘the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society,’’ writes Margaret Laurence. As she maintains, ‘‘Chinua Achebe’s careful and confident craftsmanship, his firm grasp of his material and his ability to create memorable and living characters place him among the best novelists now writing in any country in the English language.’’
‘‘Proverbs are cherished by Achebe’s people as ... the treasure boxes of their cultural heritage,’’ explains Adrian A. Roscoe. ‘‘When they disappear or fall into disuse ...it is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way of life, is passing away.’’ Achebe’s use of proverbs also has an artistic aim, as Bernth Lindfors suggests. ‘‘Proverbs can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels because he uses them not merely to add touches of local color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the values of the society.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The diversity found on the planet Earth is truly astounding and comprises a vast array of unique traditions, languages, customs, and beliefs. While this diversity can be an endless opportunity for learning and tolerance, it is often the seed of mistrust, discrimination, and hatred. Here are some titles that deal with oppression and prejudice.
Dia's Story Cloth (1992), by Dia Cha. Memoir of growing up in a Hmong family that struggles to maintain ties to their culture once they are removed from Cambodia, their native land.
Shame (1997), by Tasalina Nasarina. This novel examines the consequences of Muslim retaliation to the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya, India, by Hindu extremists in 1992.
Once Were Warriors (1990), by Alan Duff. The Hekes are a modern-day Maori family living in a slum in Auckland, New Zealand. They are torn between their native culture and the Pakeha (white) world in which they are forced to live.
Le Pere Goriot (Father Goriot) (1834), by Honore de Balzac. Set in the new middle-class industrial life of France following the Napoleonic Wars, a brutal climate of early capitalism pervades society; money and power are everything, and love is merely a means to an end.
A Bend in the River (1979), by V. S. Naipaul. In this novel about a Muslim Indian trader in early postcolonial Zaire, the clash of cultures, mistrust, and anxiety are clear signs of Africa's colonial past.
Pilgrims in Aztlan (1974), by Miguel Mendez. Written in Spanish, in a style that reflects the author's native Mexican oral tradition, the stories in this complex and dense novel speak out for the growing silences in his traditions.
Works in Critical Context
Achebe’s five novels to date follow some one hundred years of Igbo civilization. Europeans have not yet penetrated Umuofia, the setting of the first novel, when it begins. Over the course of the novels, colonial rule is established, significant change takes place, and the character of the community—its values and freedoms—are substantially and irrevocably altered. They therefore form an imaginative history of a segment of a major group of people in what eventually became Nigeria, as seen from the perspective of a Christian Igboman.
Anthony Daniels wrote of Achebe’s novels in the Spectator, ‘‘In spare prose of great elegance, without any technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two emotionally irreconcilable facets of modern African life: the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the...worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule.’’ Set in this historical context, the novels develop the theme of what happens to a society when change outside distorts and blocks the natural change from within and offer, as Eustace Palmer observed, ‘‘a powerful presentation of the beauty, strength, and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change.’’ Even as he resists the rootless visions of postmodernist globalization, Achebe does not appeal for a return to the ways of the past.
Things Fall Apart. ‘‘In 1964 ... Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be included in the required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-speaking portions of the continent,’’ writes Charles R. Larson. Later in the 1960s, the novel ‘‘became recognized by African and non-African literary critics as the first ‘classic’ in English from tropical Africa,’’ he adds.
Ghanaian writer and critic Kofi Awoonor writes: ‘‘Achebe’s thematic construction and dramatisation of the conflict in Things Fall Apart utilises the ‘chi’ concept—‘chi’ being the dominating ambiguous force in the life of an individual. The structure of the novel is firmly based in the principles that are derived from this piece of Igbo ontological evidence. Okonkwo’s life and actions seem to be prescribed by those immutable laws inherent in the ‘chi’ concept. It is the one significant principle that determines the rhythm and tragic grandeur of the novel. Okonkwo’s rise and fall are seen in the significant way in which he challenges his ‘chi’ to battle.’’
Arrow of God. The artistry displayed in Arrow of God has drawn a great deal of attention, adding to the esteem in which Achebe is held. Charles Miller commented that Achebe’s ‘‘approach to the written word is completely unencumbered with verbiage. He never strives for the exalted phrase, he never once raises his voice; even in the most emotion-charged passages the tone is absolutely unruffled, the control impeccable.’’ He concludes, ‘‘It is a measure of Achebe’s creative gift that he has no need whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his intense drama.’’
‘‘With remarkable unity of the word with the deed, the character, the time and the place, Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels [ Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God] a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the tragic consequences’’ of European colonialism, suggested Robert McDowell in a special issue of Studies in Black Literature dedicated to Achebe’s work. ‘‘There is an artistic unity of all things in these books, which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction.’’
Anthills of the Savannah. Larson states, ‘‘No other novel in many years has bitten to the core, swallowed and regurgitated contemporary Africa’s miseries and expectations as profoundly as Anthills of the Savannah.”
Nadine Gordimer commented in the New York Times Book Review that Anthills of the Savannah is ‘‘a work in which twenty-two years of harsh experience, intellectual growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to which Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal.’’ It is a return to the themes of independent Africa informing Achebe's earlier novels but it gives the most significant role to women, who invent a new kind of storytelling, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. ‘‘This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by doing so begins to die,'' wrote Observer contributor and fellow Nigerian Ben Okri. ‘‘It is also about dissent, and love.''
Responses to Literature
1. Colonialism is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as ‘‘control by one power over a dependent area or people.’’ How would the definition change if it read ‘‘control by one power over another area or people?’’ Which definition do you think Achebe would be more in agreement with?
2. Certain social movements choose to use negative or pejorative terms as terms of pride. But these words can still be hurtful if spoken by an outsider. Can language and words really be reclaimed, or should one reject the language used by the colonizer or oppressor?
3. Research a common American idiom or expression. Write an essay discussing its obvious meaning, as well as what its literal meaning implies about American culture. How would you explain it to someone unfamiliar with American culture?
4. Africa is sometimes seen by Westerners as one country with one culture. In fact, Africa is the name of the continent, and it is made up of forty-eight countries and hundreds of ethnic groups, cultures, and languages. Research three writers from different African countries, and write an essay examining the similarities and differences in their outlooks. What, if anything, do they have in common, apart from the experience of colonization?
Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. NewYork: Macmiilan, 1990.
Ihekweazu, Edith, ed. Eagle on Iroko: Selected Papers from the Chinua Achebe International Symposium, 1990. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann Education Books, 1996.
King, Bruce. The New English Literatures: Cultural Nationalism in a Changing World. New York: Macmillan, 1980.
Emenyonu, Ernest and Pat Emenyonu. ‘‘Achebe: Accountable to Our Society.’’ Africa Report (May 1972): vol. 17: 21, 23, 25-27.
Egudu, R.N. ‘‘Achebe and the Igbo Narrative Tradition.’’ Research in African Literatures (1981): vol. 12: 43-54.