WASHINGTON, March 24, 2013 — Nigerian novelist, poet, essayist, and teacher Chinua Achebe died Friday in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of 82 after a short illness. Awarded the Man Booker prize for lifetime work, the author of the path breaking 1958 novel Things Fall Apart had been living and teaching in the United States since 1990, relocating here for medical reasons after a severe injury in an automobile crash had left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Soon after arriving in the U.S., Achebe was appointed to a teaching post at Bard College in New York, a position he held until receiving an appointment as professor of Africana studies at Brown University in 2009.
He taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, from 1991 until 2009, when he became professor of Africana studies at Brown University.
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 in the southern part of the then-British colony of Nigeria. English colonialism was at its post “Great War” height at the time and zealous Anglican and Protestant missionaries were ceaselessly endeavoring to turn local tribes away from what they viewed as paganism and heathenism and onto the path of Christianity.
In this environment, it’s not surprising that Isaiah and Janet Achebe converted to Christianity, providing their son, at Baptism, with his hybrid name. With a nod to both England and their Igbo tribal heritage, the name can be roughly translated as “May God Fight on My Behalf.”
Always an excellent student, he was sent to a top notch Nigerian boarding school in his teens and went on to study medicine. But, always a deep thinker, he felt his vocation was as a writer and scholar and shifted his studies to English and the humanities. In so doing, he gradually found himself becoming more and more “English.”
However, as he read more deeply, he found himself repelled at the patronizing and condescending colonial attitude towards Africa and its people and determined to find an intellectual path back to his own African roots and traditions.
Graduating from University College in Ibadan in 1953, he became a teacher and later took on scriptwriting duties at the colonial Nigerian Broadcasting Service. He also began writing on the side, ultimately beginning work on his eventually-to-be-famous novel, which derived at least part of its impetus from the author’s angry reaction toward English colonial-oriented authors like Joseph Conrad.
When Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958, it gradually became a literary sensation. Where Conrad and other English authors and poets like Rudyard Kipling had either asserted or suggested the primacy of European-style civilization over native African and Asian cultures, Achebe’s novel took a decidedly Afro-centric approach.
Set in the late 1800s and seen largely through the eyes of Okonkwo, an Igbo villager, Things Fall Apart—a title cleverly borrowed from an apocalyptic poem by the Anglo-Irish and onetime British colonial poet William Butler Yeats—is a deceptively simple story of the religious and cultural clash of two civilizations, leading in the end to the inevitable conclusion that many matters, including religion, can be relative in the end.
This writer taught Things Fall Apart as part of a sophomore contemporary lit course at a southern university in the early 1970s, where its tone and premise provoked lively discussions.
One particularly intriguing anecdote in the novel pits a tribal official against an Anglican missionary in a good-natured intellectual joust. The missionary dismisses as “primitive” the African’s worship of the small images and talismans that represent his traditional gods. Without missing a beat, the African quickly points out that he sees no difference between his mode of worship and that of the Christians who, after all, worshiped their own statues in their chapel—a simple, yet logical observation that momentarily stuns the missionary, and the reader as well.
In spite of his own increasing Afro-centrism, and despite criticism from some of his fellow Nigerians, Achebe—now known simply as Chinua Achebe—wisely chose to write and publish his novel in English. This immediately permitted its easy publication and dissemination throughout the Anglosphere where it quickly became a literary sensation. Ultimately translated into dozens of other languages, it has sold millions of copies worldwide and continues to be sold today.
After the runaway success of Things Fall Apart, Achebe married Christie Okoli in 1961, with the union eventually producing four children. The couple encountered political difficulties in the late 1960s during the now almost-forgotten (in the West, at least) bloody Nigerian Civil War and an associated famine during which over one million people perished as the region of Biafra attempted to secede from the larger, still newly-independent country. Having taken the side of the rebels, Achebe and his family went into hiding to avoid reprisals, and the Biafrans eventually lost the conflict.
Significantly, Nigeria has never fully recovered from this period, as its constant, oil-fed rebellions and counter-rebellions continue to this day, generally resolving into brief but uneasy truces. Of equal significance was Achebe’s absolute refusal to accept any honors from the Nigerian government since the time of the original rebellion.
The perceived injustice in Biafra was never far from Achebe’s mind. For this reason, it was scarcely surprising that Achebe published last year what proved to be his final book, a nonfiction account of the Biafran rebellion entitled There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Several sources have quoted Achebe’s short but profound description of the book as being a cautionary tale detailing how “the little people of the world are ever expendable.” Even today, the people of Cyprus would likely agree with this observation.
Chinua Achebe is survived by his wife, children, and six grandchildren. As of this writing, final arrangements have not yet been made public.
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