Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author, activist, and teacher, has died at 82 following a brief illness.
Achebe graduated from the University College of Ibadan, in 1953 and afterward worked as a Nigerian radio broadcaster. In his twenties, he began work on what would become the defining work of his career — and a continent: Things Fall Apart, published in 1958.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the effect of the book, which as become, in the more than 50 years since publication, the archetype for African fiction and a fountainhead for postcolonial literature. African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah has said, “It would be impossible to say how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing. It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.”
But the first reaction Achebe’s manuscript inspired was surprise. “Would anyone possibly buy a novel by an African? There are no precedents,” his publisher said, according to The New Yorker.
That quickly ceased to be: By 1966, Achebe had achieved a kind of super-national significance. Writing in Time, John Day hailed his A Man of the People as “worth a ton of documentary journalism. Indeed, he has shown that a mind that observes clearly but feels deeply enough to afford laughter may be more wise than all the politicians and journalists.” By the ‘70s, his writing was being praised, as it was in The New Yorker, for its “kind of serene, grandfatherly quality — especially his humor.”
At the same time, Achebe contributed to, and directed, the discussion about the proper shape and role of African literature — notably in his 1965 essay, “The African Writer and the English Language,” which was pragmatic, and metaphorically jovial in equal measure: “What we tend to do today is to think of African literature as a newborn infant,” he wrote. “But in fact what we have is a whole generation of newborn infants … each is already set on its own separate journey.”
As he said in a 1964 lecture, “[H]ere then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse — to help my society regain its belief in itself.” He also criticized standards of Western colonial fiction, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, calling its depiction of Africa a “metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity.”
Achebe’s prominence spotlighted his dissidence, which led to a strained relationship with his native country’s government. In 2011, he said of Nigeria’s establishment, “A small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom.”
Following a car accident in 1990, Achebe was paralyzed from the waist down. He came to the United States and taught at Bard College for many years. The college’s Center for African Writers and Artists bears his name.
For its relative brevity of length and style — my copy of the book is only 209 pages — Things Fall Apart is often used as an educational cornerstone. (I first read it in high school.) But there are everywhere examples of first encounters with the novel, which has sold 8 million copies worldwide. EW’s own Thom Geier has lamented Achebe’s lack of a Nobel Prize.
Achebe only wrote four other novels after his first, with his last in 1987, each linked by theme and style, continuing the framework laid down in Apart, that one world, in collision with another, appears to collapse. But he is more morally nimble than often appears: In Achebe’s view, not all structures should continue, un-moved. As he wrote in 1964’s Arrow of God:
“The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.”