Article abstract: Achebe was one of the first African writers to achieve international literary success. His use of a mixture of simple English and Ibo phrases reflected a uniquely African heritage and inspired many other African writers to lend their voices to different types of Western literature.
Chinualomagu (Albert) Achebe was born on November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria, a large Ibo village in the rainforest lands not far from the banks of the Niger River. He was the second youngest of six children born to Isaiah Achebe, a teacher-catechist for the Church Missionary Society and one of the first people of his region to convert to Christianity. Achebe’s family was distinguished, as his grandfather had acquired three of the four possible titles in the village. Although as a boy he was educated as a Christian, learning to admire all things European and to reject things that were African, Achebe was still able to find beauty in traditional African culture. Since his father did not sever connections with his non-Christian relatives, Achebe established a relationship with his people’s traditional world.
Achebe began his education in the Christian mission school of his birth-place. He then won a scholarship to Government College Umahia and in 1948 was chosen to be one of the first students to study at University College, Ibadan (later the University of Ibadan). While attending university, Achebe rejected his given English name (Albert) and began to use the African Chinualomagu (shortened to Chinua), which implies the meaning “God will fight for me.” He also dropped his planned study of medicine and instead chose to pursue a degree in literature, receiving his B.A. in 1953. At this time, Achebe began to write short stories and essays, some of which centered on the conflict between Christian and traditional African culture, a subject that would become the focal point for much of his later works. After graduation, Achebe taught secondary school for less than a year before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Company as “talks producer” in 1954.
In his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), Achebe focused on the Nigerian experience of European colonialism and dominance, developing his major themes from an African viewpoint and portraying the many aspects of the communal life of the Ibo people of Umuafia in the late nineteenth century at both the societal and individual levels. The novel is short, utilizing a close-knit style that creates an effective picture of the clash between the Ibo and European cultures at a time when white missionaries and officials were first penetrating Eastern Nigeria. The story focuses on two closely intertwined tragedies—the public tragedy of the Ibo culture as it is eclipsed by the European culture and the individual tragedy of Okonkwo, an important man of Umuafia who sees his traditional world changing and collapsing and is powerless to stop it. Things Fall Apart was met with wide critical acclaim and has since been translated into forty-five languages.
Achebe’s second novel, No Longer at Ease, was published in 1960. As in his first novel, Achebe took the novel’s title from a poem by T. S. Eliot. This work examines African society in the era of independence and continues the saga of the Okonkwo family with Ox’s grandson Obi, an educated Christian who has left his village for a position as a civil servant in urban Lagos, Nigeria. The story deals with the tragedy of a new generation of Nigerians who, although educated and Westernized, are nevertheless caught between the opposing cultures of traditional Africa and urban Lagos.
In 1961, Achebe was appointed Director of External Broadcasting for Nigeria. This position required that Achebe travel to Great Britain as well as other parts of the world. During this time, a collection of Achebe’s short stories entitled The Sacrificial Egg and Other Short Stories (1962) was published. Two years later, Achebe completed Arrow of God (1964). In this, his third novel, Achebe once again painted a picture of cultures in collision, and once again his novel attracted much attention, which only added to the high esteem in which he was already held.
A Man of the People, which would be Achebe’s last novel for more than two decades, was published in 1966. With this novel, Achebe continued to develop the urban themes that he had presented in No Longer at Ease, but this time with a satirical edge, examining corrupt politicians who used to their own advantage the political system that they had inherited from the departed imperial power.
After a massacre of Ibos took place in Northern Nigeria in 1966, Achebe resigned his position with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and moved to the Eastern Region of Nigeria, where he intended to go into publishing. When the region declared its independence as the separate state of Biafra, however, Achebe became personally involved with the ensuing civil war, serving the Biafran government from 1967 to 1970. During this period of his life, Achebe produced only one piece of work, a children’s book entitled Chike and the River (1966).
In the years following the war, Achebe produced three collections of poetry: Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems (1971, 1972), Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (1973), and Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1978). In addition, Achebe was a coeditor of Aka Weta: An Anthology of Igbo Poetry (1982). With this turn to poetry as a medium for his creative talents, Achebe was able to distinguish himself as both a great novelist and a fine poet. During this period, Achebe also wrote a collection of short stories entitled Girls at War (1983) and coedited another collection entitled African Short Stories (1984). In addition, he produced three works of juvenile literature as well as a number of essays. In the 1980’s, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was adapted for stage, radio, and television.
In 1971, Achebe accepted a post at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. The following year, Achebe and his family moved temporarily to the United States, where he took a position with the University of Massachusetts as a professor in its Department of Afro-American Studies. In addition, during this period, he taught at several American institutions as a visiting professor. While in the United States, he was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Dartmouth College. Additionally, Achebe shared, with a Canadian, the 1972 Commonwealth Prize for the best book of poetry in his Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems. In 1976, he returned to Nsukka, where he held the rank of professor and edited Okike, a literary journal.
The year 1988 saw Achebe return to the novel as an expression of his now world-renowned talents. His work Anthills of the Savannah was very well received and earned a nomination for the Booker Prize. According to Charles R. Larson, writing for the Chicago Tribune, “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.”
In 1990 a serious car accident left Achebe confined to a wheelchair. Shortly thereafter he accepted a teaching position at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Chinua Achebe can be counted among the founders of the new literature of Nigeria, which has flourished since the 1950’s; it is a literature that draws upon traditional oral history as well as a modern, rapidly changing African society. As a founder of this movement, Achebe has paved the way for other notable African writers such as Elechie Amadie and Cyprian Ekwensi. In addition, he has influenced an entire second generation of African writers. Achebe has also helped shape and set into place the now characteristic features of the African novel, especially the effective use of very simple language, peppered with African words and proverbs and highly reminiscent of traditional African speech patterns. As Bruce King comments in Introduction to Nigerian Literature: “Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to successfully transmute the conventions of the novel, a European art form, into African literature.”
Achebe’s novels, which comment strongly on the stages of change that have affected the entire African continent in the past one hundred years, not only are chronicles of events and trends in African history but also are extremely artistic expressions that contain a definite purpose. Unlike many novelists, Achebe rejects the notion that the writer is an individual who writes for his own personal pleasure or merely for the purpose of artistic expression. Instead, he sees the novelist as an educator. For example, in an interview with Bernth Lindfors, Achebe states: “One big message of the many that I try to put across, is that Africa was not a vacuum, before the coming of Europe, that culture was not unknown in Africa, that culture was not brought to Africa by the white world.” Through his novels, his poetry, his short stories, his career as an educator, and his extension into editing the African Writers series for Heinemann Educational Books, Achebe has succeeded in founding and nurturing a major literary movement of the twentieth century.
Cartney, Wilfred. Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa. New York: Random House, 1969. A survey of black African writers. Contains critical analyses of Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and No Longer at Ease as well as a discussion of how each ties into a relationship with African culture and European colonialism. Includes discussion on other writers of the Nigerian literature movement.
Githae-Mugo, Micere. Visions of Africa. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1978. Provides original interpretations of the works of Achebe as well as four other writers and examines their various works of fiction against a sociopolitical background. Also examines Achebe’s personal experiences and how they affected his writings.
Heywood, Christopher. A Critical View on Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” London: The British Council, 1985. A critical analysis of Achebe’s first novel. Contains information on Achebe’s life and work as well as his personal experiences and views on books and writing in general. Also includes selected writings from some of Achebe’s critics.
Owomoyela, Oyekan. African Literatures: An Introduction. Waltham, Mass.: Crossroads Press, 1979. A survey of African novels, short stories, poetry, and drama. Introduces major works and their authors. Contains critical and biographical information on Achebe and his first four novels. This book is for the general reader interested in African literature.
Ravenscroft, Arthur. Chinua Achebe. New York: Longmans, Green, 1969. A full discussion of Achebe’s first four novels, including critical and literary analysis and a brief summary of each of the four novels. Also contains biographical information on the author.
Wren, Robert M. Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart.” New York: Longman, 1980. A guide to Achebe’s first novel. Each chapter in Things Fall Apart is summarized with questions at the end of each section. Provides a brief introduction to Achebe’s life. Contains background information on the novel, the characters, and the time period covered.