In addition to his short-story collections, Chinua Achebe is known for essays, poetry collections, and children’s literature. He is best known, however, for his novel No Longer at Ease (1960), which became a modern African classic. The book is the second in a trilogy about change, conflict, and personal struggle to find the “New Africa.” The first is Things Fall Apart (1958) and the third is Arrow of God (1964). Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), was followed twenty-one years later by Anthills of the Savannah (1987), his fifth novel. In 1984 he became the founder and publisher of Uwa Ndi Igbo: A Bilingual Journal of Igbo Life and Arts. Achebe edited volumes of African short fiction, including African Short Stories (1985) and The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Fiction (1992), both with C. L. Innes.
Chinua Achebe received awards or award nominations for each of his novelistic works, from the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for Things Fall Apart to a Booker McConnell Prize nomination for Anthills of the Savannah. He was also awarded a Rockefeller travel fellowship in 1960 and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Fellowship for creative artists in 1963. In 1979 he received the Nigerian National Merit Award and was named to the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Achebe received honorary doctorates from universities around the world, including Dartmouth College in 1972 and Harvard University in 1996.
The short stories of Chinua Achebe (ah-CHAY-bay), written over a period of twenty years, were first published in England by Heinemann under the title Girls at War, and Other Stories (1972), although most of them had already appeared in various periodicals and in a Nigerian publication, The Sacrificial Egg, and Other Short Stories (1962). Achebe’s poems, most of them written during the Biafran crisis (1967-1970), came out soon after the war as Beware: Soul Brother, and Other Poems (1971) and a year later in an enlarged edition. Doubleday then published this Heinemann collection in the United States as Christmas in Biafra, and Other Poems (1973). Additional poems and an essay by Achebe were combined with photographs by Robert Lyons in a full-color coffee-table book, Another Africa (1998), which provided an overview of the beauty and complexity of modern Africa. Achebe has gathered together various autobiographical, political, literary, and cultural essays under the intriguingly optimistic title Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), published by both Doubleday and Heinemann. In 1983, Heinemann published his short book The Trouble with Nigeria, which challenged his contemporaries to overcome their growing resignation. Hopes and Impediments (1988) brings together some fifteen essays, mainly on literature and the writer’s role and covering a twenty-three-year period, some of them previously published, including five from Morning Yet on Creation Day. Achebe has also written the children’s stories Chike and the River (1966) and, jointly with John Iroaganachi, How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972). Achebe has also collaborated in editing several volumes of poetry and short stories.
From the beginning of his literary career, with the publication of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe recognized and accepted his role as that of a spokesman for black Africa. The primary function of that role was to reinterpret the African past from an African’s point of view. This he successfully does in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, which correct the imperialist myth of African primitivism and savagery by re-creating the Igbo culture of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, its daily routines, its rituals, its customs, and especially its people, dealing with one another in a highly civilized fashion within a complex society. The reinterpretation necessitated, as well, a look at the invading culture; Achebe tilted the balance in the Africans’ favor by depicting individuals in the British administration as prejudiced, imperceptive, unnecessarily bureaucratic, and emotionally impotent. As his main subject was the African crisis, he did not go to great pains to explore the private lives of the British or to mollify the British public. He needed to show that white civilization and white people were not intrinsically superior, and to restore to Africans a respect for their own culture and their own lives.
Achebe did not conceive his role as that of a mere propagandist, however, as any reader of the novels would acknowledge. His interpretation paid due respect to Western civilization and seriously criticized aspects of his own. In spite of certain fictional shortcuts—which some critics regard as crucial flaws—Achebe’s attempt was to arrive at an objective appraisal of the conflict between Africa and the West. In fact, the central focus of his three other novels—No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah—set in contemporary times, is on the failure of Africans to meet challenges in the modern world. Of these, the first two are satirical attacks; the third is a subtle blend of irony, compassion, traditional wisdom, and a sane perspective on the chaotic Nigerian scene.
Achebe’s importance as a spokesman for and to his own people has drawn criticism from some Western readers who are more interested in the quality of a novel than in its social function. Achebe has had several angry words to say to such aesthetically minded critics. His defense is that literature is a human and humane endeavor, not primarily a formal one. Still, one can easily defend his novels on aesthetic grounds, even arguing, as Charles Larson has done, that Achebe is actually an innovative writer who has transformed the novel to suit the African setting. Certainly, the most remarkable thing that Achebe has done, especially in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, is to transform the English language itself into an African idiom. Bernth Lindfors and others have noted the skill with which Achebe uses imagery, allusions, figures of speech, proverbs, sentence patterns, Standard English, and various forms of non-Standard English to capture a particular historical moment as well as the African mentality and—just as important—to unify the novels around major motifs and themes. Achebe has not written mere social documents or social manifestos, but creditable works of literature that can stand the test of critical analysis; his contribution to the African world goes far beyond his five novels, but they are his major literary achievement.
As a consequence of his achievement as a novelist, Achebe was named chairman of the Society of Nigerian Authors and became a Member of Council at the University of Lagos. He also received the New Statesman Award for his third novel, Arrow of God. Among other honors were a Rockefeller Travel Fellowship to East and Central Africa (1960) and a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Travel Fellowship to the United States and Brazil (1963). In 1989, Achebe was elected the first president of the Nigerian chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), although he was living in the United States at the time.
Some twenty American, European, and African institutions, including Dartmouth College, Stanford University, the Open University of Great Britain, and the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, have granted Achebe honorary degrees. He holds the influential position of founding editor of the African Writers Series, which, more than any other publisher, is responsible for the worldwide recognition of literary talent from Africa. The Times of London included Achebe among its 1993 list of one thousand “Makers of the Twentieth Century,” and in 1996 he received the Campion Award, which is presented by the Catholic Book Club to honor a “Christian person of letters” who combines faith and literary talent. In 2007, he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for his body of work. Things Fall Apart has been translated into more than forty-five languages and has sold millions of copies, making it one of the most widely read and influential African novels ever written.
Chinua Achebe (ah-CHAY-bay) is a writer who has made important contributions in every literary genre. He is known primarily for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1959). His other novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe’s short stories are collected in The Sacrificial Egg, and Other Stories (1962) and Girls at War, and Other Stories (1972). He has also published collections of essays: Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), An Image of Africa (1977), The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), Hopes and Impediments (1988), Home and Exile (2000), and Education of a British-Protected Child (2009). In addition to his contributions as a poet, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, Ache has written books for children: Chike and the River (1966), How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972; with John Iroaganachi), The Flute (1977), and The Drum (1977). He has also edited numerous works, including Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo, 1937-1967 (1978; with Dubem Okafor).
Chinua Achebe is known as the founder of modern African writing. His many awards include the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize (1959) for Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature (1961), the Jock Campbell-New Statesman Award for Literature for Arrow of God (1966), the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1972, joint winner), the Afro-Asian Writers Association’s Lotus Award (1975), the Nigerian National Merit Award (1979), the Triple Eminence Award from the Association of Nigerian Authors (1990), the Langston Hughes Award (1993), the Campion Medal and Order of Kilimanjaro Award (both 1996), the German Booksellers Peace Prize (2002), and the Man Booker International Prize (2007). He was named Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (Nigeria) in 1979, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1981, an honorary foreign fellow of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982, and an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 2002. In 1998, he was the McMillan-Steward Lecturer at Harvard University and the Presidential Fellow Lecturer at the World Bank.
Examine Chinua Achebe’s ideas about conflict, violence, and war in at least two of his works. What do humans do to other humans, and why? Who or what do people blame for things going wrong? Provide examples to support your assertions.
According to Achebe, the traditional African way of life fell apart and Africa is now a corrupt imitation of European systems, religions, and manners. What things “fell apart” with the coming of the Europeans? What valuable aspects of African culture have been lost?
Examine the nature of Achebe’s heroes. For example, what makes Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart or Ezeulu in Arrow of God tragic heroes? Are they heroes in the Western tradition?
How does Achebe depict the role of women in Igbo culture? What is the significance of the proverb “Mother is supreme”? Consider how Okonkwo’s attitudes toward women help bring about his fall or their invention of a new kind of storytelling in Anthills of the Savannah.
Outline the structure of one of Achebe’s novels or chapters. Is it loose or tight? What role does repetition play? Can topic ideas be readily identified or are they buried in the text? How does the structure relate to his message and/or goals?
What parallels do you find between the fictional state of Kangan in Anthills of the Savannah and Idi Amin’s Uganda? Why would Achebe create a fictional African state rather than write directly about Nigeria or Biafra?
In stories like “Dead Man’s Path,” Achebe pits traditional ways and beliefs against European ways and attitudes. Provide examples of such conflicts from his works.
Achebe, Chinua. “The Art of Fiction: Chinua Achebe.” Interview by Jerome Brooks. The Paris Review 36 (Winter, 1994): 142-166. In this interview, Achebe discusses his schooling, work as a broadcaster, and views on other writers as well as the nature of his writing process and the political situation in Nigeria.
Achebe, Chinua. Home and Exile. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. An exploration, based on Achebe’s own experiences as a reader and a writer, of contemporary African literature and the Western literature that both influenced and misrepresented it.
Bolland, John. Language and the Quest for Political and Social Identity in the African Novel. Accra, Ghana: Woeli, 1996. This volume examines Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah, among others, but it is valuable for its examination of African fiction and history, touching on themes found in Achebe’s short stories.
Booker, M. Keith, ed. The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. A helpful reference in an encyclopedia format featuring several hundred alphabetically arranged entries. Some of the entries are summary discussions of Achebe’s major works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe: Novelist, Poet, Critic. Rev. 2d ed. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1990. Includes historical details concerning Africa, colonialism, and twentieth century Nigerian political history. Contains a sizable bibliography and an index.
Ezenwa-Ohaeto. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Full-length biography benefits from its author’s insights as a former student of Achebe, a native of Nigeria, and a speaker of Igbo. Examines Achebe’s life and literary contributions and places them within their social, historical, and cultural contexts. Written with the cooperation of Achebe and his family, the book includes several rare and revealing photographs. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1991. Analyzes Achebe’s short stories and novels.
Innes, C. L. Chinua Achebe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Gives a detailed analysis of each of Achebe’s novels, showing how Achebe adapted what he found in Western fiction to create a new literary form—the Africanized novel. Includes a chapter on Achebe’s critical and political writings, demonstrating how the Nigerian civil war changed his politics and his fiction.
Innes, C. L., and Bernth Lindfors, eds. Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978. This collection of essays by twenty different critics offers a comprehensive overview of Achebe’s work. Contains a brief introduction to Achebe’s life and background, five general assessments of his fiction, commentaries on his first four novels and his poetry, and an extensive bibliography.
Iyasere, Solomon O., ed. Understanding “Things Fall Apart”: Selected Essays and Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1998. Nine essays demonstrate the breadth of approaches taken by critics. They include a reading of Okonkwo as a tragic hero, a discussion of the rhythm of the novel’s prose as it echoes African oral tradition, and a discussion of how Achebe successfully transformed the colonizers’ language to tell the story of the colonized.
Joseph, Michael Scott. “A Pre-modernist Reading of ‘The Drum’: Chinua Achebe and the Theme of the Eternal Return.” Ariel 28 (January, 1997): 149-166. In this special issue on colonialism, postcolonialism, and children’s literature, Achebe’s “The Drum” is discussed as a satirical attack on European colonial values and a text dominated by nostalgia for a lost Golden Age.
Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. In twenty interviews, Achebe discusses African oral tradition, the need for political commitment, the relationship between his novels and his short stories, his use of myth and fable, and other issues concerning being a writer.
Mezu, Rose Ure. Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works. London: Adonis & Abbey, 2006. Mezu, a Nigerian-born scholar and literary critic, analyzes Achebe’s novels and other writings, comparing them with other works of literature by African and African American authors, including Olaudah Equiano and Zora Neale Hurston.
Morrison, Jago. The Fiction of Chinua Achebe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Analyzes Achebe’s major novels, focusing on Things Fall Apart, as well as his short fiction, outlining areas of critical debate, influential approaches to his work, and the controversies his work has engendered.
Muoneke, Romanus Okey. Art, Rebellion, and Redemption: A Reading of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. Examines Achebe’s role as a public chronicler of Nigeria’s social, economic, and political problems in order to explore the larger issues of the writer’s redemptive role in society. Argues that Achebe’s novels challenge colonialism and negritude, two forces that have distorted the African image.
Petersen, Kirsten Holst, and Anna Rutherford, eds. Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1991. A compilation of essays analyzing Achebe’s work to honor his sixtieth birthday.
Wren, Robert M. Achebe’s World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. A seemingly authoritative, well-documented presentation that clarifies issues for readers not familiar with the Nigerian context. Claims that Achebe’s first four novels form an essentially truthful and reliable guide to the historical Nigeria. Includes an extensive glossary and a helpful bibliography.