Chinua Achebe 1930–
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and author of children's literature.
The following entry presents an overview of Achebe's career through 1997. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 7, 11, 26.
Widely known as "the father of the African novel in English," Achebe is one of the most significant writers to emerge from contemporary Africa with a literary vision that has profoundly influenced the form and content of modern African literature. In his novels, he has chronicled the colonization of Nigeria by Great Britain and the political turmoil following its independence. Achebe's novels represent some of the first works written in English that articulate an intimate and authentic account of African culture and mores—especially his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which critics have proclaimed a classic of modern African fiction. A major theme of Achebe's writings is the social and psychological impact of European imperialism on indigenous African societies, particularly with respect to a distinctly African consciousness in the twentieth century. Critics have praised Achebe's novels for their insightful renditions of African history as well as balanced examinations of contemporary African politics and society. Scholars also have praised Achebe's innovative fusion of Igbo folklore, proverbs, and idiomatic expressions with Western political ideologies and Christian doctrines.
Born in Ogidi, Nigeria, Achebe attended Church Mission Society School, where his Igbo (or Ibo) parents were catechists. He continued his education at Government College in Umuahia, which is considered one of the best secondary schools in West Africa. In 1948 he enrolled in the first class at the newly established University College in Ibadan, run by the University of London. As an English literature student, Achebe often contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald. These works eventually were collected in Girls at War (1972). Within a year after his graduation in 1953, Achebe began a twelve-year career as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC) in Lagos, Nigeria's capital. During these years, Achebe also began researching and writing his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which was published two years prior to Nigerian autonomy in 1960. He followed his literary debut with three other novels—No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966). By 1966, however, Nigeria's political climate worsened, deteriorating into a thirty-month civil war. Achebe quit his position at NBC and moved to the eastern region of Nigeria, which briefly seceded to become the independent state of Biafra. While there, Achebe devoted all his time to Biafran affairs and writing poetry, short stories, and essays. His most notable work during this time was his book of poetry, Beware, Soul Brother (1971). After the war ended in 1970, Achebe accepted a series of visiting professorships in the United States, where he founded and edited the respected African literary journal Okike and published Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), a collection of literary and political essays written between 1962 and 1973. In 1976 Achebe returned to Nigeria where began teaching at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. By the early 1980s, he was actively involved in Nigerian politics, serving first as the deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party and later as president of the town union in his hometown. At the same time, he also issued a polemical commentary on Nigerian leadership, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). In 1987 Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah—his first novel after a twenty-one-year sabbatical from writing long fiction and the work that won Achebe a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. In 1990 Achebe nearly died from injuries sustained in an auto accident on a Nigerian highway under suspicious circumstances. Achebe spent six months recuperating in England following the accident, and moved to the United States where he continues to write and teach.
A realistic and anthropologically informative portrait of traditional Igbo society distinguishes Things Fall Apart, which is named after a title from a line in Irish poet W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." Set in the village of Umuofia during the initial stages of colonization in the late 1880s, the narrative traces the conflict between Igbo and Western customs through the characterization of Okonkwo, a proud village leader whose refusal to adapt to the encroaching European influences leads him to murder and suicide. No Longer at Ease follows Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist of Achebe's first novel, throughout his failure to successfully combine his traditional Igbo upbringing with his British education and affluent lifestyle in Lagos during the late 1950s. Describing Igbo village life during the 1920s, Arrow of God centers on Ezeulu, a spiritual leader, whose son Oduche attends a missionary school to learn about Western society and technology. When Oduche comes home, he nearly kills a sacred python, which precipitates a chain of events culminating in Ezeulu's loss of his position as high priest and his detention by British authorities. Highlighting the widespread graft and abuse of power by Nigerian leaders following its independence from Great Britain, A Man of the P̀eople focuses on the tribulations of a Nigerian teacher who joins a political group working to remove a corrupt bureaucrat from office. The poems of Beware, Soul Brother—which later was republished as Christmas in Biafra (1973)—reflect on the human tragedy of the Nigerian civil war, using plain language and stark imagery. Similarly, some of the stories in Girls at War are about aspects of imminent war. Most of the stories deal with the conflict between traditional religious values and modern, secular mores, displaying the full range of Achebe's talents for humor, irony, and political satire. Divided into two parts, Morning Yet on Creation Day addresses a number of literary and political themes, with special emphasis on traditional and contemporary roles of art and the writer in African society. Set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, Anthills of the Savannah is about three childhood friends who hold influential governmental posts. When one of them fails in his bid for election as president for life, he works to suppress his opposition. After successfully conspiring to murder one friend, he meets a violent death during a military coup, while the third friend dies in a street riot. Generally considered Achebe's most accomplished work, Anthills of the Savannah illustrates the often dire consequences for society when individual responsibility and power are recklessly exploited. While retaining the use of Igbo proverbs and legends to enhance his themes, Achebe also pays more attention to the development and role of the women characters in this novel. In the book, Achebe gives women strength and composure as the agents of traditional morals and precepts. Finally, Hopes and Impediments (1988) gathers new and previously published essays and speeches, including a controversial essay attacking British novelist Joseph Conrad as racist. The book also includes a tribute to American novelist James Baldwin, along with several commentaries on post-colonial African society that high-light cultural forces influencing its modern-day character.
Many critics regard Achebe as the finest Nigerian novelist of the twentieth century with his works often serving as the standard for judging other African literary works. Achebe's literary criticism and sociological essays also have won praise. As one of the most discussed African writers of his generation, Achebe has inspired a substantial body of criticism and scholarship about his writing and political stances. Achebe's inventive usage of Igbo proverbs and folklore in his novels is the most studied feature of his art. Scholars have mostly concentrated on the significance of proverbs in Achebe's construction of vernacular speech patterns and social conventions, as well as a way to distinguish identities of his fictional characters. Scholars also have focused on how the proverbs provide thematic control to Achebe's narrative structures. Critics note, however, that Achebe's writings have relevance beyond the borders of Nigeria and beyond the anthropological, sociological, and political concerns of post-colonial Africa. Achebe's literature also deals with the universal qualities of human nature. As Achebe has said, "My politics is concerned with universal communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people…. As long as one people sit on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude all of us."