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date: 27 June 2022

Chinua Achebefree

Chinua Achebefree

  • Terri OchiaghaTerri OchiaghaUniversity of Edinburgh

Summary

Chinua Achebe, acclaimed as the “father of modern African literature,” came to canonical prominence thanks to the seismic impact of his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958)—the best-known work of African literature in the world—and his indictment of colonial discourse in the seminal essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1974. His influence and impact, however, far surpasses these two literary events. While Things Fall Apart was neither the first African novel nor the first to capture the trauma of the colonial encounter, Achebe’s transliteration of the Igbo language—its beauty, philosophy, and cadences of speech—in clear, eloquent prose, and his intimate knowledge and subversion of the Western literary tradition enthused literary critics around the world, inspired generations of African writers, and was key in instituting African literature as a field of scholarly inquiry. He further helped shape the direction of African writing in editorial roles—most notably as the founding editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series—and through his manifold critical and biographical essays, many of which preempt ideas at the core of postcolonial theory, albeit with a more accessible and mellifluous idiom.

Over the course of his writing career, Achebe published five novels (Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease [1960], Arrow of God [1964], A Man of the People [1966], and Anthills of the Savannah [1987]), children’s books (Chike and the River [1966], How the Leopard Got His Claws [1972], The Flute [1977], and The Drum [1977]), two collections of short stories (The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories [1962] and Girls at War and Other Stories [1972]), two volumes of poetry (Beware, Soul Brother [1971] and Collected Poems [2004]), four collections of essays (Morning Yet on Creation Day [1975], Hopes and Impediments [1988], Home and Exile [2000], and The Education of a British-Protected Child [2008]), a political treatise (The Trouble with Nigeria [1983]), and his final work, There Was a Country (2012), a memoir on his experiences of the Nigerian Civil War.

Subjects

  • West Africa

Early Life and Influences

Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born to an Igbo family on November 16, 1930, and was raised in his ancestral village of Ogidi, in southeastern Nigeria. His father was a missionary teacher, and his mother was convent-educated. They were thus uniquely placed in the colonial cultural order. The family revered the written word, and it was within that setting that Achebe’s fascination with the world of stories began. This passion was consolidated at St. Philip’s School, Ogidi—where he excelled—and was crucially nurtured by his exposure to folk tales and the wisdom, condensed in proverbs, of the village elders.

At the age of twelve, while living with his brother in Nekede, about eighteen miles from the southeastern town of Owerri, Achebe discovered Mbari, a precolonial art form unique to the area, which consisted of temporary “museums” of mud sculptures offered to the earth goddess, Ala, for the protection and regeneration of society. Mbari, beyond its aesthetic and religious imperatives, was also a vehicle for historical documentation and cultural critique, and it infused Achebe with lifelong lessons on decolonization, cultural reclamation, the moral imperatives of aesthetics, and the interconnection between the individual artist and society.1 His fascination for “ritual and the life on the other arm of the crossroads” would continue, if muted, in the more advanced stages of his colonial education.2

Elite Colonial Education

In 1943, Achebe was admitted into the prestigious Government College Umuahia, one of the few elite secondary schools that the British colonial government had established in Nigeria. This boarding school for boys was modeled on the great English public school tradition and was a political device meant to socialize talented African youth into the mores and cultural affiliations of English gentlemen. The school demanded that students adhere strictly to Christianity and dispense with indigenous religions, languages, and other cultural manifestations. The boys were meant to embrace an ideal Englishness, encapsulated in England’s great literary tradition, the codes of conduct of the English upper classes, and the cult of games—with particular emphasis on cricket. Moreover, their teachers, most of whom were Oxbridge-educated Europeans, attempted—not always successfully—to shield them from the allure of anticolonial nationalist thought.

The mid-1940s marked the apogee of anticolonial nationalism in Nigeria as expressed in the press, particularly the group of newspapers of the figurehead of anticolonial nationalism, the editor and politician Nnamdi Azikiwe.3 At the same time, one of the teachers used R. W. Jepson’s Clear Thinking to question the use of discursive manipulation and propaganda. This was one of the many contradictions that characterized life at the Umuahia Government College. Beyond the formal instruction that the students received in the classroom, they found ways to navigate their own locatedness within its liminal space while informing their own perspectives on colonial rule and indigenous selfhood. Indeed, despite its political designs, Umuahia was far from a mere locus of colonial indoctrination. As Terri Ochiagha asserts in her study of the Umuahia education of Achebe and the writers Chike Momah, Elechi Amadi, Christopher Okigbo, and Chukwuemeka Ike, “the unique humanistic ambience of the Umuahia Government College—a magical combination of a superior library, a blooming magazine culture, a rule prompted by the principal’s distaste for rote learning, and [a] cadre of exceptional teachers—catalyzed the Umuahian writers’ literary aspirations, nurtured their talent, and helped lay the foundations of their work.”4

At Umuahia, Achebe contributed assiduously to the school periodicals, rising to become the student editor of his house magazine and the Government College, Umuahia Magazine under the tutelage of the English and classics master and creative writer Charles Low. Around this time, he began to show signs of his trademark linguistic transposition, incorporating proverbs and elders’ sayings to his essays. He was also one of the chosen few to participate in the trips that the historian Saburi Biobaku, then an English and history teacher at Umuahia, organized to conduct oral history interviews in the surrounding villages. And yet, despite these avenues for mental emancipation, Achebe remained somewhat in thrall to the fallacies of colonial discourse: “I did not see myself as an African in those books. I took sides with the white men against the savages. In other words, I went through my first level of schooling thinking I was of the party of the white man in his hair-raising adventures and narrow escapes. The white man was good and reasonable and smart and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid, never anything higher than cunning. I hated their guts.”5

However, the days of this psycho-cultural ambivalence were numbered. At the University College, Ibadan, where he was admitted in 1948, Achebe switched from his initial degree choice, medicine, to a joint degree in English, history, and comparative religion. Upon studying Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939), the colonial blinkers fell off. As he would explain in later years, he realized that “there is such thing as power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.”6 These works further opened his eyes to the absences of the literature of empire—African subjectivity, voice, precolonial history, cultural complexity, and the trauma of the colonial encounter. He felt that something had to be done to redress this lack. All through his years at the University College, Achebe had contributed to such university publications such as The University Herald and The Bug. After his epiphany, some of the thematic concerns of Things Fall Apart became discernible in his student writing, notably in “In a Village Church,” which humorously dramatized the religious dimension of the colonial encounter, and “Dead Men’s Path,” a story on mental colonization and the reductionism of colonial discourse, which incorporated an early form of his linguistic transliteration and the epistemological and narrative shift that occurs in the closing lines of Things Fall Apart.

Literary Career

The African Trilogy

Despite going on to work as a teacher at Merchants of Light School, Oba, after his graduation from Ibadan in 1953, Achebe moved to a position as talks producer of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation a year later. He would eventually be promoted to the role of controller of the eastern region and ultimately rose to become the director of external broadcasting in 1961, the year he married Christie Chinwe Okoli (with whom he would have two daughters, Chinelo and Nwando, and two sons, Ike chukwu and Chidi). As his career in broadcasting blossomed, Achebe toiled unceasingly at the manuscript of his first novel at night. Beyond the drive to contest colonial discourse on Africa and fill its many silences, a marked sense of cultural nationalism impelled his novel. As he came to affirm in one of his most famous essays, “The Novelist as Teacher”: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. But who cares? Art is important but so is the education of the kind I have in mind. And I don’t see that the two need be mutually exclusive.”7

But beyond the ideological incentives for his work, Achebe reflected carefully on his linguistic, cultural, and aesthetic choices: “In retrospect, one of my strongest convictions when I began to write Things Fall Apart, my first book, had to do with a sense that the English language and the Igbo language had a lot they needed to discuss. Whoever would be conducting that conversation would have to be fair-minded, so that mutual respect would be established . . . the whole meeting between Europe and African must be reconvened.”8 Things Fall Apart revolved around a formidable warrior, Okonkwo, the tensions governing his life, and the fierce defense of his clan and its traditions upon the colonial invasion. Set in the precolonial village of Umuofia and its environs, the novel opens up the intricate cosmology and culture of Igboland, which far from idealized, presents a number of weaknesses that enable the success of the colonial mission. It is this willingness to move beyond rigid polarities and to explore the nuances of the variety of indigenous responses to colonial rule that is not just one of the hallmarks but a key strength of this work. After a checkered trajectory—the only copy of the manuscript was retained by a printing firm in England for more than a year—the novel was published by Heinemann in paperback on June 17, 1958. Things Fall Apart went on to make history. It has been translated into more than sixty languages, has sold more than twelve million copies, and is Africa’s most widely read novel.

Achebe initially conceived his magnum opus as the first in a trilogy of novels. The story of Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, who in Things Fall Apart converts to Christianity in opposition to his father’s uncritical traditionalism, was to become the second part of the trilogy, but it never came to fruition. The third part, which explores the alienation of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi, a young Nigerian returnee suspended between traditional values and late colonial modernity, became Achebe’s second novel, No Longer at Ease (1960). In 1964, he published the novel most widely regarded as his masterpiece: Arrow of God, first winner of the Jock Campbell/New Statesman Award for African Writing. The novel is formally and conceptually superior to Things Fall Apart. Set in Umuaro, an Igbo village, in the 1920s, it tells the story of Ezeulu, the priest of an indigenous deity, and the tensions governing his will to power: he is an individualist, yet a communal leader, shows himself adaptive to the colonial order, and yet is scornful of its offer of relative political power. In 1962, in between the publication of Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease, Achebe released a collection of thirteen short stories, The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories, his first book to be published by a local press, Etudo Publishers, Onitsha.

Postcolonial Disillusion

In the mid-1960s, Achebe turned his attention to children’s writing with the firm intent of countering the problematic racial and cultural ideas disseminated in the Western-authored children’s books read in Nigeria. The first was the novel Chike and the River, a didactic story in which the eponymous protagonist fulfills his desire to cross the River Niger in a ferry only to find himself immersed in a dangerous adventure. That same year, Achebe published his fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), which reflected individual and collective disillusion at the social and political realities of self-rule and the uncritical acceptance of corrupt leaders by the masses. A political satire, the novel is narrated in the first person by Odili Samalu, an idealist who is contemptuous of the moral decadence of the political class, embodied in his antagonist, the Chief Honorable M. A. Nanga, minister of culture. Nanga, despite his crassness, amorality, and corruption exerts a potent lure on Odili. The satirical novel ends with a military coup—a fictional denouement that foreshadowed Nigeria’s first coup, which took place on January 15, 1966, leading to suspicion that Achebe must have been aware of the impending plot and thus endangering his life.9 “Despite my fictional warning I never expected or wanted the form of violent intervention that became the military coup,” Achebe was to affirm years later, “I had hoped that politicians would sort things out for our new nation.”10

The aftermath of the coup and succeeding counter-coup unleashed multiple pogroms against Igbos in northern Nigeria and other parts of the country. Achebe and his family returned to the East, and the widespread violence resulted in the secession of the southeast of Nigeria, which became the Republic of Biafra, and culminated in the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970). He established Citadel Press with his contemporary at Umuahia and Ibadan, the modernist poet Christopher Okigbo, who was killed in the initial phases of the conflict. The only extant remains of their work during this time is Achebe’s second children’s book, How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972), a singular collaboration with John Irogonachi, who had submitted the story in its earliest form for publication. Achebe thought that Irogonachi’s original story would be a fine vehicle through which to present an allegory of the Nigerian Civil War, and explore questions relating to autocratic rule, the perils of individualism, political resistance and quiescence, and unholy alliances with neocolonial powers, and set about the task of reworking it. Okigbo contributed a poem, “The Lament of the Deer.”

Achebe did not write any novels during the war and its aftermath. He turned his attention to other genres: “There is some connection between the particular distress of war, the particular tension of war, and the kind of literary response it inspires.”11 His home was bombed, as was the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, his intellectual refuge upon his return to the East. During this time, he underwent several personal tragedies, including the death of his mother and his close friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and witnessed untold suffering and trauma. His collections of poems Beware Soul Brother (1971) and short stories Girls at War and Other Stories (1972) emerged from these years. How the Leopard Lost Got his Claws was finally published in 1976 by Nwamife Books with illustrations by the Scandinavian Per Christiansen. In 1977, he published two other children’s stories, The Flute and The Drum with yet another Nigerian Press, Fourth Dimension, Enugu. Both were reconfigurations of Igbo folk tales, their didacticism reflecting the sociohistorical contingencies of the times. But Achebe did not disregard the legacies of colonial discursive violence, and several of the essays he wrote in the 1960s—and indeed during the rest of his life—touched on these questions. Achebe’s first collection of essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day, was published in 1975. Another volume would follow in 1988: Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965–1987. In between the publication of this essayistic output, Achebe reflected on Nigeria’s inert political system in the treatise The Trouble with Nigeria (1983) in which he famously traced the postcolonial malaise of Nigeria to its corrupt leadership: “the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”12

Achebe published his last novel, Anthills of the Savannah, in 1987, and it was a finalist for the Booker Prize of that year. With the machinations of an autocratic military government, led by the Sandhurst-educated officer “Sam” as its narrative fulcrum, this novel crucially gave one of the protagonists and first-person narrator, Beatrice Okoh, a senior administrator in the Ministry of Finance, a more complex, central role than his previous female characters. Beyond a concern with postcolonial politics and corruption and Western interference in African politics, Anthills was a meditation on the role of writers in the postcolony. The novel attempts to provide difficult-to-achieve political solutions, as Charles Nnolim, among other critics, has pointed out: “Achebe, in the end, is a writer of the political novel whose end is utopian, because the goal towards which all his novels tend is the golden era when the intellectual elite will wrest politics from the illiterate politicians and the military and create an egalitarian society free from poor leadership, bribery and corruption.”13 Despite the near-fatal car accident he suffered in Awka, Nigeria, in 1990, which left him partly paralyzed, Achebe delivered several lectures around the world in the 1990s. Home and Exile (2000) compiled his Harvard University lectures of 1998, and The Education of a British-Protected Child (2008), published amidst the furor of the fiftieth anniversary of his first novel, was named after the eponymous Eric Ashby Lecture he gave at Cambridge University in 1993, a prominent feature of the volume.

Despite the publication of his war-themed short stories and poetry, Achebe had remained the one first-generation writer who had not engaged with the Nigerian Civil War in long prose. Hence, the publication of There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra on October 18, 2012 (less than five months before his death on March 21, 2013), was unexpected. This work constituted a continuum with his indictment of Nigerian leadership in The Trouble with Nigeria and Anthills of the Savannah. Achebe hoped that it would be “food for thought not only for Nigerians about the nature of the unfinished story of their nationhood, but also for Europe about its disastrous Mission of colonization of Africa.”14 And while it did not generate much critical commentary in the West at the time of its publication, it unleased considerable controversy in Nigeria, particularly as a result of Achebe’s assertion that Obafemi Awolowo, the finance commissioner of the Republic of Nigeria, was driven by personal ambition and ethnic bias in favor of his Yoruba people in his decision to impose a blockade—and the ensuing starvation on Biafra. As critic Biodun Jeyifo noted, “the spate of responses to this section of the book have been . . . like an epidemic outbreak of violent seizures.”15 Like the rest of Achebe’s representations of postcolonial Nigeria, There Was a Country did not seem to provide a clear recipe for healing and regeneration, but then, as the leading Achebe critic Simon Gikandi perceptively observes, “what has been called his pessimism is really his cognizance of the wide gap that separates the novelist’s vision of an African order of knowledge and our present failure to wrench ourselves from the colonizing structures of old.”16

Critical Reception

From the very moment of the publication of Things Fall Apart, Achebe has received sustained critical attention. It is true that said criticism tended to peak with each publication and landmark event in Achebe’s life, but it shows no sign of abating.17 And yet, despite being read and discussed more than any other writer, Achebe “has suffered the misfortune of being taken for granted.”18 While Achebe’s Things Fall Apart does deserve its place in the world republic of letters as a founder of discursivity and a major catalyst in the development of the field of African literature, there is no doubt that it has overshadowed the rest of Achebe’s work in critical and historical significance—a fact that has more to do with the politics of canonicity and literary tokenism than with the ineludible mastery of Achebe’s overall oeuvre and the prescient incisiveness of his thought.

Criticism in the first decade of Achebe’s career focused on questions of orality, language, and representational politics and delved considerably into his works’ cultural matrix. It was not until the late 1960s that aesthetic and historiographical considerations came to the fore. With time, the variety of scholarship has matched the generic, thematic, and aesthetic variety of his work. But with the exception of Conradians’ impassioned responses to “An Image of Africa” and the uproar in Nigeria over Achebe’s indictment of Awolowo’s role during the Nigerian Civil War, no facet of Achebe’s writing has come under such negative scrutiny as his engagement with gender, particularly in his historical novels. The most vehement critics of Achebe in this regard are Florence Stratton, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, and Andrea Powell Wolfe, all of whom decry the overvalorization of masculine values, lack of female sociopolitical agency, and the limited delineation of female characters and their particular universe in Achebe’s work as well as the ways in which Achebe criticism has overlooked or attempted to minimize this lacuna.19 Achebe tried to redress this lack in Anthills of the Savannah; some critics still considered the effort inadequate.20 Other critics, including Biodun Jeyifo, Rose Ure Mezu, Sophia O. Oguide, and Nwando Achebe have provided alternate readings of Achebe’s gender representations not just in Anthills but in his fraught earlier work, further complicating the debate. These areas of critical dissent, however, have not dampened Achebe’s overall appreciation. In the course of his career, he was awarded more than forty honorary doctorates and won such prestigious honors as the honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Prizes (2002), the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 (which recognized his achievement as a whole), and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010).

Political Life

The idea of art for art’s sake was an anathema to Achebe, and he vehemently defended the political imperatives of the writer in the postcolonial nation on various occasions. In There Was a Country, he reaffirmed, “I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest . . . The whole pattern of life demanded that one should protest, that you should put in a word for your history, your traditions, your religion, and so on. The question of involvement in politics is really a matter of definition. I think it is quite often misunderstood. I have never proposed that every artist become an activist in the way we have always understood political activity.”21 And yet, beyond the political commitment that characterized his writing, Achebe was actively involved in politics at different points in his life. During the Nigerian Civil War, he was a close adviser to Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, leader of Biafra; a senior member of the ministry of information; and was crucially involved in drafting the Ahiara Declaration: The Principles of the Biafran Revolution, delivered as a public address on July 1, 1969. He also traveled around Europe, the United States, and several African countries as an ambassador for Biafra.

After the demise of the Republic of Biafra, Achebe concentrated on his academic and writerly activities for a while, but in 1982, he accepted Mallam Aminu Kano’s invitation to join the People’s Redemption Party. He would decline the position of party leader upon Kano’s death in 1983. On March 4, 1986, alongside fellow writers J. P. Clark and Wole Soyinka, Achebe requested and obtained an audience with President Ibrahim Babangida, a military dictator, to plead for the life of Mamman Vatsa and other military officers, who were condemned for planning a coup, to no avail. In later life, Achebe’s political interventions took the form of his rejection of the successive offers by Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan in 2004 and 2011 of Nigeria’s second highest honor, the Commander of the Federal Republic award. It was Achebe’s way of protesting against the corruption, election rigging, and laissez-faire attitude of the Obasanjo government toward widespread social and political chaos in Achebe’s home state of Anambra in 2004. These problems had not been solved at the time of the second offer, prompting a renewed rebuff.

Academic Career

Achebe’s career in broadcasting ended with the war. He spent the immediate aftermath contributing to the restoration of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In the period 1972–1974, Achebe held professorships at the Universities of Massachusetts and Connecticut. It was at Massachusetts that he delivered the lecture that would later be published as “An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” to the remonstrance of much of the audience. The essay begins by denouncing “the desire—one might indeed say the need—in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” It goes on to examine the representational politics of Heart of Darkness, the result of which is the charge that Conrad was “a bloody racist” (the phrase was subsequently amended to read “a thoroughgoing racist”). Despite expostulating on the counterarguments to his claims, the immediate reaction of most of his audience was hostile. This essay—now an essential companion to the teaching and discussion of Conrad’s novel, and included in the Norton Critical Edition—is one of the most well-known and polemical critical essays ever written. In 1986, Achebe became the pro-vice-chancellor of the State University of Anambra, Enugu. In the last years of that decade, he held visiting professorships at the City University of New York and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as well as in Bard College, New York, in 1990. After his near-fatal accident shortly after the “Eagle on Iroko” Symposium at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to mark his sixtieth birthday anniversary, Achebe moved permanently to the United States to receive adequate medical care. He accepted Bard College’s offer of the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professorship of Literature, which he held until his 2009 appointment as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

Achebe as Editor and Cultural Facilitator

From 1960 to 1972, Achebe was founding editor of the African Writers Series, leaving his imprint in the more than one hundred books he edited during this period. While Citadel Press ended with the death of Okigbo, Achebe was instrumental in the creation of Arthur Nwankwo and Samuel Ifejika’s Nwamife Books, based in Enugu. In 1970, he founded the journal Nsukkascope and, a year later, became the founding editor of the literary and cultural magazine Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing (later subtitled An African Journal of New Writing). In 1976, he edited the golden jubilee publication of The Umuahian: A Golden Jubilee Publication, to which he contributed three essays and which remained obscure until its scholarly edition in 2015. The essays Achebe contributed to the volume are perceptive explorations of elite colonial education and the spaces it generated for the creation of individuality, literary and artistic creativity, and cultural negotiation and translation.22 In 1981, he became the founding president of the Association of Nigerian Authors.

A key voice in the debate that has come to be known as the “language question,” Achebe has defended his use of the English language: “Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it . . . I feel that English will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home, but altered to suit its new surroundings.”23 Despite this avowed positioning, Achebe also contributed to the promotion of Igbo-language literature. In 1982, the Okike Committee, of which he was part, established Uwa ndi Igbo: A Journal of Igbo Life and Culture, devoted to the transcription, preservation, and documentation of Igbo traditional science, history, literature, and culture. That year, he also coedited a volume of Igbo poetry with Obiora Udechukwu, entitled Aka Weta: Egwu Aguluagu, Egwu Edeluede, to which he contributed two poems: “Ụnọ Ọnwụ Okigbo” and “Akụkọ Kpulu Ụwa Iru.”

Up until his death, he convened the Achebe Colloquium on Africa at Brown University, which brought “together an international group of scholars, officials from African governments, the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and other organizations for intense deliberation and exchange of ideas on the importance of strengthening democracy and peace on the African continent.”24 The last colloquium in 2014 was a literary symposium to celebrate Achebe’s life and career.

Generative Clout and Influence on Other Writers

Chinua Achebe is often acclaimed as the “father of African literature.” But considering the fact that African literature has existed in oral form for centuries, that Africans had been writing in African and colonial languages for decades before the publication of Things Fall Apart (and, in some instances, such as the notorious case of Amos Tutuola, to a certain degree of Western acclaim), Achebe’s enthronement as a generative figure is politically fraught. The strongest proponent of the “father of African literature” title is the leading Achebe critic Simon Gikandi, who has defended it on various occasions. In an oft-quoted essay, “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture,” Gikandi notes that none of Achebe’s predecessors “had the effect Achebe had in the establishment and reconfiguration of an African literary tradition; none of them were able to enter and interrupt the institution of exegesis and education the same way he did; none were able to establish terms by which African literature was produced, circulated, and interpreted.”25 For Gikandi, Achebe enabled the transformation of world literature in the 20th century through his seminal roles: the invention of the institution of African literature and the insertion of this new body of writing into the international canon of modern letters.26 While acknowledging the merits of earlier African writers in European language, Gikandi is adamant that none have made an impact “as part of an African corpus or a significant contribution to world literature.”27

Likewise, for Kwame Anthony Appiah, Achebe’s literary fatherhood is justified because he brought “something magnificent and new” to the literary arena. This novelty is encapsulated in the novel’s linguistic transposition, which enabled “readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say,” and the African narrative voice, which is “so natural that its artifice eludes us.”28 While Elleke Boehmer affirms that “the question is flawed, since it takes for granted the existence of a monadic and homogenous Africa,” Stephanie Newell goes into more depth, looking beyond the “Empire writes back model,” European literary expectations, and Western literary circuits and standards in her nuanced interrogation of Achebe’s primacy in literary history.29 “The writing of West African literary history has for a long time been affected, if not actually distorted, by the foundational, canonical status of Things Fall Apart,” she asserts, highlighting the fact that some African writers had no interest in Europe or colonial history, writing for African readerships imbued in sheer localism, a “neglected pathway in our appreciation of West African literatures [and African writing from other regions, by extension].”30

Achebe’s contemporaries at the Umuahia Government College—Ike, Amadi, Okigbo, and Momah—had literary longings in their school years and also published their work in the school magazine. They shared this passion with several other students at the University College, Ibadan, which also had a burgeoning literary culture. But it was the publication of Things Fall Apart that opened their eyes to the actual possibility of authorship. Achebe’s first novel also impressed a key aesthetic lesson on these contemporaries: his linguistic transposition became a blueprint for the expression of indigenous speech and sensibility in the colonial tongue. Achebe’s feat thus triggered a literary revolution in Nigeria, and the 1960s launched the careers of a plethora of writers, apart from the aforementioned Umuahians.31 These included Clement Agunwa, John Munonye, Flora Nwapa, and Nkem Nwankwo. Other Nigerian writers who had already published novels before Things Fall Apart, as was the case of T. M. Aluko and Onuora Nzekwu, switched to a transliterative idiom.32 Critics were quick to describe most of the work published in the wake of Things Fall Apart as derivative and subordinate, deploying the labels “Achebe’s sons” and “followers,” and referring to the “School of Achebe.” “While some of these writers may well be considered poorly derivative,” Ochiagha counters, “the fact remains, however, that the work of some of these writers remains devalued by the tag. What needs to be problematized is the wholesale application of these types of designations, and the way in which not only the linguistic choices but more superficial textual aspects, such as settings, themes, and cultural contexts of these authors’ first novels are enlisted when describing them as ‘son/daughter’, or ‘imitator.’”33

Beyond Nigeria, writers who have expressed their literary indebtedness to Achebe include Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nuruddin Farah, and Toni Morrison. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also claims filiation with Achebe—in a way that that does not stress imitativeness, but resemblance. According to postcolonial critic Elleke Boehmer, there has been an “inevitable etiolation of [Achebe’s] influence in recent decades.” Focusing on the adaptation of the ogbanje and twin motifs of Things Fall Apart in the work of Adichie, Ben Okri, Diana Evans, and herself, she shows the new forms that such influence may take.34

Achebe was not, as was evident in many of his pronouncements, invested in the notion of an Achebe School or on his own particular legacy. Sharing his hopes for African literature in the 21st century in an interview with Ernest Emenyonu, he affirmed: “What lies ahead is to establish the balance of stories between Africa and the West . . . What African writers of the twentieth century have done, has been to challenge these stories and show how their ancestors dream their world. We are still at the beginning of the task which has been appropriately defined. The twenty-first century will move it forward and reduce the gap. We are one foot in the door. My hope is that the twenty-first century will bring us fully into the arena of World literature and that we will witness the real flowering of African literature.”35

Archives

Like many Biafran writers during the Nigerian Civil War, Achebe lost valuable papers that would have been of immense use to any scholar of his work and African literary history. The Chinua Achebe Papers, held at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard, hold the manuscripts of his main publications from Arrow of God until 1993 as well as correspondence with publishers. The Robert M. Wren Africa Papers at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, hold a taped interview with the author, correspondence, and unpublished texts. All the papers relating to his association with the African Writers Series are archived at the University of Reading.

Further Reading

  • Booker, M. K., ed. The Chinua Achebe Encyclopaedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.
  • Ezenwa-Ohaeto. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Oxford: James Currey, 1997.
  • Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. London: James Currey, 1991.
  • Innes, C. L. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991.
  • Morrison, Jago. The Fiction of Chinua Achebe: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Morrison, Jago. Chinua Achebe. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2017.
  • Ochiagha, Terri. Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite. Oxford: James Currey, 2015.
  • Ochiagha, Terri. A Short History of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018.
  • Ogede, Ode. Achebe and the Politics of Representation. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2010.
  • Wren, Robert. Achebe’s World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1980.

Notes

  • 1. Terri Ochiagha, A Short History of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018), 28–37.

  • 2. Chinua Achebe, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–1987 (London: Heinemann, 1988), 22–23.

  • 3. In an eponymous essay, Achebe has described the potency of the “sweet aroma of Zik’s Kitchen,” in the lives of the colonized, an influence that the authorities of Umuahia fought to stifle by prohibiting such papers as The West African Pilot or holding up fragments from their articles for ridicule in class (see Chinua Achebe, “The Sweet Aroma of Zik’s Kitchen,” in The Education of a British-Protected Child [New York: Knopf, 2008], 23–34).

  • 4. Terri Ochiagha, Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite (Oxford: James Currey, 2015), 11. All discussion of Achebe’s Umuahia education indebted to this book.

  • 5. Chinua Achebe, “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration,” in Celebrating Chinua Achebe, ed. Kristen Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Books, 1991), 7.

  • 6. Chinua Achebe, “My Home under Imperial Fire,” in Home and Exile (New York: Anchor, 2000).

  • 7. Chinua Achebe, “The Novelist as Teacher,” in Hope and Impediments (New York: Anchor, 1990), 45.

  • 8. Christa Clarke, “Uche Okeke and Chinua Achebe: Artist and Author in Conversation,” Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture 1, no. 1 (2007): 146–147.

  • 9. Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Chinua Achebe: A Biography (Oxford: James Currey, 1997), 115.

  • 10. Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country: A Personal Memoir (London: Penguin, 2012), 36.

  • 11. Achebe, There Was a Country, 3.

  • 12. Chinua Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria (Oxford: Heinemann Educational), 1.

  • 13. Charles Nnolim, “Chinua Achebe: A Reassessment,” in Remembering a Legend: Chinua Achebe, ed. Ernest N. Emenyonu and Charles E. Nnolim (New York: African Heritage Press, 2014), 21. See also David A. Maughan Brown, “Anthills of the Savannah: Achebe’s Solution to The Trouble with Nigeria,” in Cultural Approaches to Anthills of the Savannah, ed. Holger E. Ehling (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991), 3–23.

  • 14. Achebe, There Was a Country, 3.

  • 15. Biodun Jeyifo, “First, There Was a Country. Then There Wasn’t: Reflections on Achebe’s There Was a Country,” in Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War, ed. Toyin Falola and Ogechukwu Ezekwem (Oxford: James Currey, 2016), 257. See also Ngwu C. Christian, Ekwe Okwudiri, and Chukwuma Okechukwu, “Achebe’s There Was a Country in the Court of Public Opinion 43 Years After the Civil Nigerian War,” Developing Country Studies 3, no. 13 (2013): 141–150 for an interesting study on public reactions to the reviews of the book.

  • 16. Simon Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction (London: James Currey, 1991), 9.

  • 17. The late 2000s have ushered in an exciting development in Achebe criticism: That of environmental perspectives on Achebe’s novels. These readings explore Achebe’s representations of the land in its entirety—forests, farmland, and village compounds intertwine with the nonvisible, cosmological dimensions, and the ways in which the colonial order negatively intrudes in Igbo ecological practice. See, for instance, Chengyi Coral Wu, “From Cultural Hybridization to Ecological Degradation of the Forest in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road,” Journal of the African Literature Association 6, no. 2 (2012): 93–113; Chengyi Coral Wu, “Towards an Ecocriticism in Africa: Literary Aesthetics in African Environmental Literature,” Natures of Africa: Ecocriticism and Animal Studies in Contemporary Cultural Forms, ed. Moolla F. Fiona (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016), 141–165; Augustine Nchoujie, “Things Fall Apart Years After: An Ecocritical Reading,” in Themes Fall Apart but the Centre Holds: 50 Seasons of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958–2008), ed. Joseph Ushie and Denja Abdullahi (Lagos, Nigeria: Association of Nigerian Authors, 2009), 106–118; Byron Caminero-Santangelo, “Different Shades of Green: Ecocriticism and African Literature,” in African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, ed. Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 698–706; Byron Caminero-Santangelo, “Shifting the Center: A Tradition of Environmental Literary Discourse from Africa,” in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie Le Menager, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner (New York: Routledge, 2011), 148–162; and Michael Lundblad, “Malignant and Beneficent Fictions: Constructing Nature in Ecocriticism and Achebe’s Arrow of God,” West Africa Review 3, no. 1 (2001): 1–21 .

  • 18. Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe, 2.

  • 19. Florence Stratton, Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (London: Routledge, 1994); Andrea Powell Wolfe, “Problematizing Polygyny in the Historical Novels of Chinua Achebe: The Role of the Western Feminist Scholar,” in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2010); Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Recreating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994); and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, Africa Wo/Man Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press Confirmed, 1996).

  • 20. See, for instance, Marie Umeh, “Chinua Achebe’s Legacy to His Daughter(s): Implications for the Twenty-First Century,” in Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, Vol. 2, Isinka, The Artistic Principle, Chinua Achebe and the Theory of African Literature, ed. Ernest Emenyonu (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004), 395–409; and Ifi Amadiume, “Class and Gender in Anthills of the Savannah,” Okike 30 (1990): 147–157.

  • 21. Achebe, There Was a Country, 58.

  • 22. See Chinua Achebe, “The Education of a British-Protected Child,” Cambridge Review 114 (June 1993): 51–57; and Terri Ochiagha, ed., “There Was a College: Introducing The Umuahian: A Golden Jubilee Publication, edited by Chinua Achebe,” Africa: Journal of the International Africa Institute 85, no. 2 (2015): 191–220.

  • 23. Chinua Achebe, “The African Writer and the English Language,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day (New York: Anchor, 1975), 47.

  • 24. About the Colloquium,” Achebe Colloquium on Africa, Brown University.

  • 25. Simon Gikandi, “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture,” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 3 (2001): 5.

  • 26. Simon Gikandi, “Between Realism and Modernism: Chinua Achebe and the Making of African Literature,” in A Companion to World Literature, ed. Ken Seigneurie et al. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2020), 1.

  • 27. Gikandi, “Between Realism and Modernism,” 2.

  • 28. Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Achievement of Chinua Achebe,” New York Review, May 22, 2017.

  • 29. Elleke Boehmer, “Chinua Achebe, a Father of Modern African Literature,” PMLA 129, no. 2 (2014): 238.

  • 30. Stephanie Newell, West African Literatures: Ways of Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 98, 99.

  • 31. Wole Soyinka wrote his play The Swamp Dwellers during his student years, and it was staged the year of Things Fall Apart’s publication. Poets Christopher Okigbo and J. P. Clark began writing after Achebe, but thanks to their chosen genre and very idiosyncratic aesthetics have eluded these classifications.

  • 32. See Catherine Lyn Innes, Chinua Achebe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 19.

  • 33. Ochiagha, Short History of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” 74–75.

  • 34. Elleke Boehmer, “Achebe and His Influence in Some Contemporary African Writing,” Interventions 11, no. 2 (2009): 143.

  • 35. Quoted in Ernest Emenyonu, “The Passing of a Comet,” in Remembering a Legend: Chinua Achebe, 14.