Chinua Achebe: A Tribute to a Literary Icon!

On 21 March, 2013, the news of the demise of one of Africa’s greatest literary icon broke upon the world leaving us all flabbergasted. Chinua Achebe, a poet, novelist, professor, and critic, has bowed to the cruel hands of death at the age of 82.

As a result of the influence this man had in my love for writing, I want to dedicate this post to sharing a little about him. I can authoritatively say I fell in love with writing because of the influence of great African writers  Chinua Achebe (Nigerian), Ngugi Wa Thiogo (Kenya), Peter Abrahams (South Africa) and many others.

Back in the early eighties, as a young man in secondary school (high school), I was fascinated by Achebe’s writing style – using proverbs, traditional folk stories and philosophical thought to vividly bring out his narratives – a style that has influenced many other African writers. Till this day his novel, Things Fall Apart, has never ceased to fascinate me.

Who is Chinua Achebe?

Chinua AchebeChinua Achebe was born Albert Chinualumogo Achebe on 16 November, 1930 in Eastern Nigeria. He grew up surrounded by the complex fusion of the native traditions of his people, the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria, and the colonialists.

Education and Early Life

In his early school days, Chinua Achebe was a brilliant scholar. It is reported that as a result of his intelligence and performance in school, he was quickly moved to a higher class.

After his secondary school he moved on to the University of Ibadan, Nigeria to study medicine but later studied literature. After which he went on to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in Lagos.

Literary Career

His literary work began with Things Fall Apart (1958), his first novel. Though he has written many other novels, poems and essays, Things Fall Apart has remained the greatest of his works. The novel has been translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time. The novel has also sold over 8 million copies worldwide!

Ironically, this same novel was initially rejected by many publishers because back in 1958, the belief was that fiction from African writers had no market potential. It only took the intervention of an educational adviser,  Donald MacRae, who convinced the executives at Heinemann of the potentials of the novel, for Things Fall Apart to see the light of day!

Achebe’s other literary works include: No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), The Novelist as Teacher

(1965), A Man of the People (1966), Chike and the River (1966), The Trouble With Nigeria (1984), Anthills of the Savannah (1987), and There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, (11 October 2012 ) his last published work.

Achebe and the Literary Movement in Africa

Chinua Achebe was central to a new literary movement both in Nigeria, his home country, and Africa in general. His literary style which drew on the intersection of African traditions and modernity (as embodied by European colonialism) inspired other Nigerian and African writers.

Achebe was an arrow head of the African Writers Series, a force that brought postcolonial literature from Africa to the rest of the world. He was also instrumental to the publishing of many other African works like, Weep Not, Child by Ng?g? wa Thiong’o

Chinua Achebe and Nelson Mandela

Chinua Achebe the Critic

Chinua Achebe was both a social and literary critic both in his writings and practical life. Many Nigerians would remember him for his refusal recently of a National Honors Award given to him by the Nigerian government as a way of protesting the economic and political situation of the country.

This action is not in any way surprising to many because back in 1976, he had also lashed out at the archetypal Nigerian intellectual, whom he described as,  divorced from the intellect

“but for two things: status and stomach. And if there’s any danger that he might suffer official displeasure or lose his job, he would prefer to turn a blind eye to what is happening around him.”

In the international scene he was also critical of the European intellectual as displayed in his criticism of Conrad’s famous novel, Heart of Darkness, which he described as, dehumanizing Africans, rendering Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”

Achebe’s criticism, given while delivery a Chancellor’s lecture in 1975 when he was on a professorship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was later to become a mainstream perspective on Conrad’s work. It was so significant that Critic Nicolas Tredell later divided Conrad criticism “into two epochal phases: before and after Achebe.”

Wisdom Quotes from Chinua Achebe

This tribute will not be complete without an insight into the wisdom and insight of this great African. Here are some of his quotes taken from his literary works and comments on life generally.

“We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own. The Igbo, always practical, put it concretely in their proverb Onye ji onye n’ani ji onwe ya: “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.”

-The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays

“The impatient idealist says: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.”

-No Longer at Ease

“The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.”

-Morning yet on creation day: Essays

“What I can say is that it was clear to many of us that an indigenous African literary renaissance was overdue. A major objective was to challenge stereotypes, myths, and the image of ourselves and our continent, and to recast them through stories- prose, poetry, essays, and books for our children. That was my overall goal.”

-There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra

“Oh, the most important thing about myself is that my life has been full of changes. Therefore, when I observe the world, I don’t expect to see it just like I was seeing the fellow who lives in the next room.”

“The problem with leaderless uprisings taking over is that you don’t always know what you get at the other end. If you are not careful you could replace a bad government with one much worse!”

“When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.”

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.”

Later life and death

From 2009 until his death, Achebe served as a professor at Brown University in the United States. (Visit this link for a profile of Achebe on the University’s website.) He was indeed a moral and literary model for countless Africans. He was also a great influence on such American writers as Morrison, Ha Jin, and Junot Diaz.

Though many thought he deserved it, Achebe never won the Nobel Prize in literature. However, he won different awards in his time. In 2007 he received the Man Booker International Prize, a US$120,000 honor for lifetime achievement.

His death on 21 March, 2013 may indeed still be a shock to many of us, but the truth is, Achebe has served his generation well and we cannot but say, Adieu Achebe!


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