Remembering Chinua Achebe on his Posthumous Birthday
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was a Nigerian novelist, writer, poet, critic, and professor. He was born on November 16, 1930 in Ogidi, Southeastern Nigeria, to literate parents. His mother, Janet Anaenechi, received a primary school education which according to Achebe ‘was a phenomenal feat at the time, especially for a woman.’ His father, Isaiah Okafor, was a Christian and worked as a missionary teacher in various parts of Nigeria before returning to the village. Following his parents’ educational background, Achebe started his formal education at St. Phillips Central School in 1936. He was later given a bursary to study medicine at the University of Ibadan. It was at the University of Ibadan he came across Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel, Mister Jonson, which he found entirely disturbing for its wrong portrayal of its African characters as savages and brutes. It is this that inspired his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, which was a response to Joyce Cary’s poor depiction and representation of Africa as a people without culture or civilization.
Given his interests in the world of letters, Chinua Achebe changed from studying medicine to English, History and Theology. Most importantly, he was influenced by the writings of such western writers which include Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Tennyson. But in spite of the influences, Achebe, through his writings, was able to carve a model that combined the peculiarities of native African language with that of the English language. As seen in his writings especially Things Fall Apart, Achebe uses such traditional rhetoric like idioms, proverbs and parables to maintain an African outlook for his stories, while communicating in English. This model has been regarded as a blueprint for any writing worthy of being described as African literature. It is no wonder Nardine Gormer describes him as the father of African literature. In view of the controversy regarding the use of a European language like English or French in writing African literature, Chinua Achebe says:
‘…my answer to the question, Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask. Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. 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 an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.’
Following the breakthrough of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe wrote sequels, No Longer at Ease and Arrows of God, which altogether form his trilogy. The Nigerian civil war however shattered Achebe’s hopes for a bright postcolonial future, and largely affected his literary output. The civil war which lasted from 1967 to 1970 saw Achebe take the side of Biafra in the attempted breakaway from Nigeria. He became an emissary for Biafra; acting as a spokesperson for the Biafran cause in Europe and North America. It was in one of these special missions, he met Leopold Sedar Senghor whom he described as an ‘extraordinary man’. After the war, Achebe was very critical on matters of the country. He attributed the problem of Nigeria and by extension, Africa, to bad leadership which his 1964 book, Arrow of God. In his words, ‘the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.’ He later published his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, which emerged finalist for the 1987 Booker Prize.
On March 1990, Chinua Achebe was involved in a car crash which left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was flown to the Paddocks Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England, for treatment, and moved to the United States. He took a teaching post at Bard College in the Hudson River valley where he remained until 2009. He received the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2007. He published “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra” before his death on 21 March 2013, which his agent in London said was a result of a brief illness. Chimamanda Adichie, who was particularly inspired by the writings of Achebe, wrote an Igbo elegy in his memory. She described him as ‘the inimitable wordswith’, ‘the sage’, ‘the kind man’, and, following his death, as ‘a mighty tree’, which has fallen.
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Achebe’s achievements as a writer include Things Fall Apart which is considered the most read African novel. It has sold more than ten million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages. His successful career is reflected in the numerous awards he won: Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1982), St. Louis Literary Award (1999), Peace Prize of the German, Book of Trade (2002), Man Booker International Prize (2007), and Dorathy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010). Chinua Achebe has also received over 30 honorary degrees from different universities across the world.
Photo Credit: Paris Review