Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe (born 1930) is one of the foremost Nigerian novelists. His novels are primarily directed to an African audience, but their psychological insights have gained them universal acceptance.

Chinua Achebe was born into an Ibo family on Nov. 15, 1930, at Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria. He was educated at a government college in Umuahia, and he graduated from the University College at Ibadan in 1954.

While working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, he composed his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), at a time when Nigerian prose fiction was represented solely by the fantastic folklore romances of Amos Tutuola and the popular stories of urban life of Cyprian Ekwensi. Achebe's novel introduced serious social and psychological analysis into Nigerian literature. It is set in the early days of colonization and tells the tragedy of a warrior hero who rigidly identifies with the values of traditional Ibo society. For this reason, he lacks the required flexibility of mind and heart to adapt to changing conditions under incipient European impact. This novel won immediate international recognition.

With his next novel, No Longer At Ease (1960), Achebe turned to the last phase of the colonial regime, describing with his usual poise and insight the tragic predicament of the young African idealist. His foreign education has converted him to modern standards of moral judgment without alleviating the inner and outer pressures of traditional mores. The catastrophe derives from the hero's inability to make his choice; it is the drama of a bungled destiny in a bewildering time of rapid cultural change.

Arrow of God (1964) reverted to the past once more. As the high priest of the village deity, the central character is a tribal intellectual who sees the weaknesses of the traditional outlook and senses the need for change. His mental alertness and consequent skepticism lay him open to the charge of betraying his own people. In a desperate outburst of arrogance he attempts to restore his prestige and to reassert the power of his god, but he merely succeeds in alienating the villagers, who begin to turn to the Christian missionaries.

So far, Achebe had been concerned with the clash of cultures, which is an all-pervading theme in the African novel. But by the mid-1960s the exhilaration of independence had died out in Nigeria as the country was faced with the terrific political problems common to the many poly-ethnic states of modern Africa. The Ibo, who had played a dominant role in Nigerian politics, now began to feel they were being reduced to the status of second-class citizens by the Moslem Hausa people of Northern Nigeria. Achebe turned his creative insight to an imaginative critique of public mores under independence. The result was A Man of the People (1966), a bitter portrayal of a corrupt Nigerian politician. The book was published at the very moment a military coup swept away the old political leadership and its abuses. That timing made some Northern military officers suspect Achebe played a role in the coup, but there was never any evidence supporting the theory.

During the Biafran succession from Nigeria (1967-70), however, Achebe served Biafra as a diplomat. He traveled to different countries publicizing the plight of his people, focusing especially on the Ibo children being starved to death and massacred. He wrote articles for newspapers and magazines about the Biafran struggle and living in Enugu, the designated capital of Biafra, and founded the Citadel Press with Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo.

Writing a novel at this time was out of the question, he said during a 1969 interview: "I can't write a novel now; I wouldn't want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I can write poetry—something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood." Three volumes of poetry emerged from this mood, as well as a collection of short stories and children's stories.

After the fall of the Republic of Biafra, Achebe continued to work as a senior research fellow at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, a position he had assumed several years before. He also devoted much time to the Heinemann Educational Books' Writers Series, which was designed to promote the careers of young African writers, became director of Nwamife Publishers, Ltd., and founded Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing.

In 1972, he came to the United States to become an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (he taught there again in 1987), and in 1975 he joined the faculty of the University of Connecticut. He returned to the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in 1976 and was appointed a professor emeritus there in 1985.

His novel Anthills of the Savanna was published in 1987 and appeared on the short-list for the Booker Prize. Set in the imaginary West African nation of Kangan, it tells the story of three boyhood friends and the deadly effects of one's obsession with power and being elected "president for life." Its release coincided with Achebe's return to the United States and teaching positions at Dartmouth College, Stanford University and Bard College, among other universities.

Over the years, Achebe has received dozens of honorary doctorates and several international literary awards. He is an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and his work has been translated into more than 40 languages. In 1994, he fled to Europe from the repressive Nigerian regime, which threatened to jail him. However, he later returned to Nigeria to serve as president of the town union of his native village of Ogidi, honored as such because of his dedication to his ancestors' myths and legends.

Further Reading on Chinua Achebe

Information on Achebe is in Gerald Moore, Seven African Writers (1962); Ulli Beier, ed., Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writings from 'Black Orpheus' (1967); Cosmo Pieterse and Donald Munroe, eds., Protest and Conflict in African Literature (1969); Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 51 (1989); Zell, Hans M. et al, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature (1983).