Achebe, Chinua (1930–2013)
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Chinua Achebe, born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in Ogidi in eastern Nigeria on 16 November 1930, was a writer, novelist, poet, and critic.
Chinua Achebe, born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in Ogidi in eastern Nigeria on 16 November 1930, was a writer, novelist, poet, and critic. Achebe’s father Isaiah Okafo Achebe was baptised by the missionaries of the Church Missionary Society and took on missionary teaching. His mother Janet Iloegbunam Achebe belonged to the blacksmith community of Umuike village in Awka. Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship for higher studies. He graduated in English Literature in 1953 from the University College in Ibadan.
After a short span of teaching at the Merchants of Light School at Oba, Achebe joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1954. He was subsequently elevated to the position of director of external broadcasting in 1961, attained ‘the Voice of Nigeria’ position, and served the corporation until the 1966 Igbos massacre in western and northern Nigeria. During the Nigeria–Biafra war (1967–70), Achebe served the Biafran diplomatic service and undertook extensive trips abroad to speak on behalf of the Biafran cause. At the end of the war in 1970, he joined the University of Nigeria at Nsukka and then held a number of teaching positions at universities in the US and Canada.
Achebe was the recipient of many honorary degrees from universities in the US, Canada, England, Scotland, and Nigeria. He was awarded the Order of the Federal Republic, the Nigerian National Merit Award, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1974), the Lotus Award for Afro-Asian Writers (1975), the Campion Medal (1996), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2002), the Man Booker International Prize (2007), and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010). He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, London (1981) and an Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1983) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002). In 1998 he was appointed as the prestigious McMillan Stewart Lecturer at Harvard University.
Regarded by many as the father of the modern African novel, Achebe was induced to write his novels as counter-narratives to Eurocentric discourses, which denigrated Africa. He pointed out how European mythology had constructed Africa, and worked to provide a counter-discourse that took part in the reconstruction of the African self. Achebe imagined a pre-independence national community with shared history as both progressive and useful for writing. In ‘The Novelist as Teacher’, he wrote:
there is in all of Achebe’s novels a fundamental link between the idea of the nation, the concept of a national culture, and the quest for an African narrative. Fanon’s famous dictum that the liberation of the nation is ‘that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible’ finds its parallel in Achebe’s desire to liberate the African mind from the colonial complex and the ‘crisis of the soul’ which it triggers in the colonized. (Gikandi 1991, p. 7)
Achebe’s resentment at the European representations of Africans in literature incited him to write his maiden and classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958). Written during the same period in which Frantz Fanon was formulating his ideas, the novel delineates a critical study of the Igbo village, Umuofia. In the story, the protagonist Okonkwo lives during the colonisation of Nigeria, struggles with the legacy of his father, a shiftless debtor, as well as grapples with the complications which arise with the visit of white missionaries to his village of Umuofia. Okonkwo, the tragic but flawed protagonist, resists the onslaught of colonial culture. Achebe was keen to remind his readers that European colonialism is not entirely responsible for all the turmoil in Umuofia. Wole Soyinka described the novel as ‘the first novel in English which spoke from the interior of an African character, rather than portraying him as exotic, as the white man would see him’ (Jaggi 2000, pp. 6–7). The novel explores the cultural conflict and encounters between Christian doctrine and Igbo traditions, and resists the racist images of Africa as depicted in such literary works as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson. In an interview with Lewis Nkosi in African Writers Talking, Achebe spoke vociferously against the racial portrayal of Nigerian character by Cary in Mister Johnson. Achebe declared that:
Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse – to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement …. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul …. 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. (Achebe 1975, pp. 71–72)
As an anti-colonial novel, Things Fall Apart narrates the story of a society which has been irretrievably changed by the colonial power and culture. The scene in which Okonkwo’s son Nwoye is alienated by the sacrifice of his foster brother is reminiscent of the biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to obey his god’s command to slay his son. Through these allusions, Achebe’s novel engages with the Eurocentric representations of Africans as barbaric, marginal, and lacking coherence or speech. There are scenes in which the narrator promotes one perspective and simultaneously develops the negative side of that point of view. This double perspective surfaces in the language that Achebe adapts in the novel. For instance, there is a brilliant description of the missionary Mr. Smith’s attitude: ‘He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness’ (Achebe 1994/1958, p. 164).
one of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary’s novel, set in Nigeria, Mister Johnson, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that it was a most superficial picture of – not only of the country – but even of the Nigerian character, and so I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look at it from the inside. (quoted in Pieterse and Duerden 1972, p. 4)
Achebe’s second novel No Longer at Ease explores the dilemma faced by young Nigerians in contemporary Nigeria. Obi, the protagonist, is the grandson of Oknonkwo, the main character of Things Fall Apart. After attaining university education in England, Obi comes back to the newly independent Nigeria with the hope that he will rise by becoming an important part of the leadership. However, he is trapped between divergently pulling forces of tradition and modernity. This dilemma becomes apparent when he falls in love with a girl of the despised osu caste and faces stiff resistance from his orthodox family.
Arrow of God, published in 1964, narrates the interaction of Igbo tradition with European Christianity. Ezeulu, the chief priest of Ulu, is taken aback by the British intervention in the region and encourages his son to learn the secret behind the power of the foreigners. The message conveyed through Umuaro’s political conflict with Okperi, the cultural conflict with the white man, and the religious conflict with the Church is that one should abide by the laws of the society that one belongs to. In the novel, the coloniser despises the culture of the colonised. Mr. Winterbottom summons Ezeulu, and when the latter fails to comply, he is detained in prison. The novel reaches its climax when the quest for power transforms into the quest for revenge.
A Man of the People (1966) is an acerbic satire on an un-named, African, post-colonial state. The protagonist Odili Samalau is seduced by the power and rhetoric of the corrupt minister of culture named Nanga. This seduction appears as a central motif for Nigerian politics, as various groups of voters in the region are symbolised by Nanga’s loyal wife Elsie, his city mistress, and Edna, the young rural girl he is tempted to make his second wife. Finally, Odili courts and gets Edna, but at a substantial cost. One crucial problem that Achebe focuses upon in the novel is the search of a language that can be an authentic and appropriate mode of expression. Throughout the novel, Odili narrates the story and gives clichéd justifications for his shifting political allegiance; by doing so, he simultaneously enables the reader to discern his own unreliability as a narrator. The novel ends with a military coup, which prefigured an actual coup in Nigeria a few months after the publication of the novel, triggering the bloody massacre of Igbos in northern Nigeria.
Achebe’s fifth novel Anthills of the Savannah (1987) has a strong resemblance to the contemporary socio-political setup of Nigeria. There are reflections of The Trouble with Nigeria in the novel. This is a polyvocal text in which there are multiple narrators. The novel is about a coup in the fictional West African nation of Kangan, where Sam, a Sandhurst-trained military officer, has become president. His friends Ikem Osodi and Chris Oriko die while opposing the savage abuse of power. A military coup annihilates everything and eliminates Sam and Beatrice Okoh, an Honours graduate, a senior official in the ministry of finance, and girlfriend of Chris. As the narrator of this complex novel, she becomes a leader as well as representative of a group of women who envision an optimistic future for Nigeria.
In 1983, upon the death of Mallan Aminu Kano, Achebe became deputy national president of the People’s Redemption Party and wrote a booklet The Trouble with Nigeria in which he gave his analysis of the failure of Nigeria leadership (Achebe 2010). As the director of Heinemann Educational Books in Nigeria, Achebe promoted many African authors by encouraging them to write creatively. In 1984 he founded Uwa ndi Igbo, a significant bilingual magazine for Igbo studies.
Edward Said argues that if non-European peoples are to be represented with justice it must be in a narrative in which they may themselves be the agents. Then they will appear as the creators of their own universe. Achebe, in his writings, draws heavily upon the Igbo oral tradition. By interspersing folk tales in his narrative, Achebe illuminates the community values in the form and content of his storytelling. For instance, in Things Fall Apart he dwells upon the interdependency of masculine and feminine by bringing the tale of earth and sky into the fabric of the novel. Similarly, the singing of folk songs and ceremonial dancing in Things Fall Apart are the sum total of the oral Igbo tradition. Achebe sprinkles proverbs throughout the narrative and with this technique he throws light upon the rural Igbo tradition.
Achebe’s writings constitute interpretative spaces and critique of the post-colonial aesthetic. His works evince his ability to reverse the status of colonial language as a tool of colonial ideology to the language as a medium of new forms of expression. Achebe’s choice of writing in the English language was due to his desire to write back to the empire. By altering the idiom, usage, and syntax of the English language, he transforms the language into African style. In 2007, when Chinua Achebe became the second writer to be awarded the international Man Booker Prize, the distinguished novelist Nadine Gordimer commented that he had attained ‘what one of his characters brilliantly defines as the writer’s purpose: “a new found utterance” for the capture of life’s complexity. This fiction is an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the post-modern breaking of sequence. He is a joy and an illumination to read’ (Jaggi 2000, p. 7) On Achebe’s 70th birthday in 2000, Wole Soyinka said: ‘Achebe never hesitates to lay blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs’ (quoted in Nare 2005, p. 149).
King rightly said that Achebe had a sense of irony and was especially excellent at satire. He compared Achebe to the nineteenth-century English novelists, such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, in presenting a detached and tragic universe in which exceptional individuals are crushed by the larger cultural forces. Fondly called the ‘grandfather of Nigerian literature’, Achebe died after a short illness on 21 March 2013 in Boston. At his death, The New York Times described him in his obituary as ‘one of Africa’s most widely read novelists and one of the continent’s towering men of letters’.
It could be argued that the real tradition of Nigerian literature begins with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). It begins a tradition not only because its influence can be detected on Nigerian novelists, such as T.M. Aluco, but also because it was the first solid achievement upon which others could build. Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to successfully transmute the conventions of the novel, a European art form, into African literature. His craftsmanship can be seen in the way he creates a totally Nigerian structure for his fiction. (King 1972, p. 3).
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