Born in 1930, Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe is probably black Africa’s most widely read novelist. His first work, Things Fall Apart, is regarded as a classic of world literature and has been translated into 40 languages.
Key works include: Things Fall Apart (1958), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), Beware, Soul Brother (1971). (In USA Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (1973), Anthills of the Savanna (1987).
A member of the Ibo people, Chinua Achebe was born into a Christian family in what was then the British colony of Nigeria, but as a child found himself drawn to the customs of his non-Christian neighbours. Educated at a government-run school, he came to love English literature but became increasingly disturbed by the distorted representation of Africans that he found in the works of English writers. His indignation was directly responsible for his decision to become a writer.
Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), showed how the impact of Western influences on traditional Ibo African society was by no means beneficial. Without romanticising Ibo society, Achebe describes a well-ordered and self-sufficient world where “things” only begin to “fall apart” with the arrival of the Europeans. This was to be his theme in other works, such as Arrow of God (1964), which depicted Ibo culture and society in a realistic, unsentimental, often ironic fashion, and confirmed Achebe as one of black Africa’s finest literary voices.
In 1966 Nigeria suffered ethnic violence, and in 1967 civil war broke out, with the Ibos of the eastern region attempting to establish an independent Republic of Biafra. During the three-year struggle Achebe sought to publicise the plight of his people. His collection of poems about the war, Beware, Soul Brother, was published in 1971, appearing in the United States as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems.
In 1971 he became founding editor of Okike, one of Africa’s most influential literary magazines, which he edited in the United States from 1972, having accepted the post of Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Returning to Nigeria in 1976 Achebe became Professor of English at the University. In 1984 he began work again on a novel which he had started in the 1970s but discontinued because it “seemed like a frivolous thing to be doing” in those troubled times. This eagerly awaited work, titled Anthills of the Savanna, was published in 1987, and described the failure of contemporary African politicians and intellectuals. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize of that year.
Chinua Achebe has received more than twenty honorary doctorates and several international literary prizes. He is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
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