(1930 – 2013)
Chinua Achebe (born Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe, Ogidi, Anambra State, Nigeria, November 16, 1930 – Boston, MA, USA, March 21, 2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic who is regarded as the most dominant figure in modern African literature. His first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (1958), occupies a pivotal place in African literature and remains the most widely studied, taught and read African novel. A titled Igbo chief himself, Achebe sought to escape the colonial perspective that predominated African literature, and drew from the traditions of the Igbo people, Christian influences, and the clash of Western and African values to create a uniquely African voice. His style relies heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory. Along with Things Fall Apart, his No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964) complete the so called “African Trilogy”; later novels include A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). In addition to his seminal novels, Achebe’s oeuvre includes numerous of short stories, poetry, essay collections and children’s books.
Raised by his parents in the Igbo town of Ogidi in southeastern British Nigeria, Achebe excelled at Government College Umuahia and won a scholarship to study medicine, but changed his studies to English literature at University College (now the University of Ibadan). He became fascinated with world religions and traditional African cultures, and began writing stories as a university student. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) and soon moved to the metropolis of Lagos. He gained worldwide attention for his novel Things Fall Apart in the late 1950s which exerted a significant influence on subsequent literature. Achebe wrote his novels in English and defended the use of English, a “language of colonisers,” in African literature. In 1975, his lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness featured a criticism of Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist;” it was later published in The Massachusetts Review amid controversy.
When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Achebe became a supporter of Biafran independence and acted as ambassador for the people of the new nation. The civil war that took place over the territory ravaged the populace, and as starvation and violence took its toll, he appealed to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid. When the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved himself in political parties but soon became disillusioned by his frustration over the corruption and elitism he witnessed. He lived in the United States for several years in the 1970s, and returned to the U.S. in 1990, after a car crash left him partially disabled. Upon Achebe’s return to the United States in 1990, he began an nineteen-year tenure at Bard College as the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature. He won the 1994 International Nonino Prize in Italy. From 2009 until his death, he served as David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.
Achebe’s work has been widely analyzed, and a massive body of scholarly work discussing it has arisen. Among the themes he touches on are politics, history, culture and colonialism as well as masculinity and femininity. To date, his total influence remains unmatched in African literature. His legacy is celebrated annually at the Chinua Achebe Literary Festival, which is held on his birth date (November 16) in Awka, the capital city of Anambra State, where he was born.
Major Awards and Honors
Federal Government of Nigeria
- 1979: National Order of Merit – Humanities
- 1986: National Order of Merit
- 1999: National Creativity Award
- 2004: Commander of the Federal Republic
- 2011: Commander of the Federal Republic
Nigerian National Trophy for Literature
- 1960: “Things Fall Apart”
Nigerian Hall of Fame
- 2010: Inductee
Nigerian Academy of Letters
- 1999: Founding Fellow
Association of Nigerian Authors
- 1981: Founding President
Society of Young Nigerian Writers
- 2016: Initiation of annual Chinua Achebe Literary Festival
University of Nigeria, Nsukka
- 1967 – 1972: Senior Research Fellow, Institute of African Studies
- 1976 – 1983: Professor of English
- 1981: Honorary D.Litt.
- 1990: International Chinua Achebe Symposium
- 2019: Memorial bust on campus
Anambra State University of Technology at Enugu (Nigeria)
- 1986 – 1988: Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council
Nnamdi Azikiwe University (Nigeria)
- 2009: Honorary D.Litt.
Lagos State University (Nigeria)
- 1988: Honorary D.Litt.
University of Port Harcourt (Nigeria)
- 1991: Honorary LL.D.
University of Ife (Nigeria)
- 1979: Honorary D.Litt
University of Ibadan (Nigeria)
- 1989: Honorary D.Litt.
University of Sokoto (Nigeria)
- 2007: Honorary D.Litt.
Anambra State (Nigeria)
- 2008: Chinua Achebe Road
– Major road connecting Ogidi and Onitsha.
Awka, Anambra State (Nigeria)
- 1999: Chinua Achebe Avenue
– Avenue leading to State House in Anambra State Capital.
Nsukka Town (Nigeria)
- 1990: Chinua Achebe Road
Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri (Nigeria)
- 1999: Odenigbo Lecturer
Pan African Writers’ Association
- 2015: International African Writers’ Day – “Celebrating the Life and Works of Chinua Achebe: The Coming of Age of African Literature?”
Grand Prix of Literary Associations (Cameroon)
- 2019: Grand Prix de la Mémoire
Association of Asian and African Writers
- 1975: Lotus Award for Afro-Asian Writers
University of Witswatersrand (South Africa)
- 2000: Honorary D.Litt.
Cape Town University (South Africa)
- 2002: Honorary D.Litt.
- 1963: UNESCO Fellowship
- 1999: Goodwill Ambassador, United Nations Population Fund
- 1997: World Bank Presidential Fellows Lecturer
Commonwealth of Nations
- 1983: Commonwealth Foundation – Senior Visiting Practitioner
- 1984: Commonwealth Foundation Award
Royal Society of Literature (UK)
- 1983: Fellow
Royal African Society (UK)
- 1998: Honorary Vice President
Man Booker Prize (UK)
- 2007: International Prize
Commonwealth Institute (UK)
- 1972: Commonwealth Poetry Prize – “Beware Soul Brother”
International Committee on Christian Literature for Africa (UK)
- 1959: Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize – “Things Fall Apart”
Clare Hall, Cambridge University (UK)
- 1993: Visiting Fellow and Ashby Lecturer
New African Magazine:
- 2012: Inclusion in List of 100 Most Influential Africans – Arts & Culture
New Statesman (UK)
- 1965: Jock Campbell Award – “Arrow of God”
South Bank Centre, London (UK)
- 2018: Celebration of 60th anniversary of the publication of “Things Fall Apart”
Jesuits in Britain
- 1996: Campion Medal
Scottish Arts Council
- 1975: Neil Gunn Fellow
American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 1982: Honorary Fellowship
Academy of American Poets
- 2004: Associate Member
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2002: Foreign Honorary Member
National Arts Club (USA)
- 2007: Medal of Honor for Literature
Modern Language Association (USA)
- 1974: Honorary Member
- 1975: Honorary Fellow
Rockefeller Foundation (USA)
- 1960: Rockefeller Fellowship
Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (USA)
Harlem Book Fair (USA)
- 2004: Phillis Wheatley Award
African Overseas Union (USA)
- 1996: Order of Kilimanjaro
Harvard University (USA)
- 1996: Honorary D.Litt.
- 1998: McMillan Lecturer
Georgetown University (USA)
- 1990: Honorary LL.D.
Dartmouth College (USA)
- 1972: Honorary D.Litt.
- 1990: Montgomery Fellow and Visiting Professor of English
Johns Hopkins University Center for Africana Studies
- 1989: Callaloo Award
Brown University (USA)
- 1997: Honorary D.Litt.
- 2010 – 2013: David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies
University of Massachusetts at Amherst (USA)
- 1972 – 1975: Visiting Professor of English
- 1979: Honorary D.H.L.
- 1987-1988: Fulbright Professor of African Studies
University of California, Los Angeles (USA)
- 1984: Regents Professor of English
University of Connecticut (USA)
- 1975-1976: University Professor of English
City College of New York (USA)
- 1962: Langston Hughes Medal
- 1989: Visiting Distinguished Professor of English
- 1992: Honorary D.Litt.
Bard College (NY State, USA)
- 1990 – 2009: Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Literature
- 2000: International Chinua Achebe Symposium
Borough of Manhattan, New York City (USA)
- 1989: Chinua Achebe Day (May 25)
City of Washington, D.C. (USA)
- 1998: Chinua Achebe Day (February 14)
City of Austin, TX (USA)
- 1997: Honorary Citizenship
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (USA)
- 1992: First living writer represented in the Everyman’s Library collection
University of Guelph (Canada)
- 1984: Visiting Professor of English
- 1984: Honorary D.Litt.
Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
Premio Nonino (Italy)
- 1994: International Nonino Prize
Academy of Sciences (USSR)
- 1990: Member
The African Trilogy
- Things Fall Apart (1958)
- No Longer at Ease (1960)
- Arrow of God (1964)
- A Man of the People (1966)
- Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
- In a Village Church (1951)
– Stand-alone short story.
- The Old Order in Conflict with the New (1952)
– Stand-alone short story.
- Marriage Is a Private Affair (1952)
– Stand-alone short story.
- Dead Men’s Path (1953)
– Stand-alone short story.
- The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (1953)
- Civil Peace (1971)
– Stand-alone short story.
- Girls at War and Other Stories (1973)
– Collection; includes, inter alia, Vengeful Creditor.
- African Short Stories (1985)
– Editor, with C.L. Innes.
- The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories (1992)
– Editor, with C. L. Innes.
- The Voter (1994)
– Stand-alone short story.
- Beware, Soul-Brother, and Other Poems (1971)
(AKA Christmas in Biafra, and Other Poems)
– Includes Vultures.
- Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1978)
– Editor, with Dubem Okafor.
- Another Africa (1998)
– With Robert Lyons.
- Collected Poems (2004)
- Refugee Mother and Child
– Date uncertain.
- Chike and the River (1966)
- How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972)
– With John Iroaganachi.
- The Flute (1975)
- The Drum (1978)
Essays and Other Nonfiction
- The Novelist as Teacher (1965)
- An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1975)
- Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975)
- The Trouble With Nigeria (1984)
- Hopes and Impediments (1988)
– Contains, inter alia, The Novelist as Teacher (1965) and An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1975).
- Home and Exile (2000)
- The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009)
- There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012)
- Africa’s Tarnished Name (2018)
A Selection of Quotes
1994 Paris Review Interview, “The Art of Fiction”:
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Things Fall Apart
“Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”
“‘You do not know me,’ said Tortoise. ‘I am a changed man. I have learned that a man who makes trouble for others makes trouble for himself.'”
No Longer at Ease
“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.”
“Women and music should not be dated.”
“A fox must be chased away first; after that the hen might be warned against wandering into the bush.”
Arrow of God
“My father used to say that it is the fear of causing offense that makes men swallow poison.”
“If my enemy speaks the truth I will not say because it is spoken by my enemy I will not listen.”
Anthills of the Savannah
“While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.”
“Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.”
“Writers don’t give prescriptions. They give headaches!”
“Don’t disparage the day that still has an hour of light in its hand.”
A Man of the People
“Every man and every woman in Urua and every child and every adult would throw his or her paper for him on the day of election – as they had done in the past. If there was any other name called in the matter the elders and councillors of Urua had not heard it. He said this over and over again with minor changes in detail, like the omission of ‘every child’ which I noticed particularly because it had struck me as odd in the first place. And I thought: if the whole people had taken the decision why were they now being told of it?”
The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays
“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.'”
“I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety.”
“Letters are, of course, quite special in my view, for when a reader has been sufficiently moved (or even perturbed) by a book to sit down and compose a letter to the author, something very powerful has happened. Things Fall Apart has brought me a large body of such correspondence from people of different ages and backgrounds and from all the continents.”
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays
“Privilege, you see, is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity.”
There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra
“Some people flinch when you talk about art in the context of the needs of society thinking you are introducing something far too common for a discussion of art. Why should art have a purpose and a use? Art shouldn’t be concerned with purpose and reason and need, they say. These are improper. But from the very beginning, it seems to me, stories have indeed been meant to be enjoyed, to appeal to that part of us which enjoys good form and good shape and good sound.”
“Most writers who are beginners, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that they are praying for a readership as they begin to write. But it should be the quality of the craft not the audience, that should be the greatest motivating factor. For me, at least, I can declare that when I wrote Things Fall Apart I couldn’t have told anyone the day before it was accepted for publication that anybody was going to read it. There was no guarantee; nobody ever said to me, Go and write this, we will publish it and we will read it; it was just there. But my brother-in-law who was not a particularly voracious reader, told me that he read the novel through the night and it gave him a terrible headache the next morning. And I took that as an encouraging endorsement!
The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader, who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes so to speak, toward a deeper understanding of self or society, or of foreign peoples, cultures and situations.”
“Nations enshrine mediocrity as their modus operandi, and create the fertile ground for the rise of tyrants and other base elements of the society, by silently assenting to the dismantling of systems of excellence because they do not immediately benefit one specific ethnic, racial, political, or special-interest group. That, in my humble opinion, is precisely where Nigeria finds itself today!”
Africa’s Tarnished Name
“Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all. If we learned that lesson even this late in the day, we would have taken a truly millennial step forward.”
- Chinua Achebe’s biography at Britannica.com
- Chinua Achebe’s biography at the Kirjasto Authors’ Calendar
- Chinua Achebe’s interview with the Paris Review (The Art of Fiction, No. 139)
- PEN America: Chinua Achebe reads from Things Fall Apart
- Chinua Achebe at the Poetry Foundation
- Chinua Achebe: A life in writing (The Guardian, Dec. 13, 2010)
- Chinua Achebe interview in The Guardian: A long way from home (July 10, 2007)
- Reviews and blog posts related to Chinua Achebe on this blog, Lioness at Large