Chinua Achebe Biography
Chinua Achebe comments:
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Albert Chinualumogu in Ogidi, 1930. Education: Government College, Umuahia, 1944-47; University College, Ibadan, 1948-53, B.A. (London) 1953. Career: Talks producer, Lagos, 1954-57, controller, Enugu, 1958-61, and director, Voice of Nigeria, Lagos, 1961-66, Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation; chairman, Citadel Books Ltd., Enugu, 1967. Senior research fellow, 1967-73, professor of English, 1973-81, and since 1984 professor emeritus, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Visiting professor, 1972-75, and Fulbright Professor, 1987-88, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; visiting professor, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1975-76; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, 1984; Visiting Distinguished Professor of English, City College, New York, 1989, visiting professor, Stanford University, 1990. Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Literature, Bard College. Founding editor, Heinemann African Writers series, 1962-72 and since 1970 director, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd., and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd. (later Nwamife), publishers, Enugu; since 1971 editor, Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, Nsukka; since 1983 governor, Newsconcern International Foundation, London; since 1984 founder and publisher, Uwa Ndi Igbo: A Bilingual Journal of Igbo Life and Arts. Since 1998 goodwill ambassador, United Nations Population Fund. Awards: Margaret Wrong Memorial prize, 1959; Nigerian National trophy, 1960; Rockefeller fellowship, 1960; Unesco fellowship, 1963; Jock Campbell award (New Statesman), 1965; Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1973; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1974; Lotus award for Afro-Asian writers, 1975; Nigerian National Merit award, 1979; Commonwealth Foundation award, 1984. Litt.D.: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1972; University of Southampton, 1975; University of Ife, 1978; University of Nigeria, 1981; University of Kent, Canterbury, 1982; University of Guelph, Ontario, 1984; Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, 1984; Franklin Pierce College, Rindge, New Hampshire, 1985; University of Ibadan, 1989; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1990; D. Univ.: University of Stirling, 1975; Open University, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, 1989; LL.D.: University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, 1976; D.H.L.: University of Massachusetts, 1977; Westfield College, London, 1989; Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1990; doctor of letters, honoris causa, Trinity College, Connecticut, 1999. Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (USA), 1975; member, Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979; Honorary Member, American Academy, 1982; Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. Member: University of Lagos Council, 1966; chairman, Society of Nigerian Authors, 1966, and Association of Nigerian Authors, 1982-86; member, Anambra State Arts Council, 1977-79; Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Anambra State University of Technology, Enugu, 1986-88. Since 1981 member of the Executive Committee, Commonwealth Arts Organization, London; since 1983 member, International Social Prospects Academy, Geneva; since 1984 director, Okike Arts Center, Nsukka. Served on diplomatic missions for Biafra during Nigerian Civil War, 1967-69; deputy national president, People's Redemption Party, 1983.
Things Fall Apart. London, Heinemann, 1958; New York, McDowellObolensky, 1959; introduction by Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York, Knopf, 1992.
No Longer at Ease. London, Heinemann, 1960; New York, Obolensky, 1961.
Arrow of God. London, Heinemann, 1964; New York, Day, 1967.
A Man of the People. London, Heinemann, and New York, Day, 1966.
Anthills of the Savannah. London, Heinemann, 1987; New York, Doubleday, 1988.
The African Trilogy. London, Picador, 1988.
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories. Onitsha, Etudo, 1962.
Girls at War. London, Heinemann, 1972; New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems. Enugu, Nwankwo-Ifejika, 1971; revised edition, Enugu, Nwamife, and London, Heinemann, 1972; revised edition, as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Another Africa (essay and poems), photographs by Robert Lyons. New York, Anchor Books, 1998.
Other (for children)
Chike and the River. London and New York, Cambridge UniversityPress, 1966.
How the Leopard Got His Claws, with John Iroaganachi. Enugu, Nwamife, 1972; New York, Third Press, 1973.
The Flute. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
The Drum. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. London, Heinemann, andNew York, Doubleday, 1975.
In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Seattle, University of Washington African Studies Program, 1975.
The Trouble with Nigeria. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1983; London, Heinemann, 1984.
The World of the Ogbanje. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1986.
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. London, Heinemann, 1988; New York, Doubleday, 1990.
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics. Enugu, ABIC, 1988.
A Tribute to James Baldwin. Amherst, University of MassachusettsPress, 1989.
The Voter, adapted by Ivan Vladislavic. Johannesburg, South Africa, Viva Books, 1996.
Home and Exile. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Contributor, The South Wind and the Sun, edited by Kate Turkington. Johannesburg, South Africa, Thorold's Africana Books, 1996.
Contributor, Order and Chaos. Chicago, Great Books Foundation, 1997.
Editor, The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria. Enugu, Nwankwo-Ifejika, and Chatham, New Jersey, Chatham Booksellers, 1971.
Editor, with Jomo Kenyatta and Amos Tutuola, Winds of Change: Modern Stories from Black Africa. London, Longman, 1977.
Editor, with Dubem Okafor, Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1978.
Editor with C.L. Innes, African Short Stories. London, Heinemann, 1985.
Editor, Beyond Hunger in Africa: Conventional Wisdom and a Vision of Africa in 2057. Nairobi, Heinemann Kenya, and London, Currey, 1990.
In Africana Library Journal (New York), Spring 1970; Chinua Achebe: A Bibliography by B.M. Okpu, Lagos, Libriservice, 1984; Chinua Achebe by C.L. Innes, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
The Novels of Chinua Achebe by G.D. Killam, London, Heinemann, and New York, Africana, 1969, revised edition, as The Writings of Chinua Achebe, Heinemann, 1977; Chinua Achebe by Arthur Ravenscroft, London, Longman, 1969, revised edition, 1977; Chinua Achebe by David Carroll, New York, Twayne, 1970, revised edition, London, Macmillan, 1980, 1990; Chinua Achebe by Kate Turkington, London, Arnold, 1977; Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors and C.L. Innes, London, Heimemann, and Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1978; Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe by Robert M. Wren, Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1980, London, Longman, 1981; The Four Novels of Chinua Achebe: A Critical Study by Benedict C. Njoku, Bern, Switzerland, Lang, 1984; The Traditional Religion and Its Encounter with Christianity in Achebe's Novels by E.M. Okoye, Bern, Switzerland, Lang, 1987; Chinua Achebe by C.L. Innes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990; Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction by Simon Gikandi, London, Currey, 1991; Approaches to Teaching Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" edited by Bernth Lindfors, New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1991; Chinua Achebe: A Celebration edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, Oxford, England, Heinemann, 1991; Chinua Achebe: New Perspectives by Umela Ojinmah, Ibadan, Spectrum, 1991; Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction by Simon Gikandi, London, Currey, 1991; Gods, Oracles and Divination by Kalu Ogbaa, Trenton, N.J., Africa World Press, 1992; Art, Rebellion and Redemption by Romanus Okey Muonaka, New York, Lang, 1993; South Asian Responses to Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors and Bala Kothandaraman, New Delhi, Prestige Books International, 1993; Chinua Achebe, the Importance of Stories (videocassette), 1996; International Symposium for Chinua Achebe's 60th Birthday. Ibadan, Nigeria, Heinemann Educational Books, 1996; Colonial and Post-Colonial Discourse in the Novels of Yom Sang-sop, Chinua Achebe, and Salman Rushdie by Soonsik Kim, New York, P. Lang, 1996; Form and Technique in the African Novel by Olawale Awosika, Ibadan, Nigeria, Sam Bookman, 1997; Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997; Conversations with Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997; A Teacher's Guide to African Narratives by Sara Tallis O'Brien, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1998.
I am a political writer. My politics is concerned with universal human communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people. Such respect can issue only from understanding. So my primary concern is with clearing the channels of communication in my own neighborhood by hacking away at the thickets that choke them.
Africa's meeting with Europe must be accounted a terrible disaster in this matter of human understanding and respect. The nature of the meeting precluded any warmth of friendship. First Europe was an enslaver; then a colonizer. In either role she had no need and made little effort to understand or appreciate Africa; indeed she easily convinced herself that there was nothing there to justify the effort. Today our world is still bedeviled by the consequences of that cataclysmic encounter.
I was born into the colonial era, grew up in the heady years of nationalist protest and witnessed Africa's resumption of independence. (It was not, however, the same Africa which originally lost her freedom that now retained it, but a different Africa created in the image of Europe—but that's another story.) So I have seen in my not very long lifetime three major eras in precipitate succession, leaving us somewhat dazed. My response as a writer has been to try to keep pace with these torrential changes. First I had to tell Europe that the arrogance on which she sought to excuse her pillage of Africa, i.e., that Africa was the Primordial Void, was sheer humbug; that Africa had a history, a religion, a civilization. We reconstructed this history and civilization and displayed it to challenge the stereotype and the cliché. Actually it was not to Europe alone that I spoke. I spoke also to that part of ourselves that had come to accept Europe's opinion of us. And I was not alone nor even the first.
But the gauntlet had barely left our hands when a new historic phase broke on us. Europe conceded independence to us and we promptly began to misuse it, or rather those leaders to whom we entrusted the wielding of our new power and opportunity did. So we got mad at them and came out brandishing novels of disenchantment. Actually we had all been duped. No independence was given—it was never given but taken, anyway. Europe had only made a tactical withdrawal on the political front and while we sang our anthem and unfurled our flag she was securing her iron grip behind us in the economic field. And our leaders in whose faces we hurled our disenchantment neither saw nor heard because they were not leaders at all but marionettes.
So the problem remains for Africa, for black people, for all deprived peoples and for the world. And so for the writer, for he is like the puppy in our proverb: that stagnant water in the potsherd is for none other but him. As long as one people sit on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude all of us.
* * *
Chinua Achebe established his reputation with Things Fall Apart, one of the first novels to be published in post-independence Africa. It was admired for many reasons, notably the tragic profundity of its theme and the insights it offered on traditional Ibo life. Western critics also approved of Achebe's acceptance of the formal conventions of the genre even while he proved that the English language could be modified to express the very different African cultural context. This book became both archetype and classic, and many budding authors have attempted to emulate Achebe without demonstrating his competence. Things Fall Apart has been translated into many languages and is an established text in schools. It has sustained extensive critical examination and yet its poignant story still retains its capacity to move the reader.
Achebe's declared intention was to provide evidence that traditional African life was not the primitive barbarism that was the common judgment of the colonialists. Set in the early period of the initial British intrusion into Nigeria, the novel shows a society which, if not perfect, had structure and dignity; where human relations had order and security. Into this world came the foreigner and "things fall apart." The title, taken from Yeats, makes a subtle comment on the theme, because it expresses some degree of inevitability rather than calculated cause. Perhaps neither side could foresee the consequences of actions which seemed entirely reasonable within their own context. Though setting straight the record, this is not an anti-colonialist novel in the simplistic sense. Achebe discerns a terrifying truth, that when powerful worlds clash, even the best of men are defeated and only the accommodators prosper. Okonkwo exemplifies all the virtues of his people, but he is too harsh and inflexible to tolerate the inescapable changes. His friend Obierika is a far weaker but more sensible person. He survives, like others who yield their honor and adapt, preferring prosperity at the cost of their heritage. While understanding that this is a reasonable decision, which in time created the society which Achebe inherits, he clearly indicates where honor rests. Okonkwo is "the greatest man."
Three further novels form a tetralogy which covers Ibo history from the first arrival of the British to the violent coup of 1966. Though third to be published, it is Arrow of God which carries on the historical sequence. Its theme is similar to that of Things Fall Apart. Ezeulu, a distinguished village man, this time a high priest, finds himself in conflict with the now established British administration, a conflict activated as much by ignorance as malice. Angered by imprisonment and the failure of his people to assist him, Ezeulu imposes harsh penalties upon them. At last their misery is so acute they turn to the Christian missionaries who are preaching a less oppressive religion. With a terrible irony the priest's fierce battle to sustain the tribal god causes his destruction. Again there is the depiction of strength, admirable in itself, but too harsh to see the advantage and necessity of compromise. The man who most exemplifies traditional virtues, just like Okonkwo, brings about their destruction along with his own. In a further plot twist, Ezeulu sends his son to learn the ways of the white missionaries. He does not anticipate the conversion of the boy who then denies his heritage and begins to exemplify the cultural ambivalence and generational opposition which education inescapably brings.
The other two novels examine this dualistic situation. The revealing title of No Longer at Ease comes from T.S. Eliott. Obi, a bright, eager young man, is sent to England to study and returns to the luxury of the high Civil Service appointment previously reserved for the British. He is confident and optimistic, feeling he represents the hopes for a better Nigeria which will flourish under the direction of this new class of youthful, educated, and therefore honest and efficient administrators. In fact his position imposes peculiar strains. A salary, huge by village standards, proves insufficient to live the European life expected of him. His indifference, even scorn, of the values of his tradition, learned during his time in England, offends his people who had funded him. Obi is exposed as an alien and becomes uncomfortable and ineffective in both worlds. He drifts into taking bribes and is soon as corrupt as those he used to despise. He is an inept crook, however, and is charged and imprisoned. At one level this is a depressing tale. If someone as decent as Obi succumbs, can anyone succeed in improving conditions in Nigeria? The cynical colonial characters express only passing surprise, gloating to find their prejudice confirmed: "All Africans are corrupt." Achebe has something much deeper to communicate. Given this history and these conditions, how is it possible for even the idealist to maintain his integrity? In the final analysis when the struggle with the system destroys even the best, who shall be blamed? It is a contemporary application of the issue raised in the two historical novels.
The situation in A Man of the People is even more depressing. It reflects the terrible political deterioration which Nigeria has suffered since independence. "The Man," is Nanga, a brutally corrupt politician who nevertheless manages to remain both popular and successful. The novel examines this disastrous paradox. The term "man of the people" seems to indicate an admirable figure. Then, as Nanga's vile deeds are revealed, the reader reverses his judgment. How can a crook be "of the people?" In an ending of shattering pessimism, Achebe seems to accept that people as greedy and immoral as these deserve such a man who does nothing more than exploit their own similar values; envy not accusation motivates the voters. The dedicated intellectual, Odili, is drawn not as the hero come to redeem his people, but as an arrogant and incompetent fool. His ideas are far more remote from the people's than Nanga's. Corruption they understand, merely wishing to share in it; idealism seems absurd and irrelevant. Naively unpolitical Odili is defeated and in the dismal conclusion makes off with the funds committed to his election campaign, justifying his theft with typical intellectual rationalizations. The nation falls into chaotic violence.
Achebe's pessimism was prescient. Social cohesion in Nigeria disintegrated. When the disastrous civil war broke out he was a prominent participant on the Biafran side. These efforts so preoccupied him and induced so deep a discouragement that since 1966 his output has been slender. From the battle came some short stories which realistically depicted the sufferings—and the continuing corruption—within the cause to which he had dedicated himself with such idealism and hope. His most poignant comments on the war are in the poems of Beware, Soul-Brother.
In 1987 a new novel appeared. Anthills of the Savannah ad-dresses the same themes. The decades of independence have brought only minimal reasons for hope. Ruling governments have oscillated between corrupt citizens and violent army generals. For the first time Achebe chooses to disguise the setting by inventing a fictional state, Kangan. The rulers and their practices are closely modeled on the actual atrocities of Amin's Uganda. This may be intended to universalize the African situation, or indicate that Achebe can no longer bear to contemplate directly the misery to which his own country has come. But there are some flickers of hope. Interestingly enough, it is the female characters who display strength and assurance through the corruption and violence.
Perhaps Achebe has begun to lose confidence in the generation which he has served. Nevertheless, his early quartet stands as a masterly achievement that will inform generations of readers of the disasters colonialism brought to Africa—sometimes with benign intentions. The tragic realization in the books of the human misery that results from massive social and economic change brings to the mind the Wessex novels of Hardy.