Albert Chinualumogu Achebe
November 16, 1930 – March 21, 2013
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born in the Nigerian Igbo village of Ogidi. It’s unclear when but his parents converted to Christianity and thus Achebe was raised a Christian while many of his neighbors practiced traditional polytheistic religions. Growing up in Nigeria while removed from some of its traditional practices gave Achebe a unique perspective on the local culture.
Achebe first attended school through his father’s job at the Church Missionary Society and began learning English at eight years old. At the age of 14, he was one of a small group of boys selected to attend the prestigious Umuahia, a colonial boarding school that was considered among the best in West Africa. His academic performance won him a scholarship to attend the University College, Ibadan with plans to study medicine.
During his studies, Achebe was exposed to prolific authors of Western literature but the titles that captured his attention most were novels set in Africa. He made early forays into writing by penning stories and essays for the school’s publications. These experiences with writing and literature at college sparked a passion that resulted in him switching from medicine to English and literature.
Initially, Achebe identified with the colonialist protagonists who were often portrayed with positive characteristics. They were easy to root for because the characters who were native to Nigeria were often negatively portrayed as savages who were evil, ignorant, and easy to hate. But, as Achebe matured his perspective changed and he took issue with the shallow and inaccurate manner in which Nigerian people and culture were portrayed in books such as Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary. It was also during this period that Achebe dropped the first name, Albert, which he considered an ode to Queen Victoria.
After college Achebe continued to work on his writing but also spent time pursuing other career paths. He began his post-college career by spending a year teaching before becoming a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation where he remained for twelve years. A 1957 visit to London for a work training program allowed Achebe to meet Gilbert Phelps, a novelist and literary critic who helped Achebe get his work published.
In 1958, Achebe’s debut novel, Things Fall Apart, was released and would go on to sell more than 20 million copies and be translated into 45 languages. The novel grew into a trilogy with the final two installments, No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), released in the 1960s. Through these novels, Achebe achieved his aspirations to write stories about interactions between Africans and colonialists but set himself apart by telling them from the perspective of Africans.
His upbringing as a Nigerian child who was surrounded by the traditional culture but had attended colonial government-run schools and whose parents were Christian converts gave him a unique vantage point. Achebe did not view African culture with the same biases as European authors. But having been exposed to European culture he was also able to look objectively at traditional African society and culture. Being influenced by both cultures but also able to stand apart from them allowed him to effectively critique both with his writing without seeming out of touch or ignorant. He also volunteered as the general editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series which helped several other important African writers get published.
Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), satirized political corruption and foreshadowed the real-life coups that would lead to the Nigerian Civil War a year later. When the war erupted he openly supported the Republic of Biafra and visited countries abroad to bring attention to the conflict. Achebe continued to write but during and for a period after the conflict primarily focused on short-form pieces which included poems and short stories. During the 1970’s he held various fellow and professor positions at universities and stirred up some controversy during a lecture where he attacked Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
A car accident in 1990 paralyzed Achebe and prompted him to move with his family to America for treatment. He accepted a teaching position at Bard College where he worked for 15 years before leaving for another position at Brown University. In 2007, Achebe won the Booker International Prize and later the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.
Chinua Achebe died at the age of 82 in Boston, Massachusetts.
- “Chinua Achebe.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/chinua-achebe.
- “Chinua Achebe.” 2020. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 17, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Chinua-Achebe.
- Franklin, Ruth. n.d. “Chinua Achebe and the Great African Novel.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/26/after-empire.
- Innes, Lynn. 2013. “Chinua Achebe Obituary.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. March 22, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/22/chinua-achebe.
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