'Father of modern African literature' Chinua Achebe dead at 82

Chinua Achebe, best known for first novel Things fall Apart, was a fierce critic of Nigeria

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 2:51am

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, the revered "father of modern African literature', has died aged 82, his family said yesterday.

Best known internationally for his novel Things Fall Apart, which depicts the collision between British rule and traditional Igbo culture in his native southeast Nigeria, Achebe was also a strong critic of graft and misrule in his country.

Local media reported that he died in a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

He had lived and worked as a professor in the United States in recent years, most recently at Brown University in Rhode Island. A 1990 car accident left him in a wheelchair and limited his travel.

Achebe never won the Nobel Prize, which many believed he deserved, but in 2007 he did receive the Man Booker International Prize, a US$120,000 honour for lifetime achievement.

A statement from the Mandela Foundation in South Africa quoted Nelson Mandela as referring to him as a writer "in whose company the prison walls fell down".

Apart from criticising misrule in Nigeria, Achebe also strongly backed his native Biafra, which declared independence from the republic in 1967.

In 2011, Achebe rejected a Nigerian government offer to honour him with one of the nation's highest awards - at least the second time he had done so.

South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer called Achebe the "father of modern African literature" in 2007, when she was among the judges to award him the Man Booker International prize for fiction.

"Just as we read Shakespeare, it is not possible for any English student to graduate without" reading Achebe, Adeyemi Daramola, head of the University of Lagos' English department, said recently.

Just as we read Shakespeare, it is not possible for any English student to graduate without reading Achebe
Adeyemi Daramola, head of the University of Lagos' English department

Achebe was born the fifth of six children in 1930 in Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, where his Igbo ethnic group dominates, and grew up at a time of Christian missionaries and British colonialism.

He described his parents as early converts to Christianity, with his father becoming an Anglican religious teacher .

In an interview with The Paris Review, he said his reading evolved and he slowly became aware of how books had cast Africans as savages.

"There is that great proverb - that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter," he said. "That did not come to me until much later. Once I realised that, I had to be a writer."

After graduating from the University of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria, Achebe worked with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation before publishing Things Fall Apart" - his first novel - in 1958.

Turned down by several publishers, the book was finally accepted by Heinemann and released in 1958 with a first printing of 2,000.

Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century.

His novel was nearly lost before ever seen by the public. When Achebe finished his manuscript, he sent it to a London typing service, which misplaced the package and left it lying in an office for months. The proposed book was received coolly by London publishers, who doubted the appeal of fiction from Africa. Finally, an educational adviser at Heinemann who had recently travelled to west Africa had a look and declared: "This is the best novel I have read since the war."

"It would be impossible to say how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing," the African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once observed. "It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians. Achebe didn't only play the game, he invented it."

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press