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A Writer of the World

Elleke Boehmer

Elleke Boehmer
Chinua Achebe: An Obituary
16th November 1930–21st March 2013

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If it is true that legends never die, only grow and transmogrify, then the death of the African literary giant Chinua Achebe on 21st March this year, at the age of 82, will do nothing to dim his already assured status as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. This Thursday, 23rd May, he will be buried in his home town of Ogidi in Anambra state, Nigeria, after a week of funeral rites in both the national and the state capitals, as well as at Nsukka University, where he worked as an academic in the early 1970s. The ceremonies will aim to extol his ‘impact’ on world letters (as journalist Levinus Nwabughiogu writes in Vanguard).

Since the publication of Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart in 1958, several generations of African writers have defined their voices through a process of interacting with his characteristic mixed Igbo-and-English inflections. His influential perspectives on such key African, yet also global themes such as the interaction of modern life with tradition and myth, as well as the colonial incursion and the struggle for national freedom, have marked the work of the many who have written in his wake, both in Nigeria and more broadly. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of his literary daughters, aptly put it, Achebe ‘gave permission’. The British-Nigerian writer Ben Okri relatedly wrote in 1990 that Achebe allowed all of humankind to dream more richly.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), the tragic tale of Okonkwo the yam-farmer whose intransigence fatally comes up against missionary infiltration in Igboland, remains the best-selling African novel of all time with 10 million copies sold in 50 languages. Yet Achebe also published four other important novels, including No Longer At Ease (1960), about a Nigerian civil servant ‘been-to’ (English-educated and full of colonial airs and graces), the finely wrought The Arrow of God (1964, many readers’ personal favourite), and a withering satire of neo-colonialism, A Man of the People (1966). The Booker-shortlisted Anthills of the Savannah (1987) again looked at the woes and self-division of Africa’s neo-colonial elites.

Achebe also published literary essays, poetry, short stories and acidic polemic (including the eye-opening 1984 excoriation of post-independence corruption, The Trouble with Nigeria). For nearly twenty years following his harrowing involvement in the Biafran or Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), in which he supported Igbo secession and lost beloved friends and family, he produced no fiction, preferring the more direct and immediate channel of shorter forms like the essay. Achebe’s long-awaited personal history of the Biafran War, There was a Country—which was published only last year—raised considerable controversy in Nigeria for its still markedly Igbo nationalist point of view. Achebe won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Beware, Soul-Brother, also entitled Christmas in Biafra (1971). In 2007 he was the winner of the Man Booker International prize recognizing a life-time’s literary achievements. Since a car accident in 1990 that left him wheelchair-bound, he held professorships at Bard College and Brown University in the US.

Though often called the father of African literature, Achebe was not strictly speaking that (given the anglo- and francophone African novelists active in the 1920s). However, as Lyn Innes has written, he can be credited with the foundation of modern imaginative literature from the continent in the post-war period. Not only was he a practitioner; he was also the editor of the influential African Writers Series for nearly a decade. In English departments across the Anglo-American world he became well-known—not to say notorious—for his talking back to institutional racism and the biases of the English literature canon, most prominently in an essay that attacked Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for its representation of Africans. Ironically, given his receptive attitude towards the English language as at once a colonial language whilst also an African lingua franca, he became regarded as the combative black African voice, especially after the 1988 inclusion of the essay in the Norton Anthology. In fact, his views were always a great deal more ameliorative, nuanced and conciliatory, as is clear from his debates about English as a medium of African expression with more radical writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Yet it is not only for his foundational position, nor for his willingness to speak truth to power and indict the western world for its unquestioning racial biases, that Achebe deserves his readers’ undying respect. Achebe’s reputation as a truly great world writer rests centrally on his staggering success in wresting Africa into non-African frameworks of cognition through the medium of the novel form, whilst, importantly, without ever compromising or substantially changing the novels’ structures of mythic and cultural reference. As I write these sentences newspaper reports once again observe that the world’s image of Africa is almost terminally negative. Achebe, by contrast, let us know that Africa—the many countries and communities that make it up—is a vast cultural universe unto itself, coherent, involving, richly textured, the same as any other complex cultural universe. The philosopher Achille Mbembe warns us that when we write of Africa we should always remember that this must not become merely a pretext to write of Europe. Achebe’s great achievement has been always to write of Africa as the core and also the whole of the world.

Elleke Boehmer is a novelist and Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford.