Albert Chinualumogu Achebe is generally considered to be the most widely read African writer. Chinua Achebe, as he first started to call himself on entering university, grew up at a time when the two different lifestyles—that of the more traditional Igbo people and that of those who had converted to Christianity—still coexisted; his work is influenced by both. While his exposure to the fables of his indigenous background is omnipresent in his writing, his family’s Christian background enabled him to attend one of the prestigious colleges of colonial Nigeria. He later continued his education at Ibadan University, where he soon switched to literature, having started as a medical student.
Achebe’s literary ambition was first nurtured when he read Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939) while at university. Achebe found the depiction of Africa in a novel written by somebody whose knowledge of African cultures and languages was only that of an outsider grossly inappropriate. While the positive reception of that novel surprised Achebe, it also encouraged him to start work on what later became a series of novels describing the changes in Igbo communities as a result of the confrontation with European traditions. Achebe has commented repeatedly on his reasons for writing these novels. In “The Novelist As Teacher” (included in Hopes and Impediments), he argues that his aim is to present to his African readers texts that show that Africa’s past “was not one long night of savagery” (p. 45). According to Achebe, pride in the historical achievements of African societies can, for example, be based on the wealth of knowledge passed on in the form of oral traditions, for instance in proverbs. In another essay included in the same book, Achebe heavily criticizes the subliminal racism in Joseph Conrad’s work, most notably in Heart of Darkness (1902).
Alongside his essays, it is mostly his fictional writing, primarily his first three novels, which have won Achebe a lasting reputation. The relationship between traditional and newly adopted customs forms a common theme in Achebe’s texts. Opposing the dissolving of all traditions, Achebe pleads for a combination of the positive features of both old and new; thus an incorporation is preferable to a revolution. In his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), he describes life in an Igbo village where the customs are still intact. However, life changes drastically with the arrival of missionaries, whose questioning of such practices as the abandonment of twins wins them support among some members of the community. Soon the village deteriorates into a state of instability. No Longer at Ease (1960) concentrates on contemporary Nigeria and the difficulties that people have to face when they return to Nigeria after studying abroad. The Western habits and values they have adopted prove inappropriate when applied to life in postindependence Nigeria. In the novel, a young man returns from Britain, where his village had paid for him to study, and finds work in an office. Both the wish of his village that he should return the money that paid for his studies, and his parents’ disapproval of his choice of wife, who is an untouchable, put more pressure on the tragic protagonist than he can handle. He accepts a bribe and as a consequence loses his job. In Arrow of God (1964), set between the first two novels and completing what is often called Achebe’s “African Trilogy,” a village chief-priest is looking for a way to combine his own beliefs with the new ideology of British colonialism. Despite his effort, this protagonist, too, fails tragically.
Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), won attention for the fact that in it Achebe predicted the military coup that coincided with its publication. It is a bitter satire on the poor moral state of the governing classes of newly independent African nations.
A refusal to think and argue in terms of binary oppositions is another constant theme in Achebe’s texts. He argues that claims to absolute truths—a European tradition—are mostly futile. This attitude might also explain why, after initial interest in the new idea, Achebe sided with numerous other Anglophone writers in criticizing the predominantly Francophone Negritude movement, which emphasized African culture to the exclusion of foreign elements. There too, Achebe sees himself in the role of the mediator.
With the secession of Biafra in 1967, Achebe became actively involved in the political future of the Igbo people, whose independence from Nigeria he supported. Following Biafra’s unconditional surrender in 1970, Achebe left Nigeria for the United States, where, between 1972 and 1976, he taught at various universities. During these tumultuous years Achebe found himself unable to work on more extensive texts, and instead concentrated on shorter writings. He completed various political, didactic, and literary essays, as well as short stories, poetry, and books for children. Through his involvement with Heinemann Publishers and its “African Writers Series,” which he edited from 1962 to 1972, Achebe was of crucial importance for the then still young tradition of African writing. Together with the poet Christopher Okigbo, who died in August 1967, Achebe also published a journal, Okike, devoted to new African writing.
Achebe sees the role of the writer in contemporary African societies as mostly didactic. Accordingly, he opposes any view of art as an exclusively aesthetic medium. His continuing involvement with the struggles of Nigeria features prominently in his The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), which attempted to inform voters about the state of their country and government, as well as in his intellectual biography, Home and Exile (2000), which includes detailed commentaries on Achebe’s early experiences with literature. In the ongoing debate about whether a truly African literature should be written in African languages, Achebe believes that the colonial languages can be an element that supports the unity of the newly independent nations of Africa by offering a single language within a multilingual nation.
See also: Soyinka, Wole K.
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on November 15, 1930, in Ogidi, an Igbo community in eastern Nigeria. He was educated at Ibadan University, where he switched to literature, having started as a medical student. After graduation, he worked as a teacher. In 1954, he took employment with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. Following Biafra’s unconditional surrender in 1970, he left Nigeria for the United States. Between 1972 and 1976, he taught at various universities.
He was paralyzed in a serious car accident in 1990. Currently, he teaches at Bard College in New York state.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: William Heine-mann, 1958, New York: Astor Honor, 1959.
Achebe, Chinua. No Longer at Ease. London: William Heine-mann, 1960, New York: Obolensky, 1961.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London: William Heinemann, 1964, New York: John Day, 1967.
Achebe, Chinua A Man of the People. London: William Heine-mann, and New York: John Day, 1966.
Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heine-mann Educational Books, and Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975.
Achebe, Chinua. The Trouble with Nigeria. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983.
Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savanna. London: William Heinemann, 1987, New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. London: William Heinemann, and New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Achebe, Chinua. Home and Exile. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. New York: Twayne, 1970.
Ezenwa-Ohaeto. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Oxford: James Currey, and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Innes, Catharine Lynnette. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Killam, G. D. The Novels of Chinua Achebe. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1969.
Lindfors, Bernth (ed.). Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Wren, Robert M. Achebe’s World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1980.