Remembering Nigerian Author Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe
UN

This morning brought the news of the death of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe at the age of 82. The author died in a Boston hospital where he had been staying for what we are now learning was a significant period of time. The Premium Times was the first to break the story saying that he passed away in an undisclosed hospital.

The news was met by an outpouring of grief and remembrance for the writer.

Aaron Bady reposted his 2008 blog post to The New Inquiry about Achebe and the faint praise that the author received during his career.

Here’s the thing: Achebe was just a great writer, full stop. I’m not sure anyone could do what he did. And while it  may seem like a small point, like complaining that a genuine compliment just isn’t enough of a compliment, there’s an important point of which it’s in service, a larger issue of who gets to “know” what sorts of knowledges and why. It diminishes his achievement to pretend that white writers don’t write about the things he wrote about, because if Rush’s novels (or any post-war white novelist) had to be placed next to Achebe’s, we might have to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that the best practitioner of English literature might be an African.

Achebe is best known for his 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart. It has sold millions of copies around the world and has been translated into dozens of languages. A 2005 list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923 by TIME magazine included the novel calling it, “A novel of great power that turns the world upside down.”

Kenyan blogger Ken Opalo singled out a different book in remembering Achebe.

My favorite of his many books is “A Man of the People,” an astonishingly prescient critique of politics and governance in Nigeria (and by extension Africa) written in 1966. One of the characters, Chief Nanga, could have been a typical politician in many an African country today. The book ends with a coup, presaging the high levels of political instability that rocked much of Africa into the mid 1990s.

The Guardian obituary of Achebe makes mention of his critical essay of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The author is also known for the influential essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1975), a hard-hitting critique of Conrad in which he says the author turned the African continent into “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”, asking: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”

The author twice turned down the Nigerian government’s attempt to bestow the honor of Commander of the Federal Republic on him. In 2004, Achebe cited political problems within the Nigerian government, a sentiment that he repeated when the country tried to honor him again in 2011.

In his 2004 response, Achebe cited the lack of progress by the country.

“Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List.”

He was shorter in 2011 saying only this.

The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again, Achebe said in the letter which he reportedly sent to Nigeria Ambassador to the United States.

President Goodluck Jonathan rejected Achebe’s claims in his own statement that was punished in The Nation newspaper.

Achebe, the author whose book was turned away by numerous publishers, will be remembered as a writing giant.

“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.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.