The Father Of African Literature

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic who is regarded as a central figure of modern African literature. His first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (1958), occupies a pivotal place in African literature and remains the most widely studied, translated, and read African novel. Along with Things Fall Apart, his No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964) complete the so-called “African Trilogy”; later novels include A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987).

In the West, Achebe is often referred to as the “father of African literature”, although he vigorously rejected the characterization.

BACKGROUND

Born in Ogidi, Colonial Nigeria, Achebe’s childhood was influenced by both Igbo traditional culture and postcolonial Christianity. He excelled in school and attended what is now the University of Ibadan, where he became fiercely critical of how Western literature depicted Africa. Moving to Lagos after graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) and garnered international attention for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart.

In less than 10 years he would publish four further novels through the publisher Heinemann, with whom he began the Heinemann African Writers Series and galvanized the careers of African writers, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Flora Nwapa.

Achebe sought to escape the colonial perspective that framed African literature at the time, and drew from the traditions of the Igbo people, Christian influences, and the clash of Western and African values to create a uniquely African voice.

He wrote in and defended the use of English, describing it as a means to reach a broad audience, particularly readers of colonial nations. In 1975 he gave a controversial lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, which was a landmark in postcolonial discourse. Published in The Massachusetts Review, it featured criticism of Albert Schweitzer and Joseph Conrad, whom Achebe described as “a thoroughgoing racist.” When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Achebe supported Biafran independence and acted as ambassador for the people of the movement.

The subsequent Nigerian Civil War ravaged the populace, and he appealed to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid. When the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved himself in political parties but soon became disillusioned by his frustration over the continuous corruption and elitism he witnessed.

He lived in the United States for several years in the 1970s, and returned to the US in 1990 after a car crash left him partially paralyzed. He stayed in the US in a nineteen-year tenure at Bard College as a professor of languages and literature.

Winning the 2007 Man Booker International Prize, from 2009 until his death he was Professor of African Studies at Brown University. Achebe’s work has been extensively analyzed and a vast body of scholarly work discussing it has arisen. In addition to his seminal novels, Achebe’s oeuvre includes numerous short stories, poetry, essays and children’s books. His style relies heavily on the Igbo oral tradition and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory. Among the many themes his works cover are culture and colonialism, masculinity and femininity, politics, and history. His legacy is celebrated annually at the Chinua Achebe Literary Festival.

Chinua Achebe was born on 16 November 1930 and baptized Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe. His father, Isaiah Okafo Achebe, was a teacher and evangelist, and his mother, Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam, was the daughter of a blacksmith from Awka, a leader among church women, and a vegetable farmer. His birthplace was Saint Simon’s Church, Nneobi, which was near the Igbo village of Ogidi; the area was part of the British colony of Nigeria at the time. Isaiah was the nephew of Udoh Osinyi, a leader in Ogidi with a “reputation for tolerance”; orphaned as a young man, Isaiah was an early Ogidi convert to Christianity.

Both Isaiah and Janet stood at a crossroads of traditional culture and Christian influence, which made a significant impact on the children, especially Chinua, His parents were converts to the Protestant Church Mission Society (CMS) in Nigeria, As such, Isaiah stopped practicing Odinani, the religious practices of his ancestors, but continued to respect its traditions.

The Achebe family had five other surviving children, named in a fusion of traditional words relating to their new religion: Frank Okwuofu, John Chukwuemeka Ifeanyichukwu, Zinobia Uzoma, Augustine Ndubisi, and Grace Nwanneka. After the youngest daughter was born, the family moved to Isaiah Achebe’s ancestral town of Ogidi, in what is now the state of Anambra.

Storytelling was a mainstay of the Igbo tradition and an integral part of the community. Achebe’s mother and his sister Zinobia told him many stories as a child, which he repeatedly requested. His education was furthered by the collages his father hung on the walls of their home, as well as almanacs and numerous books—including a prose adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1590) and an Igbo version of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Achebe eagerly anticipated traditional village events, like the frequent masquerade ceremonies, which he would later recreate in his novels and stories.

In 1936, Achebe entered St Philips’ Central School in the Akpakaogwe region of Ogidi for his primary education. Despite his protests, he spent a week in the religious class for young children, but was quickly moved to a higher class when the school’s chaplain took note of his intelligence. One teacher described him as the student with the best handwriting and the best reading skills in his class. Achebe had his secondary education at the prestigious Government College Umuahia, in Nigeria’s present-day Abia State.

He attended Sunday school every week and the special services held monthly, often carrying his father’s bag. A controversy erupted at one such session when apostates from the new church challenged the catechist about the tenets of Christianity. Achebe enrolled in Nekede Central School, outside of Owerri, in 1942; he was particularly studious and passed the entrance examinations for two colleges.

In 1948, Nigeria’s first university opened in preparation for the country’s independence. Known as University College (now the University of Ibadan), it was an associate college of the University of London.

Achebe was admitted as the university’s first intake and given a bursary to study medicine, During his studies, Achebe became critical of Western literature about Africa, particularly Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He decided to become a writer after reading Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary because of the book’s portrayal of its Nigerian characters as either savages or buffoons.

Achebe recognised his dislike for the African protagonist as a sign of the author’s cultural ignorance. He abandoned medicine to study English, history, and theology, a switch which lost him his scholarship and required extra tuition fees. To compensate, the government provided a bursary, and his family donated money—his older brother Augustine gave up money for a trip home from his job as a civil servant so Achebe could continue his studies.

Achebe’s debut as an author was in 1950 when he wrote a piece for the University Herald, the university’s magazine, entitled “Polar Undergraduate”. It used irony and humour to celebrate the intellectual vigour of his classmates, He followed with other essays and letters about philosophy and freedom in academia, some of which were published in another campus magazine called The Bug. He served as the Herald’s editor during the 1951–52 school year.

He wrote his first short story that year, “In a Village Church” (1951), an amusing look at the Igbo synthesis between life in rural Nigeria with Christian institutions and icons, Other short stories he wrote during his time at Ibadan—including “The Old Order in Conflict with the New” (1952) and “Dead Men’s Path” (1953)—examine conflicts between tradition and modernity, with an eye toward dialogue and understanding on both sides.

When Professor Geoffrey Parrinder arrived at the university to teach comparative religion, Achebe began to explore the fields of Christian history and African traditional religions.

After the final examinations at Ibadan in 1953, Achebe was awarded a second-class degree. Rattled by not receiving the highest level, he was uncertain how to proceed after graduation and returned to his hometown of Ogidi.

While pondering possible career paths, Achebe was visited by a friend from the university, who convinced him to apply for an English teaching position at the Merchants of Light school at Oba. It was a ramshackle institution with a crumbling infrastructure and a meagre library; the school was built on what the residents called “bad bush” a section of land thought to be tainted by unfriendly spirits.


At Nigerian Books of Record, we keep track of record breakers, impact makers, and change agents. We aim at documenting, celebrating, and honouring the remarkable achievements and excellent records of people.

By honoring new generations of game changers and sharing their authentic stories, we aim to break boundaries, entertain, inspire, and inform the world.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*