Obit of the Day: Nigerian Author Chinua Achebe
In 1958, Chinua Achebe was working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in the capital, Lagos. He was also writing a novel. While studying at the University of Ibadan for degrees in history, english, and theology, Mr. Achebe read European novels on African tribal life and was disappointed. None could capture the experience accurately.
Mr. Achebe sent his novel to various London publishing houses. Titled Things Fall Apart after the third line in William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” the novel received a tepid response. Most did not think there was an audience for African literature written by Africans. But one editor at William Heinemann publishers got hold of a copy and declared it the “best novel I’ve read since the war.”
The company published 2000 copies but did not market the novel. Critics, however enjoyed it and interest spread by word of mouth. (Some critics, although kind, were often racists and backhanded in their compliments. Some lamenting the loss of “primitive culture” and another complimenting Mr. Achebe’s style “free of the dandyism often affected by Negro authors.”)
By the time of Mr. Achebe’s death on March 22, 2013 Things Fall Apart had become the best-selling African novel of all-time. It had sold over 8 million copies and was translated into 50 different languages. It is now required reading for many students around the world. (Including OOTD who read it in high school.)
Mr. Achebe would only write five novels in his career, two of which completed a trilogy begun by Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964). He also wrote several collections of short stories and poetry as well as four children’s books.
At the time of his death, at the age of 82, Mr. Achebe was the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, a position he had held since 2009.
Mr. Achebe was also politically active for a time in his home country. Most controversially he sided with the new State of Biafria a region within Nigeria that had seceded from the rest of the country. A civil war ensued. For three years, Mr. Achebe attempted to serve as a diplomat for Biafria only to see the state returned to the country by force in 1970. He would remain an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government which he considered so corrupt that he refused to accept national honors for his work. His last book was an autobiographical account of that time, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafria.
(Image of the cover of Things Fall Apart first edition is courtesy of yourkmodernbooks.com)