"Imaginative literature … does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience." Chinua Achebe’s Essay: ‘The Truth of Fiction’
"There was a writer named Chinua Achebe … in whose company the prison walls fell down." Nelson Mandela's
A Nigerian novelist, poet and critic, Chinua Achebe is regarded as the dominant figure of modern African literature, or “father of African literature” who according to Nelson Mandela, “brought Africa to the rest of the world.”
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930 to Igbo parents who had converted to Christianity but who continued to respect the traditions of their ancestors. He wrote that growing up as a Christian under British Colonial Nigeria allowed him to observe his world more clearly. The slight distance from each culture became "not a separation but a bringing together like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer might take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully". At the local missionary school, children were forbidden to speak Igbo and were encouraged to disown all traditions that might be associated with a “pagan” way of life. At home, however, Achebe absorbed the folk tales told to him by his mother and older sister. He described the stories as having “the immemorial quality of the sky, and the forests and the rivers”.
Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship to study medicine but changed his studies to English literature at University College, Ibadan. By the time he graduated Achebe had decided to be a writer telling the story of Africans and the colonial encounter from an African point of view. One of his motivations was Cary's Nigeria-set novel ‘Mister Johnson’, which seemed "a most superficial picture of Nigeria and the Nigerian character". He thought, "If this was famous, then someone ought to try and look at this from the inside." Another was Joseph Conrad's ‘Heart of Darkness’ about which he said, “I realised I was one of those savages jumping up and down on the beach. I wasn’t on Marlow’s steamer as I had thought before. …When that kind of enlightenment comes to you, you realise that you need to write a different story, … and since I was in any case inclined that way, … why not me? ..There was a certain measure of seriousness in addition to the pleasure of creating, telling stories.”
Achebe is most famous for his ground breaking first novel ‘When Things Fall Apart’ which dealt with the impact of colonialism in Africa. He went on to write several more books. Some of his well-known works include, ‘A Man of The People’, ‘No Longer At Ease’, ‘Anthills Of The Savannah’ and ‘Arrow Of God’. He also wrote poetry, essays and stories for children. Through his essays, lectures and interviews, he declared the need for committed writing in the African context, and derided writers and critics whose attitudes to Africans he found condescending or racist. He advocated for the removal of racist texts from the national curriculum and redressed the colonial bias that had been ubiquitous in the teaching of literature. “…Because colonialism was essentially a denial of human worth and dignity, its education program would not be a model of perfection. And yet the great thing about being human is our ability to face adversity down by refusing to be defined by it…”
After the fight for Biafran Independence destroyed his homeland, bringing widespread violence and starvation, Achebe became involved in local politics. Eventually he moved to the United States where he became a professor of literature until his death in 2013. Achebe received numerous awards and more than 30 honorary doctorates.
Find out more:
Achebe discusses Africa 50 Years after ‘Things Fall Apart’