Chinua Achebe: Celebrating a Literary Master

5 years on from his passing, we celebrate the patriarch of African Literature. A master wordsmith who paved the way for so many after him.

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan/PEN/Alamy

In secondary school, the study of African Literature was paramount.

It was important that we knew about the novelists and authors of our continent. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, his best-known literary piece, was part of the collection selected for my school’s literature syllabus.

The audacity of Achebe’s body of work gave African Literature a representation, not only on bookshelves amongst the likes of Shakespeare and Hardy, but it also gave the genre a voice, speaking about anti-colonial stories and the troubled history of Nigeria.

The patriarch of modern African Literature once said, “Art is a man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” His works prove to be a testament to this, reflecting and criticising the socio-political issues Nigeria faced.

Achebe addressed the conflict between traditional ways of life and colonial assertions in a number of pieces including: No Longer At Ease (1960), where he cleverly uses education paradoxically against colonialism as one of the themes in the book and criticises corruption among civil servants in Nigeria; Arrow of God (1964); and satirical novel A Man of the People (1966).

Other works of literature of his include, a collection of poems, Beware, Soul Brother (1971); Girls at War and Other Short Stories (1972), and his first book of essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975).

Penning his way through a stellar career

Whilst aggregating his literature, Achebe also had a remarkable career.

Upon graduating from University College (now University of Ibadan), he briefly worked as a school teacher and subsequently became Director of External Broadcasting at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1961 until 1966.

The 1960s proved very productive for Achebe, as he published the follow-up novels of Things Fall Apart in this decade.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Achebe toured the United States with fellow writers Gabriel Okara and Cyprian Ekwensi to raise awareness of the conflict back home (Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970) giving lectures at various universities.

The 1970s to 1990s saw Achebe serving in faculty positions at various universities. Some of which include the University of Massachusetts, The University of Connecticut, University of Nigeria, and Bard College. He also served as Director of two Nigerian publishing houses; Heinemann Educational Books Ltd and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd, and was the Editor of Okike, a prestigious Nigerian literary magazine, during this time.

In 1987, Achebe published his first novel in 20 years, Anthills in the Savannah, which was shortlisted for the Booker McConnell Prize. The following year he published Hopes and Impediments.

Chinua Achebe won several awards over the course of his writing career, including the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and the Dorothy and Lilian Gish Prize in 2010. Additionally, he received honorary degrees from more than 30 universities around the world.

Things Fall Apart remains relevant today

The late Chinua Achebe was a towering figure of 20th Century Literature.

He wrote for people who did not want to be defined by the views of Europeans during post-colonial West Africa.

He represented the traditional values and morals of Nigerian tribes and cultures and established that tribal Nigeria had an identity before “civilising’ colonialism arrived in the country. He provided an alternative authentic insight that could have otherwise been overlooked by the storytellers that would minimise the roles of Africans.

That same alternative outlook, especially in the Nigerian trilogy (Things Fall Apart) is still relevant today. Achebe’s literature continues to provide an alternative way to look at situations in regions that have witnessed a form of Western intervention and the political turmoil that follows as a result.

Africa for one, continues to be in conflict with its past and present, battling between tradition and modernity; individualism and community; and socialism and capitalism.

While we honour Chinua Achebe, his works, and his efforts to tell the story of Africans from an African perspective this month, we too, as Africans can take inspiration from the literary historian that is Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe. Let us appreciate who we are and evolve our continent to continue to contribute to the world’s development.