- Remembering Chinua Achebe
On the first day of spring, Nigerian-born author Chinua Achebe died after a brief illness at the age of eighty-two. I write this on the campus of Brown University where Mr. Achebe was the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies and Literary Arts. The Department of Africana Studies, where he chose to spend his final public days, was in many ways his extended intellectual family. When I was invited be an artist-in-residence and visiting lecturer here, I marveled at my good fortune to be sitting two doors down from his corner office. Now in the strange quiet of his absence, the sorrow of the building is palpable. The world has lost a preeminent novelist, poet, humanitarian, statesman, teacher, and activist. At 155 Angell Street, we have lost a grandfather.
“I knew immediately that returning to the department . . . would be a different home-coming,” said longtime colleague, Professor of sociology Paget Henry. “I could feel the difference. I walked past his office on the first floor of Churchill House and was very aware that I would never again see him sitting at his desk and being so willing to answer my questions.”
Accolades and awards abound, among them thirty honorary degrees, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Nigerian National Order of Merit, the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2007, the Gish Prize in 2010 to someone “who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
Novelist Okey Ndibe, former assistant professor of Africana literature at Brown University, had known Professor Achebe for over thirty years. “His interview was my first major assignment as a young journalist!” Nidibe said. Later, “in 1988, he brought me from Nigeria to this country to be the founding editor of African Commentary. Achebe was a gentle, soft-spoken giant of a man, a beacon of moral clarity and intellectual integrity as well as my teacher in the best, broadest sense of the word.”
Bound to a wheelchair since an automobile accident in 1990, Chinua Achebe was no mere literary giant, but a titan for the voiceless, a champion of Africa and its creative pulse. A celebrant of life, he was uniquely aware of what he termed its “unbearable beauty.” Achebe’s own life reads like one of his novels. A handwritten manuscript mailed overseas by a twenty-eight year old unknown. His only copy gets lost then found. Initially rejected for publication, the slim volume entitled Things Fall Apart, which debuts to mixed responses from a befuddled European literary establishment, goes on to become a modern literary classic, published in forty-five languages and selling over ten million copies.
Fellow Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart form the twin pillars of modern African literature—the one a classic of magical realism, the other in its economy of words conveying the weight of a nation’s [End Page 223] awakening. The two tomes together awakened the world to Anglo-Africa’s literary declarations of independence, casting off the colonial narrative and recasting its language to enter a brave new world where African culture, characters, politics, and power occupy centrality, where the indigenous African story holds sovereignty.
Achebe’s debut novel commenced a literary career which has produced an epic narrative, spanning over a century. Rooted in the people and landscape of his native Nigeria and integrating the words, proverbs, parables, and songs of the Igbo people, the kinship group into which he was born, Achebe in novels, poems, essays, stories, and memoirs has chronicled the wrenching evolution of the modern African state. Set in the 1890s, Things Fall Apart charts the growing crisis of identity of a local leader and champion wrestler named Okonkwo. It is “the ultimate statement on the tragic fate of pre-colonial life in Africa as a result of its encounter with imperial Europe and Christian proselytizing,” says Professor Henry. But Achebe’s work in this and subsequent novels The Arrow of God and A...