Albert Chinualumogu Achebe (1930-2013), better known as Chinua Achebe (ah-CHAY-bay), was a Nigerian writer famous for the novel “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which has sold 12 million copies in 45 languages. It shows British colonialism through Nigerian eyes. It is read at high schools and universities throughout the English-speaking world.
Achebe was an Igbo (Ibo) from south-eastern Nigeria. He was brought up as a Christian and received his education in English. As a boy he read about faraway places in books by Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sheridan, Swift, Conrad and Yeats. He took the side of white heroes against the savages – not knowing that in the eyes of whites he too was a savage.
He went to the University of Ibadan (then called University College) in Nigeria to study medicine but changed to English literature. The university was modelled on London University. Even the English professors were white! He studied Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, Housman, Eliot, Frost, Hemingway, Conrad, James Joyce and Joyce Cary – white men all.
Joyce Cary, born in Ireland of English blood, wrote what Time magazine called “the best novel ever written about Africa”: “Mister Johnson” (1939). Achebe’s professors loved it too. But Achebe and his fellow students hated it: the main character was a Nigerian who was a bumbling idiot. The book had an undertone of hatred, mockery and distaste for all things Nigerian.
But if Cary could write about Nigeria, so could he. In fact, as a writer, he must:
There is that great proverb – that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter … Once I realized that, I had to be a writer.
And so he wrote “Things Fall Apart”.
That book showed Toni Morrison that she could and should write about Black Americans for Black Americans, that she should not write for the white gaze. And so she wrote “The Bluest Eye” (1970).
Achebe’s books made Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie see that “people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.” Her favourite Achebe book is “Arrow of God” (1964).
Achebe wrote in English because, unlike Igbo, it is understood all across Nigeria. But he Africanized it: what The Economist calls his “stately English” is Igbo in English clothing – the turns of expression, proverbs and parables are Igbo all the way, but put in words that any English-speaking person can understand.
Achebe’s best known essay is “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” (1977). He called Joseph Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist”, saying that any book that dehumanizes a whole continent of people cannot count as great literature – and to teach it as such is damaging. Conrad was “of the times” but as an artist he should rise above those times – as Picasso did when he learned from African art rather than look down his nose at it.
- posts on his essays:
- Toni Morrison
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “It was the times!”
- Leopold Sedar Senghor