Nigeria's Chinua Achebe Remembered as ‘Trailblazer’ for African Literature

Nigerian author Albert Chínụ̀álụmọ̀gụ̀ Àchèbé, better known as Chinua Achebe whose internationally praised writing gave Africans a voice by destroying the mold cast by colonialism, died on March 22, 2013. He was 82.

Achebe's seminal novel, “Things Fall Apart“, was one of the first African novels written in English to achieve worldwide success. The novel, which was published in 1958, has been translated into more than 50 languages.

In a testament to the profound impact of his body of work, Achebe's death has been mourned around the world.

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013). Image released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Stuart C. Shapiro

Two literary contemporaries of Achebe – Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark – mourned the loss of their “brother” on African entertainment website Bella Naija:

For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter. Of the ‘pioneer quartet’ of contemporary Nigerian literature, two voices have been silenced – one, of the poet Christopher Okigbo, and now, the novelist Chinua Achebe.

It is perhaps difficult for outsiders of that intimate circle to appreciate this sense of depletion, but we take consolation in the young generation of writers to whom the baton has been passed, those who have already creatively ensured that there is no break in the continuum of the literary vocation. We need to stress this at a critical time of Nigerian history, where the forces of darkness appear to overshadow the illumination of existence that literature represents.

For New York Times book critic Dwight Garner, Achebe deserves to be called the father of modern African literature:

Mr. Achebe was a mentor and role model to a generation of African writers — he’s often referred to as the father of modern African writing. But like many novelists who find success with an early book, Mr. Achebe found himself almost solely defined by “Things Fall Apart.”

It’s been more than 50 years since the publication of Mr. Achebe’s pioneering and canonical novel; it no longer seems to stand, to a Western audience at any rate, for African writing as a whole. His talent and success have helped spawn an array of postcolonial writing from across the continent. Among the talented young Nigerian writers alone who cite him as an influence are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Lola Shoneyin.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a moving eulogy for Achebe in the Igbo language on Farafina Books blog:

Ife mee. Nnukwu ife mee. Chinua Achebe anabago. Onye edemede nke di egwu, onye nnukwu uche, onye obi oma. Keduzi onye anyi ga-eji eme onu? Keduzi onye anyi ga-eji jee mba? Keduzi onye ga-akwado anyi? Ebenebe egbu o! Anya mmili julu m anya. Chinua Achebe, naba no ndokwa. O ga-adili gi mma. Naba na ndokwa.

A tree has fallen. A mighty tree has fallen! Chinua Achebe is gone. The inimitable wordsmith, the sage, the kind man. Now who is there for us to boast about? Who will be our rampart? How are the mighty fallen! My eyes are in flood with tears. Chinua Achebe may your soul rest in peace. It is well with you. Rest in peace. [Translation done by Mazi Nnamdi Nwigwe]

Nigerian authors have lost a friend and mentor, Remi Raji, president of the Association of Nigerian Authorslamented on the organization's website:

Eagle on Iroko, the master-artist, the compelling stylist of the English language has left the world of the flesh, he left in the middle of a revived discourse of the fate of our Nigerian nation. And it was a symbolic day. In the commemoration of the UNESCO World Poetry Day, things fell apart in the firmament of Nigerian and African Literature. A bleak day indeed, the devastating reality, the ending of a huge chapter in the history of African Literature. Adieu Chinua Achebe, adieu irreplaceable son of Africa.

Poet and essayist Niyi Osundare celebrated this worthy son of Africa on news website Citizens Platform:

But if the sheer force and range of Achebe’s fiction gave Africa a voice, the fearless truth of his critical interventions challenged so many myths and deliberate falsehoods about the most misrepresented and recklessly abused continent in the world.

Achebe knew, and he tried to get us to know, that Africans will remain mere objects of the stories told by others, until they, Africans, have started to tell their own story their own way – without shutting out the rest of the world. Achebe challenged the 20th century philosophy of fiction as a pretty object d’art, arriving with works which foregrounded the human condition and told the wondering world that the clotheless Emperor was, indeed, naked! He entered a plea for the urgent necessity of an entity called ‘applied art’ and emboldened us to look triumphalist Formalism in the face and demand to see its passport. Yes, Achebe told a world sold to the art-for-art’s-sake mystique that it is, indeed, possible to be an accomplished novelist who is also a teacher.

Richard Dowen wrote on the website African Arguments that Achebe bore a lot of similarities to Nelson Mandela:

A conversation with Chinua Achebe was a deep, slow and gracious matter. He was exceedingly courteous and always listened and reflected before answering. In his later years he talked even more slowly and softly, savouring the paradoxes of life and history. He spoke in long, clear, simple sentences which often ended in a profound and sad paradox. Then those extraordinary eyes twinkled, his usually very solemn face would break into a huge smile and he would chuckle.

He had a look of Nelson Mandela about him. Both have that ability to look very stern and solemn and then break into a huge smile. It happened when they met each other in South Africa, his daughter, Nwando, told me. At first the two men just looked at each other and then burst out laughing as if recognizing their brotherhood. Both romantic about Africa’s traditions, they talked and talked. Mandela had read Things Fall Apart when he was in prison on Robben Island and he said of Achebe: “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.”

The University of Nigeria has declared a period of mourning for Achebe, who worked as a professor there. Achebe, according to the university's vice-chancellor, gave a voice not only to Africa but also to human civilization:

Prof Achebe was one of the academic titans whose presence on the faculty served as a beacon of light that drew the world to the University of Nigeria. He taught in the Department of English as well as carried out research at the Institute of African Studies.

After the epochal Things Fall Apart that gave a voice to African literature and its people, Achebe continued his pioneering endeavours with the founding of Okike, a foremost journal of African literature that birthed the careers of many a distinguished writer. His work in leading research into the cultures of the Igbo and various groups in the Institute of African Studies further cemented the reputation of the University of Nigeria as a centre of liberal learning in the best traditions. Achebe in his work gave to the language, culture and people of Igbo land, a universality that positioned it as one of the major ethnic groups of human civilisation.
Achebe's family has not released plans for his burial.
The homage to Achebe continues to trend globally on Twitter. And from Global Voices we chant our ode to one of Africa's brightest literary stars [written by the author of this post]:
Ije oma, Albert Chínụ̀álụmọ̀gụ̀ Àchèbé
Bulu anya anyi n'ala mmuo
Ka anyi bulu anya gi n'ala ndi di ndu
Okeosisi ada
Umu nnunu eju ofia
Kachifo Ogbuefi Achebe
Safe journey, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe
Be our eyes in the land of the dead
While we be your eyes in the land of the living
A great Iroko has fallen
The birds are scattered in the forest
Good night, Ogbuefi Achebe


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