Arts & Culture

Farewell to Chinua Achebe: The Father of Modern African Literature

Farewell to Chinua Achebe: The Father of Modern African Literature

Even if you reside in the boondocks, I am sure news of this great man’s death and burial has filtered into your corner of God’s green earth. The 82-year old literary icon who was deceased on 21st March, 2013 was bid a final farewell on the 23rd May, 2013 in his hometown of Ogidi, Anambra State, Nigeria. So much has been said about him, eulogies, tributes, have poured in freely and yet none of it seems to encompass the sheer mastery of the pen that Chinua Achebe wielded from his early life up until his death.

Chinua 2

Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, was born on 16 November 1930, and raised by his Parent’s in their hometown. The novelist, poet, and professor, who was best known for his first novel and magnum opus ‘Things Fall Apart’ excelled in his academic pursuits which began in 1936 at the St Philips’ Central School. In 1944, Chinua attended the Government College in Umuahia where he discovered and relished the library. [There he discovered Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901), the autobiography of an American former slave; Achebe “found it sad, but it showed him another dimension of reality”.He also read classic novels, such as Gulliver’s Travels (1726), David Copperfield (1850), and Treasure Island (1883) together with tales of colonial derring-do such as H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (1887) and John Buchan’s Prester John (1910). Achebe later recalled that, as a reader, he “took sides with the white characters against the savages”and even developed a dislike for Africans. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinua_Achebe].

At the culmination of his secondary education, his excellent performance at the entrance examinations into the University paved the way for a scholarship to study Medicine at the University College, (now the University of Ibadan). A year later, he switched to English, History, and Theology. In 1950 as an undergraduate, Chinua made his debut as an author with a piece for the University Herald entitled “Polar Undergraduate.” Other essays and letters about philosophy and freedom in academia subsequently followed this and his first story, “In a Village Church”, was also conceived. Thereafter, there was no stopping him as his stories continued to pour forth.

achebe

Worthy of note is that the University of Ibadan has many famous writers amongst its alumni. These include Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, novelist Elechi Amadi, poet and playwright John Pepper Clark, and poet Christopher Okigbo.

Upon graduation, Chinua worked as an English teacher at the Merchants of Light School, Oba. In 1954, he moved to Lagos to take up a position with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service; he worked in the Talks Department where they prepared scripts for oral delivery, but would go on to become the Director of External Broadcasting and co-creator of the Voice of Nigeria Network. There, he commenced the creation of his masterpiece drawing on influences and experiences from childhood, the metropolitan city of Lagos and the issues of colonialism.

Chinua feat

Completed in 1957 and published in 1958, ‘Things Fall Apart’ went on to become one of the most important books in African literature. Selling over 8 million copies around the world, it was translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time. His later novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Chinua’s novels focused on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of Christian influences, and the clash of Western and traditional African values during and after the colonial era. His style relied heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combined straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory.

During the civil war in Nigeria, when the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Chinua served as an ambassador for Biafra, appealing to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid for the war-ravaged populace. His memoirs of this time are captured in his last published work before his death; ‘There Was a Country; A Personal History of Biafra’ published in October 2012.

After the war, the consummate academic was employed at the University of Nigeria where he spearheaded the creation of three magazines; Okike; a forum for African art, fiction, and poetry, Nsukkascope; an internal publication of the University, and a cultural magazine, ‘Uwa Ndi Igbo’, to showcase the indigenous stories and oral traditions of the Igbo community.

Tempted by the offer of a professorship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1972, Chinua and his family relocated to the United States. His family consisted of his wife Christie Okoli; whom he married in 1961 and their four children.

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In 1990, a car accident left Chinua with a damaged spine which confined him to a wheel chair for the rest of his life. Undeterred, Chinua became the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; a position he held for more than fifteen years. In 2009 he joined the Brown University faculty as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies where he served until his demise.

Chinua is the recipient of over 30 honorary degrees from universities in England, Scotland, Canada, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States, including Dartmouth College, Harvard, and Brown University. He has been awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982), a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002), the first Nigerian National Order of Merit (Nigeria’s highest honour for academic work) (1979), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Man Booker International Prize (2007), and the 2010 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. He twice refused the Nigerian honour, Commander of the Federal Republic, in 2004 and 2011.

The bibliography of a legend:

Novels
Short stories
  • Marriage Is A Private Affair (1952)
  • Dead Men’s Path (1953)
  • The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (1953)
  • Civil Peace (1971)
  • Girls at War and Other Stories (including “Vengeful Creditor“) (1973)
  • African Short Stories (editor, with C.L. Innes) (1985)
  • Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories (editor, with C.L. Innes) (1992)
  • The Voter
Poetry
  • Beware, Soul-Brother, and Other Poems (1971) (published in the US as Christmas at Biafra, and Other Poems, 1973)
  • Don’t let him die: An anthology of memorial poems for Christopher Okigbo (editor, with Dubem Okafor) (1978)
  • Another Africa (1998)
  • Collected Poems Carcanet Press (2005)
  • Refugee Mother And Child
  • Vultures
Essays, criticism, non-fiction and political commentary

Children’s books

  • Chike and the River (1966)
  • How the Leopard Got His Claws (with John Iroaganachi) (1972)
  • The Flute (1975)
  • The Drum (1978)
Chinua dabbled in politics but was constantly disillusioned by the corruption and zeal for personal aggrandisement. We will like to think he spent his last days as he would have loved to; neck deep in books of diverse genres.
Rest in peace, literary colossus. Your stories live on.

© 2013, Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya. All rights reserved.

Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya

May 24th, 2013

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