Achebe, (Albert) Chinua(lumogu) 1930-
ACHEBE, (Albert) Chinua(lumogu) 1930-
PERSONAL: Name is pronounced "CHIN-yoo-uh ah-CHAY-bee"; born November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria; son of Isaiah Okafo (an Anglican churchman and teacher) and Janet N. Iloegbunam Achebe; married Christiana Chinwe Okoli, September 10, 1961; children: Chinelo (daughter), Ikechukwu (son), Chidi (son), Nwando (daughter). Education: Church Mission Society School; a colonial government secondary school in which English was enforced; Government College, Umuahia, 1944-47; and University College, Ibadan, 1948-53, B.A. (under London University) 1953; studied broadcasting at the British Broadcasting Corporation, London, 1956. Hobbies and other interests: Music.
ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 53 Nsukka, Anambra State, Nigeria. Office—Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Anambra State, Nigeria; and c/o Bard College, P.O. Box 41, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC), Lagos, Nigeria, talk show producer, 1954-57, controller of Eastern Region in Enugu, Nigeria, 1958-61, founder and director of Voice of Nigeria, 1961-66; University of Nigeria, Nsukka, senior research fellow, 1967-72, professor of English, 1976-81, professor emeritus, 1985—; Anambra State University of Technology, Enugu, pro-chancellor and chair of council, 1986-88; University of Massachusetts—Amherst, professor, 1987-88. Served on diplomatic missions for Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-69. Visiting professor of English at University of Massachusetts—Amherst, 1972-75, and University of Connecticut, Afro-American Studies department, 1975-76. University of California, Los Angeles, Regents' lecturer, 1984; Cambridge University, Clare Hall, visiting fellow and Ashby lecturer, 1993; Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literatures at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 1993—; lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the United States; speaker at events in numerous countries throughout the world. Chair, Citadel Books Ltd., Enugu, Nigeria, 1967; founding editor, Heinemann African Writers series, 1962-72, director, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., Ibadan, Nigeria, 1970—; director, Nwamife Publishers Ltd., Enugu, Nigeria, 1970—. Founder and publisher, Uwa Ndi Igbo: A Bilingual Journal of Igbo Life and Arts, 1984—. Governor, Newsconcern International Foundation, 1983. Member, University of Lagos Council, 1966, East Central State Library Board, 1971-72, Anambra State Arts Council, 1977-79, and National Festival Committee, 1983; director, Okike Arts Centre, Nsukka, 1984—. Deputy national president of People's Redemption Party, 1983; president of town union, Ogidi, Nigeria, beginning 1986; goodwill ambassador for U.N. Population Fund, 1999.
MEMBER: International Social Prospects Academy (Geneva), Writers and Scholars International (London), Writers and Scholars Educational Trust (London), Commonwealth Arts Organization (member of executive committee, 1981—), Association of Nigerian Authors (founder; president, 1981-86), Ghana Association of Writers (fellow), Royal Society of Literature (London), Modern Language Association of America (honorary fellow), American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (honorary member).
AWARDS, HONORS: Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize, 1959, for Things Fall Apart; Rockefeller travel fellowship to East and Central Africa, 1960-1961; Nigerian National Trophy, 1961, for No Longer at Ease; UNESCO fellowship for creative artists for travel to United States and Brazil, 1963; Jock Campbell/New Statesman Award, 1965, for Arrow of God; Commonwealth Poetry Prize, 1972, for Beware, Soul-Brother, and Other Poems; Neil Gunn international fellow, Scottish Arts Council, 1975; Lotus Award for Afro-Asian Writers, 1975; Nigerian National Merit Award, 1979; named to the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979; Commonwealth Foundation senior visiting practitioner award, 1984; A Man of the People was cited in Anthony Burgess's 1984 book Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in England since 1939; Booker Prize nomination, 1987, for Anthills of the Savannah; Champion Award, 1996. D.Litt., Dartmouth College, 1972, University of Southampton, 1975, University of Ife, 1978, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 1981, University of Kent, 1982, Mount Allison University, 1984, University of Guelph, 1984, and Franklin Pierce College, 1985, Ibadan University, 1989, Skidmore College, 1991, City College of New York, 1992, Fitchburg State College, 1994, Harvard University, 1996, Binghamton University, 1996, Bates College, 1996, Trinity College, Connecticut, 1999; D.Univ., University of Stirling, 1975, Open University, 1989; LL.D., University of Prince Edward Island, 1976, Georgetown University, 1990, Port Harcourt University, 1991; D.H.L., University of Massachusetts—Amherst, 1977, Westfield College, 1989, New School for Social Research, 1991, Hobart and William Smith College, 1991, Marymount Manhattan College, 1991, Colgate University, 1993; nominated for Nobel prize in literature, 2000; German Booksellers Peace Prize for promoting human understanding through literature, 2002.
Things Fall Apart, Heinemann (London, England), 1958, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1959, abridged and annotated edition published as Things Fall Apart: An Adapted Classic, adapted by Sandra Widner, Globe Fearon (Lebanon, IN), 2000, also published as Things Fall Apart: With Related Readings, Paradigm (St. Paul, MN), 2002.
No Longer at Ease, Heinemann (London, England), 1960, Obolensky (New ork, NY), 1961, 2nd edition, Fawcett (Uncasville, CT), 1988.
Arrow of God, Heinemann (London, England), 1964, John Day (New York, NY), 1967.
A Man of the People, John Day (New York, NY), 1966, published with an introduction by K. W. J. Post, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1967.
Anthills of the Savannah, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1988.
The Voter, Viva Books (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1994.
Home and Exile, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Chike and the River, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1966.
(With John Iroaganachi) How the Leopard Got His Claws, Nwankwo-Ifejika (Enugu, Nigeria), 1972, bound with Lament of the Deer, by Christopher Okigbo, Third Press (New York, NY), 1973.
The Flute, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1978.
The Drum, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1978.
Beware, Soul-Brother, and Other Poems, Nwankwo-Ifejika (Enugu, Nigeria), 1971, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1972, revised edition, Heinemann (London, England), 1972.
Christmas in Biafra, and Other Poems, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1973.
(Editor, with Dubem Okafor) Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1978.
(Coeditor) Aka Weta: An Anthology of Igbo Poetry, Okike (Nsukka, Nigeria), 1982.
Another Africa, poems and essays, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Sacrificial Egg, and Other Stories, Etudo (Onitsha, Nigeria), 1962.
(Contributor) The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria, Nwankwo-Ifejika (Enugu, Nigeria), 1971.
Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.
(Contributor) In Person—Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington, University of Washington (Seattle, WA), 1975.
The Trouble with Nigeria (essays), Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1983, Heinemann (London, England), 1984.
(Editor, with C. L. Innes) African Short Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1984.
The World of the Ogbanje, Fourth Dimension (Enugu, Nigeria), 1986.
Girls at War (short stories), Heinemann (London, England), 1972, Fawcett (Uncasville, CT), 1988.
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987, Heinemann (London, England), 1988.
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics, Abic Books (Enugu, Nigeria), 1988.
The African Trilogy, (fiction), Picador (London, England), 1988.
A Tribute to James Baldwin: Black Writers Redefine the Struggle: Proceedings of a Conference at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, April 22-23, 1988, Featuring Chinua Achebe, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1989.
(Coeditor) Beyond Hunger in Africa: Conventional Wisdom and an African Vision, Currey (London, England), 1990.
(Editor, with C. L. Innes, and contributor) The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1992.
(With others) The South Wind and the Sun, edited by Kate Turkington, Thorold's Africana Books (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1996.
Another Africa (poems and essay), photographs by Robert Lyons, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1997.
(With others) Order and Chaos, Great Books Foundation (Chicago, IL), 1997.
Conversations with Chinua Achebe, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1997.
Also author of essay collection Nigerian Topics, 1988. Contributor to anthologies, including Modern African Stories, edited by Ellis Ayitey Komey and Ezekiel Mphahlele, Faber (London), 1964; Africa Speaks: A Prose Anthology with Comprehension and Summary Passages, Evans, 1970; and The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994, edited by Okwui Enwezor, Prestel, 2001. Author of foreword, African Rhapsody: Short Stories of the Contemporary African Experience, 1994. Founding editor, "African Writers Series," Heinemann, 1962-72; editor, Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing, 1971—; editor, Nsukkascope, a campus magazine.
Things Fall Apart has been translated into forty-five languages.
ADAPTATIONS: Things Fall Apart was adapted for the stage and produced by Eldred Fiberesima in Lagos, Nigeria; it was also adapted for radio and produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1983, and for television in English and Igbo and produced by the Nigerian Television Authority in 1985.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Our Shared Future, a series of books focused on the issues affecting children around the world, for UNICEF, edited with Toni Morrison.
SIDELIGHTS: Since the 1950s, Nigeria has witnessed "the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society," wrote Margaret Laurence in her book Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists. Thirty years ago, Chinua Achebe, who rejected the British name "Albert" and took his indigenous name "Chinua" in college in 1948, was among the founders of this new literature and over the years many critics have come to consider him the finest of the Nigerian novelists. His achievement has not been limited to his native country or continent (his work has been published in some fifty languages). As Laurence maintained, "Chinua Achebe's careful and confident craftsmanship, his firm grasp of his material and his ability to create memorable and living characters place him among the best novelists now writing in any country in the English language."
On the level of ideas, Achebe's "prose writing reflects three essential and related concerns," observed G. D. Killam in his book The Novels of Chinua Achebe, "first, with the legacy of colonialism at both the individual and societal level; secondly, with the fact of English as a language of national and international exchange; thirdly, with the obligations and responsibilities of the writer both to the society in which he lives and to his art." Over the past century, African nations have been caught in struggles for identity between tradition, colonialism, and independence. These conflicts, deepened by the continuing presence of economic colonialism and neocolonialism among European educated rulers, has prevented many nations from raising themselves above political and social chaos to achieve true independence. "Most of the problems we see in our politics derive from the moment when we lost our initiative to other people, to colonizers," Achebe noted in a book of essays. He went on to explain: "What I think is the basic problem of a new African country like Nigeria is really what you might call a 'crisis in the soul.' We have been subjected—we have subjected ourselves too—to this period during which we have accepted everything alien as good and practically everything local or native as inferior." "We had all been duped," he wrote. "No independence was given . . . Europe had only made a tactical withdrawal on the political front and while we sang our anthem . . . she was securing her grip behind us in the economic field. And our leaders in whose faces we hurled our disenchantment neither saw nor heard because they were not leaders at all but marionettes."
In order to recognize the virtues of precolonial Nigeria, chronicle the ongoing impact of colonialism on native cultures, and expose present-day corruption, Achebe desired to clearly communicate these concerns first to his fellow countrymen but also to those outside his country. Unlike Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo and others, who chose to return to writing in their native languages, Achebe judged the best channel for these messages to be English, the language of colonialism. He did so because he wished to repossess the power of description from those, like Conrad, Joyce Cary, and H. Rider Haggard, who had, as he said, secured "an absolute power over narrative" that cast Africans as beasts, savages, and idiots. He explained that language need not to be viewed as an enemy, "but as a tool." Through repossession, he could "help [his] society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement." He was taking up a long fight against European writers who were "bloody racists" in their descriptions of Africans and Africa.
Achebe's transformation of language to achieve his particular ends distinguishes his writing from that of other English-language novelists. To repossess description of Nigeria in English, he translates Ibo proverbs and weaves them into his stories with Ibo vocabulary, images, and speech patterns. "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly," he wrote in his novel Things Fall Apart, "and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." "Proverbs are cherished by Achebe's people as . . . the treasure boxes of their cultural heritage," explained Adrian A. Roscoe in Mother Is Gold: A Study of West African Literature. "When they disappear or fall into disuse . . . it is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way of life, is passing away." Achebe's use of proverbs also has an artistic aim, as Bernth Lindfors suggested in Folklore in Nigerian Literature. "Proverbs can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels," commented the critic, "because he uses them not merely to add touches of local color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the values of the society."
Although he has also written poetry, short stories, and essays—both literary and political—Achebe is best known for his novels: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah. Anthony Daniels wrote of Achebe's novels in the Spectator, "In spare prose of great elegance, without any technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two emotionally irreconcilable facets of modern African life: the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the . . . worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule." Set in this historical context, the novels develop the theme of what happens to a society when change outside distorts and blocks the natural change from within and offer, as Eustace Palmer observed, "a powerful presentation of the beauty, strength and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change." Even as he resists the rootless visions of postmodernist globalization, Achebe does not appeal for a return to the ways of the past.
Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God—Achebe's first novels—focus on Nigeria's early experience with colonialism, from first contact with the British to widespread British administration. "With remarkable unity of the word with the deed, the character, the time and the place, Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the tragic consequences" of European colonialism, suggested Robert McDowell in a special issue of Studies in Black Literature dedicated to Achebe's work. "There is an artistic unity of all things in these books, which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction."
Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, early in the Nigerian renaissance. Achebe explained why he began writing at this time in an interview with Lewis Nkosi in African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews: "One of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary's novel set in Nigeria, Mr. Johnson, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that this was a most superficial picture . . . not only of the country, but even of the Nigerian character. . . . I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look . . . from the inside." Charles R. Larson, in The Emergence of African Fiction, said of Achebe's success, both in investing his novel of Africa with an African sensibility and in making this view available to African readers: "In 1964 . . . Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be included in the required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-speaking portions of the continent." As Simon Gikandi recalled in a special issue of Research in African Literatures, "Once I had started reading Things Fall Apart . . . I could not cope with the chapter-a-day policy. I read the whole novel over one afternoon and it is not an exaggeration to say that my life was never to be the same again. . . . In reading Things Fall Apart, everything became clear: the yam was important to Ibo culture, not because of what we were later to learn to call use-value . . . but because of its location at the nexus of a symbolic economy in which material wealth was connected to spirituality and ideology and desire." Later in the 1960s, the novel "became recognized by African and non-African literary critics as the first 'classic' in English from tropical Africa," added Larson.
The novel tells the story of an Ibo village of the late 1800s and one of its great men, Okonkwo. Although the son of a ne'er-do-well, Okonkwo has achieved much in his life. He is a champion wrestler, a wealthy farmer, a husband to three wives, a title-holder among his people, and a member of the select egwugwu who represent ancestral spirits at tribal rituals. "The most impressive achievement of Things Fall Apart," maintained David Carroll in his book Chinua Achebe, "is the vivid picture it provides of Ibo society at the end of the nineteenth century." He explained: "Here is a clan in the full vigor of its traditional way of life, unperplexed by the present and without nostalgia for the past. Through its rituals the life of the community and the life of the individual are merged into significance and order."
In Things Fall Apart, the order of the village is disrupted with the appearance of the white man in Africa and with the introduction of his religion. "The conflict in the novel, vested in Okonkwo, derives from the series of crushing blows which are levelled at traditional values by an alien and more powerful culture causing, in the end, the traditional society to fall apart," observed Killam. Okonkwo is unable to counter the changes that accompany colonialism. In the end, in frustration, he kills an African employed by the British, and then commits suicide, a sin against the tradition to which he had long remained true. The novel thus presents "two main, closely intertwined tragedies," wrote Arthur Ravenscroft in his study Chinua Achebe, "the personal tragedy of Okonkwo . . . and the public tragedy of the eclipse of one culture by another." Achebe reclaims the power of description from the colonial writer by depicting both tragedies from within Ibo culture.
Although the author emphasizes the message in his novels, he also received praise for his artistic achievement. As Palmer commented, the work "demonstrates a mastery of plot and structure, strength of characterization, competence in the manipulation of language and consistency and depth of thematic exploration which is rarely found in a first novel." Achebe also achieves balance in recreating the tragic consequences of colonial damage to his culture. Killam noted that "in showing Ibo society before and after the coming of the white man he avoids the temptation to present the past as idealized and the present as ugly and unsatisfactory." And, Killam concluded, Achebe's "success proceeds from his ability to create a sense of real life and real issues in the book and to see his subject from the point of view which is neither idealistic nor dishonest."
Arrow of God, the second novel, takes place in the 1920s after the British have established a presence in Nigeria. The "arrow of god" in the title is Ezeulu, the chief priest of the god Ulu, a deity created to unite Umuaro, a federation of six Ibo villages. As chief priest, Ezeulu is responsible for initiating rituals that structure village life and maintain the unity of the federation, a position with a great deal of political as well as spiritual power. In fact, the central theme of this novel, as Laurence pointed out, is power: "Ezeulu's testing of his own power and the power of his god, and his effort to maintain his own and his god's authority in the face of village factions and of the [Christian] mission and the British administration." "This, then, is a political novel in which different systems of power are examined and their dependence upon myth and ritual compared," wrote Carroll.
In Ezeulu, Achebe presents a study of loss of power in the face of colonial manipulation whose depth he does not understand. After the village council rejects his advice to avoid conflict with a neighboring village, Ezeulu finds himself at odds with his own people and praised by British administrators. The British, seeking a candidate to install as village chieftain, make him an offer, which he refuses and is therefore imprisoned. Caught in the middle with no allies, Ezeulu becomes more and more uncompromising and finally dooms the villages in his rigid opposition to the council. "As in Achebe's other novels," observed Gerald Moore in Seven African Writers, "it is the strong-willed man of tradition who cannot adapt, and who is crushed by his virtues in the war between the new, more worldly order, and the old, conservative values of an isolated society." The artistry displayed in Arrow of God, Achebe's second portrait of cultures in collision, has drawn a great deal of attention, adding to the esteem in which the writer is held. Charles Miller commented in a Saturday Review article that Achebe's "approach to the written word is completely unencumbered with verbiage. He never strives for the exalted phrase, he never once raises his voice; even in the most emotion-charged passages the tone is absolutely unruffled, the control impeccable." Concluded Miller, "It is a measure of Achebe's creative gift that he has no need whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his intense drama."
Achebe's three other novels—No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah—examine Africa in the era of independence. This is an Africa less and less under obvious European administration, but still deeply controlled by it, an Africa struggling to regain its footing in order to stand on its own two feet. Standing in the way of realizing its goal of true independence is the persistence of European values pervasive in modern Africa, an obstacle Achebe continues to scrutinize in each of these novels. Olaniyan commented, "The postcolonial state was determined by, and is an expression of, the political superstructure elaborated by colonial power, and not an outgrowth of the autonomous evolution of the people. . . . The postcolonial state has been unable to escape the logic of its origin in the colonial state: absence of legitimacy with the governed, dependence on coercion, lack of political accountability, a bureaucracy with an extraverted mentality, disregard for the cultivation of a responsive civic community, uneven horizontal integration into the political community such that the government is most felt in the cities, extraction of surplus from the interior to overfeed the capital, and many more!"
In No Longer at Ease, set in Nigeria just prior to independence, Achebe extends his history of the Okonkwo family. The central character is Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. Obi Okonkwo has been raised a Christian and educated in England. Like many of his peers, he has left the bush behind for a position as a civil servant in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. "No Longer at Ease deals with the plight of [this] new generation of Nigerians," observed Palmer, "who, having been exposed to education in the western world and therefore largely cut off from their roots in traditional society, discover, on their return, that the demands of tradition are still strong, and are hopelessly caught in the clash between the old and the new," the demands the logic of colonialism continues to make on the ruling class.
Many faced with this internal conflict between individualistic and communal values succumb to corruption. Obi is no exception. "The novel opens with Obi on trial for accepting bribes," noted Killam, "and the book takes the form of a long flashback." "In a world which is the result of the intermingling of Europe and Africa . . . Achebe traces the decline of his hero from brilliant student to civil servant convicted of bribery and corruption," wrote Carroll. "It reads like a postscript to the earlier novel [Things Fall Apart] because the same forces are at work but in a confused, diluted, and blurred form." In This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French, Judith Illsley Gleason pointed out how the imagery of each book depicts the changes in the Okonkwo family and the Nigeria they represent. She wrote, "The career of the grandson Okonkwo ends not with a machete's swing but with a gavel's tap," but the legacy that destroys him is the same.
A Man of the People is satire, and in this "novel of disenchantment," Achebe further casts his eye on African politics, taking on, as Moore noted, "the corruption of Nigerians in high places in the central government." The author's eyepiece is the book's narrator Odili, a schoolteacher; the object of his scrutiny is the Honorable M. A. Nanga, Member of Parliament, Odili's former teacher and a popular bush politician who has risen to the post of Minister of Culture in his West African homeland.
At first, Odili is charmed by the politician but eventually he recognizes the extent of Nanga's abuses and decides to oppose the minister in an election. Odili is beaten, both physically and politically, his appeal to the people heard but ignored because he too has left his roots behind for abstract intellect. The novel demonstrates, according to Shatto Arthur Gakwandi in The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, that "the society has been invaded by a wide range of values which have destroyed the traditional balance between the material and the spiritual spheres of life, which has led inevitably to the hypocrisy of double standards." Odili is both victim and perpetrator of these double standards.
Despite his political victory, Nanga, along with the rest of the government, is ousted by a coup. "The novel is a carefully plotted and unified piece of writing," wrote Killam. "Achebe achieves balance and proportion in the treatment of his theme of political corruption by evoking both the absurdity of the behavior of the principal characters while at the same time suggesting the serious and destructive consequences of their behavior to the commonwealth." The seriousness of the fictional situation portrayed in A Man of the People became real very soon after the novel was first published in 1966 when Nigeria itself was wracked by a coup.
Two decades passed between the publication of A Man of the People and Achebe's 1988 novel, Anthills of the Savannah. During this time, rather than flee abroad as he might have done, Achebe became involved in the political struggle between Nigeria and the seceding nation of Biafra, a struggle marked by five coups, a civil war, elections marred by violence, and a number of attempts to return to civilian rule. He worked throughout the war as Biafran Minister of Information. Judging that novels could not express the horrors of the struggle, he wrote poetry, short stories, and essays that mourned and celebrated the attempted revolution.
Anthills of the Savannah is Achebe's return to the novel, and as Nadine Gordimer commented in the New York Times Book Review, "It is a work in which twenty-two years of harsh experience, intellectual growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to which Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal." It is a return to the themes of independent Africa informing Achebe's earlier novels but it gives the most significant role to women, who invent a new kind of storytelling, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. "This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by doing so begins to die," wrote Observer contributor and fellow Nigerian Ben Okri. "It is also about dissent, and love."
Three former schoolmates have risen to positions of power in an imaginary West African nation, Kangan. Ikem is editor of the state-owned newspaper; Chris is the country's minister of information; Sam is a military man who has become head of state. Sam's quest to have himself voted president for life sends the lives of these three and the lives of all Kangan citizens into turmoil. Neal Ascherson in the New York Review of Books, commented that the novel becomes "a tale about responsibility, and the ways in which men who should know better betray and evade that responsibility."
The turmoil comes to a head in the novel's final pages. All three of the central characters are dead. Ikem, who spoke out against the abuses of the government, is murdered by Sam's secret police. Chris, who flees into the bush to begin a journey of transformation among the people, is shot attempting to stop a rape. Sam is kidnapped and murdered in a coup. "The three murders, senseless as they are, represent the departure of a generation that compromised its own enlightenment for the sake of power," wrote Ascherson. At Achebe's 70th birthday celebration at Bard College, Wole Soyinka commented that "Achebe never hesitates to lay blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs." And, as Okri observed, "The novel closes with the suggestion that power should reside not within an elite but within the awakened spirit of the people."
Anthills of the Savannah was well-received and earned Achebe a nomination for the Booker Prize. Larson, in Tribune Books, estimated that "No other novel in many years has bitten to the core, swallowed and regurgitated contemporary Africa's miseries and expectations as profoundly as Anthills of the Savannah."
Achebe's next book, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987, essays and speeches written over a period of twenty-three years, is perceived in many ways to be a logical extension of ideas in Anthills of the Savannah. In this collection, however, he is not addressing the way Africans view themselves but rather how Africa is viewed by the outside world. The central theme is the corrosive impact of the racism that pervades Western traditional appraisal of Africa. The collection opens with an examination of Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness; Achebe criticizes Conrad for projecting an image of Africa as "the other world"—meaning non-European and, therefore, uncivilized. Achebe argues that to this day, the Conradian myth persists that Africa is a dark and bestial land. The time has come, Achebe states, to sweep away this racism in favor of new myths and socially "beneficent fiction" which will enable Africans and non-Africans alike to redefine the way they look at the continent. "I am a political writer," he said, and "My politics is concerned with universal communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people. . . . As long as one people sits on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude us."
Achebe continues this critique, after a long silence while he recovered from a serious car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down, in Home and Exile, a memoir in the form of three essays, where he extends his attack on linguistic colonialism in its many forms: "The subject of naming, especially naming to put down, appears in a variety of forms in the course of his deliberations." For instance, he repossesses for the Ibo the word "nation" rather than "tribe." Adebayo, in an article in Research in African Literatures, contended that Achebe "resents the colonial categorization of non-Western nationalities as tribes distinguished by primordial affiliations and primitive customs. By sheer force of logic and weight of evidence, Achebe demonstrates that his own people . . . do not share most of the notorious attributes of tribal groups, particularly blood ties and a centralized authority." As Richard Feldstein wrote in a Literature and Psychology review, "Home and Exile calls for overwriting colonial narratives by painstakingly reviewing their articulation as well as their accumulated details while instituting a counter-discourse of repossession. Repossession . . . calls for the process of re-storying marginalized indigenes who have been silenced by the trauma of dispossession. Repossession presents counterdiscursive 'stories,' along with new ways of telling them."
In his writings, Achebe has created a significant body of work in which he offers a close and balanced examination of contemporary Africa and the historical forces that have shaped it. "His distinction is to have [looked back] without any trace either of chauvinistic idealism or of neurotic rejection," maintained Moore. And Busby commended the author's achievement in "charting the socio-political development of contemporary Nigeria." However, Achebe's writing reverberates beyond the borders of Nigeria and beyond the arenas of anthropology, sociology, and political science. As literature, it deals with universal qualities. And, as Killam wrote in his study: "Achebe's novels offer a vision of life which is essentially tragic, compounded of success and failure, informed by knowledge and understanding, relieved by humour and tempered by sympathy, embued with an awareness of human suffering and the human capacity to endure." Concluded the critic, "Sometimes his characters meet with success, more often with defeat and despair. Through it all the spirit of man and the belief in the possibility of triumph endures." In 1990, only weeks after attending a celebration for his 60th birthday, Achebe was paralyzed in an accident in Nigeria, but has continued to publish, teach, and appear in public. He moved to the United States for therapy, and has lived there, "a reluctant refugee," according to Oluwole Adujare in an African News Service review, during a dark time of Nigerian dictatorship.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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