Chinua Achebe, the prominent Nigerian novelist and essayist who died on Thursday, said in a 1994 interview with the Paris Review, "There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."
Achebe's books are elegant, musical, and — most significantly — they'll live on as African rebuttals to the colonial narratives of Joseph Conrad and other European writers.
Achebe's influence is most visible in the extraordinary output of a handful of prominent young Nigerian writers and other African literary elite. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a MacArthur Fellow and perhaps the most famous young Nigerian writer, said in a 2009 Ted talk that "[B]ecause of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye...I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature."
The Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett wrote in an email of Achebe's "saintly status among Nigerian writers," adding that "His was the strongest voice of Africa's generation of angry voices."
And Ellah Allfrey, the deputy editor of the literary magazine Granta, who was born in Zimbabwe, wrote in an email that, even though she grew up far from Nigeria, "[Things Fall Apart] is the book that allowed me to read in the first person — a perspective and a story that offered me a landscape and characters who (even though they were across the continent from my home) I could identify as my own — or, at last, were closer to me than any I had read before."
Achebe, too, felt alienated by the depictions of Africa found in English novels, and identified Joseph Conrad as a particular foe. NPR's Robert Siegel, in an interview with Achebe, quoted an essay Achebe had written, "I was not on Marlow's boat steaming up the Congo in Heart of Darkness. Rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the river bank making hard faces." Achebe told Siegel: "I realized how terribly, terribly wrong it was to portray my people, any people, from that attitude, from that point of view."
Achebe became a historian of lions with his first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which showed the devastating effects of colonialism on a Nigerian village in the late 1800s. He wrote: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart."
Though Achebe is best known for his first novel, his poetry is also deeply political, though not always explicitly so. The poem "Mango Seedling," for his friend Christopher Okigbo, a poet who was killed fighting for Biafran independence in the Nigerian Civil War, takes the form of an elegy for a dying plant: "How long the happy waving/ From precipice of rainswept sarcophagus? / How long the feast on remnant flour / At pot bottom?" Others are less opaque. One, called "Air Raid," begins, "It comes so quickly/ the bird of death..."
In that same Paris Review interview, Achebe said that storytelling "is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions."
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Lagos, Nigeria, on the death of one of Africa's greatest contemporary writers. Quoting his publisher, AP, CNN, and the BBC are reporting Chinua Achebe has died.
Chinua Achebe who taught at colleges in the United States made literary history with his 1958 best-seller Things Fall Apart, a sobering tale about Nigeria at the beginning of its colonization.
Achebe, 82, played a critical role in establishing post-colonial African literature and is known to students all over the continent for his seminal novel, Things Fall Apart. Achebe's masterpiece has graced countless school and college syllabuses and is translated into fifty languages worldwide.
It is often cited as the most read book in modern African literature and has sold more than 12 million copies.
Achebe also was an essayist and an outspoken critic of successive Nigerian governments, poor leadership and institutionalised corruption. He passed up national honors in protest.
Achebe taught Africana Studies at Brown University and before that at Bard College in New York. Many of his fans feel that the award-winning writer was passed over for and should have won a Nobel prize.
In a 2009 interview with All Things Considered, Achebe talked about his book in relation to Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, which looked at colonialism through the eyes of an Englishman. Achebe said at first he was seduced by the book, but then "realized how terribly terribly wrong it was to portray my people — any people — from that attitude." Things Fall Apart presents colonialism from the perspective of Africans.
Correction at 12:09 p.m. ET. An earlier version of the post said Things Fall Apart was set at the beginning of Nigeria's independence. It was actually set, at the beginning of its colonization.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When I first came to the U.S. to go to university almost 10 years ago, my roommates were startled by everything about me: that I wore what they called "American" clothes, that I spoke English, that I knew who Mariah Carey was. They also seemed disappointed, as if they had been expecting a real African and then had me turn up.
Later, I began to suspect that this was because, apart from the movie Tarzan, all they knew of Africa was Chinua Achebe's magnificent novel Things Fall Apart, which they read in high school. But their teacher had forgotten to tell them that Things Fall Apart was set in the Nigeria of a hundred years ago.
And so I gave them the collection of stories by the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo called No Sweetness Here.
These stories of Ghana in the 1960s after independence are done so beautifully and so wisely and with such subtlety. The characters lie uneasily between old and new, live in rural and urban areas, and struggle to deal with the unpleasant surprises of independence.
There is a keen but understated longing for the past in these stories, but Aidoo is too good a writer to paint with overly broad brush strokes. She does not at all suggest that the past was perfect, and there is no romanticizing of culture.
Here's an example: Traditional weddings in Ghana have always been full of what one character tells us is misguided foolishness. The past was not, in other words, one in which things were necessarily better — and Aidoo herself might question the usefulness of "better" or "worse" as categories — but rather a past that is longed for only because it was created by Africans themselves without the power dynamics of colonialism. It was a time in which people understood their lives and could create meaning from their interactions with one another.
Westernization has spawned an unthinking consumerism in the characters, a desire for Western things often unwanted by the West itself. One character describes this as "desiring only nonsensical items from someone else's factory;" another sees it as "people at home scrambling to pay exorbitant prices for secondhand clothes from America."
No Sweetness Here is the kind of old-fashioned social realism I have always been drawn to in fiction, and it does what I think all good literature should: It entertains you. Aidoo has a fantastic sly wit and humor; she does not hit you over the head with her "message," but after you have greedily finished each story, you sit back and realize that you have been through an intellectual experience as well.
This book was particularly meaningful to me during my first alienating months in America. It was a comfort — its familiarity, the way it captured ideas I understood but would never have been able to capture myself.
I dislike the idea of literature as anthropology, and yet I rather unreasonably wanted my roommates to read this book as anthropology — as a follow-up to Things Fall Apart, as a way of making myself less of an unpleasant surprise.
Of course I also hoped that they would love the stories. In the end, only one of my roommates read the book. It took her a while to finish it and when I asked what she thought, she said it wasn't very African.
I've always been curious about how much of our cultural baggage we bring to what and how we read. I suspect we bring a lot, although we like to think we don't. I loved my roommate's response because it meant that this wonderful book had challenged some of her stock ideas about Africa. And although she didn't say so, I'm certain that it made her think and laugh as well.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.
Distinguished Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe last week won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for fiction. The award, which honors an author's body of work, is given only once every two years. Achebe, 76, edged out such well-known nominees as Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie.
Achebe's win raises Africa's profile in the literary world and beyond.
Things Fall Apart, his debut novel published in 1958, won him global acclaim and is widely considered a masterpiece. The book has been translated into 50 languages and sold more than 10 million copies.
In a recent interview with Farai Chideya, Achebe shared his thoughts on the book's protagonist — Okonkwo — a prosperous farmer, husband and father in Nigeria during the early 1900s.
"The reason he thinks he's a strong man is that his father had been the opposite," Achebe said. "[He] had been a man of peace, a man of few words and he was not a success. He was not prosperous. And it is this fact — the fact of a man who didn't satisfy the expectations of his son — that is the crux of this story."
Achebe, now a professor at Bard College in upstate New York, did not write any novels between 1966 and 1988. Instead, he focused on the struggle for independence in Nigeria's Biafra region. Achebe points out that descriptions of him as the Biafran Minister of Information are incorrect.
"I was never a minister of anything anywhere," he said. "I was a supporter of the desire, in my section of Nigeria, to leave the federation because it was treated very badly with something that was called genocide in those days ... All this time I was just depressed ... It was in this situation that I became a spokesman of sorts. I did this because I was persuaded that the nation of Nigeria had doomed itself by its action."
Nigeria has spawned a series of world-renowned novelists, including the recent winner of Britain's highly regarded Orange Prize for Fiction — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.
But Achebe is the forerunner of them all, and his experiences with Nigeria's fractured political past still shape the way he envisions Africa's future.
"What a country needs to do is be fair to all its citizens — whether people are of a different ethnicity or gender," said Achebe. "This is something we need to practice."
Achebe offers a simple solution for the problems that plague parts of the continent:
"One concept: 'I am my brother's keeper,'" he said. "The leader is appointed to lead a people and he should see these as 'my people.' That's not happening yet. It's not happening in Nigeria, for example. I've had trouble now and again in Nigeria because I have spoken up about the mistreatment of factions in the country because of difference in religion. These are things we should put behind us."
Author Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. thinks that future business leaders can learn something from literature's classics. In his book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, he argues that certain literature "lets us watch leaders as they think, worry, hope, hesitate, commit, exult, regret, and reflect... These books draw us into leaders' worlds, put us in their shoes, and at times let us share their experiences."
With that in mind, Badaracco presents eight challenges that can test a leader's character, and eight works through which to examine these hurdles: Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman, Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, Allan Gurganus' story "Blessed Assurance," F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Love of the Last Tycoon, Joseph Conrad's story "The Secret Sharer," Louis Auchincloss' I Come as a Thief, Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons and Sophocles' play Antigone.
Badaracco is a professor at the Harvard Business School, where he teaches courses in strategy and business ethics.