Profile: Chinua Achebe – one of the world’s most original literary artist

Chinua Achebe

Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe (born 16 November 1930) popularly known as Chinua Achebe, poet and novelist, is one of the most important living African writers. He is also considered one of the most original literary artists currently writing in English. Achebe was raised by Christian evangelical parents in the large village Ogidi, in Igboland, Eastern Nigeria. He received early education in English, but grew up surrounded by the complex fusion of Igbo traditions and the colonial legacy. He studied literature and medicine at the University of Ibadan; after graduating, he went to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in Lagos. Things Fall Apart (1958) was his first novel. It has been translated into at least forty-five languages, and has sold eight million copies worldwide.

Starting in the 1950s, Achebe was central to a new Nigerian literary movement that drew on the oral traditions of Nigeria’s indigenous tribes. Although Achebe writes in English, he attempts to incorporate Igbo vocabulary and narratives. Other novels include: No Longer At Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966).

In 1936, Achebe entered St Philips’ Central School. Despite his protests, he spent a week in the religious class for young children, but was quickly moved to a higher class when the school’s chaplain took note of his intelligence. One teacher described him as the student with the best handwriting in class, and the best reading skills. He also attended Sunday school every week and the special evangelical services held monthly, often carrying his father’s bag.  A controversy erupted at one such session, when apostates from the new church challenged the catechist about the tenets of Christianity. Achebe later included a scene from this incident in Things Fall Apart.

At the age of twelve, Achebe moved away from his family to the village of Nekede, four kilometres from Owerri. He enrolled as a student at the Central School, where his older brother John taught.In Nekede, Achebe gained an appreciation for Mbari, a traditional art form which seeks to invoke the gods’ protection through symbolic sacrifices in the form of sculpture and collage. When the time came to change to secondary school, in 1944, Achebe sat entrance examinations for and was accepted at both the prestigious Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha and the even more prestigious Government College in Umuahia.

Modelled on the British public school, and funded by the colonial administration, Government College had been established in 1929 to educate Nigeria’s future elite. It had rigorous academic standards and was vigorously elitist, accepting boys purely on the basis of ability. The language of the school was English, not only to develop proficiency but also to provide a common tongue for pupils from different Nigerian language groups. Achebe described this later as being ordered to “put away their different mother tongues and communicate in the language of their colonisers”. The rule was strictly enforced and Achebe recalls that his first punishment was for asking another boy to pass the soap in Igbo.

Once there, Achebe was double-promoted in his first year, completing the first two years’ studies in one, and spending only four years in secondary school, instead of the standard five. Achebe was unsuited to the school’s sports regimen and belonged instead to a group of six exceedingly studious pupils. So intense were their study habits that the headmaster banned the reading of textbooks from five to six o’clock in the afternoon (though other activities and other books were allowed).

Achebe started to explore the school’s “wonderful 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. “The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts.”

Achebe left his career in radio in 1966, during the national unrest and violence that led to the Biafran War. He narrowly escaped harm at the hands of soldiers who believed that his novel, A Man of the People, implicated him in the country’s first military coup. He began an academic career the next year, taking a position as Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nigeria. That same year, he co-founded a publishing company with Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo. In 1971, he became an editor for Okike, a prestigious Nigerian literary magazine. He founded Iwa ndi Ibo in 1984; this bilingual publication was dedicated to Igbo cultural life. He was made Emeritus Professor at the University of Nigeria in 1985. He has taught at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut, and he has received over twenty honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He received Nigeria’s highest honor for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award, in 1987. His novel Anthills of the Savannah was shortlisted for the Booker McConnell Prize that same year.

On 22 March 1990, Achebe was riding in a car to Lagos when an axle collapsed and the car flipped. His son Ikechukwu and the driver suffered minor injuries, but the weight of the vehicle fell on Achebe and his spine was severely damaged. He was flown to the Paddocks Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England, and treated for his injuries. In July doctors announced that although he was recuperating well, he was paralyzed from the waist down and would require the use of a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Soon afterwards, Achebe became the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; he has held the position for over fifteen years. In the Fall of 2009 he joined the Brown University faculty as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies.

In October 2005, the London Financial Times reported that Achebe was planning to write a novella for the Canongate Myth Series, a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Achebe’s novella has not yet been scheduled for publication.

In June 2007, Achebe was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. The judging panel included US critic Elaine Showalter, who said he “illuminated the path for writers around the world seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies”; and South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who said Achebe has achieved “what one of his characters brilliantly defines as the writer’s purpose: ‘a new-found utterance’ for the capture of life’s complexity”. In 2010 Achebe was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for $300,000, one of the richest prizes for the arts.

Achebe has been active in Nigerian politics since the 1960s. Many of his novels deal with the social and political problems facing his country, including the difficulty of the post-colonial legacy. He is married and has four children. He currently lives in the United States, where he holds a teaching position at Bard College.

 

Source: Wikipedia & gradesaver.com

 

First published on Newstime Africa:   8th April 2012

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4 comments

  1. Sideon Nagoyi

    There is one thing among others that brings out the qualities of superior writing by the staff of “Newstime Africa” — the comprehensive and educative profiling of great African writers. I doff my hat to you all and please continue the great work.

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