Chinua Achebe's seminal novel "Things Fall Apart" has become a worldwide classroom staple since it was published in 1958. But winning the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for fiction underscores Mr. Achebe's role as a trailblazer for a generation of Nigerian writers who are also gaining global recognition.
"Chinua Achebe's early work made him the father of modern African literature as an integral part of world literature," said novelist Nadine Gordimer, one of the three judges for the award, in an announcement in London on Wednesday.
The award is the second major international accolade for a Nigerian author this month. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took the Orange Prize for Fiction, a top international award for women writers published in English, for her second novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun."
The two awards showcase Nigeria – a nation often associated with violence, corruption, and a history of ruthless military dictators – for its mammoth contribution to the English-language literature.
Achebe's peer, Wole Soyinka, was the first African to be honored with a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Ben Okri won the Booker Prize for Fiction for "The Famished Road" in 1991.
Indeed, Nigerian writers were central to the success of the Heinemann African Writer's series, launched in 1962, which introduced writers from across Africa. Edited for its first 10 years by Nigeria's Achebe, now 76, Heinemann brought Ngugi wa Thiong'o from Kenya and Nadine Gordimer from South Africa – and many more – to the attention of the international literary world.
A literary legacy despite a colonial history
A major component of Achebe's literary achievement is his celebration of Nigeria's pre-colonial history and his examination of colonialism's effects on indigenous African cultures. Taken as a whole, critics say, Achebe's literary oeuvre, comprised of novels, poems, essays, and literary criticism, takes a critical stance against colonial influence.
"I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them," Achebe wrote in his 1965 essay "The Novelist as Teacher."
Nigeria's literary prominence is particularly remarkable given that, until 19th century missionaries arrived with their Bible and pens, there were no indigenous written languages. Despite the lack of a written tradition, Nigeria's pre-colonial societies – like the Igbo Achebe chronicled in "Things Fall Apart" – cultivated a rich tradition of oral storytelling that predates the written word. Southern Nigerian cultures have their own distinct and elaborate creation myths, sometimes hundreds of gods with their own characters, skills, and weakness.
The religion, language, and education that the missionaries brought with them spread swiftly through southern Nigeria, and even before independence from Britain in 1960, writers like Achebe had appropriated the English novel and boldly made it their own.
"Nigeria is a vibrant country – and it's also very big," says Nigerian author and publisher Adewale Maja-Pearce by way of explanation. With some 140 million people, an estimated one in five sub-Saharan Africans is Nigerian.
Nigeria's literary brain drain
Nigerian authors are also living, writing, and getting published overseas. Many writers in Nigeria see the exodus as a worrying trend.
"It is not sustainable," said Maja-Pearce, also a founder of Nigerian independent publishing house, The New Gong. "All of these writers live and work abroad. I wish we could focus more on home-grown talent."
Young Nigerian novelist Ms. Adichie, for example, has lived and studied in the US for much of the last 10 years, though both her published novels to date have been set in Nigeria. But even she has told reporters that her next project will tackle the Nigerian diaspora experience.
Fellow writer, Dulue Mbachu, who lives in Nigeria's sprawling commercial capital, Lagos, understands why writers like Adichie leave.
"It's very difficult to work in the Nigerian context," says Mr. Mbachu. "You have to be fed before you can write."
Though Nigeria is the continent's largest oil exporter, the majority of its people live in poverty without reliable electricity to turn on a light bulb and read after dark. And with younger Nigerians, literacy rates are falling as worsening economics force children out of school.
Adichie's award-winning book sells for about $10 in Lagos – a fortune to most residents, two-thirds of whom live in slums. Not surprisingly book sales here have dropped off and even the 1958 book that launched Achebe to fame – "Things Fall Apart" – can be hard to find.
Authors like Mbachu are left frustrated that most fellow Nigerians are unable to read acclaimed Nigerian novels.
"The people you are writing about do not know what you are saying."