Chinua Achebe is remembered as the 'father of modern African literature'

'Things Fall Apart' author Chinua Achebe wrote his first book in 1958 and won awards for his work that included the Man Booker International Prize.

Chinua Achebe at his home in Rhode Island. Mike Cohea/Brown University/AP

The history of Nigeria cannot be told without author Chinua Achebe's voice. The man whom fellow author Nadine Gordimer called the "father of modern African literature" died this morning at the age of 82.

Born in Nigeria in 1930, Achebe spent his childhood in colonial schools. Interested in stories from a young age, he traveled the country with his parents, who were early Christian converts and evangelists. Achebe's fascination with stories led him to read colonial literature like "Allan Quatermain" in school. In an interview with the Paris Review, he said, "I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not... they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories."

His idea of Africans not having their own stories or literature became a driving force in Achebe's life. In 1958, after graduating college, he published "Things Fall Apart" (the title is a line from a Yeats poem, "The Second Coming"). His first novel depicted the struggles of a traditional African society, the Igbo, with white Christian colonists.

His publisher, not confident in its marketability, only printed 2,000 copies, but his novel is now required reading in countless high schools and colleges, serving as an example of early post-colonial literature. "Things Fall Apart" is one of, if not the, most famous and important pieces of modern African literature.

In the 1960s, Achebe joined the Biafran Ministry of Information during the Nigerian Civil War. In 2012, he wrote a memoir of this time called "There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra."

Achebe's voice never left the Nigerian political arena after their civil war ended in 1970. He developed a reputation as a frank and outspoken critic of corruption and abuse. He told the Paris Review, "I think writers are not only writers, they are also citizens... My position is that serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity. Not to indict... Art should be on the side of humanity."

He went on to publish five books, including "Things Fall Apart": "No Longer at Ease," "A Man of the People," "Arrow of God," and "Anthills of the Savannah," as well as works of poetry, short stories, children's books, and literary criticism.

His most notable criticism was of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Achebe noted Conrad's use of an ethnic slur in the story, writing that "his inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts," and said that Conrad's story deprived Africans of their humanity and language.

In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction. It was for this award that he was hailed as the "father of modern African literature" by Gordimer. He taught literature in universities in Africa and America, most recently at Brown University in Rhode Island.

His crusade against his own nation's political corruption, which he discussed an interview with the Monitor in 2012, led him to reject multiple awards from the Nigerian government. 

The Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan said of the author in a statement, "Prof. Achebe’s frank, truthful and fearless interventions in national affairs will be greatly missed at home in Nigeria because while others may have disagreed with his views, most Nigerians never doubted his immense patriotism and sincere commitment to the building of a greater, more united and prosperous nation that all Africans and the entire black race could be proud of."

Achebe told The Africa Report that he would keep speaking out about the hope for change in Nigeria.

"Sometimes I do feel, maybe that I've said everything I need to say, but I don't think so," the writer said. "I will keep attempting to speak in the hope that if the first time it didn't work, maybe the second time, it will work. But as I said, I have no other profession or interest in any other profession [writing]. So you must assume that I'll keep working at it to the­ last day." 

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