Awards Showcase Nigerian Authors

Article excerpt

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. …