Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who was one of Africa's most
widely read novelists and one of the continent's towering men of
letters, has died after a brief illness, his publisher and agent
said in London on Friday. He was 82.
Few details were immediately available.
Besides novels, Mr. Achebe's works included powerful essays and
poignant short stories and poems rooted in the countryside and
cities of his native Nigeria, before and after independence from
British colonial rule. His most memorable fictional characters were
buffeted and bewildered by the conflicting pulls of traditional
African culture and invasive Western values.
For inspiration, Mr. Achebe drew on his own family history as
part of the Ibo nation of southeastern Nigeria, a people victimized
by the racism of British colonial administrators and then by the
brutality of military dictators from other Nigerian ethnic groups.
Mr. Achebe burst onto the world literary scene with the
publication in 1958 of his first novel, "Things Fall Apart," which
has sold more than 10 million copies and been translated into 45
Set in the Ibo countryside in the late 19th century, the novel
tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become an
affluent farmer and village leader. But with the advent of British
colonial rule and cultural values, Okonkwo's life is thrown into
turmoil. In the end, unable to adapt to the new status quo, he
explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the
British and then committing suicide.
The novel, which is also compelling for its descriptions of
traditional Ibo society and rituals, went on to become a classic of
world literature and was often listed as required reading in
university courses in Europe and the United States.
"In all Achebe's writing there is an intense moral energy,"
observed Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies
and philosophy at Princeton, in a commentary published in 2000. "He
speaks about the task of the writer in language that captures the
sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as
empire invaded and disrupted their lives."
In a 1998 book review in The New York Times, the South African
novelist Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe as "a
novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror --
a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned."
Mr. Achebe's political thinking evolved from blaming colonial
rule for Africa's woes to frank criticism of African rulers and the
African citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence.
Forced abroad by Nigeria's civil war in the 1960s and then by
military dictatorship in the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Achebe had lived
for many years in the United States, where he was a university
professor, most recently at Brown, where he joined the faculty in
2009 as a professor of African studies after teaching for 19 years
at Bard College in the Hudson River valley.
He continued to believe that writers and storytellers ultimately
held more power than army strongmen.
"Only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior," an
old soothsayer observes in Mr. Achebe's 1988 novel, "Anthills of the
Savannah." "It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering
like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is
our escort; without it, we are blind."
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born Nov. 16, 1930, in Ogidi, an
Ibo village, during the heyday of British colonial rule. His father
became a Christian and worked for a missionary teacher in various
parts of Nigeria before returning to Ogidi.
As a child and adolescent, he immersed himself in Western
literature. At the University College of Ibadan, whose professors
were Europeans, Mr. Achebe avidly read Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe,
Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Tennyson. But it was the
required reading of a novel set in Nigeria and written by an Anglo-
Irishman, Joyce Cary, that proved to be the turning point in his