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Chinua Achebe dies at 82, leaving behind a body of works that assures his place in world literature
The news of the death of Professor Chinua Achebe at 82 came like a whirlwind. Though stories about his ill health had done the round the week before, his demise was not wholly expected. The stunning news came the morning of Friday 22 March in form of a nagging question. Still, frantic calls were made to friends and relatives in the United States just to confirm his transition, despite the fact that it had already gone viral on the internet. However, the announcement via a terse joint statement issued by his family and his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, that he died on the night of Thursday 22 March in a hospital in Boston Massachusetts after a brief illness had enough sting to unhinge not just Nigerians but also the global arts community. The world has, indeed, lost a quintessential novelist and scholar. Achebe’s wisdom and courage were an inspiration to all who knew him, the statement read; and requested privacy.
Yet that request for privacy concerning the death of a man who was not just a public figure but also a global citizen was not one many Nigerians favoured. The next day, news of his demise adorned the front pages of newspapers globally and spawned discourses as well as a constellation of tributes. This did not come as a surprise because Achebe had not only put Nigeria on the world’s literary map through his inimitable literary works but had also fought for good governance and a better Nigerian society via his essays, trenchant criticisms and actions. Because of the writer in him and his indefatigable spirit, controversy was his forte; and he generated not a few controversies via his writings, lectures and speeches. Even before the latest row that his new book, There Was A Country: A Personal Memoir Of Biafra inspired, he had caused many a stir. One that still rings a bell was in 1975, in a lecture at the University of Massachusetts where he denounced Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in a blistering way that caused many in the audience to walk out in protest. Still, the emancipating impact of the lecture has come to stay.
In a distinguished literary career that spanned more than five decades, the renowned writer and academic, fondly referred to as the grandfather of African fiction, wrote not just award-winning works but books that inspired generations of African writers and changed the landscape of world literature. In Achebe’s prose is a distinct realism that ensures the enduring relevance of his fiction. He infuses the English language with inflections and a history that is uniquely Igbo, discernibly Nigerian and unarguably African. Many believe that as the pioneer General Editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, he gave Africa a voice because the series became a significant force in bringing post-colonial African literature to the rest of the world. Indeed, over 100 African writers were published under that imprint and two of those writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. It was Achebe who selected Ngugi Wa Thiong o’s Weep Not Child as one of the first titles of the series.
Yet, it is on the strength of his literary and scholarly interventions that Achebe’s fame and immortality rest. Hailed as a literary masterpiece, Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 when Achebe was 28. Released at the point of Africans’ fight for independence, self-assertion and nationalism, the book assured Achebe’s place in world literature because it was a reaction to Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ depiction of Africans as brutish, uncivilised and without a history. Though set in Umuofia, a fictional village in South-eastern Nigeria, with its vivid characterisation and portrayal of the clash between western and African civilisations, the book tells the story of a continent that was not just in the throes of colonialism but a people trying to assert themselves and retain their identity.
Still, one of the important milestones in the book’s trajectory is that Achebe almost lost the manuscript when he sent it to England for typing. It earned instant critical acclaim when it was published in 1958 and later went on to become one of the most important books in world literature. Selling more than ten million copies around the world, it was translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time. Things Fall Apart is the first novel by an African writer to be set as a required text in schools across the continent’s English-speaking countries and beyond. More than 50 years after publication, it is the most widely read work by an African writer. More than any other, the book has introduced readers across the world to the writing of the continent.
Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease, other equally great books set at different times, followed in quick succession.
Though Achebe had betrayed his controversial streak in his lectures and The Trouble with Nigeria, where he lambasted the Nigerian leadership for being responsible for the nation’s woes, he stirred the hornets’ nest when he released his most controversial book, There Was A Country: A Personal Memoir of Biafra, last year.
Achebe criticised Awolowo thus in the controversial book: “The war time cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: ‘All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.’ It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is on the surface at least nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbo at the time as the obstacles to that goal and when the opportunity arose–the Nigeria-Biafra war–his ambition drove him into frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case, it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the number of his enemies significantly through starvation–eliminating over two million people mainly members of future generations.”
Many find that particular statement untrue as Awolowo had defended himself when he said in an interview that the then Gowon administration was forced to take the step it took because it realised that most of the foods that were being taken to the East during the war were hijacked by Biafran soldiers who fed fat on them, thereby depriving the civilians. While the soldiers were robust and well-fed, the civilians were looking malnourished. The federal government had to stop the food supplies, Awolowo said, in order to stop the war.
Forty-three years after the war, this magazine has published in three editions the United States’ secret files which unearthed the secret diplomatic dispatches by agents of the United States government within and outside Nigeria during the war. These secret files have revealed fresh information about the crises. The magazine, in order to set the records straight, also ran comprehensive interviews with some of the key actors in the war. Damola Awoyokun, who anchored the story, picked several holes in Achebe’s book. He believes several gaffes in the memoir do not portray him as someone who is objective. “Instead of writing the book as a writer who is Igbo, Achebe wrote the book as an Igbo writer, working himself into a Zugzwang bind, a position in chess that ensures the continuous weakening of your position with every step you make. All the places that should alarm the moral consciousness of any writer, Achebe is either indifferent to or dismisses them outright because the victims are not his people. But in every encounter that shows the Igbo being killed or resented by Nigerians, or by the Yoruba in particular, Achebe intensifies the spotlight, deploying stratospheric rhetoric, including quotes from foreign authors with further elaborations in end notes to show he is not partial,” Awoyokun submitted.
However, Professor Tim Uzodinma Nwala, while reacting to Achebe’s death said when he met the distinguished author last December at the Chinua Achebe International Colloquium at Brown’s University in the United States, he told him why he wrote the controversial book. “Achebe told me that he had lived for the hope of a better Nigeria and his dream was to release the book with the truths to confront the injustice that resulted in the war and still persist, thereby stopping the nation from progressing the way it [is]. He told me that the second point for the book is to expose the enormity of the wrongs committed against some Nigerians during the war so as to make sure such mistakes are not made again,” Nwala said.
Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola of Lagos State, in the keynote speech he delivered at that colloquium titled, “The Role of Statecraft in the African Renaissance amidst Regime Change and Ethno-Religious Insurgency – A West African Case Study,” examined the controversy over the book. He blamed the controversies and bad blood it generated in the country on the absence of reliable institutional national archiving and record management. “The discourse would have been richer, less acrimonious and not predestined for tension if institutional national archiving and information disclosure was responsibly discharged by the Federal Government of Nigeria,” he said.
Still, that Achebe has etched his name in world literature is incontestable. Though a 1990 car accident left him confined to a wheelchair and necessitated his relocation to the United States, he continued his interventions in the Nigerian political landscape. He twice rejected national honour that the Nigerian government bestowed on him, first in 2004 and second in 2011. In 2004 he wrote: “For some time now, I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the presidency… Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 honours list.”
The Nigerian literary community greatly mourns his death. Dr. Wale Okediran, writer and former president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, believes Achebe was a great man. “As the founder of Africa’s largest and most enduring writers body, ANA, of which I am a past president, I am greatly saddened by his death. His last controversial book notwithstanding, the federal government should give him a state burial. In addition, an important public facility such as an airport or a university should be named after him,” he told TheNEWS.
Ogaga Ifowodo, poet and Assistant Professor of English at Texas State University, said his first encounter with Achebe was through his book for children, Chike and The River, adding that it influenced his choice of writing as a career. “Achebe’s exit, like the fall of an iroko, denudes our socio-cultural landscape: the grass is exposed and thinner, the leaves are less green. But I take solace in the fact that further down in the forest are other irokos; that Achebe, now an ancestor is an even more potent force for regeneration,” Ifowodo told this magazine, lamenting the fact that the “conditions which led to his dying in exile have not changed for the better”.
Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, poet and author of Bitter Chocolate, reminisced with nostalgia how in 1998 she and other participants in the ANA listened to Achebe tell them African tales at the Obudu Cattle Ranch, as it was then called. “I think Achebe was all about possibilities–what a writer could achieve with the mind and art and God’s favour… Achebe was a man of courage who was not afraid to be different or to tell the truth without fear or favour. I am glad he had the time to give us There Was A Country. For those of us born at the end of Biafra, the book is a very important historical document. As Mandela said, Achebe was a man in whose company the prison walls fell down,” she told the magazine.