By Alison Flood,
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist seen by millions as the father of African literature, has died at the age of 82.
He died March 21 following an illness and hospital stay in Boston.
In a statement, Achebe’s family requested privacy, and paid tribute to “one of the great literary voices of all time. He was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him.”
A novelist, poet and essayist, Achebe was perhaps best known for his first novel “Things Fall Apart,” which was published in 1958. The story of the Igbo warrior Okonkwo and the colonial era, it has sold more than 10 million copies around the world and has been published in 50 languages. Achebe depicts an Igbo village as the white men arrive at the end of the 19th century, taking its title from the WB Yeats poem, which continues: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one,” says Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, in the novel.
The poet Jackie Kay hailed Achebe as “the grandfather of African fiction” who “lit up a path for many others”, adding that she had reread Things Fall Apart “countless times”.
“It is a book that keeps changing with the times, as he did,” she said.
Achebe won the Commonwealth poetry prize for his collection Christmas in Biafra, was a finalist for the 1987 Booker prize for his novel Anthills of the Savannah, and in 2007 won the Man Booker international prize.
Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, has said that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world” and called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”.
The author is also known for the influential essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1975), a hard-hitting critique of Conrad in which he says the author turned the African continent into “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”, asking: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”
Born in 1930 in Ogidi, in the southeast of Nigeria, the author won a scholarship to the University of Ibadan, and later worked as a scriptwriter for the Nigeria Broadcasting Service. He chose to write “Things Fall Apart” in English – something for which he has received criticism from authors including Ngugi wa Thiong’o – but Achebe said he felt “that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings”.
His most recent work was last year’s mix of memoir and history There Was a Country, an account of the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970.
In 1990 a car accident in Nigeria left him paralyzed from the waist down, and forced his move to the US. “I miss Nigeria very much. My injury means I need to know I am near a good hospital and close to my doctor. I need to know that if I went to a pharmacist, the medicine there would be the drug that the bottle says it is,” he said in 2007.