Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist considered the father of African literature, died March 21 in Boston. He was working as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and professor of Africana studies at Brown University in Rhode Island at the time of his death.
In a statement released March 22, his family asked for privacy and said that while Achebe was “one of the great literary voices of his time, he was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him.” He was 82.
Achebe moved to the United States in 1990 after a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. He served as the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College for more than 15 years before joining Brown University.
In a statement released March 22, Brown University Department of Africana Studies Chair Corey D.B. Walker said Achebe was more than just a colleague, but a “gift to the world.”
Achebe’s work, rooted in the landscapes of his native Nigeria, explored the tension between African culture and Western influence before and after the colonial era.
Achebe arrived on the world’s literary stage in 1958 with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart. Set in the Ibo countryside of the late 19th century, the novel follows Okonkwo, a farmer who struggles to preserve his native customs under the pressure of British colonial rule.
The novel sold more than 12 million English-language copies and was translated into more than 45 languages. It continues to be required reading in many classrooms across the globe.
Achebe wrote four other novels — No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) — in addition to collections of short stories, essays and poems.
For his contributions to world literature, Achebe received numerous awards, including the 2010 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, the 2007 Man Booker International Prize and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.
He was named a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982. He was given the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award, his country’s highest honor for intellectual achievement, in 1979 and also received Nigeria’s first National Trophy for Literature and National Creativity Award.
In a statement released March 22, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said he had “learned indelible lessons of human existence from [Achebe’s] award-winning works.”
Achebe was born on November 16, 1930, in the large village of Ogidi, Nigeria. He became one of the University of Ibadan’s first graduates in 1953 after studying English, history and theology. Achebe taught at the university before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in 1954. He married his wife, Christie Okoli, in 1961, and together they had four children.
In 1966, Achebe left his career in radio to join the Biafran Ministry of Information as an ambassador. He represented Biafra on diplomatic missions before the civil war ended two and a half years later. He was then appointed senior research fellow at the University of Nigeria.
President Jonathan added that while the world mourns the loss of Achebe, he is consoled by the knowledge that Achebe “will live forever in the hearts and minds of present and future generations through his great works.”