There will be many essays in the coming days and weeks assessing the immensity of what Chinua Achebe, whose death was reported today, achieved in his lifetime, and what the global literary community has lost. Though the Nigerian author was not an exceptionally prolific writer—his most famous work, 1958’s iconic Things Fall Apart, is one of five novels, only one of which was produced after 1966—there is a lot to process. His stories, poetry, and (most of all) essays made up the bulk of what he published in his later decades.
Library Journal’s review of his 1989 essay collection, Hopes and Impediments said, “Achebe attacks patronizing Western views of African culture with gusto. Focusing on the role of the writer, he considers literature—written and oral—as a social force.” His politics, evident in both his fiction and nonfiction, helped define him as a writer. “Writers are not only writers, they are also citizens,” he said in his 1994 “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review. “Art should be on the side of humanity.”
As Nigeria was ripped apart by civil war, Achebe moved his family to the United States in 1972, where he assumed a series of professorships. LJ commented that his There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012) “reveals his love and sorrow for his people and his hope for Nigeria’s future.” He spent much of the rest of his life in exile.
His fiction and essays were relentless both in exposing the racist underpinnings of much of Western culture’s representations of Africa in general and Nigeria in particular, and in supplying new narratives, new ways of seeing the world. Achebe’s ruthless and uncompromising 1975 essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” made it impossible for even the most fervent Conrad apologists to ignore the bestial and inhuman manner in which the writer portrayed African characters. Things Fall Apart, a novel whose influence cannot be underestimated, had Ibo culture at the center of its world, and it was the British colonizers who were the foreign, bizarre, savage element.
Achebe was acutely aware of “the danger of not having your own stories.” His 2000 collection of personal essays, Home and Exile, undertook the “process of ‘re-storying’ peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession.” Our reviewer said, “His passion and truth are sensuous and contagious, warming [the] soul.” In Achebe’s last novel, Anthills of the Savannah, an old man from Abazon speaks persuasively of the power of storytelling, which endures beyond wars and warriors. Carrying with it the wisdom of the past, “the story is our escort; without it, we are blind.”
One of Achebe’s greatest achievements was his role editing Heinemann’s “African Writers Series,” which brought the world’s attention to a generation of great African writers, including Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (his first novel, published in the series, was consequently the first English novel by an East African writer), Nobel Laureate and fellow Nigerian Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Ousmane Sembène, and Steve Biko. A champion of unheard stories and untold histories, Achebe has left the world of letters a profoundly different, and much richer, place.
There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.