All writers struggle with the weight of moral responsibility, even if they profess to create an amoral art. Few writers, however, have carried this burden through the confluence of political and cultural rivers in the way Chinua Achebe has. Achebe came... [more]
All writers struggle with the weight of moral responsibility, even if they profess to create an amoral art. Few writers, however, have carried this burden through the confluence of political and cultural rivers in the way Chinua Achebe has.
Achebe came of age in Africa's largest country, Nigeria, as a Christian Ibo among the dominant Yoruba culture. Under British control, the new colonial state of Nigeria engineered the dismantling of various traditional systems: education, belief, community, and language. The new socio-colonial rules imposed upon traditional cultures insisted upon their erosion and degradation, while introducing a military and economic force (British Petroleum) that few Africans felt they could oppose. Chinua Achebe, however, devoted his art as well as his life to such opposition. Achebe's most acclaimed stories, novels, and essays have examined the impact of colonial imposition upon the traditional culture of generations of Africans.
Achebe established his literary career with his "African Trilogy," which included "Things Fall Apart" (1958), "No Longer at Ease" (1960), and "Arrow of God" (1964). The protagonist of "Things Fall Apart," Okonkwo, lives through the first years of British colonial rule and comes of age as foreign ideas threaten traditional Ibo notions of manhood. The book has become an important secondary text in English-speaking Africa and America. The later novel, "A Man of the People" (1966) warned against the possibilities of despotism in newly independent African states; unfortunately, his works have been all too prophetic.
Achebe worked as broadcaster during the period in which he wrote first two novels, and then quit working to devote himself to writing full time. Unfortunately, his literary career was cut short by the Nigerian Civil War. During this time he supported the ill-fated Biafrian cause and served abroad as a diplomat. In fact, he and his family narrowly escaped assassination. After the civil war he abandoned fiction for a period in favor of essays, short stories, and poetry. He later embarked on a career as a professor of literature in Nigeria and America. In 1987 he again responded to his novelistic calling with "Anthills of the Savannah."
Since the 1950s, Nigeria has enjoyed the rise of a new literature that embraces the essential idea behind the African oral tradition: art is always at the service of community, and myths and stories are created for communal purposes. As one of the founders of this new literature, Chinua Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to successfully fuse the conventions of the novel (historically a European art form) with African storytelling. He is also the first major African novelist to publish in English.