Christened Albert Achebe in homage to Prince Albert, husband of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, located in Eastern Nigeria, on November 16, 1930. Igbo, formerly called Ibo, is the language of Ogidi and serves as the cultural identifier to Igbo speakers. Achebe has become one of the most well-known contemporary authors from the African continent. His first novel placed Achebe in the literary spotlight immediately following its release. The novel was a departure from colonialist views of African lifestyles and customs. Over the years Achebe has been characterized as the father of the African novel. Achebe’s early work changed the standard, accepted depiction of African people as random savages. Although Albert Camus and Doris Lessing’s work also endeavored to expose the value of African culture and experience, Achebe believed his work and literary crusade offered a view “from the inside.”
The second youngest of five children, Achebe was the son of Isaiah Okafor and Janet Achebe. His father, Isaiah, was a teacher for the Church Missionary Society. Achebe was raised in the shadow of two cultures: that of the British colonialists and his native Igbo people. Early in life Achebe found that he identified with both cultures. He was curious about African culture and age-old religious practices, as well as the Christianity injected into the skin of Nigerian life by British colonists. Rather than feeling oppressed by traditional African practices or erased by European influences, Achebe felt he was enriched by his upbringing “at the crossroads of cultures.”
Education began for Achebe at parochial schools where English was introduced as the sole instructional language during the third year. The future author discovered an interest in books as a young student. His father’s library consisted primarily of church literature and old school books. The library was limited but served as Achebe’s only source of early reading material. Achebe also listened to the history of the Igbo people as his mother passed the oral tradition to his sister. Upon entering a government secondary school in Umuahia, Achebe gained access to the well-stocked library of his dreams. He later commented that this vast reading opportunity was an important experience for his development as a writer.
Achebe graduated secondary school In 1948 and continued his education on a medical scholarship at the University College in the city of Ibidan. It was during this time that Albert Achebe became Chinualumogu Achebe. Through this name change, Achebe rejected his British moniker and opted for his traditional African name meaning, “my spirit come fight for me.” After a year at Ibidan, Achebe switched from medical studies to a liberal arts education focusing on English, history and religion. During his time at the University, Achebe began to write and published several articles in University publications. The young author contributed stories to the University’s magazine, the University Herald, and became its editor during his junior year.
Achebe graduated from the University with a B.A. in 1953. Following graduation, he pursued a career in broadcasting. He worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation in London where he achieved great success in a short period of time. After the significant promotions to head of Talks Section in 1957, and controller of Eastern Region Stations in 1959, Achebe became head of Voice of Nigeria in 1961. It was in the middle of this career in 1958, that Achebe published his first novel, Things Fall Apart. This work was a direct answer to Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939). Achebe was offended by Cary’s novel during his years at the university. Mister Johnson was assigned reading and Achebe was appalled at its depiction of Africans as “violent savages with passionate instincts and simple minds.” Achebe resolved to fight this unfair depiction of his people from his congenital access to the insider’s point of view. Just a year after publishing this first novel, Achebe was awarded the Margaret Wrong Memorial prize, in 1959. No Longer at Ease, the sequel to Things Fall Apart was published in 1960. Following this second novel, Achebe won the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature.
Nigeria fell prey to political corruption and infighting between Nigerian factions. Acutely aware of his country’s political perils, Achebe addressed this political corruption in “A Man of the People” (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Coincidentally, civil war broke out in Igbo speaking Eastern Nigeria in 1967, a year after A Man of the People was published. Eastern Nigeria, led by Igbo officers during a coup d’etat in 1966, seceded from the rest of Nigeria and became the nation of Biafra until it was defeated and re-assimilated in 1970. Achebe traveled to Europe during the war campaigning for the sovereignty of Biafra. He claimed that “no government, black or white has the right to stigmatize and destroy groups of its own citizens without undermining the basis of its own existence.” A second coup d’etat led by non-Igbo officers six months after the first, led to the deaths of thousands of Igbo in Eastern Nigeria. Achebe and his family were forced to flee the capital city of Logos as refugees during this time. Following his experiences with civil war, Achebe wrote a set of poems that won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1972.
Achebe believes that writers have a responsibility to address social maladies. He offers an observation of the difference between European and African artistic endeavors. He asserts that Europeans “create art for art’s sake” whereas African art exists as an inherent component of society. Achebe is the founder and editor of two journals, a novelist, poet, essayist and lecturer. Over the years, he has spoken and lectured extensively throughout the United States.
Achebe’s other novels include Girls at War (1972), Arrow of God (1964), and The Trouble with Nigeria (1983).