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Chinua Achebe | Biography


Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria, on November 16, 1930, a time of religious upheaval. His parents, converts to Christianity, shunned those loyal to the traditional Igbo (also spelled Ibo) religion. Achebe was fascinated, however, by tribal practice. At eight he learned English and was exposed to Eurocentric notions of Africans as backward people, a dated, imperialist view he spent his life refuting.

At university he began to reclaim his African heritage, dropping his first name, Albert, in favor of Chinua, a shortened version of his Igbo middle name, and switching his studies from medicine to liberal arts. Achebe believed it was essential that African voices tell the stories of their people. He had come to recognize the inherent racism of British novelists of the early 20th century who chose Africa for their settings. Achebe refers in his writings and public lectures to the writer's responsibility to his or her community and to the importance of creating authentic criteria for writing in Africa.

Things Fall Apart was Achebe's first published novel—and it was a book that almost did not see the light of day. Achebe had handwritten his book and sent the manuscript off to London to be typed. When months passed without the typed manuscript turning up, Achebe was distraught. Finally, after a friend visited the typing service on his behalf, the manuscript arrived, and Achebe sent it to publishers for review. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958. Two follow-ups, No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), concern the same theme: the clash between traditional African ways of life and the religious and social practices imposed by the British.

In Things Fall Apart Achebe voices his grievances against the ineptitude and racism of British colonial rule. Following Nigerian independence in 1960, Achebe's focus evolved to criticism of the country's corrupt African dictators and the citizens who accepted their violent leadership. A fictional military coup in his novel A Man of the People (1966) convinced Nigeria's government that Achebe helped plan the January 1966 coup that led to the 1967 outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War. Conflict erupted when the southeast provinces of Nigeria—which had a largely Igbo population—seceded to form the Republic of Biafra. Achebe and his family fled to England, where the civil war became the subject of many of his essays, short stories, and poems, including the volumes Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), Girls at War (1972), and Beware, Soul-Brother (1971). Achebe's autobiographical memoir, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012), recounts his role in the civil war as Biafra's international ambassador and communications minister.

In addition to his writing, Achebe shared his views on the importance and responsibility of the writer during stints as a professor at the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), University of Nigeria, University of Massachusetts (Amherst), University of Connecticut, Bard College (New York), and Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island). In the 1970s he helped shape Nigerian literature while serving as director of two publishing houses: Heinemann Educational Books and Nwankwo-Ifejika. He was founding editor of Heinemann's African Writers Series.

Partially paralyzed in a car accident in Africa in 1990, Achebe moved to the United States, where he could receive better medical care. He continued to write and teach until his death on March 21, 2013, at age 82.

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