Biography Intro: Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe, 16 November 1930 – 21 March 2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic. His first novel Things Fall Apart (1958), often considered his best, is the most widely read book in modern African literature. He won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007
NAME: Chinua Achebe
DATE OF BIRTH: 16 November 1930
PLACE OF BIRTH: Igbo town of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria
FATHER: Isaiah Okafo Achebe
MOTHER: Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam,
MARRIED TO: Christiana Chinwe (Christie) Okoli,
OCCUPATION: Writer and teacher
—David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies Brown University (2009–2013)
—Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature Bard College (1990–2008)
In 1936, Achebe entered St Philips’ Central School. Despite his protests, he spent a week in the religious class for young children, but was quickly moved to a higher class when the school’s chaplain took note of his intelligence. One teacher described him as the student with the best handwriting in class, and the best reading skills. He also attended Sunday school every week and the special evangelical services held monthly, often carrying his father’s bag. A controversy erupted at one such session, when apostates from the new church challenged the catechist about the tenets of Christianity. Achebe later included a scene from this incident in Things Fall Apart.
At the age of 12, Achebe moved away from his family to the village of Nekede, four kilometres from Owerri. He enrolled as a student at the Central School, where his older brother John taught. In Nekede, Achebe gained an appreciation for Mbari, a traditional art form that seeks to invoke the gods’ protection through symbolic sacrifices in the form of sculpture and collage. (He would later suggest the name for the Mbari Writers and Artists Club that was founded in Ibadan by Ulli Beier and others in 1961.) When the time came to change to secondary school, in 1944, Achebe sat entrance examinations for and was accepted at both the prestigious Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha and the even more prestigious Government College in Umuahia.
Modeled on the British public school, and funded by the colonial administration, Government College was established in 1929 to educate Nigeria’s future elite. It had rigorous academic standards and was vigorously elitist, accepting boys purely on the basis of ability. The language of the school was English, not only to develop proficiency but also to provide a common tongue for pupils from different Nigerian language groups. Achebe described this later as being ordered to “put away their different mother tongues and communicate in the language of their colonisers”. The rule was strictly enforced and Achebe recalls that his first punishment was for asking another boy to pass the soap in Igbo.
Once there, Achebe was double-promoted in his first year, completing the first two years’ studies in one, and spending only four years in secondary school, instead of the standard five. Achebe was unsuited to the school’s sports regimen and belonged instead to a group of six exceedingly studious pupils. So intense were their study habits that the headmaster banned the reading of textbooks from five to six o’clock in the afternoon (though other activities and other books were allowed).
Achebe started to explore the school’s “wonderful library”. There he discovered Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), the autobiography of an American former slave; Achebe “found it sad, but it showed him another dimension of reality”. He also read classic novels, such as Gulliver’s Travels (1726), David Copperfield (1850), and Treasure Island (1883), together with tales of colonial derring-do such as H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (1887) and John Buchan’s Prester John (1910). Achebe later recalled that, as a reader, he “took sides with the white characters against the savages” and even developed a dislike for Africans. “The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts.”
CAREER AND PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES: Anthills of the Savannah
Nigerian National Order of Merit Award 1979
St. Louis Literary Award 1999
Man Booker International Prize 2007
The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize 2010
The African Trilogy:
—Things Fall Apart
—No Longer at Ease
—Arrow of God
A Man of the People
Anthills of the Savannah