Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, the revered “father of modern African literature’, has died aged 82, his family said on Friday.
Best known internationally for his novel “Things Fall Apart”, which depicts the collision between British rule and traditional Igbo culture in his native southeast Nigeria, Achebe was also a strong critic of graft and misrule in his country.
“One of the great literary voices of his time, he was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him,” his family said in a statement.
Local media reported that he died in a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
He had lived and worked as a professor in the United States in recent years, most recently at Brown University in Rhode Island. A 1990 car accident left him in a wheelchair and limited his travel.
A statement from the Mandela Foundation in South Africa said he passed away Thursday and quoted Nelson Mandela as referring to him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
“The world has lost one of its finest writers and Africa has lost a literary gem,” said Mike Udah, spokesman for Nigeria’s Anambra state, where Achebe was born.
Apart from criticising misrule in Nigeria, Achebe also strongly backed his native Biafra, which declared independence from the republic in 1967, sparking a civil war that killed around one million people and only ended in 1970.
The conflict was the subject of a long-awaited memoir he published last year, titled “There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra.”
In 2011, Achebe rejected a Nigerian government offer to honour him with one of the nation’s highest awards — at least the second time he had done so.
South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer called Achebe the “father of modern African literature” in 2007, when she was among the judges to award him the Man Booker International prize for fiction.
“Just as we read Shakespeare, it is not possible for any English student to graduate without” reading Achebe, Adeyemi Daramola, head of the University of Lagos’ English department, told AFP recently.
“For Achebe to have been away for so long, we have indeed missed him,” Daramola said.
But while he was widely lauded worldwide, Achebe never won the Nobel prize for literature, unlike fellow Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, who became the first African Nobel literature laureate in 1986.
Achebe was born the fifth of six children in 1930 in Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, where his Igbo ethnic group dominates, and grew up at a time of Christian missionaries and British colonialism.
He described his parents as early converts to Christianity, with his father becoming an Anglican religious teacher and travelling the region with his mother to preach and teach.
In an interview with The Paris Review, he said his reading evolved and he slowly became aware of how books had cast Africans as savages.
“There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” he said.
“That did not come to me until much later. Once I realised that, I had to be a writer.”
After graduating from the University of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria, Achebe worked with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation before publishing “Things Fall Apart” — his first novel — in 1958.
It met with positive reviews, and its legacy has grown since then. According to his publisher, more than 10 million copies have been sold in 50 different languages. Four more novels would eventually follow.
“‘Things Fall Apart’ turned the west’s perception of Africa on its head – a perception that until then had been based solely on the views of white colonialists, views that were at best anthropological, at worst, to adopt Achebe’s famous savaging of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘thoroughgoingly racist’,” the London Guardian wrote in 2007.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with some 160 million people, won independence in 1960 but it has experienced coups and conflict since then due to the country’s ethnic divisions and corruption.
In 1967, Achebe’s native Biafra region declared independence largely in response to massacres of Igbos in the country’s north, sparking a brutal civil war.
Achebe strongly backed Biafra and toured to speak on its behalf. Echoes of the conflict emerged in his writing, including his collection “Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems.”
Achebe also grew frustrated with the huge corruption that has plagued Nigeria, where most of the country still lives on less than $2 per day despite its oil wealth.
He wrote about such issues, and the first sentence of his widely read 1983 essay on governance is still often cited here.
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” it reads.
Achebe had limited such commentary in recent years amid health troubles.
However, during January 2012 protests in Nigeria over a fuel price hike, Achebe issued “A Statement of Solidarity with the Nigerian People” that gained attention back home. [AFP]