Chinua Achebe, author of the iconic novel that changed perceptions about indigenous culture by portraying colonialism from an African viewpoint, has died at age 82.
Focusing on the friction between traditions of the Igbo and the European explorers “who misunderstood, dismissed and undermined African culture,” as the Los Angeles Times described it, Things Fall Apart told the dual stories of Okonkwo, a leader of the Igbo people, and his village as it falls prey to European imperialism. To date the 1958 novel has sold more than 10 million copies, been translated into 45 languages and is required reading in many schools.
"The white man is very clever,” reads one passage from Things Fall Apart. “He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stand. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together, and we have fallen apart."
In 1967 Achebe supported the attempts of Biafra to split off from Nigeria. But the Nigerian government would have none of it, and three years of civil war later, with a million or more people dead, the attempt was a failure, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Achebe’s 2012 account of the tragedy was proof positive that "the little people of the world are ever expendable," as he put it.
The New Yorker chronicles the Igbo and Nigerian author's life in Africa and the United States, where he moved as an adult after becoming paralyzed and wheelchair-bound in a car accident.
Achebe “has said that to be called simply a writer, rather than an African writer, is ‘a statement of defeat,’ ” wrote veteran journalist and foreign correspondent Philip Gourevitch in the magazine’s March 22 issue.
“Why? Because his project has always been to resist emphatically the notion that African identity must be erased as a prerequisite to being called civilized,” Gourevitch wrote. “Growing up as what he called a ‘British-protected child’ in the colonial order, the young writer came to see that the Empire’s claim that Africans had no history was a violent, if at times ignorant or unconscious, counter-factual effort to annihilate the history of his continent’s peoples.”
In conclusion Gourevitch exhorted everyone to “Read his books.”
More on Chinua Achebe and his work to upend colonial notions:
The New York Times: Chinua Achebe, African Literary Titan, Dies at 82
The New Yorker: After Empire—Chinua Achebe and the Great African Novel