Remembering Chinua Achebe, Who Defended Africa To The World

Chinua Achebe, widely considered the grandfather of modern African literature, has died at the age of 82. His popular book, Things Fall Apart, tackled the effect of colonialism on Africa, and has sold more than 10 million copies. Host Michel Martin is joined by NPR Africa Correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton to look back on his life and work.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We just talked about the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War in our political chat. Well, the Barber Shop guys are here, as always. We want to speak with them about this important anniversary, as well as other news of the week. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, we turn to some sad news in the literary world. Chinua Achebe, one of the world's great literary voices, has died. He was 82 years old. More than 50 years ago he wrote the novel "Things Fall Apart," one of the first African novels written in English to receive global critical acclaim. It's been one of the most widely read books in modern African literature. It told the story of a tragic hero, Okonkwo, and through him the negative influence of British colonialism on the Igbo people of Nigeria set in the late 19th century.

Achebe was known as the voice that brought and defended Africa to the world. To learn more about his life and legacy, we are joined by NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

Ofeibea, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings from Lagos. I flew into Lagos this morning, Friday morning, only to learn that Chinua Achebe had passed on.

MARTIN: How are people reacting to the sad news?

QUIST-ARCTON: With deep sorrow, deep sorrow. But also, Michel, they are celebrating the life of this pioneer African writer. Yes, a Nigerian writer. Yes, from the Igbo tribe. But somebody who spoke not only (technical difficulties) Nigeria and Africa, but for the world. "Things Fall Apart," which you have mentioned, written the year I was born, 55 years ago, enduring to this day, which is still on school and college syllabuses. It means a lot to the Nigerian people.

Many here and elsewhere say that Chinua Achebe was really the godfather of modern African literature. He helped to shepherd a new way of thinking, a new way of writing at the very dawn of independence for many African countries. Nigeria got its independence in 1960, so although there is sorrow and sadness that he has died, he has passed on at age 82, Nigerians are immensely proud of Chinua Achebe. Many say that he should have won a Nobel literature prize because his influence has been so powerful and so pervasive throughout the world.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip, and I think interesting to note also that as prolific and important a writer as he was, he also took a break from writing to involve himself in important affairs involving the country and the region. For example, he focused on the struggle for independence in Nigeria's Biafra region. I just want to play a short clip from an interview that he had with NPR about that time. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHINUA ACHEBE: It was in this situation that I became a spokesman of sorts and so I came to this country. I went to parts of Europe on a number of trips. I did this because I was persuaded that the nation called Nigeria, the federation, was doomed, had doomed itself by its action.

MARTIN: Ofeibea, how is this part of his life viewed there?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, Chinua Achebe played a major role during Nigeria's civil war, as you said. He joined the Biafra government as an ambassador. He was there speaking about how he traveled the world. The Igbo people were feeling aggrieved. This is why they had this fratricidal war in which, what, was it up to a million people? It was a huge number of people died. You remember the pictures of children with their distended bellies, children suffering from enormous malnutrition. Many Nigerians are bitter about the Biafran civil war on both sides, the Igbo people who fought the war for independence and those on the other side who wanted a united Nigeria.

But despite that and despite Chinua Achebe's role during that period, he seemed very much as a Nigerian writer, not a writer for the Igbo people of Nigeria. He seemed very much as a voice for Nigeria, as a voice for Africa, and you know, he criticized the federal government there. He was criticizing the successive military governments in Nigeria, poor leadership, poor governance. He was very much a social thinker and a critical thinker and an essayist and he even - you know, he even rejected national awards that they wanted to give him here because he said, why? Why would I take an award from a government that is not helping the people, a government that is not serving the people?

I think he felt very much that he was a servant of the Nigerian people, even though he lived since 1990 and that car crash that nearly killed him in the U.S. for very many years, teaching at Brown University, teaching at Bard College in New York, Africana studies and literature.

Of course Africa was all to him, and I think Africans were all to him and Africans feel the same way. They feel immensely proud of the legacy of Chinua Achebe. I've been talking to people here and they say this was a humble man, but a man who spoke the truth. He was a fine man. When it came to criticizing, he criticized. When it came to taking criticism, he also took criticism, so they're going to miss him.

MARTIN: Ofeibea, finally, I did want to ask how you think - you've told us how you think he'll be remember in Africa. Around the world - I know you travel widely - how do you think he will be remembered around the world, as briefly as you can?

QUIST-ARCTON: As one of the foremost African writers who made the literature of Africa, who allowed it to be disseminated widely, I mean who hasn't, Michel, all over the world, had either things fall apart or one of these other books on their curriculum? Chinua Achebe is a voice that will continue living beyond his grave.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on Africa for NPR. She was kind enough to join us from Lagos, Nigeria. Ofeibea, thank you so much for speaking with us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. May he rest in peace.

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