Chinua Achebe Was 'Grandfather' Of African Literature

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died Thursday in Boston. His first novel, Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 and is still the most widely-read piece of African literature.

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Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has died. He's been called the grandfather of African literature. Achebe's 1958 novel, "Things Fall Apart," a story of English colonialism told from an African point of view, has been translated into 50 languages and sold millions of copies. NPR's Lynn Neary has this appreciation.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Chinua Achebe was raised in a small village in eastern Nigeria. His family was Christian, which set them apart from other villagers. In an interview with NPR's Diane Rehm, he said it was in this village that he developed the habit of observing people who were different from him and taking notes.

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CHINUA ACHEBE: I was just curious. I didn't think I was going to write or anything like that. I've been - it just was inside me that I wanted to know.

NEARY: Achebe left his village when he won a scholarship to study medicine, but he soon realized what he really wanted to do was write. His first and ultimately most famous novel, "Things Fall Apart," set in an African village in the late 19th century is about the early days of colonialism in Nigeria. The book came out in 1958, just as the colonial world was breaking up.

COREY WALKER: You see a new world emerging and that new world needed a new voice to articulate itself. Chinua Achebe provided that unique voice for the new world that is to come.

NEARY: Corey Walker is head of the Africana Studies Department at Brown University where Achebe was teaching before he died. Achebe wrote five novels, including "Arrow of God" and "Anthills of the Savannah," between 1958 and 1987. For the first time, says Walker, the West was ready to engage in stories told from an African perspective.

WALKER: Truly, when you think of some of the great contemporary African writers of his generation - Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo or - and Ngugi wa Thiong'o - you're reminded of the beautiful presence of African writing and the gift that is given to the world. And today, we've lost a giant in that world.

NEARY: Politics also played a major role in Achebe's life. In 1966, a military coup in Nigeria led to civil war and the attempted secession of Biafra. Achebe campaigned for Biafran independence around the world. But years later, to younger African writers, Achebe didn't seem radical enough, says writer Taiye Selasi. Born of African parents and raised in the United Sates, Selasi first read Achebe in high school.

TAIYE SELASI: But it was later when I began writing novels and fiction myself that, I think, I came to really appreciate the genius, the humor and the transparently subversive agenda of Chinua Achebe.

NEARY: Selasi says she was especially impressed by Achebe's essay, "An Image of Africa," which criticizes Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as racist. She says young African writers are standing on Achebe's shoulders, not merely because of his fiction but also because of what he had to say about being an African person in the West.

SELASI: For writers like myself, but also just for Africans like myself living in the Western word, in Achebe we find someone who is explaining so ably and so eloquently how it is that we can cling to our dignity, to our humanity in the face of all threats.

NEARY: The writer Chinua Achebe died today. He was 82 years old. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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