The opening sentence was as simple, declarative and revolutionary as a line out of Hemingway:
“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond,” Chinua Achebe wrote in “Things Fall Apart.”
Africans, the Nigerian author announced more than 50 years ago, had their own history, their own celebrities and reputations. Centuries of being defined by the West were about to end, a transformation led by Achebe, who continued for decades to rewrite and reclaim the history of his native country.
Achebe, the internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, died at age 82 in Boston on March 21 after a brief illness. He lived through and helped define traumatic change in Nigeria, from independence to dictatorship to the disastrous war between Nigeria and the breakaway country of Biafra in the late 1960s. He knew both the prestige of serving on government commissions and the fear of being declared an enemy of the state. He spent much of his adult life in the United States but never stopped calling for democracy in Nigeria or resisting literary honors from a government he refused to accept.
In traffic today in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, hawkers sell pirated copies of his recent memoir about the Biafra war, “There Was a Country.”
“What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war — ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery,” wrote Achebe, whose death was confirmed by Brown University, where he taught.
His eminence worldwide was rivaled only by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and a handful of others. Achebe was a moral and literary model for countless Africans and a profound influence on such American-based writers as Ha Jin, Junot Diaz and Morrison, who once called Achebe’s work an “education” for her and “liberating in a way nothing had been before.”
His public life began in his mid-20s, when Nigeria was still under British rule. He was a resident of London when he completed his handwritten manuscript for “Things Fall Apart,” a short novel about a Nigerian tribesman’s downfall at the hands of British colonialists.
Turned down by several publishers, the book was finally accepted by Heinemann and released in 1958 with a first printing of 2,000. Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture.
“It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing,” the African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once observed. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians. Achebe didn’t only play the game, he invented it.”
“Things Fall Apart” has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.
“What I can say is that it was clear to many of us that an indigenous African literary renaissance was overdue,” Achebe wrote in his memoir. “A major objective was to challenge stereotypes, myths, and the image of ourselves and our continent, and to recast them through stories — prose, poetry, essays, and books for our children. That was my overall goal.”