Biography of Chinua Achebe

Poet and novelist Chinua Achebe was one of the most important African writers. He was also considered by many to be one of the most original literary artists writing in English during his lifetime. He is best known for his novel Things Fall Apart (1958).

Born Albert Chinualumogo Achebe, Chinua Achebe was raised by Christian evangelical parents in the large village Ogidi, in Igboland, Eastern Nigeria. He received an early education in English, but grew up surrounded by a complex fusion of Igbo traditions and colonial legacy. He studied literature and medicine at the University of Ibadan; after graduating, he went to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in Lagos and later studied at the British Broadcasting Corporation staff school in London.

During this time, Achebe was developing work as a writer. Starting in the 1950s, he was central to a new Nigerian literary movement that drew on the oral traditions of Nigeria's indigenous tribes. Although Achebe wrote in English, he attempted to incorporate Igbo vocabulary and narratives.

Things Fall Apart (1958) was his first novel, and remains his best-known work. It has been translated into at least forty-five languages, and has sold eight million copies worldwide. Other novels include: No Longer At Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966).

Achebe left his career in radio in 1966, during the national unrest and violence that led to the Biafran War. He narrowly escaped harm at the hands of soldiers who believed that his novel, A Man of the People, implicated him in the country's first military coup.

He began an academic career the next year, taking a position as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nigeria. That same year, he co-founded a publishing company with Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo. In 1971, he became an editor for Okike, a prestigious Nigerian literary magazine. In 1984, he founded Iwa ndi Ibo, a bilingual publication dedicated to Igbo cultural life.

Achebe's university career was extremely successful: he was made Emeritus Professor at the University of Nigeria in 1985; he taught at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut; and he received over twenty honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He also received Nigeria's highest honor for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award, in 1987. His novel Anthills of the Savannah was shortlisted for the Booker McConnell Prize that same year.

Achebe became active in Nigerian politics in the 1960s. Many of his novels dealt with the social and political problems facing his country, including the difficulties of the post-colonial legacy. When Biafra, an Eastern region in Nigeria, declared independence in 1967, Achebe put aside writing long fiction in order to spend thirty months traveling Europe and the United States advocating for the new country. During this period, he produced several short stories dealing with the complex realities of the Nigerian Civil War; the best known of these stories is "Civil Peace". Several decades later, in 1994, Achebe was forced to flee Nigeria after the repressive regime threatened to imprison him for his political stances and activism.

Achebe was married and had four children. He last lived in the United States, where he held a teaching position at Bard College until 2009, when he joined Brown University as a professor of Africana Studies. In his later years, he also served as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund. He continued writing throughout his life, producing both fiction and non-fiction, and winning awards like the Man Booker International Prize in 2007. His final published work was the literary autobiography There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.

Chinua Achebe died in 2013, of an undisclosed illness in Boston.


Study Guides on Works by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe penned "Civil Peace" in 1971, depicting through it the effects of the Nigerian Civil War on a man and his family. The War, which began in 1967 with the secession of several Southeastern provinces from Nigeria, led to an...

Chinua Achebe's college work sharpened his interest in indigenous Nigerian cultures. He had grown up in Ogidi, a large village in Nigeria. His father taught at the missionary school, and Achebe witnessed firsthand the complex mix of benefit...