Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist seen by millions as the father of African literature, has died at the age of 82.
African papers were reporting his death following an illness and hospital stay in Boston this morning, and both his agent and his publisher later confirmed the news to the Guardian.
Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, called him an “utterly remarkable man”.
“Chinua Achebe is the greatest of African writers and we are all desolate to hear of his death,” he said.
In a statement, Achebe’s family requested privacy, and paid tribute to “one of the great literary voices of all time. He was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him.”
A novelist, poet and essayist, Achebe was perhaps best known for his first novel Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958. The story of the Igbo warrior Okonkwo and the colonial era, it has sold more than 10m copies around the world and has been published in 50 languages. Achebe depicts an Igbo village as the white men arrive at the end of the 19th century, taking its title from the WB Yeats poem, which continues: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one,” says Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, in the novel.
The poet Jackie Kay hailed Achebe as “the grandfather of African fiction” who “lit up a path for many others”, adding that she had reread Things Fall Apart “countless times”.
“It is a book that keeps changing with the times, as he did,” she said.
Achebe won the Commonwealth poetry prize for his collection Christmas in Biafra, was a finalist for the 1987 Booker prize for his novel Anthills of the Savannah, and in 2007 won the Man Booker international prize. Chair of the judges on that occasion, Elaine Showalter, said he had “inaugurated the modern African novel”, while her fellow judge, the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, said his fiction was “an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the postmodern breaking of sequence”, and that Achebe was “a joy and an illumination to read”.
Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, has said that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world” and called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”.
The author is also known for the influential essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1975), a hard-hitting critique of Conrad in which he says the author turned the African continent into “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”, asking: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”
According to Brown University, where Achebe held the position of David and Marianna Fisher university professor and professor of Africana studies until his death, this essay “is recognised as one of the most generative interventions on Conrad; and one that opened the social study of literary texts, particularly the impact of power relations on 20th-century literary imagination”.
Born in 1930 in Ogidi, in the south-east of Nigeria, the author won a scholarship to the University of Ibadan, and later worked as a scriptwriter for the Nigeria Broadcasting Service. He chose to write Things Fall Apart in English – something for which he has received criticism from authors including Ngugi wa Thiong’o – but Achebe said he felt “that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings”.
His fourth novel, 1966’s A Man of the People, anticipated a coup that took place in Nigeria just before the book was first published. “I’d ended the book with a coup,” Achebe told the Guardian, “which was ridiculous because Nigeria was much too big a country to have a coup, but it was right for the novel. That night we had a coup. And any confidence we had that things could be put right were smashed. That night is something we have never really got over.”
His most recent work was last year’s mix of memoir and history There Was a Country, an account of the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970.
Achebe was a supporter of Biafran secession, but after the end of the civil war in 1970 he took what he described as a “sojourn” in politics. There he found that “the majority of people … were there for their own personal advancement”, deciding instead to devote himself to academia.
He went on to write what he called a “limited harvest” of five novels – the most recent of which was 1987’s Anthills of the Savannah. “I go at the pace of inspiration and what I can physically manage,” he said.
In 1990 a car accident in Nigeria left him paralysed from the waist down, and forced his move to the US. “I miss Nigeria very much. My injury means I need to know I am near a good hospital and close to my doctor. I need to know that if I went to a pharmacist, the medicine there would be the drug that the bottle says it is,” he said in 2007.
Achebe has twice rejected the Nigerian government’s attempt to name him a Commander of the Federal Republic – a national honour – first in 2004, and second in 2011. In 2004 he wrote that “for some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the presidency … Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 honours list.”