Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of “Things Fall Apart,” died yesterday at age 82 following a brief illness.
“One of the great literary voices of his time, he was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him,” the U.S.- based Wylie Agency, which represented Achebe, said in an e-mailed statement. “Achebe’s family requests privacy at this time.”
“Things Fall Apart,” written in English and first published in 1958, was one of the first African novels to resonate worldwide, selling more than 12 million copies and translated into more than 50 languages, according to Brown University where Achebe most recently taught as professor of Africana studies.
The novel tells the story of a Nigerian farmer, Okonkwo, who tries to preserve tribal customs against the assault of British colonizers attempting to spread Christian doctrine in his village.
Achebe, an award-winning writer about corruption and governance in Africa’s biggest oil producer, rejected in 2011 a national honor from President Goodluck Jonathan, citing failings in government, which made him reject another national honor seven years earlier by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Nigeria’s Jonathan said it was with “immense sadness” that he heard of Achebe’s death, a “cultural icon.”
“Achebe’s frank, truthful and fearless interventions in national affairs will be greatly missed at home in Nigeria,” the presidency said in an e-mailed statement today. “Because while others may have disagreed with his views, most Nigerians never doubted his immense patriotism and sincere commitment to the building of a greater, more united and prosperous nation that all Africans and the entire black race could be proud of.”
Achebe started teaching in the U.S. in 1990, shortly after a car accident in Nigeria left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.
He was awarded the U.K.’s Man Booker International Prize in 2007 for his body of work.
A member of the Igbo tribe, Achebe grew up in southern Nigeria, toward the end of British colonial rule. After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1953, at what is now the University of Ibadan, Achebe got a job writing scripts for the Nigerian Broadcasting Co. in Lagos. He later went to London to attend a training course in radio at the British Broadcasting Corp.
In “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe explored his preoccupation with the conflict between African tradition and European colonialism.
“The place that I wrote about had problems, but it also had heroic people,” he said in a 2008 interview with Bloomberg News. “There were so many things going for it, and then suddenly from outside a foreign power comes and pulls it down, so that’s a big tragedy and that tragedy is the force that made me write it down.”
Achebe’s last work was his memoir of the Nigeria’s 1967-1970 civil war, ‘There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra’, published last year. Achebe became a cultural ambassador for the break-away republic of Biafra in the oil-rich southeastern part of the country during the turmoil.
“We would like to offer our condolences to the family of Professor Chinua Achebe, a great African writer and thinker,” the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory said by e-mail today. “Nelson Mandela referred to Professor Achebe as a writer ‘in whose company the prison walls fell down’.”