Chinua Achebe, groundbreaking Nigerian novelist and writer, at 82

Mr. Achebe’s writing drew on his history as part of the Ibo nation of southeastern Nigeria.
Craig Ruttle/Associated Press
Mr. Achebe’s writing drew on his history as part of the Ibo nation of southeastern Nigeria.

NEW YORK — Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who was one of Africa’s most widely read novelists and one of the continent’s towering men of letters, has died after a brief illness, his publisher and agent said in London on Friday. He was 82.

Few details were immediately available.

Besides novels, Mr. Achebe’s works included powerful essays and poignant short stories and poems rooted in the countryside and cities of his native Nigeria, before and after independence from British colonial rule.


His most memorable fictional characters were buffeted and bewildered by the conflicting pulls of traditional African culture and invasive Western values.

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For inspiration, Mr. Achebe drew on his own family history as part of the Ibo nation of southeastern Nigeria, a people victimized by the racism of British colonial administrators and then by the brutality of military dictators from other Nigerian ethnic groups.

Mr. Achebe burst onto the world literary scene with the publication in 1958 of his first novel, ‘‘Things Fall Apart,’’ which has sold more than 10 million copies and been translated into 45 different languages.

Set in the Ibo countryside in the late 19th century, the novel tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become an affluent farmer and village leader. But with the advent of British colonial rule and cultural values, Okonkwo’s life is thrown into turmoil.

In the end, unable to adapt to the new status quo, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.


The novel, which is also compelling for its descriptions of traditional Ibo society and rituals, went on to become a classic of world literature and was often listed as required reading in university courses in Europe and the United States.

‘‘In all [Mr.] Achebe’s writing there is an intense moral energy,’’ observed Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy at Princeton, in a commentary published in 2000. ‘‘He speaks about the task of the writer in language that captures the sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as empire invaded and disrupted their lives.’’

Forced abroad by Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s and then by military dictatorship in the 1980s and ‘90s, Mr. Achebe, paralyzed from the waist down since a 1990 auto accident, has lived for much of the past three decades in the United States.

He lectured at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for four years in the 1970s and returned there as a Fulbright scholar and visiting professor in the late 1980s.

After his accident, he lived in a cottage built for him on the campus of Bard College in New York, where he was a faculty member.


He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature.

Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on Nov. 16, 1930, in Ogidi, an Ibo village, during the heyday of British colonial rule.

His father became a Christian and worked for a missionary teacher in various parts of Nigeria before returning to Ogidi. Chinua, then only 5, recalled the homecoming as a passage backward through time.

As a child and adolescent, he immersed himself in Western literature. At the University College of Ibadan, whose professors were Europeans, Mr. Achebe avidly read Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Tennyson.

After the Nigerian civil war, Mr. Achebe returned to Nigeria for two years, then accepted faculty posts at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut. He returned home in 1979 to become a professor of English at the University of Nigeria in Lagos.

During those years, he published a number of works that often took up the civil war as their theme. Among the most prominent were a collection of poetry, ‘‘Beware Soul Brother,’’ in 1971 that won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and a short story collection, ‘‘Girls at War,’’ which appeared in 1972.

His last book was a memoir, ‘‘There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra,’’ published last fall.

But for more than 20 years, Mr. Achebe suffered from a writer’s block that kept him from producing another novel. He attributed the long dry spell to a sense of personal trauma that lingered long after the bloody civil war.

‘‘The novel seemed like a frivolous thing to be doing,’’ he told the Washington Post in 1988.

That year, Mr. Achebe finally published his fifth novel, ‘‘Anthills of the Savannah.’’

He barely had time to savor the critical acclaim when he suffered the car accident in 1990 on a road outside Lagos that left him paralyzed. After extensive medical treatment in London, he moved to the United States, taking up his post at Bard.