JOHNANNESBURG, South Africa — When Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was in college, a European professor assigned “Mister Johnson,” which portrayed Africa as a land of grinning, shrieking savages. Time magazine called it “the best novel ever written about Africa.”
Achebe was outraged. He vowed that if someone as ignorant as Joyce Cary, the novel’s Anglo-Irish author, could write such a book, “perhaps I ought to try my hand at it.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Chinua Achebe obituary: In the March 22 Section A, the obituary of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe referred to writer Ngugi wa Thiongo as a fellow Nigerian. He is a Kenyan.
The result was a masterpiece: “Things Fall Apart,” his 1958 debut novel, changed the face of world literature by presenting the colonization of Africa from an African point of view. With more than 10 million copies sold in 50 languages, it established Achebe as the patriarch of modern African literature.
Achebe, who has been praised by Nelson Mandela as the writer who “brought Africa to the world,” died Friday in Boston after a brief illness. He was 82.
His death was announced by a government spokesman in Achebe’s home state of Anambra.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan called him “a cultural icon” and said that his “frank, truthful and fearless interventions in national affairs will be greatly missed at home in Nigeria.”
Achebe wrote short stories, essays, poetry and children’s books in addition to five novels and edited collections of modern African literature. Awarded the Man Booker prize for his life’s work in 2007, he remains best known for “Things Fall Apart,” a complex portrait of colonialism’s impact on native Nigerian culture.
Set in a group of Igbo villages in the late 19th century, it focuses on Okonkwo, a man whose family embodies the conflicts between traditional ways and the influence of Western missionaries and colonialists. Its simple, declarative opening line still draws comparisons to Hemingway: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.”
Achebe wrote the novel in English, which was also a provocation to some critics who said he should have used the Igbo language, but Achebe wanted to speak not only to Africans but to the world beyond.
What he achieved, critics said, was a marvelous invention in which he imbued English with Igbo rhythms, fables and proverbs. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright, hailed “Things Fall Apart” as “the first novel in English which spoke from the interior of an African character rather than … as the white man would see him.”
His final book, published last year, was about the Nigerian region of Biafra’s unsuccessful war for independence and resulting famine, “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.”
An ethnic Igbo, Achebe was born Nov. 16, 1930, in Ogidi in southern Nigeria, during an era when missionary influence loomed large and colonialism still held sway.
One of the main preoccupations of the Christian missionaries was to wipe out African culture, which they saw as pagan, superstitious and associated with black magic and witchcraft.
Achebe’s parents, Isaiah and Janet, were Protestant converts and had him baptized Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. His name meant “May God Fight On My Behalf.” He later dropped his first name.
Although he grew up as a Christian, the ancestral polytheistic faith remained profoundly influential in the community, with many of Achebe’s relatives cleaving to their traditions.
At 14 he was accepted into an elite boarding school in southeastern Nigeria, and as a young man he read so much that he was nicknamed “Dictionary.” He later won a university scholarship to study medicine.
After a year, he switched to his passion, writing, and studied English, history and theology. That decision was to change his life and the landscape of African literature.
Growing up, he had absorbed Western prejudices so thoroughly that, he later wrote, “I did not see myself as an African to begin with.” But in college, it dawned on him that he had given up too much of his identity and could not accept white authors’ portrayals of Africans as culturally inferior and subhuman.
In his writings for the student newspaper, he began to find his voice. He started to wonder why his parents converted to Christianity and pondered the conflicts that change brought.
After graduating in 1953 from University College in Ibadan, he worked briefly as a teacher but soon took a job as scriptwriter with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. He wrote his first novel in his spare time.
His views on colonial Nigeria from the African point of view in “Things Fall Apart,” “No Longer At Ease,” and “Arrow of God” formed his answer to works such as Cary’s “Mister Johnson” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
In 1975, he had written a groundbreaking and controversial essay on what he called the racist, dehumanizing portrayal of Africa in “Heart of Darkness.” “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in … reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind?” Achebe wrote.
“Things Fall Apart” focuses on the clash between the local Igbo traditions and the colonialists who misunderstood, dismissed and undermined African culture.
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stand. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart,” Achebe wrote in the novel.
He moved east to Enugu, married Christie Okoli in 1961, and they had four children. His wife and children survive him, as do six grandchildren.
After achieving fame as a writer, he introduced his British publisher to the works of fellow African writers, including the celebrated Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Achebe was a staunch supporter of Biafra’s unsuccessful bid to split from Nigeria in 1967, triggering three years of civil war that brought about a devastating famine. He and his young family were forced to flee the fighting. More than 1 million people died.
Last year Achebe finally published his sorrowful account of the tragedy and the government’s ruthless suppression of the rebellion. It was a story of how “the little people of the world are ever expendable.”
Seeking access to top-flight medical care that he could trust, Achebe moved to the United States after a 1990 car accident damaged his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. He taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, from 1991 until 2009, when he became professor of Africana studies at Brown University.
He bitterly condemned Nigeria’s widespread government corruption that saw the nation’s oil fortune stolen or squandered. He twice rejected Nigerian attempts to honor him, most recently in 2011.
In 2009, Achebe returned to Nigeria and delivered a lecture at Owerri, the heart of Igboland, urging Africans to celebrate their culture and their lives.
He reminded them how his generation of Africans had fought for freedom.
“But we don’t seem to have a receipt,” he said.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Ngugi wa Thiongo as being one of Achebe’s fellow Nigerian writers, he is Kenyan.
Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.