Saturday, March 23rd, 2013...5:17 pm
Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)
“I speak softly, but I carry a big stick” joked Chinua Achebe when he began his talk at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference at Harvard in 2007. Indeed he did. His debut novel Things Fall Apart, was “hard-hitting” in bringing home to Western readers the African perspective on the social and political consequences of colonial rule. This perspective, along with its style, written in English but with an Ibo cadence and sensibility, established him as a major literary voice.
More success followed—No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Arrow of God, Anthills of the Savannah–and in 2007 he 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, Nadine Gordimer, said that Achebe was “a joy and an illumination to read.”
The Chinua Achebe Papers came to the Houghton Library in 1996, a collaborative acquisition between the Library and the Afro-American Studies Department, then chaired by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The archive includes the manuscripts of all Achebe’s novels save the first two: Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. Achebe was forced to flee Nigeria on more than one occasion and, in the summer of 1996 when his papers came to Harvard, his wife, Christine Okoli, returned to their home to look for the manuscripts. She found the house had been looted, and any manuscripts destroyed. It was a bitter loss to the Achebes, as well as a loss to literary scholarship.
Image caption: Chinua Achebe, “Girls at War.” Detail from the draft autograph manuscript for this short story. Chinua Achebe papers, MS Eng 1406 (37). Houghton Library.
[Thanks to Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, for contributing this post.]