Your correspondent begins this textual tribute to Chinua Achebe with a certain degree of trepidation. To center a spotlight on the preeminent, shining figurehead of modern African literature is at once obvious and somewhat difficult.

 

For many readers, Achebe is all they know of the unique, deeply complex African literary waters, with a high school or college read of “Things Fall Apart” marking the sole time they dipped their toes in the swiftly-moving rush of such foreign themes and ideas. For others, the Nigerian-born writer is the archetype of a movement entire, an unapproachable eminence of whom much is spoken and written but little understood.

 

Chinua Achebe, of the Igbo tribe in southeastern Nigeria, was the first writer to speak the voice of Africa into the modern world. Drawing on the deep roots of culture and tradition, Achebe took the looping, repeating themes of love, loss, life, death and eternity that permeate the storytelling rituals of tribal Africa and spun it into profound meditations on the clash of societies, the loss of heritage and what it means to be human in an ever-changing world. Written in English, Achebe’s novels – “Things Fall Apart,” “Arrow of God,” “A Man of the People” and others – carved a place for Africa in the environs of modern literature and taught readers that all life has its own measure of triumph and tragedy regardless of culture and past.

 

Achebe’s writing somehow performs the astounding feat of taking the unexplainable and making it accessible to many, of capturing Africa’s beating heart in a way that explained without reducing, portrayed without sacrificing. His was a gargantuan task, to bridge the titanic gap between Africa and the West while deftly navigating colonialism’s pitfalls, to establish a vibrant human connection across the scorched earth of history and appalling wrong.

 

Achebe’s decision to pen his novels in English was initially widely controversial in Nigeria and elsewhere. At home, he was accused of submitting to the enforced servitude of an alien tongue, itself so evocative of oppression and memories of injustice. Abroad, his efforts were met with skepticism and outright disdain, as critics maintained his work had no place on the bookshelves of the wider world. Steadfast, Achebe spoke of uniting the disparate voices of Africa under a common tongue and using the language of the occupier to sing the songs of the freed across the waters. It was this choice that elevated Achebe to the heady realm of legend and paved the way for a pan-African presence in the world of modern literature.

 

“There is no story that is not true,” writes Achebe in “Things Fall Apart.” His great talent, and the monumental service he rendered his country, his continent and his world, lay in his ability to connect the tales of his people to the great expanse of human experience. His was a triumph indeed.

 

Have you read Chinua Achebe? What’s your take on the role he played in giving wide voice to modern African literature? Start the discussion in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @aa_murph