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Chinua Achebe And The Bravery Of Lions

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet speaks about his works and his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in 2008.
Craig Ruttle
Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet speaks about his works and his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in 2008.

Chinua Achebe, the prominent Nigerian novelist and essayist who died on Thursday, said in a 1994 interview with the Paris Review, "There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."

Achebe's books are elegant, musical, and — most significantly — they'll live on as African rebuttals to the colonial narratives of Joseph Conrad and other European writers.

Achebe's influence is most visible in the extraordinary output of a handful of prominent young Nigerian writers and other African literary elite. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a MacArthur Fellow and perhaps the most famous young Nigerian writer, said in a 2009 Ted talk that "[B]ecause of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye...I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature."

The Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett wrote in an email of Achebe's "saintly status among Nigerian writers," adding that "His was the strongest voice of Africa's generation of angry voices."

And Ellah Allfrey, the deputy editor of the literary magazine Granta, who was born in Zimbabwe, wrote in an email that, even though she grew up far from Nigeria, "[Things Fall Apart] is the book that allowed me to read in the first person — a perspective and a story that offered me a landscape and characters who (even though they were across the continent from my home) I could identify as my own — or, at last, were closer to me than any I had read before."

Achebe, too, felt alienated by the depictions of Africa found in English novels, and identified Joseph Conrad as a particular foe. NPR's Robert Siegel, in an interview with Achebe, quoted an essay Achebe had written, "I was not on Marlow's boat steaming up the Congo in Heart of Darkness. Rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the river bank making hard faces." Achebe told Siegel: "I realized how terribly, terribly wrong it was to portray my people, any people, from that attitude, from that point of view."

Achebe became a historian of lions with his first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which showed the devastating effects of colonialism on a Nigerian village in the late 1800s. He wrote: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. 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."

Though Achebe is best known for his first novel, his poetry is also deeply political, though not always explicitly so. The poem "Mango Seedling," for his friend Christopher Okigbo, a poet who was killed fighting for Biafran independence in the Nigerian Civil War, takes the form of an elegy for a dying plant: "How long the happy waving/ From precipice of rainswept sarcophagus? / How long the feast on remnant flour / At pot bottom?" Others are less opaque. One, called "Air Raid," begins, "It comes so quickly/ the bird of death..."

In that same Paris Review interview, Achebe said that storytelling "is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.