The Blagger's Guide to... Chinua Achebe

'Father of African literature' tells of his defining experience

More than 50 years after he first made his mark with the 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's There Was a Country was published last week by Allen Lane (£20). This long-awaited memoir of his experiences of the 1967-1970 Biafran war is his account of coming of age during one of the 20th century's greatest humanitarian disasters. Though Achebe is known as the "father of modern African literature", and made his name writing about the history of Nigeria, this is the first time that he has directly addressed in his writing the civil war which was the defining experience of his own life and his country's recent history.

Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s, as Christian missionaries begin their work in Nigeria. It is written in a new form of English which echoes with the rhythms and myths of Igbo. Wole Soyinka called it the "first novel in English which spoke from the interior of an African character rather than ... as the white man would see him". It has been translated into 50 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies around the world. The novel takes its title from WB Yeats's 1919 poem "The Second Coming": "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …"

Achebe had initially intended to write a longer novel, beginning with Things Fall Apart's main character, Okonkwo, and ending with his grandson many years later. He split the novel into three parts and published Things Fall Apart as the first in a trilogy. He eventually skipped the middle section, and in 1960 published the third "section" as No Longer at Ease, about Obi, a civil servant in Lagos.

Achebe's other novels are: Arrow of God (1964); A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). He has also published essays and criticism; four children's books (including Chike and the River and How the Leopard Got His Claws); short stories; and poetry in English and Igbo. His 1975 lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' is still available in paperback from Penguin Classics. In it, he says that "Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist" and points out that there are only six words spoken by Africans in the whole of Heart of Darkness.

Chinua Achebe was born on 16 November 1930 in the Igbo town of Ogidi, in the south-east of Nigeria. His Christian parents named him Albert Chinualumogu Achebe – he dropped the Albert when he went to college, because "names are important". He read English, history and theology at the University of Ibadan, going on to work at the Nigeria Broadcasting Service as a scriptwriter, and then on to a BBC training course. His first passport described him as a "British Protected Person".

In 2007, Achebe was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for his "continued creativity, development and overall contribution to fiction on the world stage". Judges Elaine Showalter and Nadine Gordimer said respectively that he "illuminated the path for writers around the world seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies", and has achieved "a new-found utterance for the capture of life's complexity".

Nelson Mandela called Achebe "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down", and credited him as the author who "brought Africa to the rest of the world".

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