Award-winning author Chinua Achebe, sometimes described as the grandfather of modern African literature, died this week at age 82. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Lagos, Nigeria.
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Nigeria and the world is mourning the death of Chinua Achebe. The award-winning author, who is often described as the grandfather of modern African literature, died this week at the age of 82. His pioneering novel, "Things Falls Apart," was published in 1958, shortly before Nigeria embraced independence from British colonial rule. It was the first novel about colonialism written from an African point of view, and it has remained a best-seller all over Africa and much of the world. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now from Lagos in Nigeria. Thanks very much for being with us.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings from Lagos. Of course, a Lagos that is very sorrowful, as is Nigeria, the whole of Africa, and of course, all the fans, supporters and readers of Chinua Achebe's novels and works.
SIMON: Well, tell us what he meant to that country.
QUIST-ARCTON: Scott, you know, why listen to me? Let's listen to what Lagosians are saying about Chinua Achebe.
MOSES OHIOMOKHAI: My name is Moses Ohiomokhai. Chinua Achebe was a great writer. For me, one of the greatest that has come from this part of the world. His books came up when we thought that there was nothing for Nigeria or Africa to offer the world. He is one of our greats. We will truly miss him.
NNENNA OBIBUAKU: My name is Nnenna Obibuaku. I have known that name, Chinua Achebe, ever since I was of school age - quite little. It's a household name, I guess, for most of us. I had to read "Things Fall Apart" growing up in secondary school. For me, it was a pleasure to read "Things Fall Apart" because I felt at the time it was such an exciting book. It kind of took me into the past of what it was like to have been growing up in those days in the setting of his book.
QUIST-ARCTON: Many people have used the words: I admired him, he was a hero for us. He was a pioneer. "Things Fall Apart," his seminal work about a Nigeria dating back to British colonial rule and Okonkwo, the antihero of the novel, who is sucked in by naivete, some would say by greed, by just not having it together. It was in a way an allegory, not only for Nigeria at the dawn of independence - this book was written two years before independence - but warning Africans, you have to be true to yourself. You have to know what you want. You have to make sure that the continent is going to work.
SIMON: And I guess we should note too that "Things Falls Apart" is being read in the classrooms of Ames, Iowa too and all over world at this point.
QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely. Translated into 50 languages. And it has sold in its millions - we hear between 10 and 12 million. So, it is a bestseller.
SIMON: Chinua Achebe taught college in the United States. He was a professor of literature and Africana for about 20 years. How did he see his role as a teacher?
QUIST-ARCTON: I think it was very important to him, being the teacher rather than the professor, and also being a social critic and a thinker; one who put governments, the military, successive military governments here in Nigeria, on their tippy-toes - warning them, you are here to serve the people, not to serve yourselves. He, you know, he turned down national awards, rather being outspoken about what he thought was poor leadership, poor governance and not what Africa deserved. And then there's the other side to him. You have Nelson Mandela, who was in prison for, what, 30-odd years. He described Professor Achebe as a writer in whose company prison walls fell down. That's pretty powerful, isn't it? It shows his scope, his range. But his writing was very accessible - is very accessible. That's why we see continuing generations reading his book, studying his book, studying his works. So, he was really very much a man for all seasons.
SIMON: He was in a car crash a number of years ago and was in a wheelchair for quite some time, yet every interview I ever read, he used to say something like, you know, I was able to walk for 60 years. That's more than some people get.
QUIST-ARCTON: Isn't that a gracious, fine man to be able to say that? I think many people will tell you that was Chinua Achebe. Humility was his strong suit. He was not a flashy man. I think he was a great thinker. But he was also very easygoing. I interviewed him when his book "Anthills of the Savannah" came out in the late '80s. And he was lovely to interview. He smiled a lot, he laughed a lot, he talked a lot, but without being hectoring. And you have Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Literature Prize that many, many people say that Chinua Achebe should also have won; and JP Clark - novelists here and writers in Nigeria saying for us the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We've lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter. I think many Nigerians feel the same. He was courageous, he was brave and he served the people.
SIMON: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joining us from Lagos and speaking, of course, about Chinua Achebe, who died this week at the age of 82. Thanks so much, Ofeibea.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. And may he rest in peace.
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