Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart “has sold between 15 million and 20 million copies worldwide in 60 languages,” according to the late author’s literary agent. The sales figures make Mr. Achebe’s modern classic one of the bestselling literary novels and the most widely read book by an African author.
Mr. Achebe, who was the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies and Literary Arts, died on March 21 this year at the age of 82.
His agent, the Wylie Agency, reported the record-selling performance as Things Fall Apart celebrates its 55th year of continuous publication.
Mr. Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 and attended the elite Government College Umuahia as well as University College, Ibadan – affiliated with the University of London – where his studies focused on literature, religion and history. Born to Isaiah Okafor Achebe and Janet Achebe, earlier converts to the Anglican Church, Mr. Achebe was a precocious and intellectually gifted child. His father became a catechist for the Church Missionary Society, traveling in different parts of the southeastern part of Nigeria to spread the Christian gospel. The late author and numerous scholars have written extensively about the way his artistic outlook and worldview was shaped by early exposure to Christian upbringing.
The early success of Things Fall Apart established Achebe’s great and unique powers as a writer and cultural advocate and also gave a global impetus to creative works by other authors from an African continent emerging from a debilitating phase of colonial subjugation. Mr. Achebe remained in the first rank of writers in the world, producing an impressive oeuvre that including five novels, several essay collections, poetry, children’s books, memoir, and political treatises. His other novels, Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah, also met with great commercial success and critical acclaim. While Mr. Achebe is most well known around the world for his first novel, Things Fall Apart, many scholars and critics regard his third novel, Arrow of God, as his most powerful work, with the late Emmanuel Obiechina, a highly regarded literary scholar, praising the novel for its “composite grandeur.”
Yet, it is Things Fall Apart, which portrays a traditional Igbo community at the moment of contact and tension with imperial British power, that continues to hold the fascination of readers drawn to its elegiac air and evocation of a world threatened by the entwined forces of Christianity and colonialism.
Achebe’s works have garnered numerous international prizes, awards for artistic excellence, and earned him more than forty honorary doctorates from universities in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States. A recipient of the Nigerian National Merit Award, his country’s highest accolade for intellectual accomplishment, Mr. Achebe was to later express his outrage at the desultory state of affairs in his country by refusing to accept two national honors given to him by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Goodluck Jonathan. In the last ten years of his life, he won several prestigious awards and honors, including an award for lifetime achievement by the New York-based National Art Society, the Man Booker International Prize (2007) for his artistic output as well as the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010) for using his art and cultural advocacy to make the world a more beautiful place.
Mr. Achebe’s last book, There Was A Country, was published in 2012. Part memoir and part reflection on the Biafran War (1967-1970), the book inspired Foreign Policy magazine to include the author on a list of the Top100 Global Thinkers of 2012. The publication said Mr. Achebe’s achievement lay in “forcing Africans to examine their demons.”
A global literary luminary, Mr. Achebe inspired other writers as well as political figures in Africa and beyond. The revered South African leader, Nelson Mandela, once described Achebe as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.” The late author founded the Chinua Achebe Foundation chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The foundation seeks to promote peace through the arts; to showcase Africa's complex cultural heritage to the world, and to recapture lost components of Africa’s fine art, literature and languages.