Literary and Critical Theory Chinua Achebe
by
Madhu Krishnan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0046

Introduction

Chinua Achebe (b. Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe 16 [November 1930—d. 21 March 2013]), winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize, is considered the most influential author of African literature in English of the modern era. Often credited as the father of African literature, Achebe is the author of five novels, four children’s books, six collections of essays, and several volumes of poetry and short stories. His novels and essays, in particular, have been the subject of critical praise and commercial success. Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 by William Heinemann, remains the most widely read and studied African novel in history and has been translated into more than fifty languages. In 1962 the novel was published as the first volume in Heinemann’s African Writers Series, of which Achebe served as general editor until 1972. Born in Ogidi, southeastern Nigeria, Achebe maintained the strong influences of his native Igbo culture through his work, enlivening its rich, centuries-long history and traditions and commenting both on the politics of British colonialism in the region and on its lasting legacies in postcolonial Nigeria. During the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967–1970, Achebe, a strong supporter of Biafran independence, acted as an ambassador for the new nation across the world. Following the war, Achebe attempted to return to politics in the newly reunited nation-state, but he soon resigned from public life due to frustration over corruption. Though Achebe lived in the United States for several years in this period, he returned permanently to the country only in 1990, following a debilitating car accident in Nigeria that left him partially paralyzed. From 1990 to 2009, Achebe served as the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in New York, where he founded the influential, if short-lived, journal African Commentary. From 2009 to his death, Achebe served as David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Rhode Island. Achebe’s influence as a writer, critic, professor, and statesman is unparalleled; to date, some fifty monographs, edited collections, and special journal issues have been devoted to his work, with scholarly essays and articles numbering well into the hundreds. Achebe’s work is notable for its shaping of language and creation of new idioms for expressing African experience in English. Politics, history, colonialism, masculinity, the family, gender, the individual in society, and more are among the many themes that run through his work.

General Overviews

Achebe remains the most frequently studied author of African literature in modern history, and several dozen book-length studies devote themselves to his oeuvre. The list below comprises some of the most-read contributions to this body of work, which examine Achebe both as a writer of fiction and as a critic in his own right. Innes 1990 is a foundational study of Achebe’s work, which serves as an exemplar of interdisciplinary and sociopolitical study of the author and his writing, while Gikandi 1991 offers a series of sophisticated readings that engage with postcolonial criticism, politics, and cultural studies. Morrison 2007 and Booker 2003 are essential guides for students new to Achebe and scholars hoping to deepen their engagement with the diversity of his writing and criticism on it. Morrison 2014 is particularly important as the most-recent book-length study of Achebe’s writing, including discussions of his most recent work, There Was a Country. Killam 1977, Wren 1980, and Carroll 1990 remain among the most-cited examples of Achebe scholarship. Though not as theoretically sophisticated as more recent additions to this body of work, they stand as important touchstones in the development of criticism on the author, and they are notable for their chronological purviews and attempts to situate Achebe’s writing within the context of Igbo tradition and social formations.

  • Booker, M. Keith. The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.

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    Essential reference work on Achebe, with several hundred entries covering all aspects of the writer’s life, work, and influence. Includes information on Igbo culture and language.

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  • Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe: Novelist, Poet, Critic. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230375215Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focused on Achebe’s five novels, short stories, and poetry, this study features a comprehensive chronology of Achebe’s career, which it seeks to position in the context of the role of the African writer more broadly. The study situates Achebe’s work through his own underlying system of values, operating in dialogue with the external pressures of colonialism, conflict, and politics.

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  • Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language & Ideology in Fiction. London: James Currey, 1991.

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    A significant study of Achebe’s fiction and criticism that sets the novel form against the project of nation-formation. Gikandi uses a methodology derived from Edward W. Said’s Orientalism, which seeks to set Achebe’s writing in its social, political, and cultural context in order to comment on Nigerian society.

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  • Innes, Catherine Lynnette. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511554407Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This influential and comprehensive study of Achebe’s work takes a chronological view to the writer’s fiction, poetry, short stories, lectures, and other activities. Focusing particularly on Achebe’s creation of a specifically African form of literature that speaks to deconstruct the “image of Africa” in the global imaginary, the study considers the Nigerian sociopolitical context and role of Western intervention in the region. Highly recommended for undergraduate students in particular.

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  • Killam, G. D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe: A Commentary. London: Heinemann, 1977.

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    Originally published as The Novels of Chinua Achebe in 1969, this work has been updated to include references to his poetry and short fiction. Considered among the most authoritative and foundational studies of Achebe, this is a particularly useful introduction for students new to Achebe.

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  • Morrison, Jago. The Fiction of Chinua Achebe. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-12204-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A key resource for undergraduate students, which provides an overview of the field of Achebe criticism and scholarship. Focusing primarily on his novels, particularly Things Fall Apart, the guide touches on his larger body of work and is especially useful for its discussion of Nigerian scholarship on Achebe.

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  • Morrison, Jago. Chinua Achebe. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719084362.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An important addition to the field of Achebe studies, this book-length work considers Achebe’s oeuvre up through his final published works. Essential reading for all students and scholars of Achebe, this book provides a much-needed update to criticism of the author and is particularly important for its departure from nationalist narratives in favor of a more nuanced portrait of a conflicted writer and revolutionary.

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  • Wren, Robert M. Achebe’s World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1980.

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    Focuses on Achebe’s first four novels in the context of Nigerian Igbo history and culture, with discussion of language, customs, and tradition. While now somewhat out of date in the field, this remains an important introduction to Igbo sociopolitical formations for new readers of Achebe.

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Primary Texts

Though primarily known for his five novels, Achebe remained a prolific writer of essays, children’s literature, poetry, and criticism until his death in 2013. Achebe 1958, Achebe 1960, and Achebe 1964 have been collected and republished as The African Trilogy and together tell the epic story of the author’s native Igboland, in southeastern Nigeria, from the earliest period of colonial contact to independence. In the wake of the Nigerian-Biafran War, Achebe turned to poetry, collected in Achebe 1972 (cited under Short Stories) and Achebe 1978 (cited under Poetry), as a means of expressing his grief and bewilderment over the failed project of Biafran secession. This is a topic that appears repeatedly in his collections of essays, notably Achebe 2012 (cited under Essays and Nonfiction), which serves simultaneously as a biography of the short-lived republic. Achebe’s short stories span juvenilia and more mature writing, again addressing themes of war, tradition, and modernity that are explored in his other output. The author was also a prolific producer of children’s stories, motivated in large part by a desire to inculcate a sense of cultural pride in the younger generation.

Novels

Achebe 1958 began its life as a three-generation epic saga of the Igbo people from the earliest days of colonialism to the period of self-rule and transition to independence. While that original manuscript was significantly overhauled to create the book that is known today, Achebe executed his object of a multigenerational epic in his two subsequent volumes, Achebe 1960 and Achebe 1964, that together have been reissued as The African Trilogy. In interviews, the author has stated that Achebe 1964 is the novel he is most likely to be found revisiting, and in 1974 a significantly revised version of the novel was published by Heinemann and stands as the standard text today. While Achebe 1958, Achebe 1960, and Achebe 1964 explore themes of cultural contact, cultural change, power, and the individual in society, in Achebe 1966 the author turns his attention to the theme of postcolonial corruption in governance. The novel has been cited as a prescient warning of the series of military coups that would lead to the outbreak of the Nigerian-Biafran War in 1967. Following a long period of silence in novelistic writing, Achebe 1987 returns to these themes with its depiction of a fictional African country under military rule. Notable for a narrative structure that employs multiple voices, the novel has been particularly important in Achebe’s oeuvre for its emphasis on gender and women’s roles in postcolonial African society.

  • Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.

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    Published by William Heinemann in 1958, Things Fall Apart remains the most significant work of African literature in English published to date. The novel tells the story of Okonkwo, a leader in the village of Umuofia, chronicling his rise and ultimate downfall during the earliest period of colonial contact.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. No Longer at Ease. London: Heinemann, 1960.

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    Achebe’s second novel, published in 1960, No Longer at Ease follows the story of Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the protagonist of Things Fall Apart. Set on the cusp of independence, the novel highlights themes of tradition and modernity, governance and self-rule, education and alienation, and gender and sexual norms.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann, 1964.

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    Set in the period between Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God centers on Ezeulu, chief priest of the god Ulu, and his struggle to reconcile his position in society under British colonialism. The novel deals with cultural, religion, and social and political change, in addition to offering a portrait of individual conflict in society. Originally published in 1964 and released in revised version in 1974.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Man of the People. London: Heinemann, 1966.

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    Published in 1966, this satirical novel anticipates Nigeria’s history of postcolonial military rule. The novel is told by Odili, an educated young idealist, and focuses on his growing conflict with Chief Nanga, a former teacher turned politician in a newly independent African nation-state.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. London: Heinemann, 1987.

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    Achebe’s final novel, published in 1987, Anthills of the Savannah tells the story of the fictional West African country of Kangan under military rule. Divided between three principal focalizers, Beatrice, Chris, and Ikem, the novel is notable for its centering of gender and the role of women in the cause of postcolonial African liberation.

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Short Stories

Achebe 1972 is a significantly expanded reissue of Achebe 1962, including a number of stories that explicitly grapple with life during the Nigerian-Biafran War. A number of versions of Achebe 1972 have been published to the present day with small additions and subtractions from its contents.

  • Achebe, Chinua. The Sacrificial Egg and Other Short Stories. Onitsha, Nigeria: Etudo, 1962.

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    A 1962 collection of thirteen short stories by Achebe. Stories included in the collection grapple with the conflict between traditional and modern paradigms for social life while also exposing the historical and cultural traditions that proliferated in Igboland before, during, and after colonialism.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Girls at War and Other Stories. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

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    An expanded version of The Sacrificial Egg and Other Short Stories, published in 1972, reissued in 1973, and revised in 1977. This collection is notable for its inclusion of a number of stories that directly address the Nigerian-Biafran War and its legacies, a subject that Achebe never directly articulated in his novels.

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Poetry

Achebe 1971 was published in expanded form in the United States as Christmas in Biafra. The collection explores the themes of loss, alienation, and displacement that were forged by the war and can be seen as Achebe’s most personal output to date. During the Nigerian-Biafran War, Achebe’s close friend and colleague Christopher Okigbo was killed fighting for the Biafran side, an event that shocked the literary world. Hailed as a great exemplar of modernist poetry, Okigbo’s passing is commemorated in Achebe 1978, co-edited with Dubem Okafor. Achebe 1998 combines photographs and poetry to present an alternative to “the image of Africa” famously critiqued by the author, and Achebe 2005 is a collection of the author’s heretofore published works together with newly -released material. Achebe’s poetic output can be broadly divided into two categories: earlier works that meditate on the nature of tradition and modernity and postwar works that grapple with its reverberations.

  • Achebe, Chinua. Beware Soul Brother and Other Poems. London: Heinemann, 1971.

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    This 1971 collection originally contained twenty-three poems. A 1972 version, published as Christmas in Biafra, was expanded to thirty-one poems. Achebe has extensively written about his inability to grapple with the legacies of Biafra in long-form prose; the poems collected here offer his most extensive meditations on the subject, written through the duality of life and death that weaves through the work.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1978.

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    During the Nigerian-Biafran War, Achebe established Citadel Press along with poet Christopher Okigbo, who would later enlist to fight in the Biafran army. Following Okigbo’s death in the conflict, Achebe, along with Dubem Okafor, edited this 1978 volume of poems in his honor.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Another Africa. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

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    A collaboration, with photographer Robert Lyons, aimed at exposing the Africa beyond the stereotypes perpetuated in the Western media. The volume features Achebe’s poems in juxtaposition with Lyons’s still lifes, portraits, and landscapes and includes an essay by the author.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Collected Poems. Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2005.

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    A 2005 collection of Achebe’s poems that draws together his three previously published volumes of work along with seven unpublished poems.

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Children’s Literature

Achebe has stated in multiple interviews that his desire to write children’s literature came from a frustration, at having his own children, at the impossibility of finding culturally relevant stories and books. Achebe 1966 focuses on the childhood experiences of a young Igbo boy travelling to the city, while Achebe 1972, Achebe 1977a, and Achebe 1977b are known as his animal stories, adapted from traditional Igbo and other African folktales. Despite their target market, Achebe’s children’s stories are notable for their interrogation of power in society, a theme that prevails in the author’s work across genres.

Essays and Nonfiction

Achebe 1988 is the author’s most cited work of nonfiction, containing seminal essays on the role of the writer, literary criticism in African literatures, and his now-canonical critique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a racist text. A number of essays from Achebe 1975 are reprinted in Achebe 1988. Achebe 1983 is the author’s most polemic work, in which he attempts to diagnose the root cause of Nigeria’s postcolonial ills. Achebe 2009 and Achebe 2012 are among the author’s most personal works, ruminating on his childhood, upbringing, education, and, in Achebe 2012, for the first time in prose the Nigerian-Biafran War.

  • Achebe, Chinua. Morning yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.

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    Collection of fifteen essays and papers written between 1961 and 1974. The first half of the essays in this collection meditate on the role of the African writer and the problems faced by African writers in forging a new literature outside the parameters of colonialist discourse. The second half takes a more personal turn and features essays that dwell on Achebe’s own childhood, upbringing, and complex heritage.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. The Trouble with Nigeria. London: Heinemann, 1983.

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    A polemic essay that diagnoses Nigeria’s postcolonial ills, including the lack of democratic governance and stagnation in corruption. Achebe is particularly critical of the shortcomings and crimes of Nigeria’s leadership, citing the incompetence, elitism, and unethical practices of the leaders as the root of the country’s problems.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments. London: Heinemann, 1988.

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    Collection of essays written between 1965 and 1987. Contains some of Achebe’s most-cited works, including ‘The Novelist as Teacher,” an essay that lays out Achebe’s vision for the writer as engaged critic and historian, and “The Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” an essay in which Achebe takes Anglo-American literary studies to task for its evacuation of humanity from its portrayal of the African continent.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. Home and Exile. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

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    Collection of three essays based on Achebe’s McMillan-Stewart Lectures, delivered at Harvard University on 9, 10, and 11 December 1998. Essays include “My Home under Imperial Fire,” “The Empire Fights Back,” and “Today, the Balance of Stories.”

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  • Achebe, Chinua. The Education of a British-Protected Child. London: Penguin, 2009.

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    Collection of seventeen essays from the later years of Achebe’s life. Subject matter includes the World Bank and finance policy, the author’s childhood in colonial Nigeria, the significance of Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States, the African-American diaspora, and the author’s own home life.

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  • Achebe, Chinua. There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. New York: Penguin, 2012.

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    Wide-ranging collection of essays and poems that engage with Achebe’s experiences as a Biafran during the 1967–1970 conflict. The book begins by tracing his childhood and formative years alongside Nigeria’s own and then contends with the war and its legacies to the present day. Contains a number of previously published pieces of writing, put together in a single narrative for the first time. The author’s last published work.

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Interviews

Achebe was a prolific orator and generous interviewee. Some of his most significant interviews are cited here. Lindfors 1997 is an excellent resource as a collection of significant interviews over the course of several years, and it was also published as an issue of African Literature Today. Cooper 2008 is significant for highlighting gender, often seen as a weakness in Achebe’s work, as a strategic theme in his writing. Chinweizu 1984 features a conversation between the writer and the controversial critic, who once famously attacked Soyinka for his adherence to forms of modernism derived from the Western canon.

Critical Studies

Critical studies of Achebe are numerous and their breadth and depth attests to the author’s significance as a leading figure of modern anglophone literature. Edited collections, biographies, and tributes, including those that appeared following the author’s death, trace his individual career in the larger context of postcolonial Africa. Comparative studies explore the range of themes and preoccupations shared by the author and his contemporaries across the world. Among his novels, Things Fall Apart holds a particular significance, given its status as the first major work of African literature published in Europe and North America, and it commands significant critical attention for its narrative style and thematic complexity. Achebe has been known for his use of language, leveraging standard English, Igbo expression, and Nigerian vernacular. Equally, his novels have been repeatedly positioned as important historical critiques notable for their chronological sweep. As a political figure in his own right, the focus on politics in Achebe’s work attests to their importance as interventions not just in postcolonial issues of national liberation but also as incisive criticisms of the post-independence Nigerian state. Achebe is also known for his focus on gender, sexuality, and the family, and he has been particularly controversial in his portrayal of women. Religion is another recurrent theme in Achebe criticism, particularly the ambivalence with which the author portrays both Christianity and precolonial Igbo traditions. Like his use of language, the author’s play with proverbs and folk-cultural forms derived from his Igbo heritage have been repeatedly noted in studies of his work. Finally, a significant subsection of Achebe criticism has explored his role as a founding father of African literature in the postcolonial era.

Edited Collections, Biographies, Tributes, and Special Issues

Achebe’s significance as the de facto founder of African literature has resulted in a number of special tributes and collections devoted to celebrating the man’s work. This number has continued to increase since the author’s death in 2013. Ayebia and Currey 2014 is an excellent starting point, collecting press, previously published works, and new reflections on the man, as well as a diverse range of other African writers. Emenyonu 2004 and Emenyonu 2004 are notable for their breadth of criticism and inclusion of a number of scholars based on the African continent. Innes and Lindfors 1979 contains a number of the most significant early tributes to the author, and Boehmer, et al. 2014 contains some of the most sophisticated and contemporary readings of Achebe to date. Ezenwa-Ohaeto 1997 holds significance as the first major biography of the author and Sallah and Okonjo-Iweala 2004 provides an accessible chronology of the author’s life.

  • Ayebia, Nana Clarke, and James Currey, eds. Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections. Banbury, UK: Ayebia Clarke, 2014.

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    Features forty-nine short essays, eulogies, and reflections by a range of international critics and writers, including both rare, previously published texts and newly commissioned work. Beginning with Lyn Innes’s authoritative tribute to the author, published in the Guardian as his official obituary, and ending with a reprint of Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical viral essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the collection as a whole spans ages, generations, and perspectives.

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  • Boehmer, Elleke, Rhonda Cobham-Sander, Uzoma Esonwanne, et al. “Theories and Methodologies: Chinua Achebe; A Tribute.” PMLA 129.2 (2014): 237–256.

    DOI: 10.1632/pmla.2014.129.2.237Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Featuring contributions from luminaries of postcolonial and African studies, the section covers a broad range of ground highlighting Achebe’s significance as a writer and public intellectual. Contributions examine Achebe’s legacy through the frameworks of ecocriticism, history, style and poetics, cosmopolitanism, and reader response theory.

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  • Emenyonu, Ernest N., ed. Omenka, the Master Artist: Critical Perspectives on Achebe’s Fiction. Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe 1. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2004.

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    More than thirty essays that examine Achebe’s writings, including fiction, essay writing, short stories, and poetry. Particularly recommended for its grounding in Igbo mythopoetics and sections on post-Biafra poetry and short-form fiction.

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  • Emenyonu, Ernest N., and Iniobong I. Uko, eds. Isinka, the Artistic Purpose: Chinua Achebe and the Theory of African Literature. Emerging perspectives on Chinua Achebe 2. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2004.

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    This most comprehensive collection of essays examines Achebe’s work and legacy to date. Features thirty essays that examine Achebe’s aesthetics, Igbo cosmology and Christianity, social engagement, historical revisionists, the role of gender, and his literary influences. Highly recommended for all scholars of African literature in English.

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  • Ezenwa-Ohaeto. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Oxford: James Currey, 1997.

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    Vivid account of Achebe’s life based on meticulous textual and oral research. The first major biography of the author, the book traces and contextualizes Achebe’s career and times.

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  • Holst Peterson, Kirsten, and Anna Rutherford, eds. Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Oxford: Heinemann, 1990.

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    Edited collection featuring tributes from writers and critics, including Ama Ata Aidoo, Elleke Boehmer, Gabriel Okara, and Biodun Jeyifo. Contributions focus on language, form, genre, morality, and religion, and they include poems written in Achebe’s honor and reflections on working with the man. Essays consider all five of Achebe’s novels, but little space is given to his other writing.

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  • Innes, C. L., and Bernth Lindfors, eds. Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. London: Heinemann, 1979.

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    Early and influential collection of critical essays covering Achebe’s early writings.

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  • Korang, Kwaku Larbi, ed. Special Issue: Homage to a Modern Literary Father. Research in African Literatures 42.2 (2011).

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    Essays range from philosophical meditations on Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God as studies in humanism and alienation to materialist criticism that links questions of power and conquest to Achebe’s writing in historical and contemporary contexts. A significant and vital collection of essays that brings Achebe scholarship into the 21st century and a must volume for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.

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  • Sallah, Tijan M., and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2004.

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    Updated biography of the author’s life, which traces the range of personal and intellectual influences that have contributed to his status as a leading light of Nigerian and African literatures.

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Comparative Studies

Achebe is a founding father of African literature, and so it is of little surprise that significant scholarly interest has been devoted to setting Achebe in dialogue with his contemporaries from across the continent. Omotoso 1996 considers Achebe along with Soyinka. Despite a critical tendency to pit the two authors against one another, Omotoso 1996 develops a sustained reading of their shared preoccupations in the context of Nigerian politics and social life. Achebe was famed for his harsh criticism of Ghanaian writing Ayi Kwei Armah. Ogede 1996 reconsiders this stated animosity through thematic and close readings of the two writers, which position them less as adversaries and more as engaging with a shared set of concerns about postcolonial African governance and society. Anyama 1998 is notable for its comparative reading of Achebe’s work alongside francophone pioneer Mongo Beti, identifying childhood as a site through which to explore problems of power. Sengova 1997 and Champion 1995 draw links between Achebe’s work and that of James Baldwin, using the mutual admiration between the two men as a starting point for developing a shared understanding of global black liberation. Quayson 2016 is notable for placing Achebe in dialogue not with a fellow African writer, but with Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, providing an important cross-cultural analysis.

  • Anyama, N. F. “‘Beloved Pawns’: The Childhood Experience in the Novels of Chinua Achebe & Mongo Beti.” African Literature Today 21 (1998): 36–43.

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    Examines the role of childhood in the works of Achebe and Beti, focusing particularly on Things Fall Apart, Anthills of the Savannah, and Mission to Kala. Concludes that childhood, far from functioning as an idyll, is a space of patriarchal oppression and coercion that undoes the narrative of nostalgia.

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  • Champion, Ernest A. Mr. Baldwin, I Presume: James Baldwin; Chinua Achebe, a Meeting of the Minds. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995.

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    Comparative study of the work of the two authors, which foregrounds their shared status as fighters in the struggle against colonialism in Africa and racism and slavery in America. Unlike previous comparative studies that examine single works, this sets the entire oeuvre of both authors in dialogue.

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  • Ogede, Ode S. “Achebe and Armah: A Unity of Shaping Visions.” Research in African Literatures 27.2 (1996): 112–127.

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    Begins by recounting Achebe’s negative reaction to Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and moves into a textual analysis of each author’s novelistic intentions, suggesting a far closer relationship between the works of the two writers than previously thought.

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  • Omotoso, Kole. Achebe or Soyinka? A Study in Contrasts. London: Hans Zell, 1996.

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    Essential reading for scholars of Nigerian literature that takes a thematic approach to examine the ways in which the two titular authors intervene in Nigerian political life. Particularly notable for escaping from the dichotomy within which the work of the two writers is often set.

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  • Quayson, Ato. “Comparative Postcolonialisms: Storytelling and Community in Sholem Aleichem and Chinua Achebe.” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 3.1 (2016): 55–77.

    DOI: 10.1017/pli.2015.31Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Essays puts Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman in dialogue with Achebe’s Arrow of God in order to uncover the parallels forged by each text’s commitment to storytelling. Quayson highlights polysemy, narrative voice, and orality as ways in which each text fashions an imagined community manifested in the agonistics through which each text structures its protagonist’s mind.

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  • Sengova, Joko. “Native Identity and Alienation in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Cross-Cultural Analysis.” Mississippi Quarterly 50.2 (1997): 327–351.

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    Essay discusses the ways in which native identity and alienation emerge as common themes in Wright’s and Achebe’s work. Sengova argues that both Bigger Thomas and Okonkwo are denied entry into full personhood and that this alienation results in their violent responses.

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  • Traylor, Eleanor W. “James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe: Transgressing Official Vocabularies.” In James Baldwin: America and Beyond. Edited by Cora Kaplan and Bill Schwarz, 229–240. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

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    Explores the kinship, both as readers and writers, of Baldwin and Achebe as a means of proposing a form of transnational diasporic consciousness that crosses Africa and America.

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Things Fall Apart

Achebe’s most-celebrated work, Things Fall Apart has attracted dozens of book-length studies and critical articles numbering in the hundreds. Some of the most read and innovative of this work is cited here. A fundamental volume is Irele 2009. This critical edition brings together a comprehension bibliography and significant critical works dedicated to the novel. Okpewho 2003 is an essential text for all readers of the novel, featuring seminal essays on ethnography, pedagogy, and gender. Quayson 1994 and Whittaker and Msiska 2007 offer overviews and analyses of the vast body of criticism inspired by the novel, providing a helpful route maps through this diverse terrain. Begam 1997 and Korang 2011 provide readings rooted in tragedy, as a genre and a form, that move beyond the often-thematic readings of the novel. Valdez Morton 1995 provides a study of the novel in the context of Achebe’s larger project of critiquing modernity and modernization.

  • Begam, Richard. “Achebe’s Sense of an Ending: History and Tragedy in Things Fall Apart.” Studies in the Novel 29.3 (1997): 396–411.

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    Essay focuses on narrative closure in postcolonial literature, using Things Fall Apart as the starting point for a discussion rooted in the analysis of form and its role in historical recuperation. Begam argues that analyses of the novel have focused too overtly on the thematic and political, and he suggests that an aesthetic reading complicates the novel’s ability to deliver closure through a multiplicity of endings.

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  • Irele, Francis Abiola, ed. Things Fall Apart. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 2009.

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    Contains a significant introduction to the novel along with its full text. Critical material, including every important essay on the novel, is included as well as a comprehensive bibliography and chronology.

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  • Korang, Kwaku Larbi. “Making a Post-Eurocentric Humanity: Tragedy, Realism, and Things Fall Apart.” Research in African Literatures 42.2 (2011): 1–29.

    DOI: 10.2979/reseafrilite.42.2.1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines Things Fall Apart as a study in humanism through a reading of its aesthetic forms. Korang argues that Achebe uses Okonkwo and Umuofia as vehicles through which to restyle the African human and world, in direct response to inhumane visions by Cary and Conrad.

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  • Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991.

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    Important collection of pedagogical approaches to Things Fall Apart. Recommended for teachers of the novel at all levels.

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  • Okpewho, Isidore, ed. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Selection of key scholarly essays that engage with the novel from angles including ethnography, feminist criticism, religion, Igbo cosmology, and poetics.

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  • Quayson, Ato. “Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both: A Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with an Evaluation of the Criticism Relating to It.” Research in African Literatures 25.4 (1994): 117–136.

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    Argues for a reading of the novel that foregrounds its rich ambivalence, while simultaneously suggesting that the deeper ambiguity of the novel is often lost in critical readings that place too great an emphasis on straightforward realism in African literatures. An important contribution recommended to graduate students and advanced undergraduates seeking to understand the aesthetics of literary criticism.

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  • Valdez Morton, Michael. The Novel and the Globalization of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    Contains a chapter on Achebe’s novelistic output, especially Things Fall Apart, that situates the author’s work as a study of modernity, modernization, and its ambivalences.

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  • Whittaker, David, and Mpalive-Hangson Msiska. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. London: Routledge, 2007.

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    Recommended for advanced undergraduates looking to extend their knowledge of Achebe, the book skillfully summarizes the main lines of criticism of the author and expands them into new ground. Includes a new interview with the author in which he discusses his influences, feminism, and religion. The final sections on teaching, reception, and translation are particularly notable for placing the novel in a transnational context.

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Language

Following the 1962 Makerere conference, critic Obi Wali famously published his treatise in which he suggested that writing written only in indigenous African languages can be considered truly African. The language debate, as it has come to be known, was later taken up by an attendee at that conference, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who famously abandoned the English language as his medium of choice in favor of his native Gikuyu as a means of decolonizing the mind. Achebe, by contrast, maintained a more moderate tone in the language debates. In “English and the African Writer” Achebe maintained that his writing favored an English made flexible and inflected to carry his Igbo experience, arguing that only English could be seen as a national, rather than an ethnic, language in nation-states such as Nigeria. The precise means through which this Igbo-inflected English is developed in Achebe’s work has thus been the subject of significant critical attention. Nuokyaa-Ire Mwinlaaru 2014, Pereira 2015, and Täuschel 2014 apply linguistic analysis to the study of Achebe’s texts to develop empirically driven readings of the force of language. By contrast, Akpome 2014 and Griffiths 1971 deploy a more holistic form of narrative analysis to consider thematic issues.

  • Akpome, Aghogho. “Dispersal of Narrative Point of View in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.” English Academy Review 31.1 (2014): 19–37.

    DOI: 10.1080/10131752.2014.909000Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that criticism of the novel has been overshadowed by sociopolitical and thematic readings. Akpome offers a reading that focuses on the narrative and linguistic innovations within the novel, particularly its use of multiple focalizers, emplotment, and temporal nonlinearity. Drawing heavily on the narratological work of Jahn and Bal, Akpome demonstrates the extent to which Achebe creates a panoptic view of African society at the interstices of postcoloniality and postmodernity.

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  • Griffiths, Gareth. “Language and Action in the Novels of Chinua Achebe.” African Literature Today 5 (1971): 88–105.

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    Examines the relationship among language, plot, and character, focusing on the use of anecdote, proverbs, and folklore in Achebe’s first four novels.

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  • Nuokyaa-Ire Mwinlaaru, Isaac. “Style, Character and the Theme of Struggle and Change: Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.” Research in African Literatures 45.2 (2014): 103–121.

    DOI: 10.2979/reseafrilite.45.2.103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A fascinating analysis, using systemic functional linguistics to explore the narrative and linguistic transformation from fear and powerlessness in the novel to empowerment and bravery. The essay focuses particularly on the relationship among symbolism, narrative situation, and transitivity patternings. It gives an underlying systemic linguistic analysis of the character of Chris as an exemplar of Achebe’s call for an enlightened citizenry to stand up to power and transform society.

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  • Pereira, Fernanda Alencar. “Language Contact in Novels by Chinua Achebe and Pepetela.” In Language Contact: Mobility, Borders and Urbanization. Edited by Sabine Gorovitz and Isabella Mozzillo, 69–77. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2015.

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    Focuses on Achebe’s use of Igbo in English and Igbocized English as an example of language contact and contact zones.

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  • Täuschel, Alexander. World English(es): On the Examples of India and West Africa. Berlin: Epubli, 2014.

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    Chapter 5 of this study, “English in West Africa” (pp. 24–32), focuses on the use of West African English in Nigerian literature through readings of orality in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God.

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History

In his seminal essay “The Novelist as Teacher” Achebe states that his aim as a writer is to recuperate his people’s history and teach his readers that there was a lived and rich past prior to colonialism. Themes of history abound in Achebe’s work, most notably in his first three novels, and the selections listed here consider the ways in which the author’s oeuvre more broadly enacts various forms of historical recuperation. Williams 2001 reads Achebe’s nonfiction writings and his lectures as an attempt to reconstitute Nigerian history as the site of collective obligation, while Brown 2005 reads Arrow of God as a historical allegory. Okafor 1981 looks at the entire body of the author’s work to develop an analysis based on the writer’s reconstruction of culture and patrimony, and ten Kortenaar 2011 focuses on Arrow of God to explore Achebe’s use of literacy, as a literary figure, to examine overlapping historical zones. Ten Kortenaar 2015 and Osinubi 2015 focus on the role of law in Achebe’s writing.

  • Brown, Nicholas. Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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    Includes a chapter on Arrow of God that situates Achebe’s writing among larger debates on the image of Africa and African literature as a category. Focuses on the novel as an example of allegorical history writing through the categories of general and total allegory, a trend developed in his “village novels.”

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  • Okafor, Clement A. “A Sense of History in the Novels of Chinua Achebe.” Journal of African Studies 8.2 (1981): 50–63.

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    Evaluates the sense of history evident in Achebe’s novels along three principal lines: patrimony and its relationship to religion and culture; conflict and the obligation to choose elements of culture; the fulfillment of cultural destinies at the individual level. Focuses on Achebe’s essay and nonfiction writings as well as his novels.

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  • Osinubi, Taiwo Adetunji. “Abolition, Law, and the Osu Marriage Novel.” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 2.1 (2015): 53–71.

    DOI: 10.1017/pli.2014.24Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reads No Longer at Ease to explore the institution of Osu slavery. Places the text in dialogue with abolition discourse to situate No Longer at Ease as a novel that narrativizes the impasse among international law, colonial law, and indigenous tradition.

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  • ten Kortenaar, Neil. Postcolonial Literature and the Impact of Literacy: Reading and Writing in African and Caribbean Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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    Includes a chapter on Arrow of God that explores the images of literacy, reading, and writing in the novel. Argues that these form three distinct spaces integral to the narrative’s development and critique of history-making. Draws a link between narrative style and the recuperation of Igbo cultural history.

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  • ten Kortenaar, Neil. “Rule, Law, and the Rule of Law in Achebe’s Novels of Colonization.” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 2.1 (2015): 33–51.

    DOI: 10.1017/pli.2014.23Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reads Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God as political parables of the threat of war, British intervention, and the imposition of a colonial rule of law. Foregrounds the question of reciprocity as functioning in opposition to the law, drawing on the distinction between the gift economy of the former and the role of the sovereign in allegedly disinterested forms of arbitration of the latter. Asserts that Achebe moves from a position that foregrounds reciprocity as a system outside of the law to one that is more state-based following the creation of the Nigerian nation-state.

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  • Williams, Adebayo. “The Autumn of the Literary Patriarch: Chinua Achebe and the Politics of Remembering.” Research in African Literatures 32.3 (2001): 8–21.

    DOI: 10.2979/RAL.2001.32.3.8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses the case study of Home and Exile to examine the ways in which Achebe reconstructs and resuscitates Nigerian history as the site of ethical obligation on the part of the Nigerian populace.

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Politics

During the Nigerian-Biafran War Achebe took on the role of statesman, acting as an ambassador for the Biafran cause around the world, most notably in Europe and North America. Politics subsequently became the center of Achebe’s work. His fiction has uncovered the ways in which corruption, elitism, and nepotism have eroded the Nigerian government’s ability to adequate serve its people, situating the quest for power as a rot at the center of society. In his nonfiction, Achebe has been polemic in his criticism of the postcolonial Nigerian state and the inadequacies of its rulers, whom he sees as entirely unfit to rule. Akpome 2014 examines the shifting landscape of affiliations present in Achebe’s work, reading a progression from national commitment to a narrowing of horizons across his career. Brown 2011, Gikandi 1991, and Ojinmah 1991 focus on the politics of form, providing largely aesthetic readings of the ways in which a critique of power is encoded in Achebe’s work. Ibironke 2001, Schulze-Engler 1993, and Owusu 1991 consider the author as political actor and activist, focusing on the ways in which his writing actively intervenes in matters of civil society and political protest. Osinubi 2014, Maduka 2006, and Olaniyan 2001 each focus on specific novels as case studies of Achebe’s protest against corruption in hierarchies of power and the exploitation of the individual in society.

  • Akpome, Aghogho. “Ways of Telling: (Re)Writing the Nation in the Novels and Memoir of Chinua Achebe.” Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskrif vir Literatuurwetenskap 30.1 (2014): 34–52.

    DOI: 10.1080/02564718.2014.887614Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the trajectory from Achebe’s earlier novelistic output to his final work, the memoir There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra in order to argue that his thematization of the postcolonial nation betrays a narrowing of interest from Africa, writ large, to the Nigerian nation and finally to the Igbo ethno-nation. By so doing, Akpome offers a radicalization of Achebe’s older work, read through a retrospective lens.

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  • Brown, Nicholas. “Chinua Achebe and the Politics of Form.” Research in African Literatures 42.2 (2011): 87–90.

    DOI: 10.2979/reseafrilite.42.2.87Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Pursues a formal approach to Arrow of God to uncover the inherent political valences of the work, which exist prior to its sociopolitical context. The essay suggests that this occurs via the workings of genre and narrative in a manner that resonates more broadly with the capitalist accumulation of cultural value.

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  • Gikandi, Simon. “Chinua Achebe and the Post-colonial Esthetic: Writing, Identity, and National Formation.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 15.1 (1991): 29–41.

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    Suggests that Achebe’s novels are mediated by the politics of form as a means of commentary on contemporary nationalist epistemologies. The essay is particularly useful as an exploration of the ways in which aesthetics might enable a form of narrative intervention into extant political life.

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  • Ibironke, Olabode. “Chinua Achebe and the Political Imperative of the African Writer.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 36.1 (2001): 75–90.

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    Situates the African writer as not just an intellectual and aesthetic innovator but also an active interlocutor for national politics. Pursues this argument using the case study of Anthills of the Savannah as a means of foregrounding the political and social exigencies of contemporary African literatures.

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  • Maduka, Chidi T. “Chinua Achebe and Military Dictatorship in Nigeria: A Study of Anthills of the Savannah.” In The Responsible Critic. Edited by Isidore Diala, 213–226. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2006.

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    Reads Achebe’s final novel as a prescient study in the working of military dictatorship, in the context of Nigeria’s postcolonial history.

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  • Ojinmah, Umelo. Chinua Achebe: New Perspectives. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum, 1991.

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    A study focused on the themes of power and responsibility in Achebe’s work. Unfolding chronologically, it examines all of Achebe’s novels as well as his poetry and short stories to foreground the writer’s political role and the larger import of his body of work as a study in politics, corruption, and the individual.

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  • Olaniyan, Tejumola. “Chinua Achebe and an Archaeology of the Postcolonial African State.” Research in African Literatures 32.3 (2001): 22–29.

    DOI: 10.2979/RAL.2001.32.3.22Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the ways in which Arrow of God anticipates postcolonial crises in African states and their inability to escape the logic and presuppositions inherent in their colonial origins. The essay positions Achebe as a visionary able to diagnose the condition of illegitimacy that permeates postcolonial African politics in this context.

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  • Osinubi, Taiwo Adetunji. “Cold War Sponsorships: Chinua Achebe and the Dialectics of Collaboration.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 50.4 (2014): 410–422.

    DOI: 10.1080/17449855.2014.925695Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reads Man of the People as critiquing the normative rhetoric of the Cold War and argues that the novel subordinates its engagement with Cold War geopolitics to localized concerns in the era of decolonization as a means of satirizing the often-inflammatory language of Cold War–era communist fear in newly independent nations such as Nigeria, imagining a world order with space for political engagement outside of the East-West binary.

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  • Owusu, Kofi. “The Politics of Interpretation: The Novels of Chinua Achebe.” Modern Fiction Studies 37.3 (1991): 459–470.

    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.0.0668Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Situates Achebe’s fiction as studies in the operation of power. The author draws connections between Achebe’s portrayal of power and its abuses with a larger interest in religion, culture, tradition, and change, ultimately suggesting that these issues are deployed in Achebe’s work as a means of foregrounding the politics of literary critical interpretation.

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  • Schulze-Engler, Frank. “Chinua Achebe and the Politics of Civil Society in Modern African Literature.” In The African Past and Contemporary Culture. Edited by Erhard Reckwitz, Lucia Vennarini, and Cornelia Wegener, 169–183. Essen, Germany: Blaue Eule, 1993.

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    Connects Achebe’s novelistic output with the development of civic society in contemporary Nigeria, drawing links across the emerging canon of African literature.

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Gender and Sexuality

Early responses to Things Fall Apart and Achebe’s subsequent work included criticism of the author’s portrayal of largely paternalistic and patriarchal social structures to the detriment of female characters. Chukwuma 2012 is an essential volume of essays that draws on the cultural context of Igbo society to develop readings of patriarchy, power, and revolt in Achebe’s depiction of gender relations which challenge these criticisms by drawing attention to the specifically aesthetic and strategic workings of gender. Nwachukwu-Agbada 2006 likewise reads Achebe’s depiction of femininity as an ironic commentary on social weaknesses and myopias, a theme taken up in Nwagbara 2013. Osei-Nyame 1999 considers this trend of revisionist readings of gender in Achebe’s work by applying dialogic narrative theory derived from the work of Bakhtin to suggest the subtle critique of patriarchal power structures apparent within. Jeyifo 1993 provides a close reading of the figure of Okonkwo’s mother in order to develop a feminist counter-reading of the novel. By contrast, Stratton 1994 provides a more critical reading of Achebe’s portrayal of women, foregrounding their narrative silencing. Osinubi 2016 is a welcome addition to Achebe scholarship with its queer reading of the author’s first and final novels, relying on the symbologies of homosocial desire as a means of undoing heteronormativity in the quest for freedom and democracy.

  • Chukwuma, Helen, ed. Achebe’s Women: Imagism and Power. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2012.

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    A collection of essays that seeks to understand the role and position of women in Achebe’s work beyond their submission to patriarchy. The readings are set against a broader discussion of Igbo culture to draw attention to the ways in which women operate as central figures of strength in Achebe’s work, drawing on examples from Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah. Also discusses the inability to recognize female strength as a failing of male characters.

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  • Jeyifo, Biodun. “Okonkwo and His Mother: ‘Things Fall Apart’ and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse.” Callaloo 16.4 (1993): 847–858.

    DOI: 10.2307/2932213Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides an extensive recuperative reading of the single mention of Okonkwo’s mother in Things Fall Apart, arguing that a feminist reenvisioning of the character puts into relief her representative function with respect to the novel’s gender politics. Views the mother figure as a challenge to patriarchal nationalist discourses in the African context, arguing for a rescripting of national liberation without sexism.

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  • Nwachukwu-Agbada, J. O. J. “Behind the Irony Curtain: Chinua Achebe and Femality Revisited.” In The Responsible Critic. Edited by Isidore Diala, 79–96. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2006.

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    Uses irony as a framework through which to understand Achebe’s portrayal, and deconstruction, of gender in his major works.

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  • Nwagbara, Uzoechi. “Achebe’s Fiction and the Changing Generation of Nigerian Women: Towards a Paradigm Shift in Leadership.” Matutu 42 (2013): 225–245, 388.

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    Focuses on the ways in which Achebe leverages a portrait of patriarchal social formations in order to forge an aesthetic sensibility in which the reenvisioning of male-centric leadership structures in favor of women’s empowerment is a prerequisite for change, democracy, and self-realization.

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  • Osei-Nyame, Kwadwo. “Chinua Achebe Writing Culture: Representations of Gender and Tradition in Things Fall Apart.” Research in African Literatures 30.2 (1999): 148–164.

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    Views tradition as a site of ideological conflict in Achebe’s works. Drawing on Bakhtin’s narrative theories, the author reads alternative narratives for undoing gender norms in Achebe’s first novel as an ideological intervention.

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  • Osinubi, Taiwo Adetunji. “Micro-politics of Buttocks: The Queer Intimacies of Chinua Achebe.” Research in African Literatures 47.2 (2016): 162–185.

    DOI: 10.2979/reseafrilite.47.2.10Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides a queer reading of Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, with a particular focus on symbols of queering in these texts, such as Mami Wata and her python. The essay ultimately suggests that queer emergence serves as an index for democratic politics in Achebe’s work.

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  • Stratton, Florence. Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. London: Routledge, 1994.

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    Features lengthy discussions of Achebe’s novels, notably Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, situating his work as part of a patriarchal tradition of African men’s writing about women. Argues, following Ifi Amadiume, that Achebe deliberately distorts precolonial gender systems and contributes to the ongoing objectification and instrumentalization of women in African writing. Argues that even his later work positions women as an index for men.

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Religion

Raised a Christian but skeptical of evangelic missionary expansion, Achebe’s work is imbued with recurrent themes drawn from religion and religious belief. From an exploration of life and death to a more explicit engagement with the church and its social influence, Achebe’s work foregrounds the cultural and political valences of religion, rather than view it as purely detached and spiritual. Despite his own upbringing and faith, Achebe remained highly critical of the exploitation of the masses by leadership both in the church and in the context of traditional religion. George 2002 and Paustian 2014 focus specifically on the role of missionaries in Achebe’s work, drawing connections to historical accounts of missionary work. Both texts highlight the ways in which Achebe deconstructs the savage/saved binary propagated in missionary writing. Nichols 1996 and Sharma 1993 use comparative and dialogic frameworks to produce contrapuntal readings of Christianity in Achebe’s work, which are more radical than surface readings suggest. Mathuray 2009 turns its attention to Arrow of God to explore the ambiguities of the sacred.

  • George, Olakunle. “The ‘Native’ Missionary, the African Novel, and In-Between.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 36.1 (2002): 5–25.

    DOI: 10.2307/1346112Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the ways in which forms of evangelical Christianity have impacted contemporary black writing, focusing in particular on the figure of the missionary in African literature. The essay suggests that Achebe’s novels provide a means for revising the hegemonic narrative of savages and pagans developed by missionaries, redressing its colonialist implications.

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  • Mathuray, Mark. On the Sacred in African Literature: Old Gods, New Worlds. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230240919Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Features a chapter on the sacred in Arrow of God that examines the ways in which the novel enlivens a range of social and symbolic oppositions through its presentation and play with the sacred. Suggests that the sacred might offer an alternative to the concept of myth, emphasizing its conceptual foundations in the novel and resultant political implications. Links in innovative ways to Achebe’s own writing about the Igbo concept of chi.

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  • Nichols, Ashton: “‘If There Is One God, Fine, There Will Be Others’: Dialogical Theology in the Novels of Chinua Achebe.” In And the Birds Began to Sing: Religion and Literature in Post-colonial Cultures. Edited by Jamie S. Scott, 159–170. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

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    Examines Achebe’s novels from Things Fall Apart to Anthills of the Savannah through the lens of dialogical reading, arguing that only reading practices attuned to the multiplicity of voices can capture the constitutive and interactive relationship between Igbo traditional religion and Christianity in this body of work. Argues that Achebe’s body of work presents not a progression but a development of religious thought that exceeds the binaries of cultural clashings.

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  • Paustian, Megan Cole. “‘A Real Heaven on Their Own Earth’: Religious Missions, African Writers, and the Anticolonial Imagination.” Research in African Literatures 45.2 (2014): 1–25.

    DOI: 10.2979/reseafrilite.45.2.1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reads Achebe’s memoirs and fiction to explore the ways in which missionary education, implicated with colonial domination, simultaneously served as a site for radical self-invention in the formation of the emancipatory discourses that would drive decolonization. Paustian’s essay demands a nuanced engagement with missionary traditions, moving to a perspective in which African subjects and foreign missionaries partake in a complex relationship of contestation and creation.

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  • Sharma, Govind Narain. “The Christian Dynamic in the Fictional World of Chinua Achebe.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 24.2 (1993): 85–99.

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    Examines Achebe’s portrayal and discussions of Christianity in a comparative framework. Arguing that Achebe is generally seen as a more moderate critic of Christianity in Africa, the essay attempts to use close textual readings to determine the true extent to which Achebe departs from the more militant perspectives of his contemporaries, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Kofi Awoonor.

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Folklore, Cosmology, and Culture

Taken as a whole, Achebe’s writings are heavily influenced and mediated by his native Igbo culture. Rather than view that culture as static, timeless, or idealized, however, Achebe’s writing develops a vision of Igbo culture that highlights its complexity, including its shortcomings, and maintains its dynamism over time. Cultural adaptation under colonialism is a particularly important theme in his work, as is the project of cultural restitution and pride. Kemoli 1974 and Hoegberg 1999 examine the internal fissures in Igbo culture as presented in Achebe’s work, suggesting that these forms of internal violence can be read as antecedents of colonial conquest, which paved the way for its success. Frank 2010 expands on this purview to read social alienation more broadly in Igbo society. Greenberg 2007 and Emenyonu 1998 examine specific works by Achebe to consider the ways in which narrative form and orality function as a means of cultural transmission, while Ogbaa 1992 provides a personal account of the resonance of folklore and cosmology in Achebe’s first four novels.

  • Emenyonu, Ernest N. “(Re)Inventing the Past for the Present: Symbolism in Chinua Achebe’s How the Leopard Got His Claws.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 36.1 (1998): 6–11.

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    Reads Achebe’s children’s writing through the lens of symbolism in order to consider how Achebe uses the form to execute a form of cultural excavation for contemporary populations. Argues that Achebe’s children’s literature is as engaged as his adult writing and notes significant differences between his human and animal stories.

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  • Frank, Kevin. “Censuring the Praise of Alienation: Interstices of Ante-Alienation in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God.” Commonwealth Essays and Studies 32.2 (2010): 21–33.

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    Sets Achebe’s first three novels in dialogue with Négritude philosophy to suggest that attempts to recuperate universal black cultural identity are destabilized by the former’s portrayal of social alienation as a precondition, rather than a symptom, of colonial alienation. Significant for its reading of alienation not as an external imposition on traditional African societies but as both internal and prior to colonialism, using Irele’s “In Praise of Alienation” as key interlocutor.

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  • Greenberg, Jonathan. “Okonkwo and the Storyteller: Death, Accident, and Meaning in Chinua Achebe and Walter Benjamin.” Contemporary Literature 48.3 (2007) 423–450.

    DOI: 10.1353/cli.2007.0038Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” as a framework for analyzing the shift from orality to the written word in Things Fall Apart. The essay positions the novel as a means of intervening into Benjamin’s own claims and of understanding Things Fall Apart as a novel that uses various functions of storytelling to theorize the nature of stories themselves.

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  • Hoegberg, David. “Principle and Practice: The Logic of Cultural Violence in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” College Literature 26.1 (1999): 69–79.

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    Examines cultural violence as a phenomenon internal to Umuofia society in Achebe’s novel. The essay reads the prevalence of cultural violence, articulated in ritual sacrifices and punishment ceremonies, as the sign of a contradiction at the core of traditional society and a symptom of its unspoken assumptions. Notes rightly that this reading is supported by the relatively minor importance of British colonial figures to the bulk of the novel.

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  • Kemoli, A. M. “The Novels of Chinua Achebe: A Prophecy of Violence.” Joliso 2.1 (1974): 47–66.

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    Examines violence not merely as a by-product of colonialism but as an inherent feature of precolonial Igbo society in Achebe’s novels. Argues that violence is offset in traditional society by the regular appearance of collective rituals and purification ceremonies that lend themselves to social cohesion and balance among its varying population groups.

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  • Ogbaa, Kalu. Gods, Oracles, and Divination: Folkways in Chinua Achebe’s Novels. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1992.

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    Focuses on Achebe’s first four novels, exploring the various forms of verbal expression through which cosmology, traditional folklore, religious ceremonies, and proverbs appear. Notable for its highly personal methodology built off of a common communal identity with the author.

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Canon Formation

Achebe was not the first Nigerian writer to be published in English or in London. He was predated by both Amos Tutuola and Cyprian Ekwensi. Despite this fact, Achebe remains a canonical figure in a manner yet to be attained by either of his countrymen. He continues to be considered the father of modern African literature, a role augmented by his position as general editor during the first ten years of the Heinemann African Writers Series. The essays and chapters listed here examine Achebe’s significance in the development and institutionalization of African literature as it exists today. Gikandi 2001 positions Achebe as a progenitor not just of African writing but also of African culture in the global imaginary, noting the external factors that enabled Things Fall Apart to find the readership it did. Izevbaye 2009 and Lindfors 1973 examine the ways in which Achebe cleared the way for the development of African and Nigerian literature more broadly, ultimately opening new avenues for the novel form. Olney 1971 focuses on the critical implications of Achebe’s writing as necessitating new and non-Western modes of inquiry to capture its narrative complexity and cultural hybridity. Huggan 2001 and Newell 2006 take a critical perspective on the role of Things Fall Apart as a foundational text, criticizing the anthropological bent in its reception.

  • Gikandi, Simon. “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture.” Research in African Literatures 32.3 (2001): 3–8.

    DOI: 10.2979/RAL.2001.32.3.3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the transformative legacies of Things Fall Apart as a central facet to the institution and institutionalization of African literature. Highlights the fact that, while African culture is now seen as synonymous with colonial intervention, a rich body of precolonial work remains. Also notes that Achebe was not the first African writer to be published, but that a nexus of external factors contributed to the novel’s success and relevance.

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  • Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203420102Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contains a significant discussion of Things Fall Apart in a chapter on African literature and the anthropological exotic. Huggan criticizes ethnographic and sociological readings of the novel as misguided in the face of its larger critique of ethnography and narrative subversion of its forms. He suggests the novel’s position as a founding text of African literature has resulted in a form of exoticism in reading.

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  • Izevbaye, Dan. “Chinua Achebe and the African Novel.” In The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel. Edited by F. Abiola Irele, 31–50. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521855600.003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Evaluates Achebe’s reputation as a writer now firmly ensconced in the canon of English-language literature, focusing on indirect evidence of his legacy in the transformation of novelistic traditions and the restructuring of the colonial archive as a site of inquiry.

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  • Lindfors, Bernth. “Chinua Achebe and the Nigerian Novel.” Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings 15 (1973).

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    Examines Achebe’s status as the canonical founder of Nigerian literature as a national tradition.

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  • Newell, Stephanie. West African Literature: Ways of Reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Includes a substantial chapter on Things Fall Apart, which centers on its foundational role in the formation of African literature in English, as a canon of writing. Notable for its critical reading of the novel’s “anthropological” status, highlighting its counter-discursive elements and positioning Achebe’s work as an Ur-text for modern African literature.

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  • Olney, James. “The African Novel in Transition: Chinua Achebe.” South Atlantic Quarterly 70 (1971): 299–316.

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    The author uses Achebe’s novels Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and A Man of the People as the basis for an argument against evaluating African literature through strictly Western standards of novelistic practice. Suggests that Achebe’s move from an idiom based in Igbo tradition to one more aligned with the novel, as Western form, mimics the transition and integration of African peoples into the Western world more broadly.

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