In This Article Chinua Achebe

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Interviews

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


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.

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

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230375215E-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.

  • 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.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511554407E-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.

  • 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.

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

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-12204-9E-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.

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

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719084362.001.0001E-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.

  • 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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