After years of silence on the Biafra war, Africa’s father of modern literature, Professor Chinua Achebe has released his first major work in years. For more than 40 years he has remained mute about his war experiences. Now, he tells the story how he lived it and he has now come to understand it.
The much anticipated novel, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, was released to the UK market on Thursday. Subsequent releases will be made in Achebe’s home country, Nigeria and the US on October 11, this year.
His new novel, which dubbed as a history and memoir, chronicles Achebe’s experience during the Nigerian Biafra civil war in the 1960s (1967-1970) as it affected his native eastern region descent, the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria. The gruesome civil war almost destroyed his nation leaving about one million people dead.
“There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid observation and considered research and reflection,” Achebe’s UK publisher, Allen Lane says.
“It relates Nigeria’s birth pangs in the context of Achebe’s own development as a man and a writer, and examines the role of the artist in times of war.”
During the Biafra war, Achebe acted as roving cultural Ambassador for the Biafran Republic when the south-eastern area tried to split from Nigeria in 1967. Although he has not make any literary contribution on the event over the years, echoes of his thought on the issue are seen occasionally in some of his writings including his collection Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems.
Experts believe that the release of a Biafra memoir at this time by Achebe is urgently needed in a country that remains deeply fractured on other levels, despite the book’s focus on events that happened more than four decades ago.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with 160 million people, groups and about 250 ethnic groups. It is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south. Despite this uniqueness in diversity, the country has been plagued with speculation of splitting as there has been a notable disputes that has had immeasurable impact on the country’s independence since 1960.
A history professor at Nigeria’s Lagos State University, said Dapo Thomas, said that “Achebe is sustaining the debate on integration, on unity and on oneness.”
“Until there is a sovereign agreement from the peasants to the elite that we want to remain as one, we must continue that debate. A nation cannot remain comatose while these issues are unresolved.”
Achebe is widely known for his revered book, Things Fall Apart, which centers on the collision between British colonial rule and Igbo traditional society has been translated in 50 languages was published 54 years ago. The book has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.
He remains a respected figure in Nigerian and African literature.
“Just as we read Shakespeare, it’s not possible for any student in this department to graduate without reading the works of Chinua Achebe,” said the head of the English department at the University of Lagos, Adeyemi Daramola.
His legacy is secure in Nigeria but his absence has been felt, said Daramola.
“For Achebe to have been away for so long, we have indeed missed him.”
The 81-year-old veteran relocated to the United States after his accident in 1990 which has left him immobilized in a wheel chair. He is now a Professor at Brown University in Rhode Island.
He is credited as having played a seminal role in the founding and development of African literature. He has indeed continue to have an revered seat among world writers not only because of his storytelling gift but for his talent as a critical thinker and essayist who has written extensively on questions on the role of culture in Africa and the socio-political significance of aesthetics and analysis of the post-colonial state in Africa.
He was the founding editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series. Achebe also edited the University of Nsukka journal Nsukkascope, founded Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing and, assisted in the founding of a publishing house, Nwamife Books–an organization responsible for publishing other ground breaking work by award-winning writers.
Achebe has been honoured with awards like: The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010), Man Booker International Award (2007), UNESCO Fellowship for Creative Artists (1960) as well as a Commonwealth Poetry Prize.