#100PENMembers No.16: Chinua Achebe

Our next PEN member is trailblazing Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

Not only was he among the first writers to bring African literature to an international audience through novels such as Things Fall Apart(1958) and The Arrow of God(1964)he also did much to raise the profile of African writing and writers within PEN.

Before the Second World War PEN’s presence in Africa was limited to white-run centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Egyptian PEN was created in 1945, and there was a very successful international congress in the Ivory Coast in 1967, but it was not until the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that many African countries created PEN centres and black African voices began to be central to the organisation. Along with the establishment of centres in Ghana and Malawi in 1994, the important PEN Africa Network was created in 2001. Facilitating collaborative action and extending PEN’s International Programmes, the Network also encouraged the founding of centres in Nigeria, Kenya, Algeria, Zambia and Morocco.  

Prior to this, however, in 1989 a number of PEN centres persuaded Achebe to run as a candidate to succeed British writer Francis King as President of PEN International. John Ralston Saul, who was International PEN President from 2009-2015, spoke retrospectively of the collective desire of some PEN members to have Achebe as President in order to spearhead the global reform and modernisation of PEN. 

Per Wastberg, then International Vice President for the organisation, argued that the ‘the time had now come to balance the American/European presence and to have the literature of the Third world represented on a Presidential level.’ Wastberg believed that Achebe was crucial if the organisation wanted to continue to be relevant. 

In electing an International Presidential candidate at this time PEN voted by centre, after speeches by leading members in favour of each candidate. The nominees were not asked to speak for themselves so we have no way of knowing what Achebe made of this. Achebe secured almost fifty per cent of the vote, but lost by 30 votes to René Tavernier’s 35. 

If PEN International was not ready at that point for its first African President, the ensuing debate raised important questions about PEN and Africa, about the importance of African voices within the organisation and paved the way for a greater involvement of African writers and African centres.

Alongside his fellow Nigerian Wole Soyinka, Achebe began to appear more frequently at PEN meetings from this time. He was a valuable voice in round tables and conferences, dedicated to the view of PEN as an international commonwealth of letters and international writers’ community.

In 2007 PEN America hosted a 50thanniversary event of Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart,attended by Achebe himself, along with Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michael Cunningham, Edwige Danticat, Suheir Hammad, Ha Jin, Colum McCann and Toni Morrison.

Listen to a rare recording of Achebe reading from Things Fall Apart

After Achebe’s death in 2013, Tade Ipadeola, President of the PEN Nigerian Centre wrote that, ‘it wasn’t possible to be indifferent to Achebe. You loved him or hated him. Sometimes you did both at the same time.’ He described hearing PEN’s former President John Ralston Saul’s account of his support of Achebe’s candidacy for the PEN International Presidency in 1989:

‘I saw in Saul’s eyes the conviction that had been the equivalent of a cardinal voting for a black Pope, a dancer to a distant tropic drum. Few had seen what he saw back then. Not anymore, Africa’s best are at the forefront of the writing profession everywhere today and it is undeniably due to the labours of such great spirits as Chinua Achebe.’

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