New York Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and political dissident, finds little reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his native country’s independence.
“Unfortunately, the truth is that Nigeria has disappointed all of our friends and loved ones and relations who are constantly having reasons to ask, ‘When will something good ever happen?”’ Achebe, who turns 80 next month, said during a recent interview from his home in Providence, R.I.
“Fifty years is a long time, especially for those of us who were already grown up when it happened. The expectations were just unbelievable. It’s like the place was lit up and we were expecting miracles. But the only miracles I’ve seen are miracles of disappointment.”
Achebe, whose “Things Fall Apart” is regarded as the founding work of postcolonial African fiction, has long been in conflict with the Nigerian government. In fiction and nonfiction, he has condemned and satirized corruption and oppression and he has lived abroad for years, currently teaching Africana studies at Brown University. In 2004, he refused the country’s second-highest award, the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, in protest over conditions under President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Nigeria, home to 150 million people, has conducted a string of criticized elections since becoming a democracy more than a decade ago, when military rule was changed to civilian government. Nigerian politics have been dominated by the ruling People’s Democratic Party.
“We just do not have the right people in the right places and it’s become a habit. It’s almost like saying, ‘Let us despair,’ and ’I’m sorry to have to do that. Let us not despair,”’ Achebe says, adding that the greatest hope would be “people waking up.”
“We have good people there and abroad who see how things can be different. So I hope through diverse conversations and debates and projects and proposals we find our way out. It’s our only hope.”
Achebe recently had some satisfying personal news: He is this year’s winner of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, a $300,000 award given “to artistic trailblazers who have redefined their craft.” Previous recipients include Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller and Merce Cunningham.
“It is a profoundly important prize, so I am very, very happy,” he says. “I feel very lucky.”
Every year, Achebe is mentioned as a candidate for the world’s most famous literary honor, the Nobel, but he has yet to win. He says that he’s not disappointed and called the latest winner, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, a worthy choice.
“Prizes are not important in the sense that I spend my time wondering, ‘Will I get a prize today?”’ says Achebe, who finds himself put off by the “debate” and “controversy” of the Nobels.
“It’s a very important prize,” he says of the Nobel, “but I’ll leave it alone.”