Achebe was born in southern Nigeria in 1930, the fifth child of Protestant Igbo parents, and baptized Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. He was from an early age a remarkable student—his classmates nicknamed him "Dictionary"—and he read voraciously: Shakespeare, Dickens, Booker T. Washington. After a short post-graduation stint teaching English, Achebe was hired by the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos, where he edited radio scripts and began work on a novel.
That novel would become likely the widest read African novel in history, but it was initially rejected by several publishers. The story of the life of a 19th-century Igbo leader confronting the humiliations of colonialism and missionary Christianity, Things Fall Apart is now a classic, assigned in schools worldwide. At the time it was difficult to sell: an English-language book by an African author. But in 1958, encouraged by an employee who had recently traveled to Africa, Heinemann bought and published the book. Though not a sensation, it was well received, and Achebe's career as a novelist had begun.
Achebe continued to work at NBS even as his stature grew. In 1961 he married a coworker, Christie Okoli; the year before he had dedicated his second novel, No Longer at Ease, a kind of sequel to Things Fall Apart, to her. In 1964 he published his third novel, Arrow of God. He traveled around Africa and was promoted at the NBS; Heinemann chose asked him to edit its African Writers Series, where he published Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's first book. In 1966, at that point a father twice over, he published his first children's book, and a fourth novel, A Man of the People.
In 1967, civil war broke out in Nigeria, and Achebe—whose most recent book had closely mirrored the recent political events of his home country—became a partisan of, and eventually ambassador for, the breakaway, largely Igbo nation of Biafra. Despite his efforts to raise awareness of the civil war in the U.S. and Europe, the Biafran military eventuall surrendered, and in 1970 the former boundaries of Nigeria were restored. (There was a Country: A personal history of Biafra, Achebe's memoir of the Biafran War, garnered some acclaim and a lot of controversy when it was published last year).
Two years later, Achebe moved to Massachusetts, accepting a professorship at UMass Amherst. There, he wrote and presented one of the best known academic lectures of the 20th century, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," a brutal summation of Conrad's famous novel that shocked and angered many of his peers. (I can say with some authority that it was still shocking and angering students as recently as 2007.) "An Image of Africa" represented a major break with previous readings of Conrad, and began a new chapter in readers' understandings of Heart of Darkness—one of few books as frequently assigned in English classes as Things Fall Apart.
Achebe returned to Africa in the 1980s, teaching at the University of Kenya and the University of Nigeria and becoming active in Nigerian politics again. His fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, was released in 1987. Three years later, Achebe was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. He moved back to America, where he taught at Bard and then at Brown; in 2007 he was awarded the Man Booker prize. Though Anthills was his last novel, he continued to write poetry and criticism. In 1998, he gave an series of lectures later published in Home and Exile, quoted at length at the Awl, in which he connected his life to his hopes for the new century:
[M]y hope for the twenty-first is that it will see the first fruits of the balance of stories among the world's peoples. The twentieth century for all its many faults did witness a significant beginning, in Africa and elsewhere in the so-called Third World, of the process of 're-storying' peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession. I was lucky to be present at one theater of that reclamation. And I know that such a tremendously potent and complex human reinvention of self-calling, as it must do, on every faculty of mind and soul and spirt; drawing as it must, from every resource of memory and imagination and from a familiarity with our history, our arts and culture; but also from an unflinching consciousness of the flaw that blemished our inheritance-such an enterprise could not be expected to be easy. And it has not been.