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Nigerian Writer Wins German Peace Prize

October 13, 2002

In recognition of his work as a pioneering African novelist and moralist, the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association has awarded its peace prize for literature to the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

The Nigerian author Chinua AchebeImage: AP

On Sunday, the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers recognized the lifetime achievement of one of Africa’s best-known English-speaking writers, the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, by awarding him this year’s peace prize for literature at the close of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Announcing its decision to the press back in June, the Association praised the work of Achebe saying, he is "one of the strongest and most subtle voices in the literature of 20th century Africa, a tireless teacher and moralist, but chiefly a great storyteller."

Achebe is only the second black African to win the German prize, which has been awarded annually since 1950. In justifying its choice, the booksellers’ organization said, "Achebe is an unchallenged founder of an authentic English-language novelistic tradition in West Africa. His central theme is to create peace in a region engaged in a permanent cultural conflict."

The author himself says he is pleased about receiving the award. At first, though, he wasn’t quite certain what the 15,000 euro ($13,950) prize was for. "Initially, the announcement meant little to me. I had not heard much about the prize," Achebe admitted upon hearing the news on Monday. But after learning more about the background and the meaning of the peace prize, Achebe says he endorses the philosophy behind the award, which combines literature and peace.

"We don’t speak enough about the connection between literature and peace," Achebe told reporters in New York, where he currently resides. Authors could do much more to promote peace in the world if they would speak out and actively involve themselves in the pursuit of justice and fairness, he said after he was notified about the award.

The spokesman for the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, Eugen Emmerling, told DW-WORLD that the "peace prize is not a literary award per se, but rather a recognition of the principles for which the author stands," namely the promotion of world peace and understanding. In this regard, Chinua Achebe is the ideal recipient of the award.

An African writer for the world

Achebe achieved international literary recognition for his first novel Things Fall Apart, a vivid depiction of the often brutal world of pre-colonial Nigeria, whose harshness was balanced by tradition, ritual and a sense of social cohesion. It is a narrative on the epochal colliding and collapsing of social structures through the aggressive infiltration of Christian missionaries and the colonization of traditional Africa.

Since its initial publication in London in 1958, Achebe’s book has become a modern classic and a exemplary work of African literature in English. It has sold more than 10 million copies in 50 languages, including German where the novel is known under the title, Okonkwo, Das Alte stürzt ("Okonkwo, The Old Breaks Down").

Worldwide, Things Fall Apart is the best-known African literary work, says Peter Ripken, director of the German Society for the Promotion of Literature from Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the last few years it has become firmly rooted in the world literary canon and is required reading at many American and British universities.

"Hardly any other work of post-colonial literature has received as much academic attention as Achebe’s novel," writes Ripken on the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Web site. And no other African author receives as many hits in Internet search machines as Achebe: 29,600 in google.com.

Achebe’s other works include the novels A Man of the People, Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah as well as collections of essays. Like his first novel, Achebe’s later books chronicle the historical developments which lead up to the critical situation in present-day Africa.

Writing in the name of peace

Achebe’s vision is one of peace and harmony for the embattled and impoverished continent of Africa. Through his literature he conveys his vision; he makes his dream come alive like a not-too-distant reality. And yet he is a realist. In each of his novels he portrays the deep scars left by years of colonialism and the trampled hopes for a brighter day after independence. But Achebe never grows tired, and he never gives up speaking of his vision.

Born in 1930, in the eastern Nigerian town of Ogido as the son of a Christian clergyman, Achebe experienced first hand his country’s painful history with and break away from colonial power. Growing up a member of the Igbo, one of Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups, Achebe watched his country struggle to free itself from British rule and establish an independent state. As an adult, he was actively involved in the cultural and political restructuring of his country.

In 1961 Achebe was appointed director of the foreign service of the Nigerian Radio. In 1966, after watching the massacre of his own people, he resigned in protest. During the Biafra civil war (1967-1970), Achebe became the special representative for the break-away region in Europe and the United States. At the end of the war he took up a position at the Nigerian University in Nsukka and taught literature courses in the United States. For many years Achebe was an advisor for the "African Writers Series" of the German Heinemann Publishing House. In 1971 he founded the literary journal "Okike", a forum for young African authors which address the socio-political role of literature.

Achebe now lives in New York with his wife and four children. Since suffering injuries from a car accident in 1990, he has been bound to a wheelchair and unable to travel to his home country.

A prize for the Nigerian people

Even though his visits to Nigeria have become infrequent over the last few years, Achebe is still actively involved in supporting cultural activities in his homeland. In this regard the 15,000 euro prize money for the German booksellers’ award will be put to good use.

Speaking to reporters in New York after being named for the prize, Achebe announced he planned to use the money to pay for the translation of world literature into the Igbo language. "It is very important to me that my people can experience great works of literature in their own language," he said while stressing that the dialogue between cultures via literature increases understanding and respect for one another.

In terms of his own continent, Achebe believes the Western world needs to be more open to the voices coming out of Africa and more attentive to the problems arising there. "The Africans have done much to understand Europe, now it is time for the Europeans to do more to understand Africa," Achebe said after accepting the German peace prize.

By honoring the author Nelson Mandela once described as the man who "brought Africa to the world," the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association is taking one small step on the road to listening more to the African voice.