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Author Chinua Achebe dies at 82

  • This 2010 photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe on campus in Providence, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)

    This 2010 photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe on campus in Providence, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)

  • This undated photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe at his home in Warwick, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. Achebe's 1958 novel, "Things Fall Apart," is widely regarded as the first major work of modern African fiction and inspired others to tell the continent's story through the eyes of those who lived there. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)

    This undated photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe at his home in Warwick, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. Achebe's 1958 novel, "Things Fall Apart," is widely regarded as the first major work of modern African fiction and inspired others to tell the continent's story through the eyes of those who lived there. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)

  • FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2002 file photo, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is shown in Frankfurt Main, Germany. Achebe, who wrote the classic, "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa, Frank May, File)

    FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2002 file photo, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is shown in Frankfurt Main, Germany. Achebe, who wrote the classic, "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa, Frank May, File)

  • FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2002 file photo, Richard von Weizaecker, left, former German President, congratulates Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, after Achebe was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the German publishing industry at the Paul's Church in Frankfurt Main, Germany. Achebe, who wrote the classic, "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa, Frank May, File)

    FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2002 file photo, Richard von Weizaecker, left, former German President, congratulates Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, after Achebe was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the German publishing industry at the Paul's Church in Frankfurt Main, Germany. Achebe, who wrote the classic, "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa, Frank May, File)

  • FILE - Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet speaks about his works and his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor, in this Jan. 22, 2008 file photo. Achebe, who wrote the classic "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

    FILE - Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet speaks about his works and his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor, in this Jan. 22, 2008 file photo. Achebe, who wrote the classic "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

  • FILE - Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet poses his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor in this Jan. 22, 2008 file photo. Achebe, who wrote the classic "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

    FILE - Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet poses his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor in this Jan. 22, 2008 file photo. Achebe, who wrote the classic "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

  • This 2010 photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe on campus in Providence, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)

    This 2010 photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe on campus in Providence, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)

  • This 2010 photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe on campus in Providence, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)
  • This undated photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe at his home in Warwick, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. Achebe's 1958 novel, "Things Fall Apart," is widely regarded as the first major work of modern African fiction and inspired others to tell the continent's story through the eyes of those who lived there. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)
  • FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2002 file photo, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is shown in Frankfurt Main, Germany. Achebe, who wrote the classic, "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa, Frank May, File)
  • FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2002 file photo, Richard von Weizaecker, left, former German President, congratulates Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, after Achebe was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the German publishing industry at the Paul's Church in Frankfurt Main, Germany. Achebe, who wrote the classic, "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa, Frank May, File)
  • FILE - Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet speaks about his works and his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor, in this Jan. 22, 2008 file photo. Achebe, who wrote the classic "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)
  • FILE - Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet poses his life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor in this Jan. 22, 2008 file photo. Achebe, who wrote the classic "Things Fall Apart," has died. He was 82. Achebe's publisher confirmed his death Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)
  • This 2010 photo provided by Brown University shows Chinua Achebe on campus in Providence, R.I. Achebe, an internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, has died at age 82. He joined Brown University in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. (AP Photo/Brown University, Mike Cohea)

The opening sentence was as simple, declarative and revolutionary as a line out of Hemingway: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond,” Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart.

Africans, the Nigerian author announced more than 50 years ago, had their own history, their own celebrities and reputations. Centuries of being defined by the West were about to end, a transformation led by Achebe, who continued for decades to rewrite and reclaim the history of his native country.

Achebe, the internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, died at age 82 in Boston on Thursday after a brief illness. He lived through and helped define traumatic change in Nigeria, from independence to dictatorship to the disastrous war between Nigeria and the breakaway country of Biafra in the late 1960s. He knew both the prestige of serving on government commissions and the fear of being declared an enemy of the state. He spent much of his adult life in the United States but never stopped calling for democracy in Nigeria or resisting literary honors from a government he refused to accept.

His public life began in his mid-20s, when Nigeria was still under British rule. He was a resident of London when he completed his handwritten manuscript for Things Fall Apart, a short novel about a Nigerian tribesman’s downfall at the hands of British colonialists.

Turned down by several publishers, the book was finally accepted by Heinemann and released in 1958 with a first printing of 2,000. Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century.

Achebe, paralyzed from the waist down since a 1990 auto accident, lived for years in a cottage built for him on the campus of Bard College, a leading liberal arts school north of New York City where he was a faculty member. He joined Brown in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature.

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