(CNN) – Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, acclaimed in part for his groundbreaking 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart,” has died, his British publisher, Penguin Books, said Friday.
He was 82.
An author of more than 20 books, his honors included the 2007 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction.
He was also accorded his country’s highest award for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award.
Achebe is a major part of African literature, and is popular all over the continent for his novels, especially “Anthills of the Savannah,” which was itself shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987, and “Things Fall Apart.”
The latter was required reading in countless high schools and colleges in the continent, and has been translated into dozens of languages.
Set in precolonial Nigeria, “Things Fall Apart” portrays the story of a farmer, Okonkwo, who struggles to preserve his customs despite pressure from British colonizers. The story resonated in post-independent Africa, and the character became a household name in the continent.
Achebe’s stories included proverbs and tackled complex issues of African identity, nationalism and decolonization, adding to his books’ popularity.
He once wrote an essay criticizing Joseph Conrad, author of “Heart of Darkness,” as a racist for his depiction of Africans as savages. Conrad’s popularity took a hit after the accusation — a testament to Achebe’s credibility.
He also criticized corruption and poor governance in Africa, and had been known to reject accolades by the Nigerian government to protest political problems.
Penguin Books’ Twitter feed said: “Chinua Achebe: a brilliant writer, and a giant of African literature. Nelson Mandela said he ‘brought Africa to the rest of the world’. RIP.”
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan issued a statement paying tribute to Achebe as “Nigeria’s globally acclaimed writer, scholar, tutor, cultural icon, nationalist and artist of the very first rank.”
While Achebe will be greatly missed, Jonathan said, he will live on in the minds of present and future generations through his great works.
He added that Achebe’s “frank, truthful and fearless interventions in national affairs will be greatly missed at home … because while others may have disagreed with his views, most Nigerians never doubted his immense patriotism and sincere commitment to the building of a greater, more united and prosperous nation that all Africans and the entire black race could be proud of.”
Born in Nigeria in 1930, Achebe was raised in the large village of Ogidi, one of the first centers of Anglican missionary work in Eastern Nigeria, according to a biography posted by Penguin.
He was an early graduate of the respected University of Ibadan, established in Nigeria before the end of British colonial rule in 1960.
He worked in radio but in 1966 left his post during the national upheaval that led to the bloody Biafran War, in which Nigeria’s southeastern provinces attempted to secede.
Achebe joined the Biafran Ministry of Information and represented Biafra on diplomatic and fund-raising missions before the civil war came to an end after two and a half years.
He subsequently took up university posts in Nigeria and overseas, including teaching at Bard College in New York and Brown University in Rhode Island, where he was professor of Africana Studies.
Achebe’s 2012 memoir, “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra,” draws on his recollections of that painful period in Nigeria’s past.
In an interview for the Paris Review of Books in 1994, Achebe spoke of how his early love of stories led him to realize that they reflected only the point of view of the white man. That spurred him to write himself.
“There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. … Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian,” he said.
“It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail — the bravery, even, of the lions.”