March 29, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Chinua Achebe was often called the father of modern African literature. He could have also been called the godfather, uncle, and best friend of world literature. Though he is most known for his first novel, 1958’s Things Fall Apart, which was translated into over 50 languages and has sold 10 million copies, he was a prolific essayist, memoirist, poet, and writer of children’s books.

I first met this majestic yet surprisingly humble man in February 2008 at a celebration of his work at Town Hall in New York City. Many great writers were there to honor him, including Toni Morrison and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. After all the accolades had been offered, Achebe appeared on stage in his wheelchair, and the first word he said was ”Wow.” He ended his speech that night with a story about how elders are honored by the Ibo people in his native village. Every elder, he said, is always hailed by his or her praise name.

I don’t know what Achebe’s praise name was. But apparently, the name by which we know him means ”May God Fight on My Behalf.” That seems fitting: Through his words, actions, and consciousness, Achebe fought on behalf of so many.

Ijé omó, beloved elder. May we never forget you.

Danticat is a Haitian-American writer. Her next book, Claire of the Sea Light, is out this summer.

You May Like