Novelist Chinua Achebe dies, aged 82

Chinua Achebe the Nigerian novelist seen by millions as the father of African literature, has died at the age of 82.

African papers were reporting his death following an illness and hospital stay in Boston this morning, and both his agent and his publisher later confirmed the news to the Guardian.

Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, called him an "utterly remarkable man".

"Chinua Achebe is the greatest of African writers and we are all desolate to hear of his death," he said.

In a statement, Achebe’s family requested privacy, and paid tribute to "one of the great literary voices of all time. He was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him."

A novelist, poet and essayist, Achebe was perhaps best known for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, the story of the Igbo warrior Okonkwo and the colonial era, which has sold more than 10m copies around the world and has been published in 50 languages. Achebe depicts an Igbo village as the white men arrive at the end of the 19th century, taking its title from the WB Yeats poem, which continues: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

"The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one," says Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, in the novel.

The poet Jackie Kay hailed Achebe as "the grandfather of African fiction" who "lit up a path for many others", adding that she had reread Things Fall Apart "countless times".

"It is a book that keeps changing with the times as he did," she said.

Achebe won the Commonwealth poetry prize for his collection Christmas in Biafra, was a finalist for the 1987 Booker prize for his novel Anthills of the Savannah, and in 2007 won the Man Booker international prize. Chair of the judges on that occasion, Elaine Showalter, said he had "inaugurated the modern African novel", while her fellow judge, the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, said his fiction was "an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the postmodern breaking of sequence", and that Achebe was "a joy and an illumination to read".

Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, has said that Achebe "brought Africa to the rest of the world" and called him "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down".

The author is also known for the influential essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1975), a hard-hitting critique of Conrad in which he says the author turned the African continent into "a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril", asking: "Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?"

According to Brown University, where Achebe held the position of David and Marianna Fisher university professor and professor of Africana studies until his death, this essay "is recognised as one of the most generative interventions on Conrad; and one that opened the social study of literary texts, particularly the impact of power relations on 20th-century literary imagination".