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Chinua Achebe and the Gish Prize

October 22, 2010 | 12:28 pm


On Wednesday, Nigerian-born author Chinua Achebe will accept the Gish Prize in New York. Named for actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, known best for their waiflike presences in silent films, the prize comes with a silver medallion and a significant financial award -- $300,000.

Achebe, the author of the revered African novel "Things Fall Apart," was born in Nigeria in 1930. After coming to prominence as a writer, he got involved in his country's politics and became a leading figure in fostering African literary culture. He has lived in the U.S. since the early 1990s, after being injured in a car accident, teaching first at Bard College and, in 2009, moving to Brown University.

In the 15 years that it has been awarded, the Gish Prize has gone to a single individual engaged in artistic endeavor, and has included a wide range of disciplines: architecture (Frank Gehry), music (Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan), film (Ingmar Bergman), theater (Jennifer Tipton, Merce Cunningham, Peter Sellars).

"It is my desire," Lillian Gish wrote in her will, "that the prize be awarded to a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life through performances on the stage or in films or in any other area of the performing arts, by writing or composing a book, libretto, score, composition or other artistic work to be used in the performing arts, by directing performances, plays or films, by conducting orchestras or recitals or who has designed a stage set, theater, concert hall, opera house or other artistic or architectural creation for use in the performing arts or through other fields of art such as architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry and literature."

Lillian Gish's earliest films date to 1912, for the director D.W. Griffith. She became something of a muse for him, starring in many of his movies, including both "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." Her sister Dorothy was also successful, but not quite as famous. Both Gish sisters turned to the stage after sound film came along, and when Dorothy died in 1968, she had never returned to film. Lillian did -- she earned a best supporting actress nomination in 1946 -- and she continued to take roles on stage and screen; her last film appearance was 1987's "The Whales of August." When she died, six months shy of her 100th birthday, her estate was valued at more than $10 million.

That estate funds the Gish Prize. Achebe is the third author to receive the prize, which has also been awarded to Isabel Allende and Arthur Miller.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Left, Chinua Achebe in 2008. Credit: Craig Ruttle / Associated Press. Right, Lillian Gish in "Broken Blossoms," 1919. Credit: File.