World Literature

Buchi Emecheta

 

BORN: 1944, Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria

NATIONALITY: Nigerian

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

In the Ditch (1972)

Second Class Citizen (1975)

The Slave Girl (1977)

The Joys of Motherhood (1979)

Destination Biafra (1982)

The Rape of Shavi (1983)

 

 

Buchi Emecheta. Emecheta, Buchi, photograph © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta is considered one of the most important female African writers, best known for novels that address the difficulties of modern African women who are forced into traditional subservient roles. Her heroines often challenge their restrictive lives and aspire to economic and social independence. Emecheta, regarded by critics and politicians alike as a role model, represents a new and vigorous departure in fiction about women in and from Africa.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Tumultuous Early Life. Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta was born on july 21, 1944, in Yaba, near Lagos, Nigeria, to jeremy Nwabudike Emecheta and his wife, Alice Okwuekwu Emecheta. Both of her parents were traditional Igbos (an ethnic group in West Africa), and her father was employed as a railway molder. In Emecheta’s childhood, Nigeria was undergoing significant change as many African countries sought their independence in the post-World War II period. The conflict stirred pressures for self-government in many colonial countries, and Nigeria began lobbying Great Britain for greater autonomy. After a series of short-lived constitutions, Nigeria achieved full independence in 1960.

By this time, Emecheta had undergone significant changes of her own. Her mother died when she was young, and she was orphaned as a young girl when her father was killed serving with British troops in Burma, another British colony that had gained its independence in the late 1940s but was marred by internal strife and violence between nationalists and Communists vying for power. After being raised by her extended family for several years, Emecheta was educated at a Methodist missionary school until 1960, when she was sixteen. That same year she married Sylvester Onwordi, a student to whom she had been betrothed for five years.

The couple moved to London so her husband could study accounting, a common occurrence for Africans from former British colonies. As many African countries moved toward and achieved independence, scholarships were created so their citizens could become educated in Europe and the United States, then return and take on positions of responsibility at universities as well as in business and government. The couple eventually had five children—Florence, Sylvester, Jake, Christy, and Alice, but six years after their arrival, the couple separated after Emecheta suffered increasingly harsh abuse at her husband’s hands. She was left to raise the children on her own.

Autobiographical First Books. After leaving her husband in 1966, Emecheta entered the University of London, graduating with a BS with honors in 1972. She also held a post as a library officer with the British Museum in London from 1965 to 1969. Between 1969 and 1976, she was a youth worker and sociologist with the Inner London Education Authority and wrote her first fiction works. Emecheta’s first two books, In the Ditch (1972) and Second Class Citizen (1974), are heavily autobiographical.

The books describe her childhood in Lagos, her 1960 marriage to Onwordi, and their move to England. But the novels—following the early years of her fictionalized self, the protagonist, Adah—also concentrate on her struggle to support and bring up five children alone. In the Ditch begins at the point when she has left her husband and is living on her own with her children in a slum, supporting them by working in the library at the British Museum. The book is a collection of ‘‘observations’’ that Emecheta had originally sent to the New Statesman, which published them and thereby launched her writing career.

Continued Struggles. The autobiography of the first two novels continues in Head Above Water (1986)—describing Emecheta’s continued struggle to bring up her family as a single parent, to earn a degree in sociology, to find jobs, and to continue to write. The novel ends with the achievement of two major goals: the purchase of a house of her own and her settling down to become a full-time writer. In between, Head Above Water explores social conditions in black London and sheds interesting light on Emecheta’s development as a writer, as it describes her involvement with each of her emerging novels.

Emphasis on Social Slavery. The manuscript that the oppressive husband Francis burns in Second Class Citizen surfaces as Emecheta’s 1976 book, The Bride Price. With this book, set in the early 1950s in Lagos and Ibuza, she departs from her own life story. Despite this radical shift in subject matter, The Bride Price is a logical development of her writing as she continues to explore the injustices of caste and gender issues.

Emecheta’s fifth book, The Slave Girl (1977), was published while Emecheta was employed as a social worker. Much of the book is devoted to a description of domestic slavery, the kind that persisted in Africa long after slavery was outlawed. Some Africans, as well as other ethnic groups, continued to sell people into slavery. Because women were not as highly regarded as men in society, young girls were sold for profit by their male relatives. Such girls were forced to become domestics or join the sex trade. The conditions for a domestic servant are paralleled with those of woman’s conditions in marriage in her next novel, The Joys of Motherhood (1979). After an interlude of four pleasant children’s books, Emecheta’s authorship took a new turn with Destination Biafra (1982), which focuses the larger subject of war.

Career Change. By this time Emecheta had left social work behind and was a visiting professor at the University of Calabar from 1980 to 1981. In 1982, she took a faculty position at the University of London. Emecheta also ran the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company, which has branches in London and Ibuza, Nigeria, from 1982 to 1983, and published her next two novels through the publisher. With her 1983 work, Double Yoke, she returned to more manageable settings and subject matter, and picked up with her discussions of prejudices. This time the emphasis was on those prejudices of Nigerian men against educated women in Nigeria. Independence for women in Nigeria, according to this novel, was still a leap, and the relationship between the sexes still resembles a war.

Double Yoke and her next book carry that imprint. As an allegory about the relationship between Europe and Africa, The Rape of Shavi (1983) represented yet another new departure in Emechet’s writing. Emecheta seemed to be searching for the best values in the worldviews of these two civilizations, but as they appear stubbornly incompatible, the author took a middle course. Gwendolen (1989) returned to the London black-immigrant theme that Emecheta knew so well. For the first time, though, the main character was not a Nigerian but a West Indian.

Published Fewer Novels. While Emecheta only published two novels after Gwendolen—Kehinde (1994) and The New Tribe (2000)—both continued to touch on the author’s long-running themes and are set in both London and Africa. Kehinde traces the events in the life of a middle-aged, professional woman of Nigerian descent who, after living in London for several years, returns to Nigeria and gains a new appreciation of her accomplishments. In contrast, The New Tribe focused on the difficult journey of self-discovery of a young man of Nigerian descent who leaves his adopted family in England to find his roots in Africa, encounters corruption, theft, and illness, and returns to England.

Still based in London, Emecheta continues to hold visiting lectureship posts and returns to Nigeria regularly to visit her family.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Emecheta's famous contemporaries include:

Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-): Russian author and activist, best known for being a former Soviet political dissident who ran for the president of Russia in 2007.

Jean-Luc Godard (1930-): French filmmaker and a pioneer of French NewWave best known for directing such films as Breathless.

Dustin Hoffman (1937-): American film actor, best known for his roles in The Graduate (1967) and Tootsie (1982).

Mick Jagger (1943-): British rock musician, songwriter, and performer best known as the front man for the Rolling Stones.

John Updike (1932-): American fiction writer, best known for his ''Rabbit'' series of novels (1960-2001) and the novel The Witches of Eastwick (1984). He has won two Pulitzer Prizes.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who have also emphasized feminist themes:

As You Like it (1599-1600), a play by William Shakespeare. In this pastoral comedy, double (or even triple) disguises make way for gender reversals and several humorous misconceptions and mishaps.

The Birthday of the World (2003), a collection of short stories by Ursula K. LeGuin. This book explores themes such as gender segregation, marriage between four people, and the disruption of a society whose rulers are ''God.''

A Room of One's Own (1929), an essay by Virginia Woolf. In this book-length essay, the author explores the early politics of women writers and writing.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. In this dystopian novel, the author speculates on a horrifying future of gender division, reproductive control, and religious totalitarian takeover by the small elite class.

Women Without Men (1989), a novel by Shahrnush Par- sipur. This explosive novel was banned by the Iranian government for its ''defiant portrayal of women's sexuality,'' and its author was arrested and jailed.

 

Works in Literary Context

Emecheta has always proclaimed that much of her fiction is based on her own life. She could well echo the words of Johann von Goethe, who said not only that nothing would be found in his writings that he had not experienced himself, but also that nothing in them was in exactly the form in which he had experienced it. Emecheta’s early years spent in Nigeria and England have given her material for her most successful novels. The realism of much of her writings has led critics to categorize her as a documentarist.

Social Influences and Feminist Themes. It is evident that Emecheta was sorely impacted in childhood by gender bias—when, for example, she almost missed getting an education because girls were kept at home while boys were sent to school. Because she negotiated rights for herself, Emecheta was able to receive a decent education. The influence of social values with regard to women is also apparent, as it became an early theme that prevailed throughout her work.

Central to many of her novels is the role of women in present-day Africa. In her fiction, she shows courage by challenging traditional male attitudes about gender roles. She expresses anger and iconoclastic contempt for unjust institutions, no matter how time-honored or revered they are. She also displays a willingness to seek new ways to break what she sees as the unjust subjugation of women in the name of tradition.

Second Class Citizen, for instance, portrays a young Adah as an unusually determined little girl whose mind is firmly set on getting a Western education, from which she has been effectively barred because she is ‘‘only a girl.’’ This sets a basic theme that runs through Emecheta’s entire body of work: an intense anger at the sexual discrimination that is at the core of the culture of her people and a concomitant contempt for the men who perpetuate it. The theme of the slavelike conditions of marriage for a woman is developed in The Joys of Motherhood. Even Gwendolen (1989), whose main theme is incest, lends itself to the well-known scenario of girls and women oppressed by men and fighting for self-respect.

 

Works in Critical Context

Emecheta is praised for her convincing characterizations, thorough presentation of social themes, and vivid sense of place. Because she exposes such African customs as polygamy, servitude, and arranged marriages—as practices that curtail the power and individuality of women—some critics categorize her works as feminist literature. Her feminism, though mild in Western eyes (and though she refuses to be called a feminist), and her criticism of aspects of African cultural tradition have enraged some male African critics, who claim that Emecheta misrepresents Igbo society.

In the Ditch and Second Class Citizen. Critics praised Emecheta for her straightforward prose and amusing yet poignant evocation of her heroine’s tribulations in the books. Rosemary Bray in the Voice Literary Supplement commented, ‘‘Both books are simply told, bearing the mark of painful authenticity even before you know they are autobiographical. [Emecheta] wrote them to rid herself of rage at a society and a man who could not accept her independent spirit.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Though Emecheta resists the feminist label, the bulk of critical discussion of her work concerns the feminist attitude. In a group effort, take sides to debate whether her works can or should be categorized as feminist. To support arguments for and against, consider scenarios in which women lose their humanity in brutal marital battles, how female characters define their femininity (through sexuality? motherhood?), and where descriptions are or are not attacks against men.

2. Make an effort to list several definitions and types of family. What constitutes a family as you understand it? Then, consider Emecheta’s comments on family in The Joys of Motherhood. How do your two definitions compare? Where do they differ? What does this tell you about yourself and/or your own family? What does this tell you about the author?

3. Go on a Web adventure to find background research on the Igbo culture in general and Yoruba women in particular (the following Web site at Emory University might be helpful: http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Yoruba.html). What are the expectations of men and of women in Igbo culture? What are the values? What in Emecheta’s novels demonstrates an opposition to these values and gender role expectations?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Sougou, Omar. ‘‘The Experience of an African Woman in Britain: A Reading of Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen,’’. In Crisis and Creativity in the New Literatures in English. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990.

Taiwo, Oladele. Female Novelists of Modern Africa. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Umeh, Marie. ‘‘Reintegration with the Lost Self: A Study of Buchi Emecheta's Double Yoke.'' In Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 1986.

Periodicals

Bray, Rosemary. Interview with Buchi Emecheta. Voice Literary Supplement (June 1982).

Bruner, Charlotte. ‘‘The Other Audience: Children and the Example of Buchi Emecheta.’’ African Studies Review 29, no. 3 (1986): 129-40.

Bruner, Charlotte, and David Bruner. ‘‘Buchi Emecheta and Maryse Conde: Contemporary Writing from Africa and the Caribbean,'' World Literature Today 59 (1985): 9-13.

Davis, Christina. ‘‘Mother and Writer: Means of Empowerment in the Work of Buchi Emecheta.’’ Commonwealth Essays and Studies 13, no. 1 (1990) 13-21.

Embeogu, Afam. ‘‘Enter the Iconoclast: Buchi Emecheta and the Igbo Culture.'' Commonwealth Essays and Studies 7, no. 2 (1985): 83-94.

Ojo-Ade, Femi. ‘‘Female Writers, Male Critics.’’ African Literature Today 13 (1983): 158-79.

Umeh, Marie. ‘‘The Joys of Motherhood: Myth or Reality?’’ Colby Library Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1982): 39-46.

Web Sites

Emeagwali. Excerpt from Buchi Emecheta's Kehinde. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.emeagwali.com/nigeria/biography/buchi-emecheta-essence-april98.html.

Prono, Luca. Contemporary Writers: Buchi Emecheta. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth34.

Williams, Benecia L. Buchi Emecheta Literary Discussions. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Emech.html. Last updated Fall 2007.