Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

There is a great discrepancy between how Buchi Emecheta's book is received and reviewed inside her own country of Africa and outside of it. There is also a discrepancy between how African male and African female critics review her work. The discrepancy goes so far, in some instances, that the criticism becomes lost in a void of silence.

Female writer Professor Osayimwense Osa, for instance, in a 1996 essay published in Research in African Literatures declares that The Bride Price is a "masterpiece of African children's and youth literature that sophisticated younger readers will find as satisfying reading." Writing from a great distance from Africa, male critic Richard Cima in the Library Journal, says that Emecheta "in addition to presenting a fast-moving story with characters the readers can care about, the author gives a fascinating picture of pre-independent Nigeria."

The Bride Price is a "captivating Nigerian novel, lovingly but unsentimentally written," says Valentine Cunningham in the New Statesman. Emecheta creates "a world of ballad-like simplicity, enlivened by tenderly beautiful descriptions." Cunningham also states that Emecheta has proven herself, with the creation of this book, as a "considerable writer."

But Rosemary Bray in the Voice Literary Supplement (as quoted in DISCovering Authors) declares that "Emecheta is a prophet without honor." In other words, Emecheta is speaking out of the silence that male African writers have created in reference to the African woman. Emecheta is also speaking into a silence, in some regards, as the audience for whom she most wants to write—African women—often do not have access to her books.

Both the silence and the lack of honor multiply the closer Emecheta's work is examined, especially when it is examined under the microscope of feminism by male African critics. African literature has until recently been void of any female voice. Even today, African literature is dominated by male writers who have tended to depict female characters as being completely satisfied with their lives and their subjugation to African men. The emergence of female writers, such as Emecheta, challenges these male assumptions that include not only the female's submission to the male but also her approval and pleasurable response to that submission. Therefore, it is understandable that these African male writers do not like the image of the African women that Emecheta creates. Katherine Frank in World Literature Written in English claims that Emecheta's novels "compose the most exhaustive and moving portrayal extant of the African woman. She exposes and repudiates the feminine stereotypes of male writers and reveals the dark underside of their [male African writers] fictional celebrations of the African woman."

Emecheta's books, if not totally ignored or overlooked by African male critics—who dominate that country's writing—are criticized, in general, with a negatively charged tone. Cynthia Ward, in her article "Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta," puts it this way: Emecheta's "work has been and continues to be a catalyst for passionate debate over issues concerning the role of African women within their societies, cross-cultural experiences of gender and identity-formation, African 'patriarchy,' the responsibilities of the artist to her nation and culture and even what constitutes the canon of African literature: several African literary critics have pointedly excluded Emecheta from the list of African authors, claiming her viewpoint is not representative of African women." Ward goes on to say that much of Emecheta's literature is judged a "literary success or failure according to a notion of 'politically correct' behavior."

Obeonia Nnaemeka, writing in her essay "From Orality to Writing" states that male critics "often insist upon setting moral standards for these writers [Emecheta and a handful of other female African writers] with the result that any character who deviates from established expectations is heavily descended upon, condemned and disparaged." For instance, says Nnaemeka, one male critic, Ta-ban Io Liyong, responds to Emecheta's hints of feminism in her writing with the comment: "I suspect that feminism may destroy that which up to now has enabled Africa to withstand all the bufeting from other cultures." Emecheta, by instilling a desire in her protagonist toward selfhood, in other words, is setting up the circumstances for a breakdown in African culture.

To male critics, feminism is a dangerous thing, but they forget, say Nnaemeka, that "historically, feminist activism has always been a part of the African women's experience. Although non-conformist characters continue to be marginalized," in novels like Emecheta's The Bride Price, the "inevitability of change is never in doubt." Emecheta belongs to the second generation of African female authors. Their (written) voices have been silenced for a long time. The first generation of female authors did little more than mimic the writing of their male African predecessors. But storytelling that was told in a female voice has a long history in Africa. It is with Emecheta that the historical feminine voice is finally emerging in print.

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