Although she has resided in Britain since 1962, Buchi Emecheta (eh-mee-CHEH-tah) is generally known as Nigeria’s most prolific woman writer. Author of numerous novels, several children’s books, and teleplays, Emecheta has earned the undisputed place in African literature as a strident articulator of the female sensibility. Born Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta in Lagos, Nigeria, to Igbo parents, Emecheta was orphaned in childhood. This circumstance inevitably forced her to marry early (at sixteen, in 1960) and by age twenty-two she had become the mother of five children. Fleeing her oppressive marriage in 1966, Emecheta moved to a slum in London and struggled to support herself and her five children by working in the library at the British Museum.
The experience of welfare living and its enforced dysfunctionality provided the material for her first and second novels, In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen. Much in these two autobiographical companion pieces parallels Emecheta’s fictionalized self. The first chronicles her descent into slum dwelling and the indignity of the racial prejudice she encountered in the British social welfare system; the latter portrays parts of her life as a young girl determined to get a Western education in spite of sexual, racial, and class oppression. Depicted throughout the protagonist’s indoctrination into squalid conditions and the blatant oppression of marriage are the values of determination and initiative. Despite her desperation at the beginning of each novel, Adah, the protagonist, emerges at the end an ambitious student of sociology with middle-class and creative aspirations, schooled in the art of self-preservation.
Like her protagonist, Emecheta endured the culture shock of London and much physical abuse from her husband, whose constant efforts to stifle her attempts at independence and creativity merely made her more determined to succeed. Undeterred by her husband’s vicious act of reading and then burning the manuscript of her first novel, Emecheta, while raising her five children on welfare, earned a degree in sociology from the University of London, graduating with honors. She wrote far into the night and in the mornings before her children arose. She weathered weekly rejections from publishers from 1968 to 1970, until a series of her observations, published as a column called “Life in the Ditch” in New Statesman, was accepted and published in 1977 under the title In the Ditch. She was selected as one of 1983’s Best Young British Writers.
With the publication of her first novel, Emecheta established herself as a spokesperson for the underprivileged; with her second, she clearly situated herself as a feminist writer, almost in spite of herself. With her next three novels, set in Nigeria, she began her probing into the victimization of women in the name of tradition: the injustice of caste, enslavement through marriage, and subjugation to inflexible cultural taboos. The Bride Price, whose first manuscript Emecheta’s husband had burned, examines the potency of the bride-price tradition. The protagonist lovers, Aku-nna and Chike, who marry despite opposition and without the traditional bride price, suffer the unjust wrath of tradition: the death of Aku-nna in childbirth.
In 1977 followed The Slave Girl, a story highlighting the exploitation of women and the slavelike conditions of marriage. In The Joys of Motherhood , Emecheta fully and stringently examines the theme of enslavement of women in marriage and the realities of motherhood: its traditional, idealized role in Africa, and the realities of its rewards in a transitional society. The novel also examines the conflict between traditional and Western ways of life. As Emecheta views it, foremost of the oppressive traditional constraints is the predetermined destiny of woman as bearer of sons...
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who will perpetuate her husband’s name. She daringly exposes the injustice of years of relentless pregnancies, childbirth, and motherhood—or worse still, the stigma of barrenness—which is rewarded with neglect, exploitation, betrayal, and eventual madness.
In 1980, Emecheta was appointed senior research fellow in the Department of English and Literary Studies at the University of Calabar, Nigeria, but she stayed for only a year. After a four-year hiatus from adult fiction during which she produced four children’s books, Emecheta published five novels and an autobiography between 1982 and 1989: Destination Biafra, a historical novel about the Nigerian-Biafran civil war; Naira Power, a juvenile romance; Double Yoke; The Rape of Shavi, a futuristic fantasy that comments on the impact of westernization on a mythical African kingdom; Head Above Water; and Gwendolen, a novel about incest and the black immigrant experience in London. The novel Kehinde, which appeared in 1994, tells the story of a Nigerian couple who have lived for nearly two decades in London when the husband, Albert, decides they will return to Nigeria, forcing Kehinde, his wife, to abort the baby she is carrying as well as leave the relatively independent life she has enjoyed there. Five years passed before Emecheta’s next novel, The New Tribe, which tells the story of a Nigerian infant left to the care of a white couple in a small seaside village in England, his coming-of-age as the only black child in a white world, and his eventual search for his roots.
A prolific writer, Emecheta is unabashedly committed to staking out “the middle ground between the old and the new” in spite of isolation and at times vitriolic attacks on her work by some male African critics. Some stylistic limitations, especially her sociological intrusions, have burdened her work. However, her introspective approach to criticizing African culture, drawing on the storytelling tradition of the generation of women before her, arguably minimizes the shortcomings of her craft.