Buchi Emecheta Emecheta, Buchi (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Buchi Emecheta 1944-

(Full name Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta) Nigerian novelist, children's writer, screenplay writer, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Emecheta's career through 1998. See also, Buchi Emecheta Criticism.

Among the most important female authors to emerge from postcolonial Africa, Nigerian-born Buchi Emecheta is distinguished for her vivid descriptions of female subordination and conflicting cultural values in modern Africa. Her best-known novels, including Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), and The Joys of Motherhood (1979), expose the injustice of traditional, male-oriented African social customs that relegate women to a life of child-bearing, servitude, and victimization. Often regarded as a feminist writer, Emecheta illustrates the value of education and self-determination for aspiring young women who struggle against sexual discrimination, racism, and unhappy marital arrangements to achieve individuality and independence. While critical of patriarchal tribal culture, Emecheta's fiction evinces an abiding reverence for African heritage and folklore that reflects the divided loyalties of Africans torn between the competing claims of tradition and modernization. Noted for her realistic characters, conversational prose style, and sociological interest, Emecheta is highly regarded for introducing an authentic female perspective to contemporary African literature.

Biographical Information

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised in the nearby village of Ibuza, Emecheta received a traditional Ibo upbringing and early witnessed tensions between indigenous African culture and urban Western values. Orphaned as a young child and raised by extended family, she attributes her desire to write to the storytelling of her aunt, “Big Mother.” Though schooling for girls was discouraged, Emecheta managed to receive an education at a missionary school, where she was taught English in addition to her several native languages. Bound by Ibo custom, she left school at age sixteen to marry a man to whom she had been engaged since she was eleven years old. Emecheta gave birth to their first child at age seventeen and by twenty-two was the mother of five. Shortly after her marriage she moved to London where her husband had already relocated to study.

While working odd jobs at the British Museum library and a youth center to support her family, Emecheta devoted herself to writing in her spare time. Despite efforts by her abusive husband to undermine her literary aspirations, Emecheta eventually published several of her diary entries in New Statesman, later becoming the material for her first book, In the Ditch (1972). Emecheta left her husband in 1966 and continued to work and write while raising her children and studying sociology at the University of London; she graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1972. While still in England she completed two additional books, Second-Class Citizen and The Bride Price, then moved to the United States where she supported herself as a social worker in Camden, New Jersey. Upon the publication of The Slave Girl (1977), a novel whose manuscript was once burned by her former husband, Emecheta received a Jock Campbell award from New Statesman and was selected as the Best Black British Writer in 1978. With the success of her 1979 novel The Joys of Motherhood, Emecheta was invited to work as a visiting professor at several American universities and as a research fellow at the University of Caliber in Nigeria before taking a permanent teaching position at the University of London in 1982. She also wrote several books for children and screenplays for British television. During the 1980s, Emecheta continued to establish her reputation with the novels Double Yoke (1982) and The Rape of Shavi (1983). She was named one of the Best British Young Writers in 1983. Her autobiography was published as Head Above Water (1984).

Major Works

Emecheta's fiction focuses on the plight of African women who struggle against patriarchal family structures, unfair gender stereotypes, and contradictory social values in contemporary Africa. Her first two books, In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen, are autobiographical accounts of her early life and marital difficulties as the fictionalized protagonist Adah. In the Ditch begins with Adah's separation from her husband and relates her demoralizing experiences while working, writing, and raising her five children on public assistance in a London tenement. Her economic privations are exacerbated by prejudice against her as an impoverished single mother and black African immigrant. Second-Class Citizen recounts Adah's childhood struggle to obtain an education in Nigeria, her emigration to England, and her determination to write despite the demands of motherhood and her tyrannical student husband who physically assaults her. Adah finally abandons her husband after he callously burns the completed manuscript of her first book, marking a defining moment in Adah's growing self-awareness and confidence. In The Bride Price Emecheta illustrates the injustice of male chauvinism and caste restrictions in her native country. Set in Lagos and Ibuza during the 1950s, the protagonist is Aku-nna, a young Nigerian girl whose father dies when she is thirteen, leaving her in the charge of her father's brother. Aku-nna manages to remain in school only because her uncle believes it will increase her bride price. However, she falls in love with her teacher, Chike, a descendant of slaves whose social status prohibits their involvement. Despite the protestations of her family and a potential suitor who kidnaps her, Aku-nna elopes with Chike and deprives her uncle of her dowry. In the end Aku-nna dies in childbirth, fulfilling the fateful superstition that a woman whose bride price is unpaid will not survive the birth of her first child.

The Slave Girl similarly depicts the limited opportunities and property status of women in Nigerian society. The female protagonist is Ojebeta, a young girl who is sold into domestic slavery by her brother after her parents die in an influenza epidemic. Stripped of her rights, Ojebeta is moved from her village to a busy town where she is converted to Christianity and taught to read and write. She is later married to a man who pays off her owner, drawing attention to the parallel institutions of slavery and marriage as Ojebeta is simply transferred from one master to another. The Joys of Motherhood describes the circumscribed existence of protagonist Nnu Ego, a dutiful Nigerian wife and mother who suffers poverty and humiliation in a traditional polygamous marriage. Rejected by her first husband for failing to produce a child, Nnu Ego subsequently marries Naife, a cruel city man she finds unattractive but resigns herself to, and eventually bears several children. Exhausted by years of servitude and domestic conflict with her co-wife, Adaku, Nnu Ego finally returns to her village alone and unappreciated for her sacrifices, reflected in the novel's ironic title. A departure from the limited domestic settings of her previous books, Destination Biafra (1982) is a sweeping historical novel about civil unrest in Nigeria during the Biafran secessionist movement of the late 1960s. The central figure is Debbie Ogedemgbe, daughter of a slain businessman who eschews passivity by joining the bloody struggle on the side of a united Nigeria. In Double Yoke Emecheta relates the disillusioning experiences of a female college student, Nko, whose personal relationships and educational goals are compromised by sexual politics on a Nigerian campus. Nko is scorned by her boyfriend for permitting premarital sex with him, then seduced by a manipulative professor with whom she becomes pregnant. The title refers to Nko's double bind as she realizes her equally degrading choice between prostitution as a traditional wife or as a liberated academic woman.

In The Rape of Shavi Emecheta presents an allegorical interpretation of European imperialism in Africa. The story relates the despoliation of the mythical Shavians, an idyllic tribe of African cattle farmers who are uncorrupted by contact with the West until a plane piloted by Englishmen crash lands among them. The white men abuse their trust, exploit their natural resources, and introduce guns and greed to their society, leaving the Shavians devastated by war, drought, and famine. Returning to the English setting of her first two books, Gwendolyn (1990) chronicles the difficult life of the title character, a young Jamaican immigrant who endures rape, incest, and racism on the way to independence. Gwendolyn flees Jamaica, where she is molested by a family friend, to live with her parents in a poor London neighborhood. At age sixteen she becomes involved in an incestuous relationship with her father, bears his child, and, after her father's suicide, tentatively reconciles with her mother and boyfriend. Kehinde (1994) involves a middle-aged Nigerian woman who relinquishes a professional career in England to return to her native land with her husband. When Kehinde arrives in Nigeria after staying behind to sell their house, she discovers that her husband has taken a second wife, reducing her to insignificance despite her status as an educated woman and senior wife. Kehinde eventually leaves her polygamous marriage, returning to England where she gains new perspective on her life.

Critical Reception

Widely recognized as a leading female voice in contemporary African literature, Emecheta has attracted international attention for her compelling depiction of the female experience in African society and, in particular, her native Nigeria. Along with Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, and fellow Nigerian Flora Nwapa, Emecheta is credited with establishing an important female presence in the previously male-dominated literature of modern Africa. Commenting of Emecheta's contribution, Eustace Palmer writes, “Scarcely any other African novelist has succeeded in probing the female mind and displaying the female personality with such precision.” Though often classified as a feminist writer, Emecheta differentiates her own Afrocentric perspective from that of her Western counterparts by describing herself as “an African feminist with a small f.” Critics commend Emecheta's impressive narrative abilities, psychologically complex female protagonists, and powerful social critique of traditional African culture that, as reviewers note, is largely unencumbered by ideology or polemics. While The Joys of Motherhood is considered Emecheta's most accomplished work, she has won critical approval for Second-Class Citizen, The Bride Price, and Double Yoke. However, her attempts to depart from the highly personal subjects of these works in novels such as Destination Biafra and The Rape of Shavi have received mixed assessment. Some reviewers also find fault in uneven and occasionally repetitious elements of her fiction. Despite such criticisms, Emecheta is consistently praised for her engaging, compassionate rendering of African women, motherhood, and the impact of Westernization in postcolonial Nigeria.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the Ditch (novel) 1972

Second-Class Citizen (novel) 1974

The Bride Price (novel) 1976

The Slave Girl (novel) 1977

The Joys of Motherhood (novel) 1979

Titch the Cat (juvenilia) 1979

Nowhere to Play (juvenilia) 1980

The Wrestling Match (juvenilia) 1980

The Moonlight Bride (juvenilia) 1981

Destination Biafra (novel) 1982

Double Yoke (novel) 1982

Naira Power (juvenilia) 1982

Adah's Story [consists of In the...

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Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Buchi Emecheta: The Shaping of a Self,” in Komparatistische Hefte, Vol. 8, 1983, pp. 65-78.

[In the following essay, Ogunyemi provides an overview of Emecheta's literary career and the major themes in her novels.]

Easily the most poignant event in Nigeria's Buchi Emecheta's career as a novelist was her husband's crime in burning her first manuscript, a version of what, rewritten, would become The Bride Price. The manuscript had become an extension of Emecheta authenticating her unacknowledged and unacclaimed breadwinning role vis-à-vis her male dependents. The burning was therefore of great symbolic significance. It represented her husband's...

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Rolf Solberg (essay date June 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Woman of Black Africa, Buchi Emecheta: The Woman's Voice in the New Nigerian Novel,” in English Studies, Vol. 64, No. 3, June, 1983, pp. 247-62.

[In the following essay, Solberg examines Emecheta's conflicted feminist perspective and the representation of African women and contemporary social themes in her fiction. According to Solberg, Emecheta's harsh criticism of male chauvinism is tempered by her respect for traditional African culture.]

The changes that have taken place in sub-Saharan black Africa during the hundred odd years since the ‘scramble for Africa’ are probably more profound than one can readily comprehend when looking at things from...

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Jewelle Gomez (review date November-December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Double Yoke, in Black Scholar, Vol. 16, No. 6, November-December, 1985, p. 51.

[In the following review, Gomez offers a favorable assessment of Double Yoke.]

Buchi Emecheta's new novel lays bare the schism between the limiting yet familiar comforts of traditional African roles, and the more expansive and sometimes dangerous choices offered by modern society. These forces buffet the lives of Ete Kamba and Nko, two young Nigerian university students who fall an love. Within the context of the most simple love story Emecheta opens up the complex world of tribal life and is able to make real both the values of ancient customs and the...

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Marie Linton Umeh (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reintegration With the Lost Self: A Study of Buchi Emecheta's Double Yoke,” in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 173-80.

[In the following essay, Umeh discusses Emecheta's social concerns and the presentation of female liberation and sex roles in Double Yoke. “Emecheta again campaigns against female subjugation and champions her case for female emancipation,” writes Umeh.]

Double Yoke is a love story told in the blues mode. The story laments a loss; yet it sings a love song. Its theme of the perilous journey of love, is a major...

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Nancy Topping Bazin (essay date March-April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminist Perspectives in African Fiction: Bessie Head and Buchi Emecheta,” in Black Scholar, Vol. 17, No. 2, March-April, 1986, pp. 34-40.

[In the following excerpt, Bazin provides an overview of feminist themes in the fiction of Emecheta and Bessie Head.]

Bessie Head, born in 1937 in South Africa, has probably received more acclaim than any other black African woman novelist writing in English. Buchi Emecheta, born in 1944 in Nigeria, is rivaled only by Flora Nwapa, another Nigerian, for second place. Other black African women have published novels of distinction in either English or French. However, except for Lloyd W. Brown's Women Writers in Black...

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Reginald McKnight (review date 29 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lost in the Moder Kontry,” in New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1990, p. 30.

[In the following review, McKnight offers a favorable assessment of The Family.]

“The writer with the tin ear,” wrote John Gardener, in his book On Becoming a Novelist, who is good enough at other things, “may in the end write deeper, finer novels than the most eloquent verbal musicians.” It was the writer's facility with those “other things“—the development of “character, action, setting” and ideas, which Gardner called “profluence”—that compelled the reader to turn the page.

There are, of course many novelists whose...

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Adele S. Newson (review date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Kehinde, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer, 1994, p. 867.

[In the following review, Newson offers tempered praise for Kehinde.]

Buchi Emecheta's latest novel, Kehinde, is a study of cultural traditions, adaptation, and transculturation, of how and when an adopted country becomes home. It is, in short, about choices of how to be in the world.

Kehinde Okolo is thirty-five years old, married with two children, and employed in a management position at Barclays Bank when the story opens. Her husband Albert is a forty-year-old shopkeeper who is intent on returning to Nigeria, where he hopes to be made a...

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Mary E. Modupe Kolawole (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Metafiction, Autobiography, and Self-Inscription,” in Womanism and African Consciousness, Africa World Press, 1997, pp. 167-79.

[In the following excerpt, Kolawole discusses Emecheta's fictional use of autobiography in Second-Class Citizen to illustrate the reality of African women. “The intersection of personal problems, communal dilemmas, ethnicity, race, class, and gender problems,” writes Kolawole, “is remarkably underscored in this novel.”]


Metafiction has become popular with women writers because it highlights the struggles and the painful process of...

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Christine Loflin (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christine Loflin (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Mother Africa: African Women and the Land in West African Literature,” in African Horizons: The Landscapes of African Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 35-54.

[In the following excerpt, Loflin examines the significance of household environments and architecture in The Joys of Motherhood as indicative of tension between traditional Nigerian communal life and the social pressures of Western modernization.]


African women writers are sensitive, perhaps to a fault, to the preexisting images of woman's space. Their preoccupation with motherhood...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Andrade, Susan Z. “Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women's Literary Tradition.” Research in African Literature 21, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 91-110.

Addresses Western misrepresentations of African women's literary history and offers comparative analysis of Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood and Flora Nwapa's Efuru.

Fido, Elaine Savory. “Mother/lands: Self and Separation in the Work of Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, and Jean Rhys.” In Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, edited by Susheila Nasta, pp. 330-49. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,...

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