Buchi Emecheta

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Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5858

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 destroying what was left of their fragile marital relationship. It represented, in another sense, the immolating of Emecheta, the “second-class citizen,” struggling to free herself from the bonds of her father, her brother, and, most especially, her husband. Her husband was intelligent enough to see the manuscript for what it really was: a violent threat to the status quo of his marriage. He acted accordingly to preserve what he thought was left of his manhood.

Undeterred by that incendiary act, or perhaps, incensed by it, Emecheta went on to write and has had published five important feminist novels. She is currently the most prolific and controversial of all black African female novelists. The novels are: In the Ditch (1972); Second-Class Citizen (1974); The Bride Price (1976); The Slave Girl (1977); and The Joys of Motherhood (1979). The first three novels I regard as apprentice pieces which prepared Emecheta for her fourth attempt whose promise has now been fulfilled in her much more mature novel, The Joys of Motherhood. As she moved from the autobiographical to a more fictive medium, she became more expansive. No longer are her talents restricted by the stifling egotism of the earlier novels. The subtle change is noticeable in the differing dedications to her works: the first novel is dedicated to her father; the second to her children; the third to her mother; the fourth to her friend and publisher, Margaret Busby; and the fifth to “all mothers.” These dedications reveal an unconscious struggle involving a shift from the private, the personal, and the subjective to a feminist world that is quite public. Here, she attempts to reach out to a universal sisterhood where woman recognizes her peculiar predicament and yearns to become her sister's keeper. Outgrowing her father, she embraces her mother to emerge as a firebrand upholding the feminist faith.

Emecheta's shaping of herself took the form of an eighteen-year self-imposed exile in England that had the limiting effect of confining her to an outdated view of her country, Nigeria. It explains her inability to link the past meaningfully with the realities of present-day Nigeria. Indeed, the long exile has done her a greater harm. This manifests itself in her ambivalent attitude towards her material; her viewpoint shifts between shame and pride in her people, a feeling of inferiority interlaced with a need to be tough to gain approval of those who matter to her—her British audience. Her ambivalence reveals an English strain in her attitude towards life, a strain in constant conflict with her innate Africanness. Consequently the works tend to be pulled apart by the tensions of these opposing forces. Her circumstances have generated in her career an emotional and intellectual crisis which has in turn resulted in a crisis in the creative process. In The Joys of Motherhood, she resolves the impasse by seeming to come to terms with her Africanness.

In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen are so slight and interconnected thematically and chronologically that they could...

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have appeared as one novel. They function cathartically for Emecheta in expurgating the grossness of her childhood and marital life while fortifying her to endure the so-called joys of motherhood and creativity. She had to come to grips with her life before she could establish herself solidly in the imaginative world.

Adah, Emecheta's projection of herself in Second-Class Citizen, said she had a broad knowledge of black American writers, having come in contact with them through her job in different libraries. Her vast reading in black American literature has had its effect on In the Ditch, grounded as it is in the protest tradition of Richard Wright and his imitators. The opening skirmish with the rat and roaches are in the tradition of Wright's Native Son. But Emecheta's scene lacks the immediacy and the symbolic significance of Wright's account. Apparently the black rat, Adah, is surrounded by white rats waiting for the fairy godmother, the social worker who helps them to exist in the ditch and ultimately pulls them out of it. Emecheta's protest thus lacks the urgency and hopelessness of Wright's version of the black American situation since it excludes, to a large extent, the injustices associated with racism. Its feminist thrust is also weakened because, on the level of plot, it is the women's patience rather than their resistance to the authorities that is finally rewarded when they are rescued by the social workers.

The victim in this novel is woman. Her crime is that she is a woman and head of a single parent family. The victimizers (the authorities) are ready to listen (albeit reluctantly), a factor which unwittingly undercuts the necessity for Emecheta's elaborate protest. The weakness in the conception of the novel is further brought out by the character of Adah, who, in spite of her seeming unsureness, copes, supported by the very authorities Adah-Emecheta criticizes. The technical flaw in the book lies in Emecheta's preference for the historical perspective over the symbolic, which in a few concentrated scenes can underscore concisely yet pervasively and emotionally the quality of life in the ditch. We are made to see Pussy Mansions as an improvement on Adah's former abode, yet she still complains. She spreads herself thin and the reader soon becomes immune to her querulous tone.

In the Ditch concentrated on social problems as they affect the single woman with a family—problems of housing, child care, education, support, and male companionship. The work is tailored to suit feminist ideologies but its presentation of the heroine's dilemma is so wearyingly pedestrian as to reduce its cogency. Affected by vestiges of the oral tradition, misplaced in this milieu, the novel is an extended praise poem of Adah in her struggle to survive without a husband, tied down by five children, in a hostile environment. Adah is a heroine par excellence; she is remarkable for her strength of character in the black matriarchal tradition and the representativeness of her social predicament. Hence one would agree with Emecheta's publisher “that readers will expect to be told how Adah came to be in the predicament with which the story is concerned,” which, we are promptly informed, “is to be the subject of another book.”

Although the opening of Emecheta's first novel echoes the manner of Native Son, there is a strong African undercurrent in her sarcasm and humor. It is the ironic banter of the Igbo, west of the Niger, a verbal style that helps them endure pain and deprivation. The strain is obvious in this sentence: “One of the frightened cockroaches ran into Adah's hollow for maternal protection.” This is protest literature with a humorous difference; Emecheta accepts herself. Unfortunately she fails to maintain the standard and the novel is mired in infelicities. Her inability to discriminate consistently between Adah and herself is apparent in the use of pronouns. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the point. “She did not feel like asking for grants just for the kids' Christmas presents. I want to give my children my own presents, what I actually work for … ideas came to her head” (emphasis supplied). The problem in delineating the inward flow of thought through the stream of consciousness technique remains unresolved until four novels later.

Another major problem with her preoccupation is that she protests on too many fronts: welfarism, racism, and sexism. She sacrifices character for her subject to such an extent that none of the characters besides Adah comes alive. Furthermore, her long sojourn in Britain has blurred her vision of Nigeria. She remarks for instance that during the Biafran War, “Most of them (Adah's people) had died from snake bites, running away to save their lives.” Such gross misrepresentation of present-day Nigerian realities and her tendency towards exaggeration make her work inauthentic. Her bitter marital experience induces her to end the novel lamely with the white Whoopey impregnated by an African and with Adah empathizing by cursing “all African men for treating women the way they do.” This sweeping statement reveals an attitude which intrudes again in another stereotype: “One of the boys (Adah's son) was shivering, his brown, bony naked body shaking as if doing an African sex dance.” The tone of denigration is subdued in this first novel mainly because the other memorable characters are white. The conflict in the writer comes out into the open more explicitly in her next novel.

The second novel, Second-Class Citizen, is also feminist in ideology. It delineates the second-class citizenship of Adah in two senses: first as a black person in a predominantly white world, then as a woman in a male-controlled world. It has aroused some furor not for its radical stance for blackism and feminism but for its conservatism in projecting white paternalistic and/or stereotypical attitudes towards Africa. As one reviewer rightly complained, Emecheta dwells on those aspects of Nigerian life which “the average British would wish to hear about the African.”

This tragic pass is apparent in the indiscriminate use of animal images which pervade the entire work and reveal her incredible and deep-seated alienation and contempt for the African. Unsurprisingly, Adah's husband, Francis, comes in for such debasement. On one occasion, he “reminded Adah of a snake spitting out venom. Francis had a small mouth, with tiny lips … so when he pouted those lips like that, he looked so unreal that he reminded the onlooker of other animals, not anything human.” Later, Francis “was like an enraged bull,” angered by Adah's refusing him sex, a typical Igbo female ploy. We can hardly miss the reference as she reaffirms his bestiality: “All that Francis needed to be taken for a gorilla was simply to bend his knees.”

If her husband is an animal, she is (economically) the “goose that laid the golden eggs” and (sexually) the “wicked temptress luring her male to destruction.” But she destroyed Francis with neither money nor seduction; rather, like a witch, by the magical power of the words which make up the novel, she devastated him. Her struggle is for emancipation from wifehood through motherhood to selfhood. For Adah sees the husband-wife relationship as destructive and corruptive, and the woman is victim. One of man's offensive weapons is the penis, used to break woman's individuality (frigidity to Francis), and needed to subjugate the woman through pregnancy and childbearing.

Emecheta therefore retaliates in typical western fashion with a Freudian weapon, the pen. In using her pen she declares her emancipation from her husband and Igbo patriarchal convention. The height of her newly acquired liberty is demonstrated in the boldness of her public narration of her private story. But like Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino in its defence of tradition, Adah's revolutionary statement of her case against tradition is so one-sided that we wish the “first-class citizen” could have been given the equal time that p'Bitek was compelled to provide with his Song of Ocol. If we were to imagine Emecheta stating her case before a group of Igbo elders (male and female), would they not have condemned her as much for the self-centered crudity of the telling as for the story itself?

Second-Class Citizen is a satire against Francis, who comes to represent the Igbo man or the African man; under criticism is man's vaunted role as breadwinner coupled with his exaggerated notions of manhood in which the woman is unjustifiably treated as a subordinate. As forceful as the attack might be from a feminist stance, the work nevertheless is both morally and aesthetically dissatisfying to a reader who comes from a culture where it is unethical to reveal the unpleasant details of a marital breakdown. The western Igbo avoid such impropriety by using the custom of “ikpo si ike,” a procedure which allows a hostile spouse, privately, to bare the buttocks to the full view of the partner as a sign of divorce when a relationship has broken down irretrievably. Its finality saves the couple the enervating experience of a public proceeding. Emecheta, originally a western Igbo, was to use this neat means to effect a separation between Aku-nna's mother and her new husband in The Bride Price. Her treatment of the collapse of Adah's marriage in Second-Class Citizen is somewhat coarse when considered, as the novel must be, in an Igbo context. To an Igbo, Emecheta's acquired English sensibility is insensitive and distasteful.

From the foregoing, it is ironical that Adah was irritated by Francis' and Pa Noble's (the noble savage?) toadyish behavior towards white women. Of Second-Class Citizen we can ask Emecheta a modified version of what Adah in her anger asked Pa Noble: “Why did you not tell your white audience that your father had tails, Ma Emecheta … Why must you descend so low? Just to gain approval from these people?”

But then the novel is a Bildungsroman and Adah is confused at this point in the novel. She grows from ignorance to a slight awareness of her power, the extent of which she does not yet fully recognize. Her story itself is pathetic: the heroine develops a confused identity commencing from her arrival in London and culminating in the burning of her manuscript. The trauma speeds up her Anglicization and encourages her feminism to the detriment of her Africanness. Since Francis did not bargain for an English wife, he intentionally hurt her by insisting that they were not married, a statement of truth in conservative Igbo eyes, since the traditional bride price, symbol of female subjugation, was unpaid. As Francis performed his dastardly acts, Adah became the “monkey” poisoned by Francis and the “goat” lashed by him for not doing the impossible. In the image of the monkey is implied some mischief on Adah's part; her book is therefore a “monkey business,” set out to destroy Francis while he in his turn makes her a scapegoat for his intellectual failure. In the final analysis, the weak Francis did have cause to fear the indefatigable Adah, whose resilience enabled her to reproduce a fresh version of her burnt manuscript from whose ashes emerged the dedicated feminist.

Having tackled her personal problems in two novels, Emecheta moves from the autobiographical to the more challenging fictive representation contained in her third work, The Bride Price. But the experiment in The Bride Price reveals a lack of expansive imagination; Aku-nna's story could have been hers; she duplicates thematic patterns, technique, and method of characterization already employed in the first two autobiographical novels.

The animal images which emerged in In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen reach alarming proportions in The Bride Price. Surprisingly, the heroine, Aku-nna, also comes in for this debasing treatment. At one point in the story all the noise Aku-nna could emit “was like that made by ageing frogs at the sides of marshy streams.” The Yoruba traffic warden has “zebra-like tribal markings,” while some Igbo men puff “thoughtfully on clay pipes like goats chewing grass.” Igbo women are not left out; “the happy group were chattering like monkeys,” while another female character is depicted “wagging her foot like a contented dog.” These images are not carefully worked out to support, for example, a feminist stance. Rather, they betray Emecheta's half-conscious attitudes towards Africans, male and female. She unwittingly takes us back to the days of the anthropological researcher, stereotypically debating the nature of the African. Such writing has its consequences.

Besides this propensity for animal images, Emecheta employs other images that are equally reprehensible. The friends and relatives who mourn Aku-nna's father dance and “like mad Christians gone berserk would roll themselves into balls … working their bodies into lumpy or smooth shapes, like a huge dough being prepared for pastry.” This level of writing speaks for itself.

The novel is further marred by the numerous explanations of customs, obviously meant for a foreign audience who would not notice such a flaw as narrating an essentially Igbo story using Yoruba proverbs. Such sweeping generalizations as “The bride usually won, and then the houseboy would go away in search of his own fortune somewhere else. It was always so, and it still is so among the Ibos in Lagos today. It is one of those unwritten norms which are here to stay” were, by the mid 70s, inapplicable with the advent of smuggling, military rule, civil war, and the beginning of free education in Nigeria. Other infelicities as “They (the male mourners) beat their chests to the rhythm of their agony, they hugged themselves this way and that like raging waves on a gloomy day, and on each face ran two rivers of tears which looked as though they would never dry” cannot bear close scrutiny. They are the signs of an unaccomplished writer. Her outsider's lack of empathetic interpretation shows that Emecheta partly absorbed her perspective not from James Baldwin, whom Adah confesses to have read, but from the Wright of Black Power. Like Wright, she writes about Africa with a western sensibility, so much so that her attack on the tradition of bride price with its feminist thrust becomes suspect; she is no longer “one of us.”

Despite her style and anti-African images, in the denouement of The Bride Price, having prepared us in many ways, Emecheta attributes Aku-nna's death to the violation of tradition. Mutiso's observation about the dissident in the African novel is pertinent here. According to him, “The literature suggests that the modern African individualist is almost by definition a schizoid person. This word is not used lightly, but arises from the fact that whenever the individual has apparently shaken the operational aspects of the communal ethic, it nevertheless returns to haunt his memory.” Aku-nna's dissent haunts her in her last days. The link between The Bride Price and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is obvious in the scene where Chike puts a dried leaf on the path of a line of brown ants, disrupting them. The action is reminiscent of Henry's god-like role in his treatment of the ants on the burning log in A Farewell to Arms. The human being is equated to the ant; Chike informs Aku-nna that “each ant would be lost if it did not follow the footsteps of those in front, those who have gone on that very path before.” Aku-nna's defiance of tradition brings about her end in a devastating way that cannot be compared to Adah's success. It is incongruous that the feminist Emecheta should permit such failure considering the fact that she (Emecheta) came out unscathed after her own deviation from the African norm.

We are further prepared for Aku-nna's death by the fact that the heroine, like the writer's mother to whom the novel is dedicated, is an “Ogbanje,” destined to die and return time and again. This belief in reincarnation is however not in keeping with Emecheta's fundamental stance. What is more in tune with her Anglicized world view is the incorporation of Hemingway's use of the “biological trap.” In Aku-nna's instance, the trap lies in her tender age, malnutrition, narrow hips, sickliness, and consequent weakness. That idyllic sojourn in Ughelli, with its reverberations of a “separate peace” and the sentimentality evoked by the lovesick couple, ends in the clinical, ascetic surrounding of a hospital bed, the would-be mother caught by the trap of nature as Catherine was in A Farewell to Arms.

Parallel to the development of the “biological trap” are others: the “psychological trap,” the “superstition trap,” and the “tradition trap.” Emecheta overdoes it by making the odds against Aku-nna overwhelming. Thus Aku-nna's feminist revolt is foredoomed, battered as she is from several angles. If she represents woman-in-revolt with its tragic consequences, Ojebeta, the heroine in the fourth novel, The Slave Girl, represents contrastingly the tragic fate of woman acquiescent to the whims and caprices of society. Emecheta implies forebodingly that the woman is always a loser no matter what her attitude towards life is or the degree of her awareness of her socio-political predicament.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that the heroine of The Slave Girl, Alice Ogbanje Ojebeta, is named after Emecheta's mother, Alice Ogbanje Emecheta; or is Ojebeta's story a fictional version of Emecheta's mother's life? There are chronological and geographical parallels in both stories but it might be wise to leave that line of thought, interesting though it may be.

In The Slave Girl, set at the beginning of the twentieth century, Emecheta is a lot more inventive than before as she weaves a story based on the type of accounts that were rife among the western Igbo—stories of exile and return of members of the clan apparently sold into slavery. She has journeyed back in time. That journey motif is reflected in the name Ojebeta (literally did her journey start today?), a wry commentary on the frequency of the heroine's reincarnation. In the present phase of her existence, she is destined to continue moving back and forth from Ibuza to Onitsha back to Ibuza and off to Lagos. These incessant journeys remind us of the perilous one to Benin undertaken by her father on her behalf to ensure her survival. In her lifetime, Ojebeta journeys from one form of slavery into another as she plays in turns the role of daughter, sister, housemaid or rather pawn, niece, lover, wife and mother—roles which insistently subordinate her to men.

Besides the journey motif, there is implicit in Ojebeta's name, Alice, a connection with Alice in Wonderland. Ojebeta's life is romantic and her journey to Onitsha is fantastical particularly when we recall that her life there is far removed from the reality of her circumstances in Ibuza. Normalcy is restored when she wakes up, as it were, to the possibility of regaining her lost freedom and then returns from Onitsha to Ibuza.

As Ebeogu points out, Emecheta has destroyed the basis of the “propaganda” in this novel that protests against the exploitation of women in traditional society by depicting too many successful female characters such as Uteh, Umeadi, and most importantly, Ma Palagada. In contrast, only Ojebeta is made to represent the enslaved woman; because of the imbalance, Ojebeta's situation appears atypical, contrary to the author's intention. It seems therefore that it is not so much the society which has permitted many women to lead free, happy, productive lives that is to blame for Ojebeta's feminine predicament, but her orphanage, a stressful situation that could retard the progress of an average child in any culture. Ojebeta then emerges as an inadequate medium to convey Emecheta's feminist ideologies, while the more memorable figure of Ma Palagada, who dwarfs her husband and son, and even bequeaths them with a name, unwittingly serves as a forceful antithesis.

In spite of all these conceptual flaws, Emecheta examines the subject of woman's subjugation doggedly. There is new-found confidence in the work as she unifies Ojebeta's African heritage with her acquired Anglo-Christian ones, as signified in the names Ojebeta and Alice. Emecheta makes us believe that the innocent Ojebeta had been preserved not only by the love of her parents but by the talismanic bells and charms, symbols of that parental love. When Ojebeta abandons these ties with her ancestors and accepts a Christian God, life becomes more insecure for her, so that the promise that Ojebeta the child held is not fulfilled in the adult Alice. Her later difficulties can be attributed to her apostasy in the same way that her brother, Okolie, had had to suffer materially and spiritually for betraying the spirit of the ancestors by exchanging his sister for money. Before the end of the story, the reader gradually becomes aware of the fact that Ojebeta is Nigeria, “enslaved” by the British (represented by the bourgeoise Ma Palagada) through her betrayal by her own people for mere bauble. Ojebeta's kith and kin, those to become the colonized, lacked the moral strength and the foresight to present a united front to fight the new, black elitist force which suicidally, would entrench British mores in the society. It must be noted that with reference to Ojebeta's traumatic experience, Okolie, her brother, is as much to blame as his elder brother who shirked the duties of the first son by abandoning his patrimony to settle in Lagos. Nigeria's fate, like Ojebeta's, has been determined on the one side by ignorant, disloyal people.

In this novel, Emecheta begins to get into the spirit of what it is to be an Igbo raconteur with her alienation against things African noticeably minimized. She has realized that a successful story-teller can criticize but cannot afford to be alienated from the people who provide the material for a work of art. Although Eze's voice might sound “like that of a hoarse frog,” yet Ojebeta can stand “quaking like African water lilies on a windy day.” In warming up to her subject, she becomes almost lyrical in parts. Eze's and Uteh's voices in argument “were like a rising song that started with a low tune and gained in volume till it was raised to the highest pitch.” This is a more mature Emecheta. Although she has not completely relieved herself of the shackles of her English sensibility, she has come a long way in integrating her images and developing a more acceptable African world view.

Her improved skills are also obvious in the novel's strong ending. Images of death and corruption dominate The Slave Girl and so do those of avarice, selfishness, and dishonor; they represent the decadence of Nigerian society as encapsulated in Ojebeta's life. Emecheta manages to render these negative qualities from the viewpoint of an insider. In the end, she identifies the politico-cultural perspective of British infiltration into Nigeria with the Anglicization of Ojebeta and her illusory happiness at her lot in her husband's house. Considered in a political context, the tragic irony in the novel lies in Ojebeta's ignorance of the major event that will affect Nigeria— colonization—a large-scale slavery that will determine, socially, economically, and psychologically, the fate of every Nigerian, woman and man. The last paragraph of the novel is indicative of this new era: “So as Britain was emerging from war once more victorious, and claiming to have stopped the slavery which she had helped to spread in all her black colonies, Ojebeta, now a woman of thirty-five, was changing masters.” Ojebeta was blind to her predicament just as Nigeria was in the dark as she drifted into colonialism. Nnu Ego, the heroine in Emecheta's latest feminist novel, finally sees the light which must precede a change.

With the publication of The Joys of Motherhood, Emecheta has come to her own. It is a much more substantial work than its predecessors. It covers the same grounds, thematically, but there is a marked technical development in the writing with its wry humor and underlying irony.

The psychological grounding of the novel is based on the story of a slave princess already narrated by the character, Chiago, in The Slave Girl. The contrast between Chiago's narrative and its dramatization in The Joys of Motherhood shows the extent of Emecheta's growth as a writer. From mere reporting, she now conjures up her subject in vivid scenes as if she had learnt some lessons from Jane Austen. The stream of consciousness which she had hitherto handled awkwardly now finds occasional expression in the recording of the flow of thought in italics, in an almost Faulknerian fashion.

The first chapter is captivating; Emecheta excels herself in the tremendous sweep back in time to explain Nnu Ego's present psychological impasse. She treats in depth the role of one's chi, that is the guardian spirit, in the Igbo person's psychic disposition. In spite of the fact that she scoffs at the idea of a dibia's omniscience, she manipulates the point of view so as to make us see and believe with Nnu Ego on the efficacy of the dibia's juju while we also understand and accept Oshia's disbelief in these local medicine men. Nnu Ego's difficult life stems from the unpleasant circumstances surrounding her half-brother's death blow on the slave princess destined to be her chi. Her inauspicious life becomes a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the drama unfolds.

The tempo of the first few chapters starts to flag with the sameness in Nnaife's many marriages, his fathering of children by Adaku, Adankwo, Okpo, and Nnu Ego, and Nnu Ego's numerous pregnancies. These are tales of woe that emphasize the hardships of unplanned families and subsistence living. The burden is the tragedy of woman.

Where then lie the “joys” of motherhood? In expressing the joys, Emecheta is at her best as a western Igbo story teller, for example in the irony implied in the title. Children give joy, we all agree. From that premise, she builds an elaborate story to demolish such nonsense, while at the same time pretending to uphold the age-long idea. She dramatizes the adage that “if you don't have children the longing for them will kill you, and if you do, the worrying over them will kill you.” A mother of boys must be happy; the oldest mother in a polygynous household must be joyous. Such happiness should help woman bear the grind of poverty. But in the background is the motif of the loneliness of the prolific mother. Nnu Ego gradually realizes that motherhood has not brought fulfillment but enslavement to the children. Keenly aware of the “umbilical” ties with her father, husband, and sons; keenly aware of the hardship of numerous children; Nnu Ego ruminates: “God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage?” Her tragedy, and, by extension woman's tragedy lies in our awareness of her wasted life.

Nnu Ego's epiphany emanates from her brief contact with the feminist character, her co-wife, Adaku. Nnu Ego, turning feminist herself, laments the female predicament in a monologue: “I am a prisoner of my own flesh and blood … But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man's world, which women will always help to build.” These ideas push feminism to great heights though coming from Nnu Ego at that point in time they sound anachoristic and anachronistic. An Anglicized black female character like Adah would have been a more appropriate persona than Nnu Ego to voice such female discontent. What is more, several inconsistencies appear in Nnu Ego's character that demonstrate her inadequacy as a feminist. For example, in spite of her seeming revisionist stance, she is horrified at Adaku's bid for freedom from marital drudgery; she regards it as prostitution. Obviously she is an inheritor of traditional male brainwashing. Besides, her criterion as to who out of her children should be formally educated is based on sex rather than on ability, with preference given to the boys over the girls. She also insists on her daughters rather than her sons doing the household chores. Thus the two crucial sources for reeducating a people with a patriarchal heritage and changing the sexist status quo, namely, formal education and the division of labor in the home, remain unexplored by our “feminist” heroine. Emecheta heightens Nnu Ego's ambivalent attitude and so fails to let her grow into a radical, perhaps in a last-minute bid to retain verisimilitude rather than advance, through the heroine, the propagandist tenets which the reader had been made to expect.

Emecheta further confuses the reader about her own stance in her naming of some of the characters. The name Obiageli (she who has come to enjoy her father's and/or husband's wealth), given to one of the twins, seems to be a misnomer coming after Nnu Ego's epiphany since it underscores the stereotype of the parasitic nature of woman. On the other hand, Malachi (which should read Malechi—who knows what the morrow will bring?) generates some hope in its forward looking to a probable female emancipation. It is as if Emecheta herself is not sure of what she wants or is nostalgic about the past with its own order. Her ambivalence towards her subject had been apparent earlier in her portraits of strong women as minor characters in contrast to weak women as central characters (for example, the powerful Ma Palagada as opposed to the pawn Ojebeta in The Slave Girl). In The Joys of Motherhood, the economically independent Adaku and the emotionally strong Ona differ from Nnu Ego. Adaku, like Adah-Emecheta, easily rids herself of her husband in a bid for economic independence while still believing that men “do have their (sexual) uses.” She prefers a man as a companion on a basis of equality rather than as husband and provider, a relationship which gives ground for female incapacitation, if the husband does provide; and for frustration, if he does not. One can only wish then that Emecheta had resolved her doubts during the creative process and made her central characters carry the weight of her feminist convictions.

Besides the diminution of obnoxious images in her writing, there is a further change in Emecheta. By using the pronoun “us” for the first time with herself included, she finally acknowledges her sense of belonging with Africa instead of emphasizing her spirit of dissociation. Her identity crisis seemingly over, the dynamic Emecheta might help to launch a feminist revolt having at last found her place in the Nigerian artistic world.

The organic unity of Emecheta's works lies in her treatment of themes, use of technique, and exploration of a particular sociological background. More often than not, she peoples her novels with impotent men. But within the narrow canvas she has chosen, she has been able to portray the development of both working-class and middle-class Ibuza women from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1960s. She concentrates on what has been. Her western Igbo reader enjoys the unveiling of the past and feels at home with her irony, a carry-over from the western Igbo language. Her feminist disposition, more western than African, needs further grounding in the Nigerian indigenous cultural milieu to make the impact of her writing felt by those who can effect a change of heart and attitude (if the novels were overtly meant to bring that about)—that is, the African woman and the African man. For the functional purpose of change implicit in her novels, Africans, rather than the British, must serve as her primary audience; otherwise, Emecheta's stereotypic portraits of Africans can only provide light entertainment for the outsider. Fortunately, The Joys of Motherhood foreshadows what can legitimately be expected of a mature, Nigerian feminist literature.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1687

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.

Rolf Solberg (essay date June 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7070

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 Western Europe. Colonialism unsettled a number of well-balanced mechanisms in almost every sphere of the traditional society: ecologically, socially, politically, and not least concerning the roles of the sexes.

In most traditional African societies there was a fairly well-defined pattern of duties and responsibilities shared by males and females. By and large the male was the dominant partner, and most societies had a patrilineal kinship pattern. In some societies the woman had to show excessive deference to her husband. She had to address him as her master, was not allowed to eat at his table, and had to kneel before him. She has often been referred to as a ‘beast of burden’. On the other hand there were also matrilineal societies where women had considerable power and exercised political influence that women still lack in advanced western societies today. And even in tribes where male authority was largely unchallenged, such as the Ibo tribe of Eastern Nigeria, she often enjoyed a considerable amount of independence socially, and especially economically.

As modern industrialism developed in Africa, the ensuing urbanisation drove a wedge into the traditional sex-structure. The men often had to move to industrial centres for jobs, and this meant a redefinition of agricultural work duties. Large-scale farming projects had similar effects. Families had to live apart and marriage relations often became strained. The predominantly polygynous traditional marriage had as its main objective the preservation of the (male) kinship line, and was not based on ‘romantic’ love. With the extra load added on to the already heavy burden of the woman (with agricultural work, house-keeping and child-rearing) and with the lure of city life, more and more women began to migrate to the towns and cities. Polygyny has come to be questioned more and more strongly by such women, and the western type ‘romantic’ marriage is gaining support among western-oriented Africans; women are pressing for real equality in all walks of life: the axe lies at the root, it seems, of the old African extended family tradition.

Since Independence the changes in the social structures of the new African nations have been accelerated. A number of husbands have taken their families with them to the cities, and large numbers of unattached women have moved to the cities for education as well as for other city attractions (pleasure, less-demanding work, more personal independence). The professional debate among sociologists and anthropologists about the effects of the migration to the cities upon the women themselves does not as yet yield any clear picture of the situation, which one could hardly expect, as it is still a transitional period. What does seem to emerge from the debate, however, is a realization that the process is irreversible, and one that is bound to affect the situation of the women, and, indeed, almost every aspect of the African societies involved.

Male support for the feminist issue appears to be less than whole-hearted. Bearing in mind the reactions past and present of the western male on the question of equality, this is perhaps to be expected. In proceedings from conferences on Third World development the need to enlist the women's services in the modernization process is very heavily underlined, with reference being made to their important roles in traditional societies, especially as mothers and agricultural workers.

If one looks at feminist legislation all seems well. One would be hard put to name a new African nation where women are denied their civic rights—on the statute books. By and large they have full political rights, and on paper there is hardly any discrimination at all in the fields of education, industrial or professional life. However, except for odd examples like Guinea, where president Sécou Touré himself has worked actively to achieve full emancipation for his country's women, the picture is often very different when it comes down to practical politics. Politicians, who are mainly men, tend only to pay lip service to such legislation, and through manipulation effectively keep women out of important positions in politics and management. It would be wrong to jump from this fact to the conclusion that African women are down-trodden, placid beings unable to take a stand-up fight if necessary. African history shows several examples of the contrary. C. C. M. Mutiso makes the following comment:

Probably no single charge about the nature of traditional African society has animated Africans more than the idea commonly held by most foreigners that the African woman is generally a pliable person.

And although African women need understanding and support in their fight for an equal share in the benefits as well as responsibilities of the modern world, they have little time for the attitudes of some of their feminist champions in the West. In reply to Germaine Greer a Nigerian journalist writes in a conference news sheet at the women's conference in Mexico City in 1975:

It is presumptuous for anyone to presume that women of the Third World are unable to articulate their outrage at any issue that concerns them. As a member of the Third World, I repudiate that patronizing attitude and particularly the underlying intellectual imperialism. Women in the Third World do not need any more champions. We are bored and tired of any more Great White Hopes.

In other words one has to tread softly. One of the ways of correcting one's faulty image of the African woman would be through the reading of creative literature. But even there one is in danger of acquiring biased information, as Eleanor Wachtel points out in a paper entitled ‘The Mother and the Whore: Image and Stereotype African Women’. Here she examines the image of the African woman as it appears through the work of a number of modern African writers. Most of these writers are men, and she concludes that the image is largely a stereotype generally distorted by males, some of whom appear downright mysogynist.

Obviously there are a number of distinguished exceptions to this. In writings by Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and Okot p'Bitek for example we find a very different picture. But what one should really look for is the African woman seen from the ‘inside’, in other words rendered by women. However, African women writers are few and far between. It is all the more exciting to come across Nigerian Buchi Emecheta, a writer with no less than five novels to her name, all published in the short span of seven years, from 1972 to 1979. The sixth is in the pipeline ready for publication. And what is more: they are all very readable books.

‘Buchi Emecheta, 36, daughter of a railway worker, followed her husband from Nigeria to London in 1962 but was later separated from him and left with five children to bring up alone. She now earns her living by writing and lecturing … She also writes children's books’. This is part of the laconic introduction to the Sunday Times Magazine feature, ‘A Life in the Day of Buchi Emecheta’ of 23rd March 1980. Academically she got herself an education in Lagos as a librarian before taking a degree in sociology while on the dole in London. Her writer's career includes, apart from the novels and children's books, a couple of television plays and also some poetry. In this article we shall concentrate on Buchi Emecheta's novels. Her first four novels, in the reverse order of their publication, take us from her parent's and grandparents' Africa, from the Ibo territories of Eastern Nigeria and the city of Lagos, and through the post-war Lagos childhood of Adah, the protagonist of the two earliest novels.

The first two of them, In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1975) are both strictly autobiographical. Through the account of Adah's struggle to get herself an education on equal terms with her brother we are introduced to the author's childhood, and when we read about Adah's early married life in Lagos and London in the early and mid-1960s, it is equally about Buchi Emecheta's personal struggle for plain survival for herself and her five small children in the London slum. Her plight, or Adah's, to keep within the framework of Buchi Emecheta's novels, is all the more onerous as she is fettered to a useless slob of a Nigerian student husband, whose ultimate act of disgrace is to ‘kill her brain-child’: he burns the manuscript of his wife's first novel, The Bride Price. The novel was later rewritten and appeared in 1976 as Buchi Emecheta's third novel. The fourth is The Slave Girl (1977) and the fifth, The Joys of Motherhood, was published in the summer of 1979.

The African novels, i.e. the last three, cover a period from about 1910 to roughly 1960. They are not in the same sense autobiographical as the London novels. But they all fan out from the central experience of the author's Lagos childhood, and she uses material from her own family. From this nucleus, described in the first two chapters of Second-Class Citizen, and the opening of The Bride Price, they take us into three different social and temporal environments. There is (i) the market town of Onitsha in The Slave Girl, with the first real exposure of the protagonist Ogbanje Ojebeta Odi to the modern world (the 1930s) and the white man's values. (ii) In The Bride Price we meet Blackie, modelled on the same person as Ogbanje (probably the author's mother) but now as the mother of Aku-Nna, the main character of this novel. With her mother Blackie and her brother Nna-Nndo, Aku-Nna moves back to the family roots in the Ibo village of Ibuza after a period in Lagos where she and her brother have spent their early childhood years. She (as well as Adah) was born about the end of World War II, and Buchi Emecheta herself in 1944, so the identification seems fairly obvious. (iii) In her latest novel, The Joys of Motherhood, we join the Ogbanje/Blackie generation again, but this time in the city environment of Lagos, exploring with Nnu Ego the pangs of culture collision. Here we witness the struggle of the illiterate first generation town-dwellers to bring up the first generation of city-born Africans about the time of World War II.

In the following pages I want to examine, in broad outline, the image of the African woman as it appears in Buchi Emecheta's three African novels. The opening chapters of Second-Class Citizen called ‘Childhood’ and ‘Escape into éliticism’ form a kind of exposition of Buchi Emecheta's central themes as a writer. At the same time as they give us the necessary information to appreciate Adah's situation in London they also introduce the basic dichotomy between traditionalism and modernism in Africa, with the woman's position as the central theme, especially the idea of the woman as slave. Linked with the enslavement of women is the question of the impact on the woman's situation of the Christian religion as well as that of education.

That the issue is of paramount importance is suggested already on the very first page where we are buttonholed by the author:

She [Adah] was not even quite sure that she was exactly eight, because, you see, she was a girl … since she was such a disappointment to her parents, to her immediate family, to her tribe, nobody thought of recording her birth.

This is the introduction of the protagonist, Adah, about the time when she decided she wanted an education:

School—the Ibo never played with that! They were realizing fast that one's saviour from poverty and disease was education.

However, Adah is hardly typical of Ibo femalehood in the determined way in which she comes to grips with schooling and education. On her way to an educated life (although initially as a second-class citizen) in Britain, she flagrantly violates a number of Ibo traditions, and her motto is: ‘Be as cunning as a snake but as harmless as a dove’.

She marries Francis without a bride-price being paid, and she goes to join her husband in Britain against the will of her father-in-law. On leaving for Britain she reflects, while thinking about her little brother who has come to wave her off:

… he had accepted the fact that in Africa, and among the Ibos in particular, a girl was little more than a piece of property. Adah had been bought, though on credit [Francis being unable to pay her bride price], and she would never go back to being an Ofili [her patrilineal family name] any more. The tiny hands clutching her blouse were the hands of a big man in the making. Her duty was to them now. From now on her children came first.

The question begged by these thoughts is whether they express Adah's, and by implication Buchi Emecheta's own acceptance of the traditional pattern where the woman's primary duty is to raise a large family for her husband's kinship line, accepting her own subordinate position, or if they mean a clean breach with tradition: her duties will now lie with the ‘nuclear family’. The latter appears to be the more probable, especially in the light of her reflections when, according to Ibo tradition, her mother is taken over as a co-wife by her father's brother on the father's death:

She hated Ma for marrying again, thinking it was a betrayal of Pa … She would never, never in her life get married to any man, rich or poor, to whom she would have to serve his food on bended knee: she would not consent to live with a husband whom she would have to treat as a master and refer to as ‘Sir’ even behind his back. She knew that all Ibo women did this, but she wasn't going to!

Adah's basic problem here is one that is obviously shared by the author, and one that is becoming increasingly urgent to the growing section of African women that are now flocking to the urban centres: should they accept the age-old polygamous family system, or should they opt for the monogamous nuclear family? We must look to the African novels for a discussion of this problem.

Having read the three first novels by Buchi Emecheta the reader will probably link the slave reference of The Slave Girl with the status of women in the traditional African society. That is a hotly disputed issue, not least because of its negative reflections on the African male. Buchi Emecheta, although she refuses, like Adah, to bend her knee to the obligations inherent in the traditional view of male/female roles, still appears to be drawn by the traditional values.

Turning back again, briefly, to the opening of Second-Class Citizen, we find a rather nostalgic description of the village women preparing for the homecoming of lawyer Nweze, the Ibuza ‘been-to’ who returns with his British education. The occasion is filled with expectations of future benefits to be showered on Ibuza through its illustrious son:

It was a joy to hear and see these women, happy in their innocence … Their wants were easily met. Not like those of their children who later got caught up in the entangled web of industrialization …

We find the same apparent ambivalence in The Bride Price where 13-year-old Aku-Nna is on her way to her father's home town Ibuza:

Nearly everyone in Ibuza was related. They all knew each other, the tales of one another's ancestors, their histories and heroic deeds. Nothing was hidden in Ibuza. It was the duty of every member of the town to find out and know his neighbour's business.

For a while they all stood and chatted. The young men had that distinctive and good-humoured quality of ease which was the heritage of people who had long ago learned and absorbed the art of communal living …

Her cousin did not know about stories in books, but she did know a great number of folk stories that were told by moonlight and handed down from generation to generation.

Comparing the people of Ibuza with the people of Lagos:

There was something else different about the people here; they seemed more relaxed, more naturally beautiful than their relatives in Lagos. The women all had such long necks and carried their heads high, like ostriches, as if they had a special pride in themselves, and their gracefully thin legs lent their whole appearance extra height. It was only the old people who could be seen to stoop. Every other person moved with such bearing that gave them a natural, untutored elegance.

Already a couple of pages later follows a clear corrective to this flattering presentation of the village people:

The children stared in the direction their mother was pointing and saw about fifteen women trotting into the fast filling square that was to be the market place. They were carrying a heavy pile of damp cassava pulp … So heavy was it that the necks of the poor women carriers (who were sweating profusely) … were compressed to half their normal sizes.

Aku-Nna's problem is not so much the question whether the old Ibo way of life is good, bad or middling: it soon becomes clear that the real problem of Aku-Nna and Buchi Emecheta's generation is the one mentioned above: they are the children ‘who got caught up in the entangled web of industrialization’.

At the end of chapter 6 of The Bride Price the author comments on the situation of Aku-Nna and her brother Nna-Nndo after they have been transplanted into the traditional society of Ibuza. They carry in their veins their Lagos childhood, and on top of that a typical British education is inflicted on them even in the Ibuza primary school:

Aku-Nna and Nna-Nndo soon grew accustomed to things at Ibuza, learning in school the European ways of living and coming home to be faced with the countless and unchanging traditions of their own people. Yet they were like helpless fishes caught in a net; they could not as it were go back into the sea, for they were trapped fast, and yet they were still alive because the fisherman was busy debating within himself whether it was worth killing them to take home, seeing as they were such small fry.

The question of slave versus free-born gets a rather special twist in this novel as Aku-Nna falls in love with her teacher Chike, who comes from a slave family. Like other categories of osus, outcasts, the descendants from slaves tended to rise to important positions in public life more frequently and quickly than the free-born during the colonial administration. They stood to gain more through the modern education introduced by the whites and through untraditional careers than their high-born African brothers.

For the free-born to have normal everyday relations with the descendants of slaves was quite usual and acceptable. But when it came to vital matters like owning land, marriage, and religious offices, there was an unbridgeable gap between the two groups in the traditional society.

When Chike and Aku-Nna elope, therefore, it is in open defiance of Ibo marriage traditions and it is regarded as an abomination. This is so even though Aku-Nna was abducted in the first place by members of the family of one of her suitors, whom she was determined she would never accept as a husband. Chike rescues her from the unwanted match after the two families involved have agreed on bride price. The act of defiance is ‘Tempting Providence’, as the last chapter of the novel is called. Aku-Nna dies in child-birth in consequence:

So it was that Chike and Aku-Nna substantiated the traditional superstition they had unknowingly set out to eradicate. Every girl born in Ibuza after Aku-Nna's death was told her story, to reinforce the old taboos of the land. If a girl wished to live long and see her children's children, she must accept the husband chosen for her by her people, and the bride price must be paid. If the bride price was not paid, she would never survive the birth of her first child. It was a psychological hold over every young girl that would continue to exist, even in the face of every modernization, until the present day. Why this is so is, as the saying goes, anybody's guess.

Aku-Nna's death is in several ways a contrast to Okonkwo's in Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. His downfall is primarily a consequence of flaws in his own nature—his inordinate pride and his fear of being thought weak and effeminate. Aku-Nna is killed by forces entirely outside her control, and not because of inherent moral shortcomings. And whereas Okonkwo is the traditional male hero who dies, in a sense, in defence of the old way of life, Aku-Nna is a feeble woman defying tradition.

On the first reading of The Bride Price one feels less prepared for the tragic outcome than one does for Okonkwo's death in Achebe's novel, despite the anticipations accumulating especially in the last chapter of The Bride Price. One explanation may be found in the enigmatic final line of the novel, where the author comments on the psychological hold that the traditional taboos have on the young girls: ‘Why this is so is, as the saying goes, anybody's guess’. She finds it difficult to put our minds at ease, or she deliberately refuses to.

We have seen before that Emecheta expresses herself ambiguously when it comes to the question of traditional values. In Second-Class Citizen Adah gets away with her ‘revolt’ against tradition. But then she is a much more robust character than Aku-Nna. And her marriage is based, if not on family negotiations, then on cool reasoning. Aku-Nna refuses to be a slave to tradition in her love life. When her mother lets her know that Chike can be no match for her she turns the whole matter over in her mind: ‘Oh, what kind of savage custom was it that could be so heartless and make so many people unhappy?’ And she is determined to kill herself rather than sleep with the young man whose relatives have kidnapped her. But by obeying her heart and choosing as her partner the slave Chike she takes on more than she can cope with. She is ill equipped to stand up to such strain, and like the fishes caught in the net she is ‘trapped fast’ once Ibuza has made up its collective mind.

In a larger context one could see Aku-Nna's death as one of redemption—redeeming the woman's lot. A key to such a reading is the word joy, and before Aku-Nna's death Chike promises her that the baby girl shall be called Joy. Note also Chike's insistence that girls are ‘love babies’.

Aku-Nna is herself unable to enjoy her love union, the modern marriage, beyond the brief spell of one pregnancy. But the fruit of her married bliss, Joy, points forward to the new order. The next generation may already be safely through the initial effects of the culture collision, which is in the final analysis what kills Aku-Nna.

The institution of marriage itself is given a much more thorough examination in The Joys of Motherhood. Marriage in the African tradition has as its first objective the continuation of the kinship line. In most traditional societies that means, as I have pointed out above, the patrilineal kin. With the high infant mortality as a natural background the institution of polygamous marriage was evolved, and with it came the extended-family system. Within the natural and social framework of black Africa the system appears to have functioned very well. In a collective society where even religion was family oriented (ancestor worship etc.) one can easily understand that the individual had also to be subordinated to the group when it came to the choice of partners in marriage. The ‘romantic marriage’ with its rather ‘haphazard’ matching of two individuals would not meet the needs of the traditional African agricultural society. Marriage was an agreement between families. Married ‘love’ the way one thinks of it in our culture was ‘incidental’, and certainly subordinated to the overriding goal of the continuation of the kinship line.

In The Joys of Motherhood the main character Nnu Ego is the daughter of Agbadi, the illustrious hunter and powerful chief, a man who had many wives and concubines. There was only one woman he loved the ‘romantic’ way, and that was the concubine Una, Nnu Ego's mother. Once again there is the motif of the love-child. Nnu Ego is the only issue of Agbadi and Una's love, and this time we are moved one generation back from Aku-Nna in The Bride Price. Nnu Ego is born into the Ibuza society and is in due course married to the farmer Amatokwu in the traditional way. The importance of children in marriage is stressed early on. As Nnu Ego remains childless after a couple of years Amatokwu divorces her:

‘What do you want me to do?’ Amatokwu asked, ‘I am a busy man. I have no time to waste my precious seed on a woman who is infertile. I have to raise children for my line.’

After this her doting father Agbadi returns the bride price and decides that he

would rather give his daughter to an old chief with a sense of the tried, traditional values than to some young man who only wanted her because of her family name.

He has promised her mother Una on her death-bed, though, ‘to allow her a life of her own’ and not to prevent her from being a full woman as her father did her. Despite the fact that she was in a sense the slave of two men,—her father and her lover, Una remained a proud and uncompromising woman. But that was probably because she fully accepted the conventions of her culture. She refused to marry her lover because she felt she owed it to her father to give him an heir, her own son, first, to continue his line. During Una's pregnancy with Nnu-Ego, Agbadi's senior wife, Agunwa, dies. As part of the traditional funeral rites a female slave is killed to go with her in the grave. As the slave woman is dying she cries out to Agbadi, who intervenes to lessen her pains,

‘Thank you for your kindness Nwokotcha, the son of Agbadi. I shall come back to your household, but as a legitimate daughter. I shall come back.’

Nnu Ego, who was born shortly afterwards, was born with the slave woman's growth on her head, thus symbolically assuming the traditional woman's slave mark. After being rejected by Amatokwu as a barren woman, she is given away to the rather unattractive Nnaife who works as a house-boy for an English family in Lagos. With his she begins to have children. The first born, a ‘clean-looking boy’, suddenly dies. Then she gets another, accompanied by a strange dream. She picks up a baby boy left by a stream. Then she sees the slave woman, her CHI (personal god), who says to her: ‘Yes, take the dirty, chubby babies. You can have as many of those as you want. Take them!’ The rather indiscriminate reference by the slave woman to the ‘dirty, chubby babies’ could be significant in view of the further development. Nnu Ego has seven children who grow up, and three of them are boys. Due to that fact she is grateful to her lazy, floppy husband, while still dreaming at times of a

… handsome young man, black and shiny of skin like carved ebony, tall, straight and graceful like the trunk of a palm tree, with no fat anywhere but strong bones set inside his perfect body.

Still, Nnaife has made her into a ‘real woman’: he has given her sons. Hence, what pleasure the illiterate Nnu Ego gets out of her first-generation city life she gets from her motherhood.

Through a repetitive style of writing the author brings out this merged motif of slaving motherhood against the almost opaque background of male infallibility. In the traditional society the blessing of children and especially sons, lay partly in the returns their parents could rightfully expect in old age. It functioned as the indigenous type of old age pension. In the late colonial era there was the extra inducement to educate one's sons, who would, like lawyer Nweze in Second-Class Citizen, make good in the world and return to take up lucrative posts in the administrative hierarchy, or in politics, and thus shed honour and riches on their parents and indeed on the entire village or clan, if all went as it should.

The sad irony of The Joys of Motherhood lies partly in the juxtaposition of the strong love story between the successful traditional chief and his proud mistress and the drab toil which the fruit of that relationship, Nnu Ego, is subjected to in order to bring up her large family of ‘dirty, chubby babies’, the off-shoots of slavery. And that story is unfolded against Nnu Ego's repeated self-deluding praises to the joys of motherhood.

One is again left mildly puzzled, as with the previous books, about the author's total attitude towards tradition/modernization. However, the criticism of male chauvinism is very clear, clearer than in the other novels:

On her way back to their room, it occurred to Nnu Ego that she was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned in her role as senior wife … It was not fair, she felt, the way men cleverly used a woman's sense of responsibility to actually enslave her.

Her co-wife Aduke remarks about Nnaife: ‘… But you can't deny that he is a selfish man.’ ‘All men are selfish. That's why they are men.’

It does not appear from this novel what kind of development the author envisages for the African woman. However, she drops a couple of significant hints. Before Nnaife is drafted and sent to Burmah to fight for the British in the Second World War he inherits Aduke from his elder brother who dies. (Later he takes a third wife in common marriage. His Christianity is only skin deep.) During his absence Aduke does well for herself as a petty trader, as Ibo women are famed to do, she abandons tradition and decides to go and live as an independent woman:

‘My CHI be damned! I am going to be a prostitute. Damn my CHI!’ she added again fiercely. … ‘You mean you won't have to depend on men friends to do anything for you?’ Nnu Ego asks. ‘No’, she replied. ‘I want to be a dignified single woman. I shall work to educate my daughters, though I shall not be without male companionship.’ She laughed again. ‘They do have their uses.’

Nnu Ego, on the other hand, solidifies in her traditional role, but not without being aware, again as the Ibo are known to be, of the blessings of education:

She and her husband were ill prepared for a life like this, where only the pen and not the mouth could really talk. Her children must learn.

She becomes painfully clear about her slavery towards the end of the novel, for all her acceptance of the traditional yoke. On having born her last girl twins she prays:

‘God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage?’

‘When will I be free?’ … ‘Never, not even in death. I am a prisoner of my own flesh and blood … But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change this, it is still a man's world, which women will always help to build.’

In other words she remains a slave all her life, in accordance with the curse of the slave woman of the opening pages. This comes out in a symbolic scene towards the end of the novel, where she has a miscarriage. She blames herself for the dead baby girl:

Has she wanted the child to die—was that the interpretation of the slight relief she had experienced when she crawled to the dead child to check what sex it was? That it was a girl had lessened her sense of loss. Oh, God, she did not wish it … Please God, give her something to hold on to, some faith to assure her that she deliberately had not killed her own child in her heart. But the thought kept recurring, until she felt she was hearing it in the voice of her father: ‘Nnu Ego, why did you not call for help when you were in labour? …’

This could be taken as an indictment against the male-oriented traditional society: this is what it can do to a mother's mind even.

Nnu Ego dies in middle age in her ancestral Ibuza, her mind having begun to wander. And she dies friendless. Her ‘very clever children’, and notably the two eldest sons, only remember her after she has died. While she was alive

everybody referred to Nnu Ego, as she proudly carried back-breaking firewood up from the waterside, as the mother of very clever children.

The two sons who are studying in Canada and the U.S.A. forget even to write to their mother:

And her reward? Did she not have the greatest funeral Ibuza had ever seen? It took Oshia three years to pay off the money he had borrowed to show the world what a good son he was.

One is again reminded of the slave-woman's reference to the ‘dirty, chubby babies’. Also towards the end of The Slave Girl we find the slave-master motif related to the traditional marriage. Ogbanje has been released from her bondage on the death of the relative who brought her from Ogbanje's brother when she was a little girl. Now she is going to marry an Ibuza man, Jacob, who is, like herself, literate and a Christian:

She had been a slave before against her wishes. If this time she was going to marry and belong to a man according to the custom of her people, she intended to do so with her eyes wide open … it would [be] better to be a slave to a master of her choice, than to one who didn't care or even know who you were.

This is when Christianity enters the picture. Opinions vary a lot when it comes to the general question of what blessings or curses the white man's religion has bestowed upon the African continent, and that is a problem beyond the scope of this article. However, the impact of Christianity on the African woman's lot is a question which Buchi Emecheta pronounces on fairly strongly:

[Her family] wanted to know why it was essential for her to go to church and have those strange foreign words said over her, just because she was going to her husband's house … and the bride price had been paid.

What worried these people, and Ogbanje as well at the time, was what problems might arise later if the legally married wife did not produce children:

Ogbanje did not know the answer to that one. (But years later Nigerian men solved the problem themselves. A woman could be taken to church and a ring slipped on her finger as easily as a piece of string round a man's cattle to mark it out from another person's. But that did not mean that the man could have only her. What if he had enough money and could afford more wives, or if the first one married in church had no child? So men would simply take wives when they felt like it; while women, on the other hand, must have one husband, and only one.)

Love did not really enter into this relationship, no more than it did between Adah and Francis in Second-Class Citizen.

There was certainly a kind of eternal bond between husband and wife, a bond produced by centuries of traditions, taboos, and, latterly, Christian dogma. Slave obey your master. Wife, honour your husband who is your father, your head, your heart, your soul …

And this is how Adah reflected on the impact of Christianity:

Those god-forsaken missionaries! They had taught Adah all the niceties of life. They had taught her the Bible, where a woman was supposed to be ready to give in to the man at any time, and she was to be much more precious to a husband than rubies …

The Christian marriage in effect meant a double obligation to the African woman. So maybe the answer for the African woman is Aduke's: use men when you need them; otherwise do without them! That may be so. But it does not appear to be the author's position.

In the course of this article I have referred a couple of times to what I see in Buchi Emecheta as an ambivalent attitude towards traditionalism/modernisation. We find this expressed in her view of the man-woman relationship as well as reflections on the general development on the West African scene.

Her traditionalist leanings come out very clearly in the following extract from the interview referred to above, where she comments on the ending of The Bride Price: ‘… you know towards the end of that book Aku Nna died because I felt that she went against her parents—you know that part of tradition …’ And she talks about

the traditional values [which] have been tried and approved. There are certain parts of you that are so tied to them that if you don't adhere to traditions, you just die … What I am really saying is that what is good in the old values—let us keep it. I wish not to look down on everything we have as bad or backward just because it is not modern. And community life for example, I think we should keep that,—you know, just like that.

On the other hand there is—implicitly rather than explicitly—the criticism of the lingering effects of age-old institutions like slavery, and the drudgery of the village women's back-breaking toil, put in relief by, for example, one of Nnu Ego's rare glimpses of a better future for the African women:

… I am beginning to think that there may be a future for educated women. I saw many young women teaching in schools. It would really be something for a woman to be able to earn some money monthly like a man.

It seems to me that Buchi Emecheta's dilemma is part and parcel of the Culture Conflict syndrome: her love and respect for the African heritage vying with the pains of having to define her attitudes towards the problems of the post-colonial reality. Some of the apparent paradox, of course, lies in the short lapse of time between the unified, old village tradition and the challenge posed by modern city life.

Returning again to the feminist issue, the author says of the tribal traditions ‘… some of them are still relevant—like a polygamous life. I think in village Africa you still need this tradition …’

Now this seems to throw a shadow of doubt on her feminist integrity—polygamy being considered a ‘relevant’ institution. (One should note, though, that the author is talking about ‘village Africa’, which is, after all, a far cry from modern or urban Africa.) She even disclaims the feminist label. Asked point blank whether she is a feminist she answered:

Not in the western sense, no. Because I think our problem is beyond feminism. We still have the basic problems to solve. Now I think our men have an excuse to oppress us, because they are not free themselves, even in the so-called independent states. They cannot see that they are being used. So until they are free you can't really … claim to be a feminist.

And she adds for good measure: ‘We need our men’.

The apparent dichotomy between tradition and ‘development’ or modernism, as we see it in the clash between Adah's revolt against polygamy in Second-Class Citizen and the mature author-cum-sociologist's comment just quoted, is one of the basic dynamisms of Buchi Emecheta's African novels up to The Joys of Motherhood.

In my view this does not reduce the momentum of her feminist criticism. Her denunciation of the ill effects of the male dominance in the Ibo society is clear. In places her exposure of male chauvinism is scathing, although at times her veneration for the old way of life seems to take some of the sting out of her charges.

From the evidence we have in her published novels, and from the statements she made in the interview referred to, she still appears to be struggling to clarify her attitudes towards some of these fundamental problems. That may partly be the reason why she, and African women in general, are wary of accepting the ways suggested by western feminism. It is probably also true to say that at this stage Buchi Emecheta is an African writer first and a feminist second. Whether she chooses, or is able, to clarify her position in her future work remains to be seen, of course. We shall be looking for this in her next novel, due to appear shortly under the name of Destination Biafra. There she takes us into contemporary Africa. The scene is eastern Nigeria in the 1960s, and we are going to meet the educated young African woman.

What seems clear to me, though, is that the modern African woman of the future is not going to accept much longer a position ascribed to her by her male counterpart. The new African woman, whether she be conservative (in the best sense of the word) like Buchi Emecheta, or of a more radical brand, will probably wish to define the terms of her motherhood herself: the time of Achebe's Okonkwo and Emecheta's Agbadi is past.

Principal Works

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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 Ditch and Second-Class Citizen] (novel) 1983

The Rape of Shavi (novel) 1983

Head Above Water (autobiography) 1984

Family Bargain (juvenilia) 1987

A Kind of Marriage (novel) 1987

Gwendolyn [published as The Family in the United States] (novel) 1990

Kehinde (novel) 1994

Jewelle Gomez (review date November-December 1985)

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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 urgent need to revise them; to learn to take the best from both the old and the new.

But Emecheta is not a theoretician on polemicist. Her value is as a storyteller. Her characters are as rich as her thesis is compelling. Ete Kamba is full of boyish pride for his successful bid to win a scholarship and he is enthralled with his first adult love, Nko, who has also gained admission to the school. Yet these triumphs precipitate confrontations for which neither is prepared. How can Ete Kamba, a traditional African man pledge marriage to a woman who gives herself to him without apology, who refuses the shame of lost virginity and who makes it clear that education is not merely a hobby for her? He is proud of Nko but cannot abide the shift in power her independent thinking implies.

Although Nko resists the more frivolous influences from the West like straightened hair and makeup, she is firm in her ambitions. The double standard threatens to strangle Nko's hopes for both a successful marriage and a good education. The mysterious waters of sexual politics are treacherous. When Ete Kamba spurns Nko and her university mentor conspires to seduce her, she must learn to accept the burden of her progressive vision and the fallibility of everyone, including Ete Kamba and herself.

The novel is both comic and tragic in its depiction of Nko's and Ete Kamba's youthful, emotional extravagances and the campus response to their transgressions. Here, as in Emecheta's other novels, she speaks with an undeniably Nigerian voice; makes clear the Nigerian woman's circumscribed position in society and her skillful adaptation to it.

Emecheta is able to depict the tribal and class structures which shape so much of African life: how the Hausa and the Ibo perceive of themselves in relationship to society; the rigid strata to which colonialist educational systems have given birth; and how the tenuous nature of economic security spawns both ambition and desperation in West African life.

Emecheta skillfully weaves the cloth of tribal tradition that has made survival possible in the face of colonialism but that has also bound women and men to pointlessly limited roles. Ete Kamba is too much ‘man’ to discuss his feelings of jealousy with Nko so instead berates her for not being the traditional virgin. By retreating he loses the opportunity to acknowledge his sincerity and receive insight or support from Nko who experiences some of the same conflicts. It is only when faced with the new woman lecturer that Ete Kamba must concede that he does not know everything. She too is an African woman but her accomplishments are known world wide. Her insistence that Ete Kamba confront the illogic of his choices, on paper, makes the independence Nko seeks less threatening.

A most appealing aspect of Emecheta's storytelling voice is her refusal to look scornfully upon these very real problems in modern African society. Each character represents not some polarized aspect of community prejudice, but an individual that the author knows and loves. It is Emecheta's crystal clear insight into the emotional underpinnings of cultural traditions and her abiding empathy for those caught in wrenching transitions that make Double Yoke an enduring love story.

Further Reading

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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, 1992.

Examines themes of alienation and dislocation in the autobiographic works of Emecheta, Bessie Head, and Jean Rhys, drawing attention to the significance of emigration and motherhood for each author.

Frank, Katherine. “The Death of the Slave Girl: African Womanhood in the Novels of Buchi Emecheta.” World Literature Written in English 21 (1982): 476-97.

Examines the changing social and political position of African women as reflected in Emecheta's novels In the Ditch, Second Class Citizen, The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, and The Joys of Motherhood.

Gardner, Susan. “Culture Clashes.” Women's Review of Books XII, No. 2 (November 1994): 22-3.

A review of Emecheta's Kehinde and Ama Ata Aidoo's Changes: A Love Story.

Newman, Judie. “‘He Neo-Tarzan, She Jane?’: Buchi Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi.College Literature 22, No. 1 (February 1995): 161-70.

Examines Emecheta's presentation of sexual politics, Nigerian history, tensions between African tradition and Western modernity, and allusions to George Bernard Shaw in The Rape of Shavi.

Phillips, Maggi. “Engaging Dreams: Alternative Perspectives on Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Writing.” Research in African Literatures 25, No. 4 (Winter 1994): 89-103.

A comparative study of dreams, spirituality, and communal identity in the works of Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Umeh, Marie. “African Women in Transition in the Novels of Buchi Emecheta.” Présence Africaine 116 (1980): 190-201.

Provides an overview of Emecheta's novels and her portrayal of female experience in African society.

Umeh, Marie. “The Joys of Motherhood: Myth or Reality?” Colby Library Quarterly XVIII, No. 1 (March 1982): 39-46.

Examines Emecheta's portrayal of African women and motherhood in The Joys of Motherhood.

Ward, Cynthia. “What They Told Buchi Emecheta: Oral Subjectivity and the Joys of 'Otherhood’.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 105, No. 1 (January 1990): 83-97.

Explores conflicting interpretations of authorial identity, Western notions of textual authority, and oral tradition in Emecheta's novels.

Additional coverage of Emecheta's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 27; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; DISCovering Authors Module: Multicultural; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and Something About the Author, Vol. 66.

Marie Linton Umeh (essay date 1986)

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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 preoccupation in author Buchi Emecheta's dramatic work. On an equally fundamental level, Double Yoke describes the tragic limitations of Nigerian women in pursuit of academic excellence and the anxiety of assimilation. Similar to her earlier novels, Double Yoke assesses the predicament of women in Africa. By describing the sexual and cultural politics in Nigerian society, Emecheta again campaigns against female subjugation and champions her case for female emancipation. Nko, the author's intellectually oriented heroine, provides some insight into the psyche of modern African women who are encumbered by traditional African misconceptions attached to the university-educated female.

Firstly, Double Yoke is a love story but with tragic implications. Buchi Emecheta is at her best in describing the anxiety lovers often experience because of mutual distrust at one time or another and the inability to reconcile their difficulties. According to the author, love, if betrayed, is directly responsible for the misery that afflicts the human soul. The tale of the terrifying journey of the possibilities and failures of love is then at the dramatic center of Double Yoke.

This theme of romantic conflict is not entirely new in African literature. The principle characters in Chinua Achebe's No Longer At Ease, Chukwuemeka Ike's Toads For Supper, Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino, and Flora Nwapa's One Is Enough, similarly narrate their personal traumas over lost loves. Diverging from her theme that Igbo women are enslaved to Igbo traditions which subjugate them to certain customs, Emecheta extends her metaphor by stating that Nigerian men are similarly enslaved. Ete Kamba, a central character in the story, is described as a traditional African man who is sorely disappointed when he falls in love with Nko, a modern African girl. Because Nko gives herself to Ete Kamba who has just gained admission into the university she is faced with untold hardships. Ete Kamba's love for Nko turns to distrust. He begins to question her virginity. This develops into a kind of neurosis, forcing him to lose sleep and cease concentration on his studies. He tells Nko, “You are not a virgin are you? Were you a virgin? There was not a drop of blood. You are a prostitute, a whore and you keep putting on this air of innocence as if you were something else.” Their problems are magnified when Ete Kamba consults a spiritual advisor, the Reverend Professor Ikot, who dissuades him from the love affair with ulterior motives:

Nko is from my part. She is a true Efik from Duke Town, and women from our part have always brought great honour to their families. She will be in this university in a year or two. So what do you want a graduate wife for? Why don't you get a trained teacher or a nurse or something. Let us pray my boy, so that God will give you the wisdom to learn to sew your coat according to your measurement.

It is not long before Ikot succeeds in seducing and impregnating Nko. Ete Kamba, unnerved by Nko's air of independence and self-assertiveness, had set the stage for this fall. He therefore expresses his grief and the pain he feels about what has happened to him to Miss Bulewao, a character in the novel apparently speaking the mind of author Emecheta.

The significant tragic implication here is that Ete Kamba is not the modern African man. Despite his pursuit of western ideals, i.e., a university education and a university-educated wife, his reliance on traditional African mores stands out. His quest for a humble, chaste wife signifies one of Nigerian society's myopic perceptions of the making of the perfect African woman. Emecheta's dominant realization of women is that of a being limited by the dictates of men in a patriarchal society. Nko, with a feminist orientation, probes the root of things, questions where she is going and attempts to control her fate. Ete Kamba cannot cope with Nko's heightened sensibilities. He is unable to love and live with Nko on a plane of equality and mutual respect. Herein lies the tragedy. Although Ete Kamba wants a beautiful, educated and sophisticated wife to grace his home, his ideal seems to be the quiet, submissive, innocent female who looks after the children and the house, cooks, earns money and puts his interests before her own. For the African woman, the implications are more devastating. The African woman more so than the African man, is caught in a bind. In order to be liberated and fulfilled as a woman she must renounce her African identity because of the inherent sexism of many traditional African societies. Or, if she wishes to cherish and affirm her ‘Africanness’ she must renounce her claims to feminine independence and self-determination. Either way she stands to lose; either way she finds herself diminished, impoverished. It is Emecheta's growing awareness of the futility of attempting to resolve this dilemma that accounts for the growing bitterness that engulfs Nko. Emecheta, a sensitive artist and student of society, distinguishes between the idealization of womanhood and the realities of a woman's place in the African community. Ete Kamba's ambivalence towards Nko mirrors African society's unconscious hypocrisy towards women. It never occurs to Ete Kamba that it was Nko's innocence and purity of spirit that attracted her to him. It never occurs to him that he practically raped Nko the night she lost her virginity to him and that any resistance against his desperate advances would have been futile. He deflowers Nko, only to turn around and search for another virgin queen: someone he feels he can respect, someone his children can call mother. Ete Kamba's double standards are simply co-existent realities in his environment. The conflicting standards in Ete Kamba's perception of women is shared by his roommates. Their collective image of females is an idealized rather than a realistic portrait of the African woman's situation. The African man's perception of the educated African woman often ignores some of the realities of her sex.

Emecheta in another episode, illustrates how innocent young females are often turned into prostitutes at places one would least expect: academic institutions. When approached by the Reverend Professor Ikot, Nko retorts:

Most girls here come to read for their degrees. If they become what you think, which is ‘prostitutes Nigerian style’, it is because people like you made them so. But with me sir, you are not going to be let off lightly. My reward is a good degree. I did not believe in bottom power until today sir.

One then asks, why does Nko submit to Reverend Ikot's advances? Why does she stray away from those goals she so clearly defined for herself? What is peculiar in all of Emecheta's novels up to the present time is a consistent female view that sometimes mars her art by its emphasis on the all-suffering, victimized female. However, author Emecheta generally attains a balance in that she looks at women not in the narrow advocacy of feminine rights but in a wider context of a concern for the female and by implication the species they represent. In describing some of the injustices that have been transcended, she captures the quintessential core of female discrimination in a male-dominated society as it has remained among the Nigerian ethnic groups and most other patriarchal social organizations. The answer also lies here. Nko is about to fully participate in Nigerian elitist society to a level much greater than most women. Perhaps the thought of this participation places too great a psychological strain on her. She lives with the fear of disappointing her parents and community by not succeeding in earning a good degree and helping her parents to train her younger sisters and brothers. She is obsessed with succeeding. It can also be said that she has internalized a narrow and limiting role pattern which casts her as a woman into subservient behaviour. Nko's inconsistent behaviour stems from her being brought up both formally and informally to believe that this is a man's world and that she is merely a woman, a second-class citizen. Feelings of anxiety about a degree, indoctrination into acceptable female roles and Ete Kamba's ambivalent and troubled feelings towards her, pressure Nko into surrendering herself to Reverend Professor Ikot. One needs courageous determination and encouragement to stir oneself out of being programmed into passivity and psychological servitude. A related problem is the questioning and disavowal of a woman's genuine, individual merit. It is almost a common assumption that a woman's merit resides in her sexuality. This of course is a threat to the concept of female merit in institutions of higher learning. Thus Nko's reliance on stereotyped female wiles at this point is out of character. Additionally, it conflicts with Nko's inclination towards feminism, vividly portrayed in earlier parts of the novel in her struggles for equality and self-respect with Ete Kamba.

This idea which Emecheta explores introduces the elements of women's liberation and the correct role for women in Africa. The right path for them is not clear as Mrs. Nwaizu, a character in the novel, puts it: “We are still a long way from that yet. Here feminism means everything the society says is bad in women. Independence, outspokenness, immorality, all the ills you can think of. …” The feminine protest in this novel is not as subtle as in Flora Nwapa's Idu and Efuru or Efua Sutherland's Edufa. Nko vehemently protests against female victimization which brings her psychological strains. Similarly, university women today in Nigeria find themselves at the crossroads of losing their identity in male-female relationships (marriage) or attaining self realization by earning a degree thus forfeiting family life. In any event, in the novel the basic illustration is that Emecheta attacks certain masculine preserves such as having children out of wedlock and expectations of humility in women especially in the traditional sense. Miss Bulewao asks Ete Kamba, “Are you strong enough to be a modern African man? Nko is already a modern African lady, but you are still lagging … oh so far, far behind.” Nko's characterization of a modern African lady though is not totally impressive. Moral laxity need not be equated with the New African woman. Ironically, Emecheta in her plot does not promote female liberation in Africa. Instead, she strengthens the belief of conservative Nigerians who fear that female education leads women to all sorts of corruption.

This leads us to another issue raised in Double Yoke, namely, the limitations of females in pursuit of self-realization in Nigerian society. This subjugation of women consistently emerges as one explores Nigerian society's history of raising women to perform the narrow, unidimensional, traditional role of wife/mother, while at the same time encouraging the male to expand and explore his capabilities to the fullest. Hence, society's division of sex roles limits woman's human capacity for the pursuit of self-realization thus destroying any attempt at fulfillment outside the family. In Double Yoke Emecheta unmasks areas of human experience so far subsumed under the myth of the decorous stable institution of marriage as witnessed in the social organization of Okonkwo's household in Things Fall Apart and Ezeulu's most equitable household in Arrow of God. Through Emecheta's characters we learn that this norm, prescribed by traditional African society is in fact abnormal. In Double Yoke, the female psyche emerges as an important quarry for concern. From multiple female voices such as Nko's, Mrs. Nwaizu's, Miss Bulewao, and Nko's roommates, emerge pertinent questions that put the nature of the female's well being at the heart of traditional African social organization.

Emecheta then surpasses Flora Nwapa, another Igbo writer, with her consistent unbiased exploration of the oppressed female psyche, although Flora Nwapa in One Is Enough is more decidedly feminist. Emecheta points out artistically, as have other feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, that the very structure of patriarchal social organizations creates a suppressed individual by making an existential being an object for male subjectivity. Author Emecheta is not in a class of her own. She shows, like Kate Millet, that patriarchy is a power structured relationship that in most cases exploits women through a system of assigned and devalued roles. Through her characters she challenges some of the assumptions of traditional Igbo society which frustrate the gifted woman from the realization of herself as an entity. Through her heroine we realize with Catherine Mackinnon that gender is a learned quality not essentially a biological fact.

A sub-theme in Double Yoke is the exploration of the dilemma of men and women positioned between modernization and traditionalism in this instance on university campuses in Nigeria. Young adults become disoriented by conflicting standards of morality and the role of men and women in a changing society. Ete Kamba and Nko quarrel about whether or not the latter should attend the Reverend Elder Ikot's Revivalist meeting. They are trapped by conflicting standards in religious obligations and patriotism. Emecheta writes:

How he [Ete Kamba] wished his girlfriend had been just a simple village girl to whom he could simply say, ‘you must not go to the Revivalist meetings again, because I don't trust the head of the movement.’ He could never say a thing like that to Nko. She would like to know all the reasons behind his orders.

At another time Ete Kamba demands Nko confess whether or not she is a virgin. He is trapped by conflicting standards in morality. What kind of woman makes the ‘ideal wife’? One of his roommates rationalizes: ‘Give me a fourteen-year-old village girl with uncomplicated background any time.’

Apart from Ete Kamba's inability to throw off the precepts of traditional African society which give certain prerogatives to men and deny them to women, author Emecheta points out that today's modern female is also torn between two worlds and unable to function properly in either. Nko is confused about the actual role the educated female should play in Nigerian society. The title of the book, Double Yoke, then is symbolic. According to the author, because educated Nigerian women are expected to play both the role of the submissive, gentle, docile female and the modern, sophisticated individual, there is confusion about which values to adopt: those of traditional African society or those of the west. Both African men and women are therefore in bondage. Living in two different cultures brings too much tension. Hence, they must live with a ‘double yoke’ for daring to walk where angels fear to tread.

There is satire too in Double Yoke. As well as the clash between the old and the new, there is a clash between the genuine and the false. In the character of Reverend Professor Ikot, pretentious and immoral university professors in Nigeria are attacked. Ikot, like the true trickster figure is shrewd, cunning and loquacious. Posing as a religious leader and educator, he dupes others but is rarely duped himself. His strong archetypal appeal, ability to outwit others and articulate his ideas enable him to exercise power and control over people. Even when caught in the act, he exploits the situation and emerges a winner. Note how he handles his confrontation with Ete Kamba in one of the most dramatic scenes in the book. Playing on the intelligence of his people, he fabricates a story knowing full well what the policemen want to hear. Emecheta, pointing to the exploitation of students on university campuses and the abuse of Christian teachings, protests against the corrupt, opportunistic nature of contemporary Nigerians. Rather than working towards the acquisition of souls or imparting knowledge to students, Ikot preoccupies himself with “getting a piece of the cake.” Almost risking his chances of being the next Vice-Chancellor at Unical, he shamelessly destroys the lives of both Nko and Ete Kamba.

Finally, Ete Kamba exemplifies primacy of the group ethic over individual self-interests, which is so embedded in traditional African society, by sympathizing with Nko upon hearing of her father's death. Ete Kamba begins to realize that despite their inexperience they have to resolve their problems for no other reason than because they love each other. Ete Kamba and Nko choose to grow from their blunders and bear their double burden together. Ete Kamba's deep feeling of affection for Nko, despite a certain myopia which blinds him to manifest ambiguities within himself, helps him to understand that no one knows very much about the life of another. This ignorance becomes vivid, if you love another.

This ending is not altogether convincing even in these modern times. It then becomes obvious that author Emecheta is ascribing her personal modes of thought even though they may be way ahead of her audience. Most of us are still very conservative. In the fusing of the old and the new traditional African society's intolerance of one's right to choose one's destiny rather than consider the common good seems to be strengthened. In spite of this, Double Yoke is quite entertaining while it explores several political and social issues common in African literature. Emecheta's simplicity of style covers her exploration of these important issues in strikingly new and provocative twists.

Nancy Topping Bazin (essay date March-April 1986)

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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 Africa and a few articles, this growing body of literature has received a minimal amount of attention from critics. As Lloyd W. Brown has said, “Western male Africanists have contributed heavily to an old boy network of African studies in which the African woman simply does not exist as a serious or significant writer.” The books and journals on African literature have accorded little or usually no space to women writers.

Leading African women writers' descriptions of the female experience are quite different from those that have emerged from works by most of their male colleagues. This is one reason that it is important to read their works, for many myths have circulated about black African women, even in feminist circles. One of the primary myths is that they have other priorities, such as economic development; therefore, sexual equality is not a topic they wish to discuss.

Tales of the wealthy market women in West Africa have led many to say that African women are already liberated. Cultural relativists also promote the myth that the African woman's situation is so different that one cannot and should not presume to judge what in it is unjust. Another myth erroneously attributes the African woman's problems only to colonialism and not at all to “indigenous mores.” All of these myths are negated by the novels of the two leading African female novelists, Bessie Head and Buchi Emecheta. …

Their works reveal a great deal about the lives of African women and about the development of feminist perspectives. The first perspective evolves from personal experience. It requires personal growth on the part of the individual to extract herself from an oppressive environment. Personal growth leads into a second perspective that is social or communal. It demands an analysis of the causes of oppression within the social mores and the patriarchal power structure.

This perspective enables the woman to see that all women share problems such as “dependency, secondary existence, domestic labor, sexual exploitation, and the structuring of their role in procreation into a total definition of their existence.” The third perspective allows women to see the similarities between the experience of women and that of other oppressed groups in all cultures, throughout history. In this framework, domination and oppression of all kinds are rejected. Finally, in the fourth perspective, problems of women are seen in a philosophical and moral dimension; principles of justice and equality become the basis for a new world view.

In the works of Buchi Emecheta, the feminist perspectives are primarily of the first two types— personal and social. There are some insights into the third perspective where similarities are found between women's oppression and other forms of prejudice and exploitation. …

The chronological development of Emecheta's skill as a novelist suggests she is moving towards a vision that includes greater complexity and subtlety. Someday she may attain the philosophical or spiritual dimension present in the novels of Bessie Head.

This paper examines the novels of Bessie Head and Buchi Emecheta to determine what the nature of the black African women's experience is and how this experience can be analyzed in increasing depth and breadth by progressing through the four feminist perspectives—personal, social, multicultural, and spiritual/philosophical.

Both Buchi Emecheta and Bessie Head have recorded in their literary works the personal experiences that were the foundation of their feminist outlook. Buchi Emecheta clarified in an interview that the experiences of Adah in her second novel Second-Class Citizen were in fact, her own. Adah's parents were so bitterly disappointed when she was born, because her father “did not want a girl for his first child,” that they did not even bother to record her birth.

Adah felt the pressures of son preference again when her daughter was born: “Everyone looked at her with an ‘is that all?’ look. … It was nine good months wasted. She paid for it though, by having [her son] Vicky soon afterwards.” Emecheta's novels echo over and over again the difficulty she had in getting to stay in school as a child. Educating a girl who would just be turned over to her husband's family was viewed as a waste of scarce resources.

For example, in Second-Class Citizen, in order to get money for the “entrance examination fee,” Adah had to pretend to lose the money she was given to buy meat. For “losing” it, she was beaten one hundred and three strokes. The beating made her happy because it enabled her to feel that she “had earned the two shillings.” Ultimately, Adah was allowed to stay in school only because it would bring a bigger bride price for her.

Then, when Adah's father died, her “Ma was inherited by Pa's brother”, as was the custom. In return for supporting her, the daughter, a relative would have her as a servant and eventuality receive her bride price. She finally married just to get away from home so she could have a place to study. The price Adah paid for this was a series of babies at an early age, and a husband who, after she followed him to London, exploited her ability to earn money by refusing to work at all to keep the family.

Yet he made the rules in the household that she was to obey, abused her physically, and refused to allow her to use any birth control. Adah's marriage, like Buchi Emecheta's, finally broke up because of her husband's reaction to her writing her first novel. Her husband refused to read it or to take her desire to write seriously, and he actually burned her completed manuscript. He insisted that “she would never be a writer because she was black and because she was a woman.” In a September 1981 interview, Emecheta said people find it hard to believe that she has not exaggerated the truth in this autobiographical novel. The grimness of what is described does indeed make it painful to read. …

These personal experiences breed rebellious female protagonists in the fiction of both women. But the female protagonist's struggle often leads to a victory that is little more than just the courage to survive. This is so in Head's A Question of Power and in Emecheta's three novels In the Ditch, Second-Class Citizen, and The Joys of Motherhood. Sometimes the strong female protagonist ultimately succumbs to male power as in Head's Maru or in Emecheta's The Slave Girl or The Bride Price.

In the process of personal growth, the protagonists in the novels must acquire the feminist perspective that makes connections between a woman's personal experience and those shared by women as a group. This allows the protagonists to name the social and structural causes of their suffering. These causes are embedded in traditions often viewed as sacred or simply unchangeable. The protagonists in the novels of Head and Emecheta confront and only sometimes outwit the traditions that oppress them.

In the world described by Emecheta a girl may fear to announce her first menstrual period, because it means her parents will force her to marry. In this world, too, a woman is told that she is unclean when she is menstruating, thus restricting where she can go. She is likewise taught that an unpaid bride price will make her die in childbirth, or it will cause the marriage to fail or the children of that marriage to die. She also has to accept that when a father dies, the family ceases to exist.

In the novels of both Emecheta and Head a woman must accept the double standard of sexual freedom; it permits polygamy and infidelity for both Christian and non-Christian men but only monogamy for women. These books reveal the extent to which the African woman's oppression is engrained in the African mores.


Both novelists demonstrate female complicity in their own victimization. Emecheta's The Slave Girl draws a parallel between Ojebeta's being bought as a wife and her having been bought as a slave years before. Indeed in her state of wifehood, she is worse off, but ironically she fails to see this. Even the rebellious women in these novels sometimes fail to recognize the extent to which they have been subjected to what Kate Millett calls “interior colonization.”

Because of their patriarchal socialization, mostly by their own mothers, they too see life from a male perspective and often accept the value system and rules which follow from that. The novelists themselves demonstrate some blind spots that further illustrate that point. … Both Head and Emecheta frequently reveal through their fiction a longing for a strong, stable man who will save and protect them.

The best depiction of how the patriarchal system functions is in Emecheta's powerful novel The The Joys of Motherhood. Emecheta explores the evils not of motherhood but of what Adrienne Rich calls “the institution of motherhood”—that is, the way in which a woman's role as mother is used to render her an inferior, second-class citizen.

The Joys of Motherhood is about the life of Nnu Ego who marries but is sent home in disgrace because she fails to bear a child quickly enough. She then is sent to the city by her father to marry a man she has never seen. She is horrified when she meets this second husband because she finds him ugly, but she sees no alternative to staying with him. Poverty and repeated pregnancies wear her down; the pressure to bear male children forces her to bear child after child since the girls she has do not count.

She is particularly shamed when she bears female twins. The impact of son preference upon both mothers and daughters is clearly shown in this novel. The awareness of Emecheta's protagonist increases until she is able to make this statement:

The men make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That's why when I lost my first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father and my husband—and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man's world, which women will always help to build.

The consequences of rapid urbanization, conflicts between old and new concepts of justice, and new educational opportunities abroad for African males are also revealed in the book. Despite rapid changes, however, the patriarchal attitudes prevail. As the aging mother Nnu Ego, impoverished and exhausted, returns to her village at the end of the book, with her two sons abroad and her husband in prison for attacking a potential son-in-law who was from the “wrong” tribe, she has to listen to a taxi driver complain: “‘This life is very unfair to us men. We do all the work, you women take all the glory. You even live longer to reap the rewards. A son in America? You must be very rich, and I'm sure your husband is dead long ago.’” Like so many other women, Nnu Ego bears the burden of such attitudes silently.

She did not think it worth her while to reply to this driver, who preferred to live in his world of dreams rather than face reality. What a shock he would have if she told him that her husband was in prison, or that the so-called son in America had never written to her directly, to say nothing of sending her money.

Only her daughters, not her sons, support her in her old age, so the primary reason for preferring sons that led her to bear so many children brought no benefit to her.

Despite her awakening, Nnu Ego gains status and decision-making power only after death when she is honored with a shrine for her fertility. The young women in her village pray to her spirit when they are unable to get pregnant or bear sons. But the spirit of Nnu Ego chooses not to grant the wishes of these women to bear many, especially male, children, for she has known personally the slave-like state created by this self-defeating practice.

The third feminist perspective draws parallels between the ego-mania that causes the domination of women and that inherent in Nazi anti-semitism, Ku Klux Klan behavior, Black Power fist raising in the United States, slavery within Africa, the treatment of the African male as Kaffir, and black Africans treatment of “Coloureds” and especially the Masarwa tribe (or Bushmen) in Botswana. …

Emecheta is aware of her dual burden of being black and female and how in England the African is made to suffer for both but one does not detect in her books the same desire to see domination and oppression more wholistically. Perhaps because she is younger and more instilled with middle-class values, she is not as far along on her journey from the personal on through the social and the multicultural to the spiritual/philosophical. Yet the sense of good and evil forces doing battle, intertwined within people and social conventions, does inform, to some extent, two of her more recent books The Bride Price (1976) and The Slave Girl (1977). …

Buchi Emecheta and Bessie Head speak for millions of black African women through their novels, for they describe what it is like to be female in patriarchal African cultures. Their feminist perspectives are solidly founded in their own personal lives. However, they grew to understand how son preference, bride price, polygamy, menstrual taboos, nine-month mourning periods for windows, male inheritance rights, wife beating, early marriages, early and unlimited pregnancies, arranged marriages, and male dominance in the home functioned to keep women powerless.


Their analyses of the patriarchal system and attitudes led them to see connections among all forms of oppression. Buchi Emecheta saw parallels between sexual and racial discrimination and parallels between buying wives and buying slaves. …

Buchi Emecheta's novels remain more on the level of individual experience and social custom with less attention to spiritual questions and implications. Bessie Head explores good and evil within the soul and within society, and she emphasizes the philosophical framework that determines our social attitudes and behavior.

Bessie Head's is the larger vision and she perhaps the greater artist because she attempts more. However, Buchi Emecheta's later novels deal with serious themes within the controlled structure of tales someone might tell around a fire in an African village. These works not only have their aesthetic appeal but they are also rich in meaning. Emecheta is younger than Bessie Head and already her output is greater. Perhaps she is not as far along on her feminist journey from the personal to the philosophical, but she is certainly someone to watch. She is well on her way.

Reginald McKnight (review date 29 April 1990)

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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 prose is both poetic and profluent: Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Nathanael West. But some of the most highly regarded novelists (Balzac, Crane, Orwell), as Gardner suggested, are no poets at all.

Most readers, no doubt, would include the works of the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta in the latter category. The prose in her latest novel, The Family, like that of her earlier works (particularly Double Yoke and The Slave Girl) is generally vivid, plain and clear—the kind of prose that illuminates rather than buries the characters and settings it describes: “Winston was everything Gladys said he was, so why did she feel this eel of distrust coiled about [his] memory?” But there are times when the language is barely firm enough to carry images and ideas: “Gwendolen was not the cleverest of people. She could be slow, but she was not thick-skinned.”

Nevertheless, occasional lapses such as this do not hinder our being moved and intrigued by the novel's principal character, Gwendolen Brillianton, a young girl from Granville, Jamaica, whose mother and father leave her with her grandmother. Granny Naomi, to seek a better life for themselves in England, the “Moder Kontry.” Very soon after their departure, a close family friend molests the 8-year-old Gwendolen. And because “she did not like Uncle Johnny troubling her at night, and she did not like to see Granny Naomi unhappy,” Gwendolen flees to the home of her paternal grandmother, Elinor, who lives in Kingston. But before she is even fully reacquainted with her family in Kingston they rebuff her, intimating that because they are fair-skinned and Gwendolen dark, she does not belong. Thus far, less than one-tenth of the narrative has been traversed. Gwendolen will see and feel much, much more once her parents finally send for her.

In this rich, complex and fast-moving novel, one breathlessly follows Gwendolen from Granville to London in her search for love, family and a place “where she could be herself—happy, trusting Gwendolen again.” And through this journey we see her suffer rape, incest, racism, teen-age pregnancy and loneliness. She endures the indignities of illiteracy and remedial education, falls in love with a boy her mother describes as a “dirty white” and veers toward madness. We witness the social and economic dynamics that force both Gwendolen and her mother to “remain alive for others. … to look after members of their families, to boost the ego of the man in their lives, be the man a father, a husband, or even a son. And they were to nurture and act as agony aunts to their offspring. But to live for themselves was not to be.”

In many ways Ms. Emecheta probably speaks from experience. Not only is she a novelist, a research fellow at the University of Calabar, Nigeria, and a member of Britain's Advisory Council to the Home Secretary on Race and Equality, but she is also a mother of five. She speaks from a vantage point that few of us know. Her London, for example, is a cold, gray, multicultural world, a world made up of Ibos, Anglos, Yorubas, Jamaicans—both fair and dark—Greeks, Indians, the educated, the undereducated, the dispossessed, the alienated. Ms. Emecheta's novel shows us—as do many other important works of African and African-American literature—that a large number of the problems that plague the African diaspora—rootlessness, “hue prejudice,” self-hatred and perhaps even some of the sexual violence that nearly destroys Gwendolen—are the direct result of slavery and colonialism. But Buchi Emecheta is no ideologue; her characters do not utter or think words that would not come from them; they are not mere representatives of larger social movements but real, complex human beings, shaped by the vicissitudes of class, culture and sexual politics. She raise the right questions, but never harangues. She writes with subtlety, power and abundant compassion. The Family is a good book, and one not easily forgotten.

Adele S. Newson (review date Summer 1994)

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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 chief in his homeland. The couple have been living in England for some eighteen years and have managed to eke out a comfortable existence, but pressures from Albert's sisters in Nigeria and midlife pulls conspire to disrupt the current life of the couple.

Eventually the couple return to Nigeria. Albert and the two children precede Kehinde, who stays behind for more than a year in an effort to sell their house in London. When she arrives in Nigeria, she discovers that Albert has taken another wife, Rike, who has given birth to one child and is pregnant with a second. Although Kehinde is the senior wife who has lived abroad, she has little status or influence in her new life. In preparing for a journey to visit her children in boarding schools, Kehinde learns just how little status she has: “Kehinde made to sit in the front seat of the Jaguar, as she had done in London, daring Rike to challenge her right to sit next to Albert. Instead, Mama Kaduna's boisterous laughter halted her. … Kehinde squeezed into the back of the car with Rike, her baby and the maid.” In addition to the humiliation of Albert's taking a second wife, Kehinde must defer to his sisters, who “take the place of honour” in his home.

Ultimately, Kehinde returns to England with a more informed perspective on the role of fond remembrances of home and on the reality of the choices in life open to African women at home and abroad. Along the way to self-awareness, she encounters many women, some of whom she judges, others of whom she cherishes, like her dead sister Taiwo, who is her twin. Significantly, Kehinde (the twin who follows behind) survives, although her mother and twin sister die. Kehinde's experiences in the womb can be read as the expression of sisterhood extending beyond familial ties.

Together we fought against the skin that kept us captive. … We communicated with each other by touch and by sounds. Sounds which only we could understand. … Frustrated, we banged and shouted; and we kicked and cried in our limited space. Exhausted, I fell asleep. I felt even in sleep the cessation of the rhythmical movements I was accustomed to. I felt around me in the now warm thickening water for my sister, but she had become just a lump of lifeless flesh. I clung to her, because she had been the only living warmth that I knew. I called to her but there was no answer. I cried for her in my now lonely tomb. … As she dried, I had more space. I grew bigger. I survived. But I did not eat my sister, as they said I did. There was only life enough for one of us.

In the acknowledgment Emecheta thanks her friends for the book's creation—with some she “spent hours debating about the so-called ‘Black women's madness.’” By turns, the reader discovers that the black woman's madness arises from her acceptance of limited choices in life as to how she is to be in the world.

Kehinde's content is important as well as engaging. Its execution, however, is uneven. Emecheta is at her best when she testifies to female experience in Africa and abroad; she is most disappointing in managing the nuances of the larger narrative.

Mary E. Modupe Kolawole (essay date 1997)

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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 recreating oneself. The struggle to be a writer carries a special burden for the African woman who tries to negotiate a space in a hostile environment as she tries to tread on a male domain (modern literature has been a male domain for a long time). Nonetheless metafiction is a popular tool of women's self-expression. Gayle Greene explains this:

It is a powerful tool of feminist critique, for, to draw attention to the structures of fiction is also to draw attention to the conventionality of the codes that govern human behaviour.

Metafiction as the device that draws attention to the process of fiction enables African writers to recreate the way certain values have been deployed to promote or delimit gender roles. Patricia Waugh observes that metafiction unveils “how the meanings and values of the world have been constructed and how, therefore, they can be challenged or changed.” These writers are therefore not interested in Joycean self-effacement, nor are they keen on standing outside the work biting their fingernails. Disinterestedness is not a feature of the biographical works by these African writers.

Gendered literature is an aspect of the constant search for African aesthetics that fosters self-knowledge without indiscriminate separatism. To borrow Maya Angelou's words, “image-making is very important for every human being.” It is even more so for African women writers who need to confront multiple levels of otherness … racial, cultural, regional, religious, third world, and post-colonial. Like other Black writers, to change her world is an imperative. Toni Morrison's view supports this:

We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and in no way coincidentally, in the experiences of those with whom we have come in contact. … And to read imaginative literature by and about us is to choose to examine centers of the self and to have the opportunity to compare these centers with the ‘raceless’ one with which we are all of us, most familiar.

The process of writing oneself is also the process of re-writing the collective self. So, the communal values that inform the unconscious also emerge in the literary production. This is true of the works of Buchi Emecheta. This writer, like Ama Ata Aidoo, has rejected the tag, ‘feminist writer.’ Yet, personal experience, which is at the center of her story, is a redemptive act. In Emecheta's novel Second-Class Citizen, dream and memory play important roles in the world of the heroines, both as vision and as hope. Emecheta's protagonist, Adah, is representative of the author's experience, personal and communal. Her birth at a time when a baby boy is expected is considered a personal, familial, and collective tragedy. It highlights the way traditional attitude entrenched into the society encourages gender differentiation.

One clear demographic indicator of the relative value placed on males and females in a society is the extent to which parents show a marked preference for children of a particular sex.

This profound cultural world-view forms the foundation of the heroine's tragic life and experience:

She was a girl who arrived when everyone was expecting and predicting a boy. So since she was such a disappointment to her parents, to her immediate family, to her tribe, nobody thought of recording her birth.

This story is one of the most profound depictions of gender bias in African societies in the fictional production of African women. Emecheta shows with a keen sense of familiarity how this often has a devastating effect in psychological and practical terms on the growing consciousness of young girls. Consequently, the heroine's life is predicated on this archetypal disadvantaged status cut out for women in the Igbo society that she grew up to know, a paradigm of the experience of girls in many other parts of Africa. Adah becomes disobedient, rebellious and despondent as the reality is presented to her, that although education is of a paramount importance among the Ibos, she is to be excluded from it because she happens to belong to the wrong gender: “School—the Ibos never played with that! They were realising that one's saviour from poverty and disease was education. Every Ibo family saw to it that their children attended school. Boys were usually given preference, though.” This directly threatens Adah's dreams. She is presented as a determined ambitious girl whose consciousness is advanced for her age. One might even call her a genius, as we see later in the story. The family can not afford to send two children to school and their decision to send Boy to school as the wise solution to the problem elicits fundamental gender problems: “Even if she went to school, it was very doubtful whether it would be wise to let her stay long. A year or two would do, as long as she can write her name and count. Then she will learn to sew.”

Adah refuses to be daunted and forces her agenda on the family blueprint by running off to school and forcing her parents to keep her there with the help of a neighbor who teaches in a nearby school, Mr. Cole. Adah's dream is aborted by her father's death, her mother's leviratic marriage to her late husband's brother, and the family's decision to send Adah to a maternal uncle to be the latter's servant. Subsequent decisions and the reasons motivating them are equally important in revealing the heroine's gender humiliation and degradation:

It was decided that the money in the family, a hundred pounds or two, would be spent on Boy's education. So Boy was cut out for a bright future, with grammar school education and all that. Adah's schooling would have been stopped, but somebody pointed out that the longer she stayed in school, the bigger the dowry her future husband would pay for her. After all she was too young for marriage at the age of nine or so and moreover, the extra money she would fetch would tide Boy over.

Adah is allowed to stay in school for such an absurd reason but she takes advantage, excels, and forces her way into the secondary school, earning a full scholarship by her exceptional performance. The rest of Adah's story is a reiteration of a self-made woman struggling against ethnic, gender, and race bigotry. What is so spectacular about Adah's story is the close affinity between the heroine's experience and Emecheta's own background, life, and experience. In spite of some fictional devices that mediate the story initially, there is a keen resemblance to Emecheta's childhood in Lagos until her departure for England. Adah's unhappy marriage to Francis, his wickedness, indolence, as well as his callous treatment, sadistic brutalization, and abuse of his wife bear a closer link between the author's life and the protagonist's.

In the account of Adah's tortuous marital relationship, the veil of fiction is removed. Auteurist mediation becomes maximal and Emecheta's biography melts into Adah's story with an almost one-to-one correlation. Autobiography is often the most effective way of presenting the author's voice and many African women writers are not apologetic about this dispensation. It is a deliberate attempt to inscribe the writer's experience as a mode of collective writing or re-writing of African women's reality. One can clearly see Emecheta's story intruding on the fiction, and in this process she highlights issues of collective concern, as we see in the question of exploitative bride price. This is a recurrent theme in Igbo women's literature because, in reality, it is a major problem in this part of Nigeria. The attitude to women and child-bearing is also prominent. Being prolific in child-bearing is so highly valued that the woman can easily be reduced to this worth. Among the Ibos Emecheta observes that it is “the greatest asset a woman can have. A woman can be forgiven everything as long as she produced children.”

The interference of relatives in the affairs of a family and the devastating effects on a young family occupies a central place in Emecheta's pre-occupations. In this we see Francis reduced to a puppet, “most of the decisions about their own lives had to be referred to Big Pa, Francis's father, then to his mother, then discussed among the brothers of the family, before Adah was referred to.” Yet Adah is to finance such plans and when Francis is far apart from these family consultants, the Nigerian neighbors become his consultants and counsellors. In all these, personal experience is inseparable from larger problems confronting African women and in particular the peculiar problems of second-class citizens in Britain. The intersection of personal problems, communal dilemmas, ethnicity, race, class, and gender problems is remarkably underscored in this novel.

Second-Class Citizen as an autobiographical novel comes out most vividly as a metafiction and this unfolds the self-conscious self-inscription of Emecheta in an incontrovertible way. Any mask that the writer may have put on the real identity of Francis, the leech and indolent oppressive opportunist, is unveiled through metafiction. Adah becomes totally effaced and Buchi Emecheta comes out visibly and audibly in the last part of this novel. Emecheta's comment on the very process of fiction, the search for reviewers and the search for a publisher become overtly autobiographical. The turning point in Adah's ordeal is the possibility of working at home and writing the book, The Bride Price. The problems confronting Black women writers are unfolded here and Emecheta has reiterated these problems in interviews and in several of her writings. To Emecheta, like Adah, the most painful aspect is the rejection by her husband, who believes that a Black woman's dream of becoming a writer is a false dream. His narrow-minded and jaundiced vision is heightened by his reason for burning her manuscript: “… my family would never be happy if a wife of mine was permitted to write a book like that.”

The details may vary but many African women writers have admitted facing similar obstacles and rejection by individuals or publishers. Adah's comments on the process of writing are profound; it is the first thing that brings a glimmer of hope and happiness into her bleak life:

It was in that mood that she went. … and started to scribble down The Bride Price. The more she wrote, the more she knew she could write and the more she enjoyed writing. She was feeling this urge: Write; go on and do it, you can write. When she finished it and read it all through, she knew she had no message with a capital ‘M’ to tell the world. … The story was over-romanticized. Adah had put everything lacking in her marriage into it.

To Emecheta and to several African women writers, writing as the brainchild of the author entails self-inscription as well as writing the collective identity for self-fulfillment. Memory and dream therefore play central roles in the process of fiction as recollection and as an idealization of the collective consciousness. In the Ditch takes off the story line from the end of Second-Class Citizen in a similar autobiographical and partly metafictional mode. Like Tsitsi Dangarembga's heroine, the sense of gender injustice motivates and validates the heroine's sense of inequality and gendered consciousness. One can therefore not separate Adah's primary experience from the collective consciousness. It is the second half of the novel that brings out more vividly a direct link between the fictional process and reality. Adah is unmistakably the auterist mouthpiece and a living proof of Emecheta's predicament and how she confronts the problem. The metafictional aspect reinforces Emecheta's real-life experience. Adah's attempt to write creative work is consistently thwarted by her irresponsible, indolent, and parasitic husband, Francis. The destruction of Adah's manuscript unveils reality and merges it with fiction. Her experience is a replica of the experience of Emecheta and many female writers. Some experience a psychological or sociological, even political opposition and/or censorship. Ama Ata Aidoo is an exile from her country, Ghana, like Micere Mugo. Nawal El Saadawi is a permanent political suspect in her own country too. They are victims of politics and exiles of conscience.

Emecheta is obviously speaking for several African women, and others like Ama Ata Aidoo have a similar song to sing. Aidoo confesses, “while all African writers have many constraints to deal with, African women writers have a double problem of being women and being African.” The portrait of many of the fictional heroines is therefore a portrait of the artist as a woman of Africa trying to unload the double, often multiple yoke on her back. Through the artistic medium, she cries out for help. Like the average African woman whose dilemma she often fictionalizes, she is calling for help to balance her load, like her rural or traditional sister. Apart from domestic discouragement, Emecheta confesses the rejection of her manuscripts many times:

… we marry very early in my own area, so by the time I was 22 I already had five children and the marriage had broken up [sic] … the only thing I could do was to write. After several years of failure and rejections my work was accepted for publication. …

Christine Loflin (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3364

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 and/or barrenness as the crucial element in women's lives, in novels such as Efuru, The Joys of Motherhood, The Bride Price, and So Long A Letter has led Obioma Nnaemeka to characterize these works as “motherhood literature.” Elaine Savory Fido has identified the original “motherland” as the mother's body—that with which we identify, from which we learn to separate. The mother country is also the mother's cultural and national identity, which gives children their first social identity. Thus the mother is at the center of the motherland: “[she is] the one who is the starting point of all journeys and the point of reference for all destinations. … In a sense, we know that there is no homecoming unless mother is at the end of it.” Fido uses this definition to explore the painful separations of Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, and Jean Rhys, not only from their mother countries, but from their mothers, and she sees this pattern replicated in their fiction: “Ona's death makes the condition of mother-loss the crucial factor in Nnu Ego's difficult life, and thus is Emecheta's own estrangement from her mother also re-enacted.” Fido shows that women writers also may blur the distinctions between mother, The Mother and Mother Africa.

Within African women's literature, the equation of womanhood with motherhood is asserted, but it is also probed and questioned. African women writers explore the space of motherhood, sometimes exposing it as illusory (The Joys of Motherhood) or claiming it as a liberatory space for self-reflection and self-discovery (So Long A Letter). Ama Ata Aidoo's ambivalent attitude is typical: “Oh, being a mother! Traditionally, a woman is supposed to be nothing more valid than a mother. Sometimes one gets nervous of such total affirmation and total negation in relation to other roles that one has played. But I think that being a mother has been singularly enriching.”

In every novel in this chapter, the central character is a woman who is or becomes a mother. African women's literature, by centering stories on the experience of motherhood, shapes the African landscape from a woman's perspective, moving outward from the family, with mothers and children at the core of the novel. African women writers, through their focus on womanhood and motherhood, are testing the boundaries and exploring the possibilities of that marginal “woman's space.”


Buchi Emecheta was born near Lagos in 1944 and has been living in London since 1962. She has written ten novels, including the now-classic novel The Joys of Motherhood (1979). In The Joys of Motherhood Emecheta shows how the traditional background and experiences of a village woman, Nnu Ego, become dysfunctional in Lagos. Her attack on the “joys” of motherhood in Nigeria is a sophisticated analysis of the betrayal of women in colonial and postcolonial Africa.

Nnu Ego is brought to Lagos before World War II to marry Nnaife, a man she has never met. This is her second marriage. When she meets Nnaife, his potbelly, pale skin and demeaning job (washerman to a white family) are shocking to her. A friend of Nnu Ego's underscores the problem: “Men here are too busy being white men's servants to be men.” Gender roles are dependent on appearance and status, as well as sex; without the appearance or the work of a typical male, Nnaife is seen as “a middle-aged woman.” These remarks foreshadow Nnu Ego's own struggles to maintain her identity in the antagonistic urban space of Lagos.

At first, they live in one room in the “boys’ quarters” belonging to Dr. and Mrs. Meers, Nnaife's employers. The name “boys’ quarters” itself is a reminder that this is a space designed for the servants of Europeans, imagined, again, not to be men, but boys. Nnu Ego herself is not supposed to be present at all—these quarters were designed as if servants did not have families. To Nnu Ego, the place is initially disgusting: “This place, this square room painted completely white like a place of sacrifice.” In this image, the squareness of the room and its whiteness identify it as a European-designed space, which, reinterpreted in Nnu Ego's aesthetic and architectural categories, is awkward, even ominous: “a place of sacrifice.” The Meers' proximity to the boys' quarters controls certain aspects of Nnu Ego's behavior: she is not allowed to make noise, and her pregnancy has to be hidden from Mrs. Meers. When her baby son dies, even her grief has to be restrained. The arrangement of the Meers' compound, with the boys' quarters within the grounds but not actually part of the house, is a classic example of the architecture of colonialism. The architectural environment has political and social relations of power built into it.

Shaheen Haque has asserted in her discussion of British architects' plans for low-income housing in England that white male middle-class architects “create the physical environment in which we live and reinforce through their designs their problematic definitions of women, Black people and the working classes.” Similarly, the Meers' compound suits their needs, but forces Nnu Ego to accept a foreign geometry and design for her home. Further, the design of the compound forces her to repress her feelings and make her behavior conform to the Meers' standards, not just in their presence, but even when she is alone within her apartment. The size, location and design of the boys' quarters reinforce the unequal relations of power between the white masters and the black servants.

Nnu Ego's pregnancy is supposed to reconcile her to her new situation; her husband says he has given her everything a woman wants. After the birth, Nnu Ego herself agrees to this, saying “He has made me into a real woman.” Her motherhood is central to her sense of self, and makes her content with her husband Nnaife and their life in Lagos. Nnu Ego's baby son dies, however, when he is only four weeks old; Nnu Ego discovers his body lying on the floor mat in their apartment. The loss of her baby, the loss of motherhood, almost drives her insane. She flees through Lagos, gradually determining to drown herself by throwing herself off a bridge. These scenes, which open the novel, show Nnu Ego to be completely disassociated from her environment: “Nnu Ego backed out of the room, her eyes unfocused and glazed, looking into vacancy. Her feet were light and she walked as if in a daze, not conscious of using those feet. She collided with the door.” Without her child, she feels no connection to her surroundings, and brushes past buildings and people without seeing them. Her grief is caused by the loss of her baby; Nnu Ego, who was barren in her first marriage, now feels that she will never have a child that lives, never be a mother.

Even in Lagos, the flight of a young woman so clearly in distress arouses people's concern: “She dodged the many who tried to help her.” Emecheta shows that there is still a sense of community in Lagos' urban environment. On the bridge itself, a crowd grows as a man tries to prevent Nnu Ego from killing herself. Emecheta reveals both the crowd's idle curiosity and their underlying values:

[The crowd] appreciated this free entertainment, though none of them wanted the woman to achieve her suicidal aim … a thing like that is not permitted in Nigeria; you are simply not allowed to commit suicide in peace, because everyone is responsible for the other person.

Here, Emecheta claims that there is a national ethic of behavior in Nigeria, a code that transcends ethnic and regional divisions. In Lagos, that code is present, but somewhat fragile; people are anxious to get to work, and can see Nnu Ego's behavior as entertainment, even as they try to stop her. Providentially, a friend of Nnaife's arrives and recognizes Nnu Ego, and he is able to convince her to return home. Only someone who knows her is able to dissuade her from suicide.

Nnu Ego gradually becomes accustomed to her new environment, and her one room apartment becomes a reflection of her state of mind. As she begins to accept Lagos standards of material wealth, she improves the room with her savings from petty trading: “They now had attractive mats on the floor, they had polished wooden chairs and new patterned curtains.” When Nnu Ego is grieving for her son, Emecheta shows how Nnu Ego's friend Ato “reads” her home to discover the extent of her grief: “Nnu Ego led her into their room, which was unswept; the curtains had gone grey from lack of timely washing and the whole atmosphere was disorderly. Ato, knowing how clean and meticulous her friend normally was, tactfully said nothing.”

Emecheta emphasizes the interrelationship between women and their immediate environment: their feelings, desires and creativity are written on the walls of the homes that they maintain. Traditionally, West African women decorate their own homes, painting the walls with designs and symbols that are drawn from their culture and are expressive of the individual woman's creativity. These designs continue to be produced today, examples of an African art form that is uniquely female: “Wall and body motifs … are a woman's response to the world around her and, above all, adorn her home, enhancing an otherwise cheerless landscape.” Emecheta uses Ato's reading of Nnu Ego's room to show how Nnu Ego's creativity is limited to the choice of furnishings, and to the habit of cleanliness. She is unable, for example, to paint the outside walls of her home, or to add to them; living in the boys' quarters of the Meers' compound, she would not be allowed to express herself so publicly. Ato's readings of Nnu Ego's room are readings of the inadequate space alloted to African women in a Western-designed home.

Nnu Ego learns to adjust to Lagos; her husband gets a different job and they move into a new apartment with their growing family. Traditional practices clash with modern living when Nnaife's older brother dies and Nnaife inherits his four wives, one of whom comes to live in their one room apartment. The added burdens of the new wife, her daughter and the children she has by Nnaife ultimately cause a collapse of the family; so many people can't be fed on Nnaife's salary, or live under one roof. The urban compression of living space makes traditional polygamous relationships unbearable.

Ibuza, Nnu Ego's native village, is described in strong contrast to the impersonal, Westernized architecture and urban anonymity of Lagos. Here, where Nnu Ego was born, the organization of the compound reflects the social ordering within the family: her father's hut is in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by the huts of his wives. In this world, Nnu Ego has an acknowledged and respected role. Emecheta, while acknowledging that motherhood is the central concern of women in Ibuza society, describes a society that can allow for exceptions. In Nnu Ego's first marriage, she fails to have a child and must return to her father's compound, yet the women there make her feel that she is a welcome member of their extended family. This is the environment in which Nnu Ego is most at ease: “Nnu Ego sat contentedly in front of the hut she had to herself, enjoying the cool of the evening.” Here, the larger living spaces within the compound allow for less stressful relationships between family members, and the agricultural economy offers some security: “If it came to the worst, she could always plant her food at the back of her hut.” Yet Nnu Ego finds only a temporary respite for herself in Ibuza. Having married Nnaife, whose work is in Lagos, she can only visit, not return to, her native village.

Nnu Ego's daily life is lived most intensely within the home. Lagos, for her, is made up of isolated locations: markets, bridges, and the places where she has lived. She has only a vague idea of the world outside of Lagos and Ibuza; she hears of the end of World War II “when people began saying that the war was over, that the enemy, whoever he was, had killed himself.” Nnu Ego's sketchy understanding of international events reflects her vision of the world, firmly centered on her family and her family's interests. The novel itself, however, is located within an international political and economic horizon: the Meers leave for England and Nnaife is sent off to Burma because of World War II; Nnu Ego's sons leave Nigeria for the United States and Canada in search of better economic opportunities. Lemuel Johnson's remark that “in The Joys of Motherhood, Emecheta is running Igbo culture through an enormously complex international geography” (personal communication) seems particularly apt. While Nnu Ego's perspective is limited, the reader can see that her family's history is caught in a web of international concerns.

Within The Joys of Motherhood, the significant boundaries are Ibuza, Lagos, and the international horizons of colonialism, World War II, and Western capitalism. National politics are conspicuously absent, in contrast to many African novels by men. Ibuza and Lagos, for example, are usually represented in opposition to each other, rather than as two aspects of a national Nigerian community. This may be the result of the circumstances of the creation of the text: although the novel is set in the time period around World War II, Emecheta wrote it after the Biafran war. The nascent Igbo nation-state was defeated, and forcibly reintegrated into Nigeria. Thus it is not surprising that The Joys of Motherhood does not have a strong national boundary. In addition, while the most significant contrast between Ibuza and Lagos is that between the traditional village and a Westernized city, there is also an ethnic difference. Lagos is primarily a Yoruba community, within which the Igbo immigrants are a small minority. Although Emecheta doesn't emphasize ethnic conflict in this novel, part of the characters' sense of isolation and alienation in Lagos comes from their position as part of a minority community.

Nnu Ego's life does have a larger, spiritual horizon, which is an integral part of her experience of the world. Nnu Ego's family believes that she inherited the malevolent spirit of a slave girl, murdered to serve her mistress (a member of Nnu Ego's family) in the afterlife. This spirit is blamed for Nnu Ego's initial inability to conceive a child, and figures in her dreams throughout her life, giving her babies but taunting her at the same time. Nnu Ego herself, after her death, is supplicated as a spirit by her grandchildren. Because she has had eight children, they believe she will help them conceive, yet she “refuses”: “However many people appealed to her to make women fertile, she never did.” This spiritual horizon expands the novel into the past and the future, and suggests that Nnu Ego, a tormented woman in human life, has freedom and power in the afterlife. The slave woman protests against her inhuman treatment; Nnu Ego protests the virtual enslavement of women in motherhood by refusing children to her descendants. Emecheta is very careful in her description of spiritual beliefs; her narrative neither asserts nor denies the validity of Nnu Ego's spiritual powers. The slave girl's spirit may be a real influence on Nnu Ego's life, or a dream figure, created by her family's mythology. Nnu Ego's “refusal” to help her grandchildren conceive may be simply the silence of the grave. Yet the image of the slave girl's spirit shows how Nnu Ego (and her family) sees her life interacting transgenerationally within the family, and the time span of the novel is extended beyond the limits of her own life.

In traditional Igbo societies, Nnu Ego's numerous children would have been her guarantee of an honorable and prosperous old age. Certainly, it would have been expected that her children would house and clothe her. Yet Nnu Ego is disappointed here as well, caught in the social upheaval created by Western colonization in Nigeria. Her two eldest male children, educated in British style schools, leave Nigeria for Canada and the United States. Their dislocation makes them unavailable to their mother, even if they had seen it as their duty to support her; Oshia, her eldest son, refuses his father's direct request for help with the family's expenses. Oshia has accepted Western ideas of individual ambition and self-sufficiency, and will not accept any responsibility for his extended family. Instead of being cared for by her children, Nnu Ego dies by the roadside: “She died quietly there, with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her.” Motherhood, which should have guaranteed and strengthened her connection to the land, has betrayed her; her death is the death of the homeless, the abandoned.

In the course of the novel, Emecheta provides a description of the disjunction between the urban, Westernized environment of colonial Lagos and Ibuza culture: the architecture of Lagos is itself hostile to the preservation of large, polygamous households. In this way, Emecheta emphasizes the interrelationship between society and landscape; the landscape of the village, the compound and the separate huts is created by and suited to a traditional life. Lagos, that amalgam of Western imitations, is hostile to it. The new urban landscape of Africa demands a new kind of society.

While Emecheta critiques contemporary attitudes towards women and the “double bind” of the collision of African and Western culture, she provides only a limited image of the African landscape. The contrast of the Westernized city and the traditional village is a commonplace in African literature, and reinforces the image of traditional societies as static havens from the modern world. Perhaps this is the result of Emecheta's own life history.

Emecheta did not grow up in a village. She describes herself as an observer of rural life: “I was intrigued by the whole way of life. For example, some women will sit for hours just peeling egusi (melon seed) or tying the edge of cloth.” In The Joys of Motherhood, while Ibuza life is valued, there are few descriptions of what women's work entailed, other than the care of children; it may be that Emecheta did not feel she knew enough about other experiences in village life to describe them.

Before she became a writer, Emecheta left Nigeria for England, which has been her principal residence since that time (except for a stint at the University of Port Harcourt). In England, she has become critical of African English and African literature: “My vehicle is the English language and staying in this society, working in it, you master the nuances. Writing coming from Nigeria, from Africa (I know this because my son does the criticism) sounds quite stilted.” She feels that women in Nigeria “are riddled with hypocrisy.” For Emecheta, Nigeria has become a foreign country: “I find I don't fit in there anymore.” In light of these feelings, it is easier to understand the sweeping criticism of Nigerian society in The Joys of Motherhood: no one in Ibuza or in Lagos is, finally, willing to support Nnu Ego. Her loneliness, and her death by the roadside, may be not only an appeal to Emecheta's audience to address the problems of African women, but also a figuration of the exile, alone in a strange land. The landscape of The Joys of Motherhood is a description written from a distance. It combines Emecheta's fond memories of village life with her reasons for leaving Nigeria; it is the landscape of memory and desire. Her most recent novels have focused on the experience of immigrants in Britain. The landscape of Africa, in Emecheta's life and works, has faded into the background.


Emecheta, (Florence Onye) Buchi


Emecheta, Buchi (Feminism in Literature)