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.
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).
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.
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.