A Nigerian-born author who has resided in England since 1962, Emecheta is best known for her novels that address the difficulties facing modern African women forced into traditional and subservient roles. Emecheta's heroines often challenge the restrictive customs imposed on them and aspire to economic and social independence. Although some critics have categorized Emecheta's works as feminist in nature, Emecheta rejects the label, stating, "I have not committed myself to the cause of African women only. I write about Africa as a whole."
Emecheta was born in 1944 in Yaba, a small village near Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents, both from eastern Nigeria, died when she was a child. Emecheta was taken in by foster parents who mistreated her. She grew up listening to the women around her telling stories, but in her culture women were not expected to be writers. She attended a missionary high school in Lagos until she was sixteen and then married a man to whom she had been promised since age eleven. At nineteen, Emecheta followed her husband to London. She had two children at the time and was pregnant with her third; she eventually became a mother of five. During this time in London Emecheta began to write. Her husband was so upset over her intention to become a writer that he burned her first novel, and after this, Emecheta decided to leave him. She later rewrote the novel and published it as The Bride Price (1976). While struggling to become a writer, she worked part-time jobs to support her family and earned a degree in sociology at the University of London. Emecheta's early writing efforts initially met with repeated rejections from publishers. Her break came when the New Statesman accepted several of her essays about her life in London; these eventually became her first published work, the novel In the Ditch (1972).
Three of Emecheta's works focus on events in her life. Her first two novels, In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen (1975), are loosely based on her own experiences as a single parent and are regarded as her most accomplished works. Both books revolve around a young Nigerian woman named Adah and her search for a better quality of life. In the first book, Emecheta depicts Adah's struggle to raise five small children while depending on welfare payments, attending college, and attempting to complete her first novel. The second book recounts Adah's immigration to England and her marriage to a domineering man who attempts to thwart her educational and professional aspirations. Their marriage dissolves as Adah, influenced by the women's liberation movement, begins to assert her individuality. Head above Water (1986) is a nonfiction work detailing Emecheta's childhood in a small Nigerian village, her career as a social worker in London, and the problems she encountered in securing a publisher for her writings.
Three of Emecheta's novels dramatize the problems that African women typically encounter in a traditional, male-oriented society: The Bride Price, The Slave Girl (1977), and The Joys of Motherhood (1979). The Bride Price centers on a young woman who defies tribal custom by marrying a man outside her social class. After her husband fails to pay her dowry, or bride price, she dies in childbirth, as prophesied by tribal myth. The Slave Girl, which accuses the patriarchal social system of treating females as commodities, focuses upon the coming of age of an orphan girl whose older brother sells her to a distant relative. The Joys of Motherhood relates the story of a young Ibo woman named Nnu Ego who feels inferior when she is unable to give her husband a child. She flees her village to the city of Lagos and begins a new life with a new husband. She becomes a mother several times over, but the joy of fulfilling her dream is tempered by the reality of having to feed a large family with little income. After her children grow up and move away, Nnu Ego dies alone on the side of the road.
Critics have lauded Emecheta for convincing characterizations and amusing yet poignant evocations of her heroines' tribulations. Many critics have asserted that she provides a thorough presentation of social themes in her novels, but some reviewers have argued that Emecheta has either ignored or shied away from certain larger social issues in her works. For example, several scholars claim that she did not address sexual discrimination in England in Second-Class Citizen. Commentators have disagreed over Emecheta's relationship to feminism and to traditional African culture. Much of this commentary has focused on The Joys of Motherhood. Some critics have asserted that Emecheta created Nnu Ego as the representative African woman, while others hold that Emecheta had neither the authority, nor the intention to speak for all African women. Salome C. Nnoromele (see Further Reading) has argued that "The Joys of Motherhood is not a construction of the universal African woman.… [It] is simply the story of a woman who makes devastating choices and sacrifices her health and selfhood in the pursuit of failed traditions, capsulated in the idea of motherhood." Critics have also argued that the novels set in Africa, including The Joys of Motherhood, represent a feminist indictment of African patriarchal culture, and have lauded Emecheta for her portrayal of the effects of this culture on African women. Certain critics contend that Nnu Ego is not a victim of patriarchal oppression, but rather a victim of the clash between traditional African society and the culture of the colonizers. Critics generally agree, however, that Emecheta provides a needed feminine perspective on the lives and culture of African women. Katherine Frank (see Further Reading) concluded, "Emecheta's novels compose the most exhaustive and moving portrayal extant of the African woman, an unparalleled portrayal in African fiction and with few equals in other literatures as well."