Buchi Emecheta Emecheta, Buchi (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

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."

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

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 (juvenile fiction) 1979

The Moonlight Bride (juvenile fiction) 1980

Nowhere to Play (juvenile fiction) 1980

The Wrestling Match (juvenile fiction) 1980

Destination Biafra (novel) 1982

Naira Power (novella) 1982

Adah's Story (novel) 1983

The Rape of Shavi (novel) 1983

Head above Water (autobiography) 1984

A Kind of Marriage (novella) 1986

Gwendolen (novel) 1989

Kehinde (novel) 1994

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Buchi Emecheta, "Feminism with a Small 'f'!" In Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers' Conference, edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen. Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988, pp. 173-85.

In the following essay, Emecheta discusses her artistic concerns and feminist perspective. As Emecheta illustrates, African feminism differs significantly from Western feminism due to the distinct cultural values and sexual identity of African women.

I am just an ordinary writer, an ordinary writer who has to write, because if I didn't write I think I would have to be put in an asylum. Some people have to communicate, and I happen to be one of them. I have tried several times to take university appointments and work as a critic, but each time I have packed up and left without giving notice. I found that I could not bring myself to criticize other people's work. When my husband burned my first book, I said to him 'If you can burn my book, you can just as well burn my child, because my books are like my children, and I cannot criticize my children'. When I had my babies they were very, very ugly; they had big heads, like their father and their bodies looked like mine. But if anybody looked into the pram and said 'What an ugly baby', I would never talk to that person again. And I know that I am not the only writer who finds it hard to accept criticism. One critic asked me 'You have so much anger in you, how can you bear it?' 'Well', I said, 'I can't bear it, so I have to let it out on paper'. I started writing in 1972, and a few weeks ago I handed in my sixteenth novel. In order to make you understand how I work I will tell you about my background.

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and was raised partly there and partly in my village, Ibuza, and this explains my wish to tell stories when I was a child. My parents both came from Ibuza and moved to Lagos in search of work. As both of them were partly educated they embraced the C.M.S (Church Missionary Society) way of life. But being of the old Ibo kingdom they made sure that my brother and myself never lost sight of home, of life in Ibuza.

We worked at home during the rains, to help on the farm and to learn our ways. If I lived in Lagos I could start to have loose morals and speak Yoruba all the time. So my parents wanted me to learn the rigorous Ibo life. You can see that even in Nigeria we still discriminate against each other.

It was at home that I came across real story tellers. I had seen some Yoruba ones telling their stories and songs and beating their drums whilst we children followed them—Pied Piper like—from street to street. But the Ibo story teller was different. She was always one's mother. My Big Mother was my aunt. A child belonged to many mothers. Not just one's biological one. We would sit for hours at her feet mesmerized by her trance like voice. Through such stories she could tell the heroic deeds of her ancestors, all our mores and all our customs. She used to tell them in such a way, in such a sing-song way that until I was about fourteen I used to think that these women were inspired by some spirits. It was a result of those visits to Ibuza, coupled with the enjoyment and information those stories used to give us, that I determined when grew older that I was going to be a story teller, like my Big Mother.

I learned to my dismay at school in Lagos that if I wanted to tell stories to people from many places I would have to use a language that was not my first—neither was it my second, or third, but my fourth language. This made my stories lose a great deal of their colour, but I learned to get by. My English must have been very bad because when I first told my English teacher, who came from the Lake District, and who was crazy about Wordsworth that I was going to write like her favourite poet, she ordered me to go to the school chapel and pray for forgiveness, because she said: 'Pride goeth before a fall'. I did not go to the chapel to pray because even then I knew that God would have much more important things to do than to listen to my dreams. Dreams which for me, coming both from the exotic so-called Ibo bush culture and the historic Yoruba one, were not unattainable.

Some of these early missionaries did not really penetrate the African mind. That incident confirmed what I had always suspected as a child, that the art of communication, be it in pictures, in music, writing or in oral folklore is vital to the human.

I never learn from my experiences. My first attempt to write a book, called The Bride Price was resented by my husband. He too, like my English teacher, told me that 'Pride goeth before a fall'. I left him and I found myself at twenty-two, husbandless with five young children. I thought I would wait to be as old as Big Mother with a string of degrees before writing. But I had to earn my living and the only thing I could do was write. Whilst looking after my fast-growing family I decided to read for a degree that would help me master the English language and help me write about my society for the rest of the world. I chose sociology and continued writing. I had enough rejection slips to paper a room. But in 1972 the New Statesman started serializing my work and those recollections later appeared as my first book, In the Ditch.

I have been writing ever since, and I am now living entirely on my writing. Those babies of mine are now beginning to leave home. One of them has started to write as well, so perhaps writing runs in the family. I am not doing anything particularly clever. I am simply doing what my Big Mother was doing for free about thirty years ago. The only difference is that she told her stories in the moonlight, while I have to bang away at a typewriter I picked up from Woolworths in London. I am not good at reading, and sometimes when I write I can't even read my writing. Writing is a very lonely profession. One is there at one's desk, thinking of ideas and reasoning them out and putting them into works of fiction or stories, and if one is not careful, one will start living the life of the characters in the book. Conferences like this one save some of us from becoming strange.

Writers are often asked 'Who are you writing for?'. How am I supposed to know who is going to pick up my works from the library shelf? I wonder sometimes if people ask painters, when they are doing their paintings, who they are painting them for. The painter can control the picture while he is still painting it, but can we expect him to foretell who is going to love looking at it? A book is akin to a child on his mother's back. The mother knows she is carrying a baby on her back but the child can use its hands to lift anything that passes by, without the mother knowing. I find this question sometimes rather patronizing. In fact it is sometimes healthier not to think of one's readers at all. Writers are communicators. We chronicle everyday happenings, weave them into novels, poetry, documentary fiction, articles etc. The writer has the freedom to control, to imagine and to chronicle. I write for everybody.

The writer also has a crucial control over the subject s/he writes about. For myself, I don't deal with great ideological issues. I write about the little happenings of everyday life. Being a woman, and African born, I see things through an African woman's eyes. I chronicle the little happenings in the lives of the African women I know. I did not know that by doing so I was going to be called a feminist. But if I am now a feminist then I am an African feminist with a small f. In my books I write about families because I still believe in families. I write about women who try very hard to hold their family together until it becomes absolutely impossible. I have no sympathy for a woman who deserts her children, neither do I have sympathy for a woman who insists on staying in a marriage with a brute of a man, simply to be respectable. I want very much to further the education of women in Africa, because I know that education really helps the women. It helps them to read and it helps them to rear a generation. It is true that if one educates a woman, one educates a community, whereas if one educates a man, one educates a man. I do occasionally write about wars and the nuclear holocaust but again in such books I turn to write about the life and experiences of women living under such conditions.

Maybe all this makes me an ordinary writer. But that is what I want to be. An ordinary writer. I will read to you two pieces from my own observations. The style is simple but that is my way. I am a simple and unsophisticated person and cultural people really make me nervous. First I want to read a short piece about polygamy. People think that polygamy is oppression, and it is in certain cases. But I realize, now that I have visited Nigeria often, that some women now make polygamy work for them. What I am about to relate happened only a few weeks ago. I was in my bedroom in Ibuza listening to a conversation. It was cool and damp and I was debating whether to get up from my bed or not. I knew it was about six in the morning. I did not have to look at the clock. I just knew because I could hear the songs of the morning, children on their way to fetch water, a cock crowing here and there. Then the penetrating voice of Nwango, the senior wife of Obike came into my thoughts. 'Go away you stinking beast. Why will you not let me sleep? I have a full day ahead of me and you come harassing me so early in the morning. You are shameless. You don't even care that the children sleep next-door. You beast. Why don't you go to your new wife.' Now the man: 'All I have from you is your loud mouth. You are never around to cook for me, and when I come to your bed, you send me away. What did I pay the bride-price for?' The voice of Obike was slow and full of righteous anger. 'Go to your wife.' 'She is pregnant', said Obike. 'So what, get another woman. I need my energy for my farm and my trading, and today is the market-day', Nwango insisted. I was sorry to miss the end of the quarrel because my mother-in-law came in and told me not to mind them. 'They are always like that, these men. They are shameless. They think we women are here just to be their partners at night. He can marry another girl. But again which girl in her right senses will take him? He is too lazy to go regularly to his farm.' My mother-in-law should know. She had thirteen children. They lived in the capital, Lagos, and her husband did not have room to bring home another wife, so she had to do everything. If they had spent their life in the village it would have been different.

I know this is a situation which our Western sisters will find difficult to understand. Sex is important to us. But we do not make it the centre of our being, as women do here. In fact most of the Nigerian women who are promiscuous are so for economic reasons. The Yorubas have a saying that a woman must never allow a man to sleep with her if, at the end of the day she is going to be in debt. Few of our women go after sex per se. If they are with their husbands they feel they are giving something out of duty, love, or in order to have children. A young woman might dream of romantic love, but as soon as they start having children their loyalty is very much to them, and they will do everything in their power to make life easier for them. In the villages the woman will seek the company of her age-mates, her friends, and the women in the market, and for advice she goes either to her mother or to her mother-in-law. Another woman in the family will help share the housework, like Nwango cited earlier. The day her husband wanted her was...

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Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Derrickson, Teresa. "Class, Culture, and the Colonial Context: The Status of Women in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood." International Fiction Review 29, nos.1&2 (2002): 40-51.

In the following essay, Derrickson explores the theory that the women in Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood suffer from a clash between the traditions and values of Ibo culture and the values of British colonizers, instead of being victims of an oppressive patriarchal culture.

Much of the written scholarship on Buchi Emecheta's...

(The entire section is 6116 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Allan, Tuzyline Jita. "The Joys of Motherhood: A Study of a Problematic Womanist Aesthetic." In Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics, pp. 95-117. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Examines Emecheta's themes in comparison to Alice Walker's womanist aesthetic presented in her work The Joys of Motherhood.

Davis, Christina. "Mother and Writer: Means of Empowerment in the Work of Buchi Emecheta." Commonwealth: Essays and Studies, no. 13 (autumn 1990): 13-21.

Discusses how Emecheta empowers her female protagonists in her fiction.


(The entire section is 822 words.)