Flora Nwapa Critical Essays

Introduction

Flora Nwapa 1931-1993

(Full name Flora Nwapa-Nwakuche) Nigerian novelist, poet, short story writer, and children's author.

The following entry presents an overview of Nwapa's career through 1996.

Flora Nwapa was the first Nigerian woman to publish a novel in English, and hence gained international fame. Criticism of her work is often influenced by feminist politics because of the woman-centered nature of her fiction. Her work holds an important place in feminist discourse but has also garnered attention for its literary merits.

Biographical Information

Nwapa was born in the East Central State of Nigeria in 1931. She graduated from Ibadan University in Nigeria then Edinburgh University in London. She taught English at the Queen's School in Enugu in the early 1960s, where she began writing her first novel Efuru (1966). She returned to her home state during the Biafran War, which provided a backdrop for her later fiction. After the war, Nwapa held ministerial posts in the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare; the Ministry of Lands, Survey, and Urban Development; and the Ministry of Establishment between 1970 and 1975. Nwapa also started her own publishing company, the Tana Press Limited, which primarily published children's books, including several of her own works. She was named Officer of the Niger by the Nigerian government in 1982 and received the Merit Award for Authorship and Publishing from the University of Ife in 1985. She served as president of the Association of Nigerian Authors in 1989 and was a member of the PEN International Awards Committee in 1991 and the Commonwealth Writers Awards Committee in 1992. She died of pneumonia on October 16, 1993, in Enuga, Nigeria.

Major Works

Nwapa's work often focuses on the effect that African values have on the lives of African women. Efuru tells the story of the title character through the dialogue of the village women. The effect of the women's gossip is to reveal both Efuru's character and the values of the society she inhabits. Efuru stands out from her community for her beauty, her skills as a businesswoman, and her inability to bear children. Nwapa subverts the notion that childbearing is the only characteristic valued in African women by making Efuru live her life as fully as possible and by showing the reverence and esteem granted to her by other women. Through the title character in Idu (1970), Nwapa portrays the pressure African women feel to produce children. Idu frets over her infertility until finally she produces a son. Nwapa's Never Again (1975) concentrates on the Nigerian Civil War and the trauma and paranoia experienced by the refugees fleeing federal troops. The main character, Kate feels the tension between her belief in an independent Biafran state and her belief that defeat is inevitable. In addition, she feels pressure to repress these feelings for fear of being labeled a traitor. Wives at War and Other Stories (1975) also focuses on the displaced refugees of the Biafran War. The title story surrounds Bisi, a Yoruban who has broken ethnic rules by marrying an Ibo and the tension that results between the couple when they must flee the war into Ibo territory. In One Is Enough (1981), Amaka is an independent female character who stands up to her husband when he tries to bring another woman and her two sons by him to live with them. She eventually leaves their village for the city and becomes pregnant during her relationship with a priest. When the priest wants to leave the priesthood to marry her, she refuses, preferring to maintain her independence while still enjoying her sexuality.

Critical Reception

Discussion of Nwapa's fiction as it relates to feminist politics abounds in critical study of her work. Reviewers note her strong female protagonists and her women-centered narratives. Critics often engage in debate concerning the strength of the novelist's feminism based on her characters' actions and their level of acceptance of or rebellion against African patriarchal structures. Nwapa herself said that she was not a feminist, but rather a womanist. Elleke Boehmer describes the thrust of Nwapa's fiction by stating, “she concentrates, and at length, on what was incidental or simply contextual to male action—domestic matters, politics of intimacy.” In terms of questions of style, critical discussion centers on Nwapa' use of conversational style. Boehmer asserts, “What also distinguishes her writing from others in the ‘Igbo school’ are the ways in which she has used choric language to enable and to empower her representation, creating the effect of a woman's verbal presence within her text, while bringing home her subject matter by evoking the vocality of women's everyday existence.” Some critics complain about the lack of traditional novelistic plot and structure in Nwapa's fiction, but other reviewers enjoy the conversational narrative method. In her discussion of Nwapa's Efuru, Naana Banyiwe-Horne claims, “The constant banter of women reveals character as much as it paints a comprehensive, credible, social canvas against which Efuru's life can be assessed.” Many reviewers note the connection between Nwapa's narrative style and the Igbo oral tradition and praise Nwapa for her strong connection to her past.