Flora Nwapa Criticism - Essay

Naana Banyiwa-Horne (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “African; Womanhood: The Contrasting Perspectives of Flora Nwapa's Efuru and Elechi Amadi's The Concubine,” in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 119-29.

[In the following essay, Banyiwa-Horne uses Nwapa's Efuru and Elechi Amadi's The Concubine to delineate the differences between a female-authored and male-authored heroine.]

The question of African womanhood, though not given much consideration in critical evaluations of African literature until recent years, is one of the subjects that often finds its way into the writings of both male and female authors from the continent. Images of African womanhood abound in the literature, with some male authors giving as much exposure to the subject as female ones. In fact, some of the most fascinating and exotic women in fiction have been created by male writers. Cyprian Ekwensi's Jagua Nana is a novel by that name, and Wole Soyinka's Simi in The Interpreters readily come to mind.

A close look at the various images of African womanhood provided in the literature reveals that, to a considerable extent, depictions of African women in the literature by African woman writers differ from the images presented by their male counterparts. By virtue of their shared gender experiences, women writers are inclined to depict female characters in more realistic terms, with a great deal of insight, and in meaningful interaction with their environment. Also women writers tend to create a woman's world in which women characters exist in their own right, and not as mere appendages to a male world. There are exceptions, of course,1 but in the main, women authors explore alternate possibilities for self-actualization outside the sexual roles that are open to their women characters.

On the other hand, male depictions of female characters are often from a fiercely male perspective, reflecting male conceptions, or rather misconceptions, of female sexuality. Men writers tend to overplay the sexuality of their female characters, creating the impression that women have no identity outside their sexual roles. Their women are seen primarily in relation to male protagonists and in secondary roles. These characters usually serve to enhance the images of the male protagonists who occupy the central positions in the works. Furthermore, male images of African womanhood tend to be idealized and romanticized. There is little or no psychological growth in such portraitures which seems to suggest they are largely male fantasies of womanhood. The above does not suggest that every African male writer dabbles in stereotypes of African womanhood. There are brilliant exceptions. But generally, male depictions of African womanhood conform to the above stated observations.

These contentions are brought home forcefully when one examines two works that share a lot of superficial similarities—Flora Nwapa's Efuru and Elechi Amadi's The Concubine.2 The term superficial is employed here to qualify the similarities between the two novels, because they are apparent mainly in the surface structure of the two works but cannot be sustained in any in-depth analysis of the themes, particularly as they reveal Nwapa's and Amadi's perspectives of African womanhood.

The titles of both novels suggest that a female character is central to each work. Nwapa's novel revolves around Efuru, whose name provides the title for the work. In Amadi's novel too, Ihuoma, a woman, plays a central role. Efuru and Ihuoma have a lot in common; they are exceptional in many respects. Moreover, both works are set in rural Igbo villages, and in both, the supernatural plays a dominant role in the lives of the women. The similarities, however, only apply to the raw materials the two authors employ in their works. Nwapa and Amadi utilize their materials in very distinct ways resulting in contrasting portrayals of their main female characters.

The following exploration of the attitudes of the two authors to the worlds they create, to their characters, and to their use of the supernatural reveals the two very different perspectives: Nwapa's Efuru provides a feminine perspective of African womanhood and gives a more complex treatment of the female character, while Amadi's The Concubine provides a perspective that is male and limiting.

In rural Ibgoland, where Efuru and The Concubine are set, close-knit family structures predominate, and everyone knows and is related to everyone else either by blood or by marriage. Each person's business is that of the entire community. No occurrence is sacrosanct. Both Amadi and Nwapa excel in creating the fabric and texture of their rural communities, bringing their characters and their worlds vividly to life for the reader. One leaves both novels with the feeling of having intimate knowledge of the fictional worlds and their inhabitants. The attitudes, beliefs, fears, loves, strengths and weaknesses of both individuals and the community at large are made apparent through the descriptions and the dialogue employed. There is very little authorial commentary in either work, though Amadi utilizes this technique a little more than Nwapa.

Nwapa depends almost exclusively on dialogue to reveal Efuru's world, and she proves very successful at it. Her novel is filled with the daily conversation mainly of women, a technique that captures most effectively the oral-aural nature of the world she unfolds. 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. The total world view is brought to life through dialogue. In commenting on this technique Maryse Condé observes that

… by making her heroine unique among her fellow-villagers and by reporting the unanimously hostile and adverse comments of the other women on every one of Efuru's decisions and actions, Flora Nwapa gives, in fact, a disturbing picture of narrow-mindedness, superstition, malevolence, and greed and fear in traditional Africa and might go contrary to what she has thought to defend. In depicting her minor characters, she conveys a very poor impression of her society. Her men are weak, dissolute and irrational. Her women, a formidable gallery of malicious gossipers.3

Condé, apparently disturbed by Nwapa's frankness in bringing to life her women characters with their idiosyncrasies and their entire baggage of attitudes, concludes that the result of Nwapa's technique goes contrary to her objectives. She is of the impression that Nwapa is not a conscious craftsperson. But on the contrary, what she interprets as Nwapa's weakness is one of her fortes—a conscious manipulation of dialogue in the revelation not so much of individual personality as in the creation of a tableau against which social values and attitudes can be evaluated.

The “formidable gallery of malicious gossipers” as Condé sees Nwapa's women, is definitely more than just that. They enable Nwapa to portray her world from the perspective of women. She brings out quite clearly the ways her women view the world in which they live, and their reactions not only to the other womenfolk, but to those aspects of life that touch directly on their lives as women. The thought patterns of the individual personalities as they comment on and react to Efuru are revealed. Of course, the comments of the women on Efuru's life reveal their envy, their own shortcomings, and their aspirations; but that is human nature, and Nwapa does a good job of revealing character. After all, who among the village gossips would not want to be beautiful and prosperous? Which of the married women would not bask in the attention Efuru's husband lavishes on her? Above all, which woman would not wish to be appreciated for herself rather than for her childbearing ability? Even as the women decry Efuru's beauty, her leaving her child with a maid in order to pursue her profession as a trader, or her going to the stream with her husband, their reactions reveal the restricted, limited sense of accomplishment in their own lives.

Efuru's infertility is a source of concern, yes, and the constant lamenting of her condition, more by other women than by herself, reveals the importance her society attaches to childbearing. But, at the same time, Efuru's undaunted effort to live her life as fully as possible, regardless of this shortcoming, is striking. Her misfortune does not diminish the awe in which the other women hold her, and this is equally reflected in the envious comments they pass on her. What Nwapa achieves through her setting, therefore, is a life-like recreation of the world of women in her rural Igbo community.

Elechi Amadi also employs similar tools in depicting his world and its attitudes. The world he projects, however, is a male world, and the voices heard are mainly male voices. The statements made by these voices and even by the authorial voice reflect not just a masculine attitude to women but a chauvinistic one. When friends and relatives assemble to celebrate the second burial of Ihuoma's husband, Amadi portrays his men as a dignified group while his women are bunched together as a cantankerous lot—“The old men were served. As they crunched their kola nuts slowly they talked to each other with a dignified buzz, an octave lower than the high-pitched, piping, market-chatter of the women” (p. 43).

His male characters consistently pass disparaging comments about their women. Madume dismisses his wife with the statement, “Women argue forwards and backwards” (p. 70). Wakiri confides in his friend Ekwueme, “when it comes to nagging I treat all women as children” (p. 20). Wigwe, a dignified elder, advises his son to regard his wife as “a baby needing constant correction” (p. 181). Ekwueme, the major male protagonist, sees all women as stupid and horrible and dismisses them as unworthy of him (p. 182). Even Ihuoma, who is acknowledged as being superior to other women, does not escape Ekwueme's deprecations. He perceives her as “just a simpleton with as much heart as a chicken” (p. 117). Furthermore, the exemplary behavior of Amadi's heroine is acknowledged in highly chauvinistic terms. Wigwe admits reluctantly: “True, you are only a woman but your good behaviour has placed you a little above many other women in the village” (p. 144).

What emerges from the world Amadi creates, then, is a reinforcement of stereotypical male chauvinistic impressions about African womanhood. All of his women characters are depicted as inferior and subordinate to men with even Ihuoma portrayed in subordination to the dominant male characters. The story begins, in characteristic male fashion, with a fight between two men, Emenike and Madume. Ihuoma's introduction into the story is tied to her position as Emenike's wife and as a woman on whom Madume has designs with these factors aggravating the conflict between the two men. Amadi informs the reader: “Perhaps Madume's hatred of Emenike might not have been so great if only the latter had not snatched Ihuoma from him” (p. 6).

Amadi's depiction of Ihuoma is dehumanizing. She is not portrayed as a human being with a will of her own. She is more like a piece of land, or a house, or some form of property that is there to be grabbed. Clearly,...

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Nancy Topping Bazin (essay date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminism in the Literature of African Women,” in Black Scholar, Vol. 20, Nos. 3 and 4, Summer, 1989, p. 8-17.

[In the following essay, Bazin uses eight novels written by Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, and Mariama Bâ to trace how the lives of women are presented in African literature.]

Feminist consciousness permeates the works of four major female novelists from black Africa: Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa from Nigeria, Bessie Head from Botswana, and Mariama Bâ from Senegal. I shall explore two novels by each of these writers to determine which customs and attitudes cause the most suffering in the lives of their female characters and what...

(The entire section is 6967 words.)

Elleke Boehmer (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stories of Women and Mothers: Gender and Nationalism in the Early Fiction of Flora Nwapa,” in Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, edited by Susheila Nasta, The Women's Press, 1991, pp. 3-23.

[In the following essay, Boehmer analyzes the effect of nationalist symbolism on women's identity and writing in Africa.]

She is there at the beginning of the lives of individuals and of nations. In various nationalist mythologies and, more recently, in the matriarchal yearnings of dispossessed women seeking their own place in nations and in history, mother figures cradle their children in comforting and capacious laps....

(The entire section is 6449 words.)

Maxine Sample (essay date Autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Another Life: The Refugee Phenomenon in Two Novels of the Nigerian Civil War,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 445-54.

[In the following essay, Sample discusses how refugees figure into the work of Flora Nwapa and Elechi Amadi, especially Never Again and Estrangementrespectively.]

During the latter part of the 1960's as America was preoccupied with Vietnam abroad and its own social revolution at home, the West African Republic of Nigeria was engaged in a bloody civil war in which the federal government fought the secession of the Eastern Region, an area declaring itself at the moment of its revolt, the Republic...

(The entire section is 3972 words.)

Ify G. Achufusi (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminist Inclinations of Flora Nwapa,” in Critical Theory and African Literature Today, 1994, pp. 101-14.

[In the following essay, Achufusi refutes Nwapa's assertion that she is not a feminist by tracing the feminist ideas found in her three novels Efuru, Idu, and One Is Enough.]

There has been a tendency for African intellectuals to dissociate themselves from the term ‘feminism’, regarding it as one of those borrowed ‘isms’ which militate against the development of Africa, perhaps the newest form of neo-colonialism. It is often regarded as some kind of intellectual monstrosity which is geared towards the destruction of the marriage...

(The entire section is 5143 words.)

Maggi Phillips (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Phillips traces the role of dreams and dreaming in the texts of Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga.]

In addressing the writing of Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga, there is no need to delineate their blackness nor their womanhood: through their fictions, they themselves speak extensively on, and with unerring insight into such complex...

(The entire section is 6290 words.)

Brenda F. Berrian (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Memoriam: Flora Nwapa (1931-1993),” in Signs, Vol. 20, No. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 996-99.

[In the following essay, Berrian provides an overview of Nwapa's career.]

On a Saturday afternoon in early fall of 1993, the phone call came. Flora Nwapa (Nwakuche), the first Nigerian woman to publish a novel in English and to hold ministerial posts in the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Lands, Survey and Urban Development, and the Ministry of Establishments between 1970 and 1975, had died from pneumonia in a hospital in Enugu, Nigeria, on October 16. After the first stunned moment I immediately recalled the first time that I had met...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)

Obioma Nnaemeka (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminism, Rebellious Women, and Cultural Boundaries: Rereading Flora Nwapa and Her Compatriots,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 80-113.

[In the following essay, Nnaemeka asserts the danger of letting feminist politics distort criticism of African literature, by delineating examples of how the work of Nwapa and several of her contemporaries has been misread by feminist critics.]

In a very important essay titled “The Nature of Things: Arrested Decolonization and Critical Theory,” Biodun Jeyifo effectively highlights and responds to some of the pertinent issues in the debates among critics of African literature in...

(The entire section is 18311 words.)

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Invalid, Dea(r)th, and the Author: The Case of Flora Nwapa, aka Professor (Mrs.) Flora Nwanzuruahu Nwakuche,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Ogunyemi analyzes the place of life, death, and the Lady of the Lake in Nwapa's work.]


In introducing this Festschrift to commemorate the crucial first anniversary of Flora Nwapa's passing to join her ancestors, I wish, first and foremost, to reiterate the Igbo adage Egbe belu, ugo belu. Indeed, “may the kite perch; may the eagle perch,” in spite of their...

(The entire section is 8161 words.)

Flora Nwapa with Marie Umeh (interview date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetics of Economic Independence for Female Empowerment: An Interview with Flora Nwapa,” in Research in African Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 22-9.

[In the following interview, Nwapa discusses her writing, her position on feminism, and the role of women in Igbo society.]

Flora Nwapa-Nwakuche, popularly known as Flora Nwapa, Africa's first internationally recognized female novelist and publisher, died of pneumonia on 16 October 1993, at the age of 62 in Enugu, Nigeria. She was buried at Amede's Court in Ugwuta. In what was to be my last conversation with Flora Nwapa-Nwakuche in December 1992, in Scarsdale, New York, when she was on tour...

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Marie Umeh (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Signifyin(g) The Griottes: Flora Nwapa's Legacy of (Re)Vision and Voice,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 114-23.

[In the following essay, Umeh describes how Nwapa gives African women a voice in literature by employing Ugwuta oral traditions in her work.]

Ogbuide, the Queen of Women, comes from the Moon. She is good; the woman is beautiful, an invisible leader of the group. She helps the poor. When a poor person is hungry and comes to the water side, Ogbuide will give the person food.

Mrs. Onyemuru, ferrywoman at Oguta Lake.1


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Susan Z. Andrade (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Joys of Daughterhood: Gender, Nationalism, and the Making of Literary Tradition(s),” in Cultural Institutions of the Novel, edited by Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 249-75.

[In the following essay, Andrade asserts that Buchi Emecheta's “The Joys of Motherhood establishes an explicitly intertextual relationship with [Nwapa's] Efuru, one that acknowledges Nwapa's historical status and secures the earlier novel a place in literary history—while indirectly exposing the older novelist's ambivalent representation of female independence.”]

Novel writing from Francophone and Anglophone Africa...

(The entire section is 10501 words.)