Emecheta, (Florence Onye) Buchi 1944-
EMECHETA, (Florence Onye) Buchi 1944-
PERSONAL: Born July 21, 1944, in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria; daughter of Jeremy Nwabudike (a railway worker and molder) and Alice Ogbanje (Okwuekwu) Emecheta; married Sylvester Onwordi, 1960 (separated, 1966); children: Florence, Sylvester, Jake, Christy, Alice. Education: University of London, B.Sc. (with honors), 1972, Ph.D., 1991. Religion: Anglican. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, attending the theatre, listening to music, reading.
ADDRESSES: Home—7 Briston Grove, Crouch End, London N8 9EX, England.
CAREER: British Museum, London, England, library officer, 1965-69; Inner London Education Authority, London, youth worker and sociologist, 1969-76; community worker, Camden, NJ, 1976-78. Writer and lecturer, 1972—. Visiting professor at several universities throughout the United States, including Pennsylvania State University, University of California, Los Angeles, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1979; senior resident fellow and visiting professor of English, University of Calabar, Nigeria, 1980-81; lecturer, Yale University, 1982, London University, 1982—; fellow, London University, 1986. Proprietor, Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company, 1982-83. Member of Home Secretary's Advisory Council on Race, 1979—, and of Arts Council of Great Britain, 1982-83.
AWARDS, HONORS: Jock Campbell Award for literature by new or unregarded talent from Africa or the Caribbean, New Statesman, 1978; selected as the Best Black British Writer, 1978, and one of the Best British Young Writers, 1983.
In the Ditch, Barrie & Jenkins (London, England), 1972.
Second-Class Citizen (novel), Allison & Busby (London, England), 1974, Braziller (New York, NY), 1975.
The Bride Price: A Novel, Braziller (New York, NY), 1976, also published as The Bride Price: Young Ibo Girl's Love; Conflict of Family and Tradition.
The Slave Girl: A Novel, Braziller (New York, NY), 1977.
The Joys of Motherhood: A Novel, Braziller (New York, NY), 1979.
Destination Biafra: A Novel, Schocken (New York, NY), 1982.
Naira Power (novelette), Macmillan (London, England), 1982.
Double Yoke (novel), Schocken (New York, NY), 1982.
The Rape of Shavi (novel), Ogwugwu Afor (Ibuza, Nigeria), 1983, Braziller (New York, NY), 1985.
Adah's Story: A Novel, Allison & Busby (London, England), 1983.
Head Above Water (autobiography), Ogwugwu Afor (Ibuza, Nigeria), 1984, Collins (London, England), 1986.
The Family (novel), Braziller (New York, NY), 1990.
Gwendolen (novel), Collins (London, England), 1990.
Kehinde, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1994.
The New Tribe, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 2000.
Titch the Cat (based on story by daughter Alice Emecheta), Allison & Busby, 1979.
Nowhere to Play (based on story by daughter Christy Emecheta), Schocken (New York, NY), 1980.
The Moonlight Bride, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1981.
The Wrestling Match, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1981, Braziller (New York, NY), 1983.
Family Bargain (publication for schools), British Broadcasting Corp. (London, England), 1987.
(Author of introduction and commentary) Maggie Murray, Our Own Freedom (book of photographs), Sheba Feminist (London, England), 1981.
A Kind of Marriage (teleplay; produced by BBC-TV), Macmillan (London, England), 1987.
Also author of teleplays Tanya, a Black Woman, produced by BBC-TV, and The Juju Landlord. Contributor to journals, including New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement, and Guardian.
SIDELIGHTS: Although Buchi Emecheta has resided in London since 1962, she is "Nigeria's best-known female writer," commented John Updike in the New Yorker. "Indeed, few writers of her sex . . . have arisen in any part of tropical Africa." Emecheta enjoys great popularity in Great Britain, and she has gathered an appreciative audience on this side of the Atlantic as well. Although Emecheta has written children's books and teleplays, she is best known for her historical novels set in Nigeria, both before and after independence. Concerned with the clash of cultures and the impact of Western values upon agrarian traditions and customs, Emecheta's work is strongly autobiographical; and, as Updike observed, much of it is especially concerned with "the situation of women in a society where their role, though crucial, was firmly subordinate and where the forces of potential liberation have arrived with bewildering speed."
Born to Ibo parents in Yaba, a small village near Lagos, Nigeria, Emecheta indicates that the Ibos "don't want you to lose contact with your culture," wrote Rosemary Bray in the Voice Literary Supplement. Bray explained that the oldest woman in the house plays an important role in that she is the "big mother" to the entire clan, said Bray: "She was very old and almost blind," Buchi recalls, "And she would gather the young children around her after dinner and tell stories to us." The stories the children heard were about their origins and ancestors; and, according to Bray, Emecheta recalls: "I thought to myself 'No life could be more important than this.' So when people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up I told them I wanted to be a storyteller—which is what I'm doing now."
In the Ditch, her first book, originally appeared as a series of columns in the New Statesman. Written in the form of a diary, it "is based on her own failed marriage and her experiences on the dole in London trying to rear alone her many children," stated Charlotte and David Bruner in World Literature Today. Called a "sad, sonorous, occasionally hilarious . . . extraordinary first novel," by Adrianne Blue of the Washington Post Book World, it details her impoverished existence in a foreign land, as well as her experience with racism, and "illuminates the similarities and differences between cultures and attitudes," remarked a Times Literary Supplement contributor, who thought it merits "special attention."
Similarly autobiographical, Emecheta's second novel, Second-Class Citizen,"recounts her early marriage years, when she was trying to support her student-husband—a man indifferent to his own studies and later indifferent to her job searches, her childbearing, and her resistance to poverty," observed the Bruners. The novel is about a young, resolute and resourceful Nigerian girl who, despite traditional tribal domination of females, manages to continue her own education; she marries a student and follows him to London, where he becomes abusive toward her. "Emecheta said people find it hard to believe that she has not exaggerated the truth in this autobiographical novel," reported Nancy Topping Bazin in Black Scholar. "The grimness of what is described does indeed make it painful to read." Called a "brave and angry book" by Marigold Johnson in the Times Literary Supplement, Emecheta's story, however, "is not accompanied by a misanthropic whine," noted Martin Levin in the New York Times Book Review. Alice Walker, who found it "one of the most informative books about contemporary African life" that she has read, observed in Ms. that "it raises fundamental questions about how creative and prosaic life is to be lived and to what purpose."
"Emecheta's women do not simply lie down and die," observed Bray. "Always there is resistance, a challenge to fate, a need to renegotiate the terms of the uneasy peace that exists between them and accepted traditions." Bray added that "Emecheta's women know, too, that between the rock of African traditions and the hard place of encroaching Western values, it is the women who will be caught." Concerned with the clash of cultures, in The Bride Price: A Novel, Emecheta tells the story of a young Nigerian girl "whose life is complicated by traditional attitudes toward women," wrote Richard Cima in Library Journal. The young girl's father dies when she is thirteen; and, with her brother and mother, she becomes the property of her father's ambitious brother. She is permitted to remain in school only because it will increase her value as a potential wife. However, she falls in love with her teacher, a descendant of slaves; and because of familial objections, they elope, thereby depriving her uncle of the "bride price." When she dies in childbirth, she fulfills the superstition that a woman would not survive the birth of her first child if her bride price had not been paid; and Susannah Clapp maintained in the Times Literary Supplement, that the quality of the novel "depends less on plot or characterization than on the information conveyed about a set of customs and the ideas which underlay them." Calling it "a captivating Nigerian novel lovingly but unsentimentally written, about the survival of ancient marriage customs in modern Nigeria," Valerie Cunningham added in New Statesman that this book "proves Buchi Emecheta to be a considerable writer."
Emecheta's Slave Girl: A Novel is about "a poor, gently raised Ibo girl who is sold into slavery to a rich African marketwoman by a feckless brother at the turn of the century," wrote a New Yorker contributor. Educated by missionaries, she joins the new church where she meets the man she eventually marries. In Library Journal, Cima thought that the book provides an "interesting picture of Christianity's impact on traditional Ibo society." Perceiving parallels between marriage and slavery, Emecheta explores the issue of "freedom within marriage in a society where slavery is supposed to have been abolished," wrote Cunningham in the New Statesman, adding that the book indicts both "pagan and Christian inhumanity to women." And although a contributor to World Literature Today suggested that the "historical and anthropological background" in the novel tends to destroy its "emotional complex," another contributor to the same journal believed that the sociological detail has been "unobtrusively woven into" it and that The Slave Girl represents Emecheta's "most accomplished work so far. It is coherent, compact and convincing."
"Emecheta's voice has been welcomed by many as helping to redress the somewhat one-sided picture of African women that has been delineated by male writers," according to A New Reader's Guide to African Literature. Writing in African Literature Today, Eustace Palmer indicated that "the African novel has until recently been remarkable for the absense of what might be called the feminine point of view." Because of the relatively few female African novelists, "the presentation of women in the African novel has been left almost entirely to male voices . . . and their interest in African womanhood . . . has had to take second place to numerous other concerns," continued Palmer. "These male novelists, who have presented the African woman largely within the traditional milieu, have generally communicated a picture of a male-dominated and male-oriented society, and the satisfaction of the women with this state of things has been . . . completely taken for granted." Palmer added that the emergence of Emecheta and other "accomplished female African novelists . . . seriously challenges all these cozy assumptions. The picture of the cheerful contented female complacently accepting her lot is replaced by that of a woman who is powerfully aware of the unfairness of the system and who longs to be else's appendage." For instance, Palmer noted that The Joys of Motherhood: A Novel "presents essentially the same picture of traditional society . . . but the difference lies in the prominence in Emecheta's novel of the female point of view registering its disgust at male chauvinism and its dissatisfaction with what it considers an unfair and oppressive system."
The Joys of Motherhood is about a woman "who marries but is sent home in disgrace because she fails to bear a child quickly enough," wrote Bazin. "She then is sent to the city by her father to marry a man she has never seen. She is horrified when she meets this second husband because she finds him ugly, but she sees no alternative to staying with him. Poverty and repeated pregnancies wear her down; the pressure to bear male children forces her to bear child after child since the girls she has do not count." Palmer observed that "clearly, the man is the standard and the point of reference in this society. It is significant that the chorus of countrymen say, not that a woman without a child is a failed woman, but that a woman without a child for her husband is a failed woman." Bazin observed that in Emecheta's novels, "a woman must accept the double standard of sexual freedom: it permits polygamy and infidelity for both Christian and non-Christian men but only monogamy for women. These books reveal the extent to which the African woman's oppression is engrained in the African mores."
Acknowledging that "the issue of polygamy in Africa remains a controversial one," Palmer stated that what Emecheta stresses in The Joys of Motherhood is "the resulting dominance, especially sexual, of the male, and the relegation of the female into subservience, domesticity and motherhood." Nonetheless, despite Emecheta's "angry glare," said Palmer, one can "glean from the novel the economic and social reasons that must have given rise to polygamy. ... But the author concentrates on the misery and deprivation polygamy can bring." Palmer praised Emecheta's insightful psychological probing of her characters' thoughts: "Scarcely any other African novelist has succeeded in probing the female mind and displaying the female personality with such precision." Blue likewise suggested that Emecheta "tells this story in a plain style, denuding it of exoticism, displaying an impressive, embracing compassion." Calling it a "graceful, touching, ironically titled tale that bears a plain feminist message," Updike added that "in this compassionate but slightly distanced and stylized story of a life that comes to seem wasted, [Emecheta] sings a dirge for more than African pieties. The lives within The Joys of Motherhood might be, transposed into a different cultural key, those of our own rural ancestors."
Emecheta's "works reveal a great deal about the lives of African women and about the development of feminist perspectives," observed Bazin, explaining that one moves beyond an initial perspective of "personal experience," to perceive "social or communal" oppression. This second perspective "demands an analysis of the causes of oppression within the social mores and the patriarchal power structure," added Bazin. Finding both perspectives in Emecheta's work, Bazin thought that her descriptions reveal "what it is like to be for" millions of black African women. Although her feminist perspective is anchored in her own personal life, said Bazin, Emecheta "grew to understand how soon preference, bride price, polygamy, menstrual taboos, . . . wife beating, early marriages, early and unlimited pregnancies, arranged marriages, and male dominance in the home functioned to keep women powerless." The Bruners wrote that "obviously Emecheta is concerned about the plight of women, today and yesterday, in both technological and traditional societies, though she rejects a feminist label." Emecheta told the Bruners: "The main themes of my novels are African society and family; the historical, social, and political life in Africa as seen by a woman through events. I always try to show that the African male is oppressed and he too oppresses the African women. . . . I have not committed myself to the cause of African women only. I write about Africa as a whole."
Emecheta's Destination Biafra: A Novel is a story of the "history of Nigeria from the eve of independence to the collapse of the Biafran secessionist movement," wrote Robert L. Berner in World Literature Today. The novel has generated a mixed critical response, though. In the Times Literary Supplement, Chinweizu felt that it "does not convey the feel of the experience that was Biafra. All it does is leave one wondering why it falls so devastatingly below the quality of Buchi Emecheta's previous works." Noting, however, that Emecheta's publisher reduced the manuscript by half, Berner suggested that "this may account for what often seems a rather elliptical narrative and for the frequently clumsy prose which too often blunts the novel's satiric edge." Finding the novel "different from any of her others . . . larger and more substantive," the Bruners stated: "Here she presents neither the life story of a single character nor the delineation of one facet of a culture but the whole perplexing canvas of people from diverse ethnic groups, belief systems, levels of society all caught in a disastrous civil war." Moreover, the Bruners felt that the "very objectivity of her reporting and her impartiality in recounting atrocities committed by all sides, military and civilian, have even greater impact because her motivation is not sadistic."
At about the same time that Emecheta published Destination Biafra, her novel Double Yoke also saw print. Double Yoke details the difficulties facing African women in the academic world; though at first, the heroine Nko's boyfriend seems progressive, he later repudiates her for allowing him to have sex with her before marriage. Nko must also deal with a professor who extorts sexual favors from her under the threat of preventing her from receiving her degree. According to Jewelle Gomez in Black Scholar, "Here, as in Emecheta's other novels, she speaks with an undeniably Nigerian voice; makes clear the Nigerian woman's circumscribed position in society and her skillful adaptation to it."
The Rape of Shavi represents somewhat of a departure in that "Emecheta attempts one of the most difficult of tasks: that of integrating the requirements of contemporary, realistic fiction with the narrative traditions of myth and folklore," wrote Somtow Sucharitkul in the Washington Post Book World. Roy Kerridge described the novel's plot in the Times Literary Supplement: "A plane crashes among strange tribespeople, white aviators are made welcome by the local king, they find precious stones, repair their plane and escape just as they are going to be forcibly married to native girls. The king's son and heir stows away and has adventures of his own in England." Called a "wise and haunting tale" by a New Yorker contributor, The Rape of Shavi "recounts the ruination of this small African society by voracious white interlopers," said Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times. A few critics suggested that in The Rape of Shavi, Emecheta's masterful portrayal of her Shavian community is not matched by her depiction of the foreigners. Eder, for instance, called it a "lopsided fable," and declared: "It is not that the Shavians are noble and the whites monstrous; that is what fables are for. It is that the Shavians are finely drawn and the Westerners very clumsily. It is a duet between a flute and a kitchen drain." However, Sucharitkul thought that portraying the Shavians as "complex individuals" and the Westerners as "two dimensional, mythic types" presents a refreshing, seldom expressed, and "particularly welcome" point of view.
Although in the New York Times Michiko Kakutani called The Rape of Shavi "an allegorical tale, filled with ponderous morals about the evils of imperialism and tired aphorisms about nature and civilization," Sucharitkul believed that "the central thesis of [the novel] is brilliantly, relentlessly argued, and Emecheta's characters and societies are depicted with a bittersweet, sometimes painful honesty." The critic also praised Emecheta's "persuasive" prose: "It is prose that appears unusually simple at first, for it is full of the kind of rhythms and sentence structures more often found in folk tales than in contemporary novels. Indeed, in electing to tell her multilayered and often very contemporary story within a highly mythic narrative framework, the author walks a fine line between the pitfalls of preciosity and pretentiousness. By and large, the tightrope act is a success."
Following The Rape of Shavi, Emecheta seemed to be more concerned with discussing the lives of African immigrants to England and other western countries. The title character of Gwendolen is a young Jamaican girl whose parents move to England in search of a better life, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. Her grandmother's boyfriend molests her, and when she eventually rejoins her parents in England, her own father rapes her. Despite these troubles, and her father's suicide, she eventually finds happiness. "This modern ending," in the words of Kirsten Holst Peterson in the Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, "rests on a new set of relationships formed on the basis of personal choice rather than on blind acceptance of the established pattern of race and family relationships." Peterson concluded that "there seems to be an implicit suggestion that this alternative mode of social organization might avoid a repeat of the experiences of the main character."
In 1994's Kehinde, the heroine is Kehinde Okolo, whom Emecheta's entry in Contemporary Black Biography described as "a thirty-five-year-old Londoner of Nigerian descent with a management position in international banking." She is happy and successful in England, but when her husband wishes to return home to his village in Nigeria, where his social status is greatly increased, she follows him. She has stayed in London to sell their home, however, and by the time she arrives in Nigeria, he has taken another wife who has provided him with children, and her own social status is greatly lowered. Emecheta takes the stand that even African men are better off in Western countries in her 2000 novel, The New Tribe. Chester, a boy of Nigerian descent, is adopted by a white British family, but as an adult travels to Nigeria to get in touch with his ethnic origins. There, he is "tricked out of his passport and his money," as Bruce King reported in World Literature Today, and becomes "disillusioned by the corruption, violence, filth, and unhealthy environment," which causes him to contract malaria. His black English girlfriend comes to rescue him and take him back to England, which he now "accepts . . . as home," in King's words.
"Emecheta has reaffirmed her dedication to be a full-time writer," said the Bruners. Her fiction is intensely autobiographical, drawing on the difficulties she has both witnessed and experienced as a woman, and most especially as a Nigerian woman. Indicating that in Nigeria, however, "Emecheta is a prophet without honor," Bray added that "she is frustrated at not being able to reach women—the audience she desires most. She feels a sense of isolation as she attempts to stake out the middle ground between the old and the new." Remarking that "in her art as well as in her life, Buchi Emecheta offers another alternative," Bray quoted the author: "What I am trying to do is get our profession back. Women are born storytellers. We keep the history. We are the true conservatives—we conserve things and we never forget. What I do is not clever or unusual. It is what my aunt and my grandmother did, and their mothers before them."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Allan, Tuzyline Jita, Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1995.
Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Black Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 14, 1980, Volume 28, 1984.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Fishburn, Katherine, Reading Buchi Emecheta: Cross-Cultural Conversations, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1995.
Umeh, Marie, Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 1995.
Zell, Hans M., and others, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, 2nd revised and expanded edition, Holmes & Meier, 1983.
African Literature Today, number 3, 1983.
Atlantic, May, 1976.
Black Scholar, November-December, 1985, Jewelle Gomez, review of Double Yoke, p. 51; March-April, 1986.
International Fiction Review, January, 2002, Teresa Derrickson, "Class, Culture, and the Colonial Context: The Status of Women in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood," pp. 40-52.
Library Journal, September 1, 1975; April 1, 1976; January 15, 1978; May 1, 1979; May 15, 1994, p. 98.
Listener, July 19, 1979.
Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1983; March 6, 1985; January 16, 1990.
Ms., January, 1976; July, 1984; March, 1985.
New Statesman, June 25, 1976; October 14, 1977; June 2, 1978; April 27, 1979.
New Yorker, May 17, 1976; January 9, 1978; July 2, 1979; April 23, 1984; April 22, 1985.
New York Times, February 23, 1985; June 2, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1975; November 11, 1979; January 27, 1980; February 27, 1983; May 5, 1985; April 29, 1990.
School Library Journal, September, 1994, p. 255.
Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 1972; January 31, 1975; June 11, 1976; February 26, 1982; February 3, 1984; February 27, 1987; April 20, 1990.
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1982.
Washington Post Book World, May 13, 1979; April 12, 1981; September 5, 1982; September 25, 1983; March 30, 1985.
World Literature Today, spring, 1977; summer, 1977; spring, 1978; winter, 1979; spring, 1980; winter, 1983; autumn, 1984; spring, 2001, Bruce King, review of The New Tribe, p. 310.*