Emecheta, Buchi 1944–
Buchi Emecheta 1944–
Nigerian-born novelist Buchi Emecheta was considered one of her country’s most distinguished literary names, though she moved to England in the early 1960s. Emecheta’s novels draw heavily upon Nigerian beliefs and post-colonial culture and often portray the clash that occurs when the modern world encroaches upon indigenous African value systems. Many of her works are autobiographical in nature, feminist in spirit, and portray a place in which the cruelties of European colonization endure for generations. Emecheta described her novels as “stories of the world,” but from a female perspective, as she told Essence writer Elsie B. Washington “These women face the universal problems of poverty and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical.”
Emecheta was born in 1944 in Yaba, near the large city of Lagos, and was of Ibo heritage. The Ibo are one of Nigeria’s main ethnic groups; they, the Hausa, and Yoruba groups created highly developed city-states and even empires before the Europeans arrived to conduct a thriving slave trade in the fifteenth century. Nigeria was under British rule from 1906 until 1960. As with her future fictional characters, the destiny of Emecheta’s parents was shaped by this colonial economy: both were educated by missionaries and joined the Church Missionary Society and moved to the city to find work. Though her father worked for the railway, the spiritual home of the family remained the village of Ibuza, and as a young girl Emecheta traveled back there often—“during the rains, to help on the farm and to learn our ways,” she recalled in a paper delivered before the Second African Writers Conference and published in 1988’s Criticism and Ideology. Her parents were determined to instill a degree of traditional Ibo values in her, she noted. “If I lived in Lagos I could start to have loose morals and speak Yoruba all the time.”
Emecheta was close to her aunt, who was the oldest woman in the family, and in Ibo culture such females hold a place of respect as “Big Mother.” During Emecheta’s childhood, her Big Mother, quite old and nearly blind, told fantastic stories of the family’s Ibo ancestors. “We would sit for hours at her feet mesmerized by her trance-like voice,” Emecheta recalled in Criticism and Ideology. “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.”
In 1962, when she was just eighteen, Emecheta moved to London with her new husband. Though her English language skills were still lacking, she was determined to improve them and begin writing. The birth of five children kept her from pursuing that goal for a time, and her husband’s lack of ambition forced her to work outside the home. She found a job in the library of the British Museum in 1965 and later became a youth worker with London Education Authority. In her spare time, Emecheta wrote, but her husband resented her
At a Glance…
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. Religion: Anglican.
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: 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.
Addresses: 7 Briston Grove, Crouch End, London N8 9EX, England.
literary aims, and he burned her first manuscript. By 1966, her marriage had disintegrated and she realized that writing might provide a more stable income for her and her children. “I thought I would wait to be as old as Big Mother with a string of degrees before writing,” she noted in Criticism and Ideology. “But I had to earn my living and the only thing I could do was write.” She enrolled at the University of London, earned a degree in sociology, and began writing a column about the African/London experience for the New Statesman in 1972. Her essays about the culture shock she experienced, her failing marriage, racism in London, and her struggles as a working mother of five and were collected into her first book, In the Ditch.
Emecheta’s first novel was Second-Class Citizen, published in 1974. Here she drew from an earlier period in her life, when her husband was in graduate school but indifferent to his studies and abusive toward her. The Bride Price, her second published novel, was actually written in the 1960s. The first of her works to be set in Nigeria, it centers upon a young woman struggling with the cultural traditions that restrict her life in a most cruel way: her father dies when she is thirteen, and her uncle literally inherits her. She is allowed to continue her education but only because it will increase her “bride price,” the sum her uncle will receive for contracting her marriage. She falls in love with a teacher, a man from a less exalted family, and elopes with him. A Nigerian superstition warns that such a woman will die in childbirth, and the heroine fulfills this prophecy at the close of The Bride Price.
Emecheta lived in Camden, New Jersey, for a time and supported herself as a community worker there in the mid-1970s. She continued to write, and her works from this period include Slave Girl and The Joys of Motherhood. This latter work, published in 1979 with a title designed to convey irony, is typical of Emecheta’s fiction. Young Nnu Ego, from the village of Ibuza, returns to her family home in shame when she does not conceive a child as a new bride. Her father then sends her away to marry a man in Lagos, named Nnaife, and Nnu Ego detests him at first sight. Nnaife has a lowly job as a laundry worker for a white family, and Nnu Ego views him with a contempt she extends to Nigerian men in general. “Men here are too busy being white men’s servants to be men,” she thinks. Nnu Ego becomes pregnant but at first gives birth only to girls considered valueless offspring in Nigerian culture. Finally, she has a son, but he dies before he is a month old, and Nnu Ego descends into grief over him and her situation. She tries to kill herself, and a crowd gathers near the bridge to watch—“a thing like that is not permitted in Nigeria, you are simply not allowed to commit suicide in peace,” the novel states, “because everyone is responsible for the other person.”
More prosperous times eventually arrive for Nnu Ego and her eight children, especially when her husband finds a better job, but when her brother-in-law dies, Nnaife inherits his four wives, and one comes to live with his and Nnu Ego’s family. Tensions in the household increase, and here Emecheta shows the ways in which Nigerian traditions clash with the realities of modern life. A man like Nnaife cannot earn enough in a city to support such customs, but in Ibuza such a polygamous lifestyle is possible, for each wife has her own small household. In the end, their family falls apart, and the imposition of Western ways and a foreign economic system destroys Ibo traditions that once ensured stability and continuity. Male children, for instance, are expected to care for elderly parents, but Nnu Ego’s sons will not do so for her. Educated in British schools, one emigrates to Canada, while the other rejects his Ibo heritage and fully adopts the European belief in economic self-sufficiency. Nnu Ego dies by the road side, alone. “She died quietly there, with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her,” the novel concludes.
Emecheta, though a committed feminist, does not view polygamy as a negative system. “In many cases polygamy can be liberating to the woman, rather than inhibiting her, especially if she is educated,” she told the audience assembled at the Second African Writers Conference. “The husband has no reason for stopping her from attending international conferences like this one, from going back to university and updating her career or even getting another degree. Polygamy encourages her to value herself as a person and look outside her family for friends.”
Another work that added to Emecheta’s literary reputation was 1982’s Double Yoke, the story of two young Nigerians who meet while university students. Ete Kamba and Nko are eager to experience life away from their families for the first time, and fall in love. They engage in premarital relations, but Ete Kamba is more conservative than Nko and comes to resent her assertive mind and desire for independence. They separate, and then her professor attempts to seduce her. “The novel is both comic and tragic in its depiction of Nko’s and Ete Kamba’s youthful, emotional extravagances and the campus response to their transgressions,” noted Jewelle Gomez in a Black Scholar review of Double Yoke, “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.”
Emecheta’s novels have earned critical accolades from the literary establishment. “Emecheta is no ideologue,” remarked New York Times Book Review critic Reginald McKnight, “her characters do not utter or think words that would not come from them; they are not mere representatives of larger social movements but real, complex human beings, shaped by the vicissitudes of class, culture and sexual politics. She raises the right questions, but never harangues. She writes with subtlety, power and abundant compassion.”
Other novels from Emecheta include Adah’s Story, The Moonlight Bride, and The Family. In The Rape of Shavi, first published in 1983, a plane crash in rural Africa is welcomed by tribespeople there, but the foreigners steal some valuable minerals and repair their plane just before the local chief forces them to wed; his heir stows away on the plane with the Britons. Emecheta also wrote an autobiography, Head above Water, and a 1990 novel that delves into the colonial experience in the Caribbean. The title character in Gwendolen is just eight years old when the novel opens and lives in Granville, Jamaica. Gwendolen remains with family members when her parents emigrate to England—referred to as “Molder Kontry”—but is traumatized when her grandmother’s boyfriend sexually assaults her. Eventually she joins her parents in London, and her father also abuses her. The work, written in Jamaican patois, also chronicles her deep humiliation at school because of her language skills. McKnight, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it a “rich, complex and fast-moving novel.”
Emecheta’s 1994 novel, Kehinde, depicts the ongoing conflict for Africans living abroad. Kehinde Okolo is a 35-year-old Londoner of Nigerian descent with a management position in international banking. She is also married with two children, but her husband’s small business does not satisfy him, and he wishes to return home. In his village, he is likely to become chief, and in the end, Kehinde agrees to the plan but stays in London for a time to sell their home. When she arrives in Nigeria, she finds that her husband has taken another wife, with whom he now has two new children. In the village, Kehinde has no status her position in the family is eclipsed by her husband’s sisters and finds herself increasingly troubled by circumstances that surrounded her birth. She was a twin, but the other was stillborn, and their mother died in childbirth; Kehinde suffers from the belief that she was responsible.
Emecheta returned to Nigeria frequently and to her family in Ibuza. In addition to pursuing her creative work, she held numerous academic posts including stints at Yale and London universities. For a time in the early 1980s she ran a publishing company called Ogwugwu Afor; as of 1979 she was a member of the Britain’s Advisory Council on Race. “I am simply doing what my Big Mother was doing for free about thirty years ago,” she said of her career as a novelist in the Criticism and Ideology paper. “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 Woolworth’s in London.”
In the Ditch, Barrie & Jenkins, 1972.
Second-Class Citizen (novel), Allison & Busby, 1974, Braziller, 1975.
The Bride Price: A Novel (paperback published as The Bride Price: Young Ibo Girl’s Love; Conflict of Family and Tradition), Braziller, 1976.
The Slave Girl: A Novel, Braziller, 1977.
The Joys of Motherhood: A Novel, Braziller, 1979.
Titch the Cat (for children; based on story by daughter, Alice Emecheta), Allison & Busby, 1979.
Nowhere to Play (for children; based on story by daughter, Christy Emecheta), Schocken, 1980.
The Moonlight Bride (for children), Oxford University Press in association with University Press, 1981.
The Wrestling Match (for children), Oxford University Press in association with University Press, 1981, Braziller, 1983.
Destination Biafra: A Novel, Schocken, 1982.
Naira Power (novelette directed principally to Nigerian readers), Macmillan (London), 1982.
Double Yoke (novel), Schocken, 1982.
The Rape of Shavi (novel), Ogwugwu Afor, 1983, Braziller, 1985.
Adah’s Story: A Novel, Allison & Busby, 1983.
The Moonlight Bride, G. Braziller, 1983.
Head above Water (autobiography), Ogwugwu Afor, 1984, Collins, 1986, Heinemann, 1994.
A Kind of Marriage (novelette), Macmillan, 1987.
The Family (novel), Braziller, 1990.
Gwendolen (novel), Collins, 1990.
Kehinde, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1994.
“Mother Africa: African Women and the Land in West African Literature,” African Horizons: The Landscapes of African Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 35-54.
Petersen, Kirsten Hoist, ed. Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers’ Conference, 1988.
Black Scholar, November-December, 1985, p. 51.
Essence, August, 1990, p. 50.
New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1990.
Publishers Weekly, February 16, 1990, p. 73; February 7, 1994, p. 84.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1994, p. 867.
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Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Buchi Emecheta (bōō´chē āməchā´tə), 1944–, Nigerian novelist, b. Lagos as Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta. In 1962 she accompanied her husband to England, where she had five children. After leaving her husband, she remained in England and wrote novels about the struggles of African women moving from traditional to modern roles in societies where men have little respect for them. Her first two novels, drawn from her own experiences, In the Ditch (1972) and Second Class Citizen (1974), were published together as Adah's Story (1983). Other novels are set in Nigeria and are highly critical of the treatment of African women. These include The Bride Price (1976), the ironically titled Joys of Motherhood (1979), The Family (1990), and Kehinde (1994). She also writes children's stories.
See her autobiography Head above Water (1986); studies by M. Umeh, ed. (1994), K. Fishburn (1995), and J. F. Uraizee (1999).
"Emecheta, Buchi." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/emecheta-buchi
"Emecheta, Buchi." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/emecheta-buchi
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Emecheta, (Florence Onye) Buchi
EMECHETA, (Florence Onye) Buchi
Nationality: British. Born: Lagos, Nigeria, 21 July 1944. Education: Methodist Girls' High School, Lagos; University of London, B.Sc. (honors) in sociology 1972. Family: Married Sylvester Onwordi in 1960 (separated 1969); two sons and three daughters. Career: Librarian, 1960-64; library officer, British Museum, London, 1965-69; youth worker and resident student, Race, 1974-76; community worker, Camden Council, London, 1976-78; visiting lecturer at 11 universities in the United States, 1979; senior research fellow and visiting professor of English, University of Calabar, Nigeria, 1980-81; lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1982. Since 1982, lecturer, University of London. Proprietor, Ogwugwu Afo Publishing Company, London; since 1979, member of the Home Secretary's Advisory Council on Race. Address: 7 Briston Grove, London N8 9EX, England.
In the Ditch. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1972.
Second-Class Citizen. London, Allison and Busby, 1974; New York, Braziller, 1975.
The Bride Price. London, Allison and Busby, and New York, Braziller, 1976.
The Slave Girl. London, Allison and Busby, and New York, Braziller, 1977.
The Joys of Motherhood. London, Allison and Busby, and New York, Braziller, 1979.
Destination Biafra. London, Allison and Busby, 1982.
Double Yoke. London, Ogwugwu Afo, 1982; New York, Braziller, 1983.
Adah's Story. London, Allison and Busby, 1983.
The Rape of Shavi. London, Ogwugwu Afo, 1983; New York, Braziller, 1985.
A Kind of Marriage. London, Macmillan, 1986.
Gwendolen. London, Collins, 1989; as The Family, New York, Braziller, 1990.
Kehinde. Oxford, Heinemann, 1994.
Fiction (for children)
Titch the Cat. London, Allison and Busby, 1979.
Nowhere to Play. London, Allison and Busby, 1980.
The Moonlight Bride. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.
The Wrestling Match. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1981; NewYork, Braziller, 1983.
Naira Power. London, Macmillan, 1982.
A Kind of Marriage, 1976; The Ju Ju Landlord, 1976.
Our Own Freedom, photographs by Maggie Murray. London, Sheba, 1981.
Head above Water (autobiography). London, Ogwugwu Afo, 1986.*
Gender Voices and Choices: Redefining Women in Contemporary African Fiction by Gloria Chineze Chukukere. Enugu, Nigeria, Fourth Dimension, 1995; Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, edited by Marie Umeh. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1996; A Teacher's Guide to African Narratives by Sara Talis O'Brien. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1998; This Is No Place for a Woman: Nadine Gordimer, Nayantara Sahgal, Buchi Emecheta, and the Politics of Gender by Joya Uraizee. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.* * *
The title Second-Class Citizen which Buchi Emecheta chose for one of her most successful novels constitutes a very fair summary of the major theme which she explores. She always feels for the oppressed and presents their plight in a way that engages the reader's sympathy. From childhood on she observed life in Nigeria, and since her early twenties she has looked at the ways of the west through the skeptical, appraising eyes of a trained sociologist. And what she has seen, whether in Africa or England, has been a bleak picture of antagonisms and tyranny. There are flashes of humor and moments of happiness, but generally she depicts the scouring of human relationships by the desire of the powerful to dominate and exploit those who are weaker.
Married life she depicts as a battle of the sexes, and if some white males are shown in a bad light, that is nothing compared with the portrayal of the Nigerian men. Francis, in Second-Class Citizen, is a Nigerian immigrant in London whose thoughtlessness is the ruin of his more gifted wife; lazy, egotistical, and feckless, he compounds every problem that confronts the pair in their struggle to make ends meet, and his sexual demands and irresponsibility about parenthood leave Adah a physical wreck, distraught and without a penny in her pocket. In The Joys of Motherhood we become aware of the mordant irony of the title as the novel chronicles the misfortunes of Nnu Ego, a simple Nigerian girl who comes to Lagos to marry and suffers every kind of humiliation as her husband proves himself incapable of overcoming the admittedly difficult circumstances of his wretched existence. Her agony reaches its peak when, in accord with custom, he takes as his second wife the widow of his brother and thoroughly enjoys the tensions this naturally creates.
Tyranny and heartlessness outside the domestic sphere also rouse Emecheta's ire. For many young people in Nigeria education seems to offer a route towards self-fulfillment, but Double Yoke shows what the price can be when a young girl tries to cope with the rival claims of tradition and modernity within a system which fundamentally has little to offer that is really valid. The cynicism of the whole enterprise is revealed when the heroine realizes she must trade sexual favors with her professor if she is to gain the examination results she covets. Once she has qualifications she will perhaps be able, like Adah in Second-Class Citizen, to go to the United Kingdom and enjoy what it has to offer. In fact, as Second-Class Citizen and its grim predecessor, In the Ditch, show, London is a hostile world where racialism is rife and housing is squalid. There is the welfare state, of course, yet it operates in such a way that a talented and qualified young woman is gradually but inexorably pauperized and deskilled. Destination Biafra is a chilling account of a different sort of horror, the disastrous civil war that ripped Nigeria apart in the difficult times immediately after the withdrawal of the inadequate colonial powers. No atrocity is too cruel for men in brief authority, and though Emecheta has sympathy for everyone, it is natural that the women are shown as those who suffer the most.
Gwendolen changes the focus to some degree, presenting the plight of Caribbean immigrants in London primarily through the perspective of the difficulties that a young girl has in finding any sort of fulfillment as a child and teenager in a culture which means very little to her at any time. A perfect symbol of this failure of integration lies in the fact that even her own family finds pronouncing her rather highfalutin name impossibly difficult. Emecheta is far from ascribing all her heroine's ills to the failure of the citizens of her adopted country to take her to their heart, though there are some criticisms, especially of the education service, that strike home. Gwendolen's misfortunes had, however, already begun before she ever left Jamaica, and in London tensions within the immigrant community are shown to be particularly damaging. Beneath the psychological problems of immigrants there runs, moreover, the deep current of protest at the exploitation of women by men whose sexual demands are never diminished by any sense of their only too apparent personal inadequacies and general fecklessness.
Few will seek to deny that Emecheta has grounds for the complaints she makes about marital relationships in particular and about the interplay of social and political forces in general. Yet she loads the dice a little too much. The girls and women she takes as her heroines always possess something which places them above the ordinary run of those with whom they mix. Birth or superior intelligence makes them outstanding. But it also has the unfortunate consequence of making them atypical of the group they represent. There is, too, some idealization of rural society in Nigeria in former times. It certainly had merits, which colonial powers were stupid not to recognize, yet by concentrating on the more advantaged members of such communities Emecheta distorts the picture. The problem becomes most acute in The Rape of Shavi, a somewhat mannered allegorical tale of Europeans who are fleeing from an impending cataclysm, and who have the privilege of insight into an almost Utopian Africa.
For the most part, however, Emecheta's mode is realistic. Indeed, Kehinde tackles the problem of idealization head-on, as the title character moves with her husband Albert from London—where she has lived for 18 years—back to Lagos. There she is overwhelmed by the appalling conditions of life, not least her expected role as virtual servant to Albert's every whim. And though Destination Biafra contains some devastating pictures of the pretentiousness and luxurious lifestyle of upper-class Nigerians, Emecheta generally concerns herself with the straightforward portrayal of the underprivileged. There is some description of locales, with Nigerian names for plants, foodstuffs, and fabrics adding a dash of local color which sometimes contrasts, especially in the earlier novels, a little too obviously with literary allusions in a dated English tradition. Dialogue is invariably crisp, highlighting important turns in the narrative or enhancing characterization. Above all, Emecheta is a storyteller. The titles of her novels, like the chapter headings, are direct and explicit, helping the reader to see the way forward through narratives that have the power to convince as well as the capacity to arouse sympathy with the misfortunes depicted.
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