Buchi Emecheta is to date the most important female African writer. The extent of her output and the centrality of her subject matter--the role of women in present-day Africa--have put her in this position. In her fiction she shows courage in challenging traditional male attitudes about gender roles; anger and iconoclastic contempt for unjust institutions, no matter how time-honored or revered they are; and a willingness to seek new ways to break what she sees as the unjust subjugation of women in the name of tradition.
Emecheta was born on 21 July 1944 in Yaba near Lagos, Nigeria, to Jeremy Nwabudike Emecheta (a railway worker and molder) and Alice Okwuekwu Emecheta, both Igbos. The young Emecheta was orphaned early on and educated at a missionary school until she was sixteen, when she married and moved to London. Her first two books, In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974), are heavily autobiographical. They describe her childhood in Lagos; her 1960 marriage to Sylvester Onwordi, a student to whom she had been betrothed since she was eleven; and their subsequent move to England. But the novels concentrate on her struggle to support and bring up her five children in London. (She and Onwordi separated in 1966.) In the Ditch begins at the point when she has left her husband and is living on her own with her children in a slum, supporting them by working in the library at the British Museum. The book is a collection of "observations" that Emecheta sent to the New Statesman, which published them and thereby effectively launched her writing career.
The story follows Emecheta's slightly fictionalized self, Adah, in her descent into the "Ditch," which is living on the dole on a council housing estate set aside for problem families. Despite the predictably negative framework of appalling conditions, the book hovers between acceptance and rejection of the slum world. Problem families are defined by officialdom as single parent and possibly colored families; the estate named Pussy Cat Mansions is very much a world of women. With as much dignity as they can salvage, they scratch around for whatever warmth life might offer. Adah feels both compassion for and solidarity with the women, but she cannot fully identify with them. Her pride is hurt by the charity she is reduced to accept, and she has an ambivalent attitude both toward the authorities and toward her fellow dwellers. She survives racial prejudice by reminding herself of her superior education, her current studies, and her former civil-service job. The emphasis is increasingly on the values of initiative and determination, with the help of which Adah eventually climbs out of the ditch.
Those qualities had been part of Adah from childhood. Second Class Citizen portrays the young Adah as an unusually determined little girl whose mind is firmly set on getting a Western education, from which she has been effectively barred because she was "only a girl." This sets a basic theme that runs through Emecheta's entire oeuvre: an intense anger at the sexual discrimination at the core of the culture of her people and a concomitant contempt for the men who perpetrate it. In England Adah is oppressed because of sex, race, and class, but the aspect she finds most difficult to overcome is the sexual discrimination, embedded in her marriage. She is the property of her husband, Francis, and he treats her as such. The injustice is spelled out: she supports them and is responsible for the children while he studies and keeps failing exams. The book narrows down to a battle between the spouses, centered on domestic issues vital to the survival and self-preservation of the woman: sex, motherhood, birth control, economic independence, and a sense of personal value. Through painful experience Adah works out her own solutions to the problems. Marital sex is increasingly felt as rape, and motherhood becomes the focus of her emotional attachment. The birth of each child alienates her further from her husband, but strengthens her ties with English society and its value system and hardens her determination to succeed. Her desire for birth control is seen by Francis as an attempt to steal rights of control over her body, which rightly belong to him, and she receives a severe beating. The final blow is when he burns the manuscript of a book she has written. When she finally leaves him, there is a strong sense of relief, and the move is seen as the result of increasing self-awareness and growing maturity on the part of Adah. She has moments of loneliness and longing for affection, but she emerges victorious, vindicated in her belief that success is a matter of willpower.
The autobiography in the first two novels is updated in Head Above Water (1986). It describes Emecheta's continued struggle to bring up her family as a single parent, gain a degree in sociology, find jobs, and continue to write. It ends with the achievement of two major goals, the purchase of a house of her own and her settling down to become a full-time writer. In between it explores social conditions in black London and sheds interesting light on Emecheta's development as a writer, as it describes her involvement with each of her novels as they emerge.
It comes as no surprise that the manuscript Francis burned in Second Class Citizen surfaces as Emecheta's 1976 book, The Bride Price . With this book, set in the early 1950s in Lagos and Ibuza, she departs from her own life story. Despite this radical shift in subject matter, The Bride Price is a logical development of her writing. She continues to explore the injustices of caste, one of her main concerns in the first two books, but the emphasis is somewhat different. Whereas in her autobiographical books Emecheta stresses the possibility of overcoming the restrictions of caste or castelike conditions through personal initiative, in The Bride Price and the following novels set in Nigeria she stresses the destructive potential of rigid caste structures, which persist in the otherwise rapidly changing Igbo society. Her main pre-occupation continues to be the role of women. Aku-nna, her name significantly meaning "father's wealth," is a young girl of thirteen when her father dies, and she is forced to move from Lagos with her mother and brother back to their village. Her desire to continue school is frowned upon but accepted, as educated girls fetch higher bride prices. Aku-nna is alienated from the village youth and falls in love with the school-teacher. He, however, is the victim of another caste structure: he is a descendant of slaves and thus not allowed to marry a freeborn. True love runs its course--they elope under dramatic circumstances, get married, and settle down to a good life, supported by the oil boom, education, and Western values, but tradition takes its revenge. The bride price is not paid, and according to tradition the bride must die in childbirth, which is what Aku-nna does. Emecheta's explanation for this hovers uneasily between either presenting it as a psychological effect of a strongly held belief--resulting in fear and fatalistic surrender--or using modern medical terminology. The book thus ends with the defeat of what is clearly portrayed as progressive forces, but this somewhat surprising defeat only helps to highlight the injustice of the situation.
In The Slave Girl (1977), published while Emecheta was a social worker in London, the situation is not only unjust, it is also completely rigid. Objeta is sold into slavery when her parents die in the 1916 influenza epidemic in eastern Nigeria. She becomes a domestic slave with no rights whatsoever. Much of the book is devoted to a description of this kind of slavery, which persisted long after slavery was outlawed, and this necessitates both historical and ethnographical explanations. The Slave Girl is therefore closer to the genre of "village novels" written by Chinua Achebe , T. M. Aluko , and others, but the ideological content is different. Domestic slavery is seen as part and parcel of the society, and it is described as unjust and cruel, but with certain ameliorating features: Objeta's move from the village to the thriving market town ushers her into the modern world, and as a slave she is among the first to be sent to the missionaries to become a Christian and learn to read and write. This is a reversal of the usual pattern of "village novels." "From tradition to church" is seen in The Slave Girl as a positive move, not a destructive one. Objeta eventually marries an educated man, who sets her free by repaying her former owner the eight pounds originally paid for her. She is now free--to belong to him. The parallel between domestic slavery and marriage is made very explicit: "Slave, obey your master, wife, honour your husband." As a wife Objeta has no more power over her person than she did as a slave. She has simply, as the last line of the novel states, changed masters. Progress has eliminated one caste structure but kept another.
The theme of the slavelike conditions of marriage for a woman is further developed in The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Emecheta's most accomplished book so far. It is set in a period in the history of Nigeria (from the 1930s to just before independence) during which time enormous political and economic changes took place, but the Igbo immigrant society in Lagos, the focus of the book, refuses to make any allowances for change; as the men experience defeat and humiliation in the new society, they cling even more tenaciously to the power they have over the women and children within their group. The final sufferers become the women who, like the protagonist, Nnu Ego, are caught between economic necessity on the one hand and cultural taboos and aspirations on the other. Nnu Ego struggles hard against appalling poverty and a cruel and irresponsible husband to reach her objective, which is to give her sons an education and to marry off her daughters, so their bride price can help toward the boys' school fees. She reaches her goal but dies a lonely and disillusioned woman. The moral is obvious: by clinging to her traditional role as wife, or first wife, after her husband inherits a second wife from his deceased brother, she is destroyed and in turn tries to destroy her daughters' chances for a happier life. In contrast, her co-wife, Adaku, leaves the home and becomes a prostitute in order to be able to give her daughters an education, denied to them within the traditional family structure. She has Emecheta's blessing, and the novel is a testimony to its author's growing radicalization and willingness to consider unorthodox means of change.
After an interlude of four pleasant children's books, Emecheta's authorship took a new turn with Destination Biafra (1982). Since the subject matter is war, the imaginative backdrop of the book is on a larger scale than the previous, mainly domestic settings, and Emecheta widens her scope as she tries to include army movements, war atrocities, and political deliberations and deceptions. The result is a mixed bag. With regard to plot, the novel follows the buildup and the actual events of the Nigerian Civil War so closely that it is easy to identify all the main agents, despite their fictional names. Into this framework is inserted the story of Debbie, the English-educated daughter of a rich Nigerian businessman who was killed when the civilian government was overthrown in 1966. Debbie chooses to join the Federal army not because she is blood-thirsty but as yet another unorthodox way of breaking out of the female role of passive suffering. The burden of the book, however, is to sort out the confusing ideologies of the war. In this it does not quite succeed. In the foreword Emecheta states, "Yet it is time to forgive, though only a fool will forget." The ambiguity of this statement permeates the novel. Debbie is "a neutral Itsekiri woman" with personal ties to leaders on both sides of the war. She seems both to believe in a united Nigeria and in the ideals for which Biafra stands. There are, however, some clear ideological goals: one is to criticize the role of the British in the war and another is to bring to the world's attention the plight of the Nigerian Midwest, which is Emecheta's homeland. The area was successively occupied by Biafran and Nigerian troops, and both sides carried out widespread killings of civilians. It is the description of this somewhat neglected aspect of the war that is the most convincing part of the book.
With her next novel Emecheta returned to a smaller and more familiar setting. Double Yoke (1983), a campus novel, confronts directly the prejudices surrounding the educated woman in Nigeria. (Emecheta was a visiting professor at the University of Calabar from 1980 to 1981.) The story is an attack on Nigerian men. Nko, the heroine, sets out with the aim of being "an academician and a quiet, nice and obedient wife." The latter part of her wish is also what her boyfriend wants, but as a result of her experiences Nko changes her mind. After having faced her boyfriend's scorn because she has allowed him to make love to her, and after having been forced into a choice of prostituting herself to her professor or not getting her degree, some of the obedience has worn off. At the conclusion of the novel, she is pregnant by the professor, but her boyfriend is considering accepting her, "growing up," as Emecheta mercilessly suggests. Independence for women in Nigeria, according to this novel, has to be a leap, with much burning of bridges, and the relationship between the sexes resembles most of all a war.
After lecturing at various universities in the United States, England, and Nigeria from 1972 through 1982, Emecheta began to run the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company, which has branches in London and Ibuza, Nigeria. Double Yoke and her next book carry that imprint.
The Rape of Shavi (1983) represents yet another new departure in her writing. It is an allegory about the relationship between Europe and Africa. The plot begins in an unknown place, set sometime in the future after a rumored nuclear holocaust, but in the course of the book the story moves into the present time, with known localities, and it is also a summing-up of the history of the European conquest of Africa. A small group of Englishmen flee the threat of a nuclear war in a homemade airplane and crash in an unknown spot in the middle of a desert, where they are surprised to find a thriving community of cattle-rearing desert people. Shavian society has had no contact with the West, and the Shavians live a prelapsarian life of peace, justice, dignity, and hospitality; the latter becomes their downfall. They take in the refugee group and with it the contradictions, greed, and destructiveness of Western civilization. One of the refugees rapes the prince's future bride, and the newcomers discover diamond-like stones. When they have repaired their plane, they take the stones and the Shavian prince with them back to England. This ends the Shavian time of innocence. The prince returns with guns and knowledge, and he starts plundering neighboring desert communities. But the whites suddenly do not need the stones anymore, and the Shavians then starve. Their society is devastated by war, drought, and famine, and the surviving heir-apparent is faced with the task of picking up the tattered ends. The idealization of precontact African society is a countercurrent in Emecheta's writing. In her previous books the emphasis is on the negative aspects of traditional African (Igbo) culture (especially gender roles and slavery), and Britain, despite its racism, is seen as offering the freedom of social mobility through individual initiative and effort. The Rape of Shavi cannot be said to moderate this view, as it is in too sharp a contrast to it. Emecheta seems to be searching for the best values in the worldviews of her two civilizations, and as they appear stubbornly incompatible, she lands, so to speak, between them.
With her next novel, Gwendolen (1989), Emecheta returns to the London black-immigrant milieu that she knows so well, but for the first time the main character is not a Nigerian but a West Indian. The theme is incest, and although this is new in Emecheta's work, it lends itself to the well-known scenario of girls and women oppressed by men and fighting for self-respect. The book starts off in Jamaica. Gwendolen is left behind with Granny, as first her father and later her mother leave for the "Moder Kontry" and settle in London. While in Granny's care, Gwendolen is sexually assaulted by Uncle Johnny, who misuses his position as old family friend. The village blames Gwendolen, but luckily her family sends for her, and she goes to London. Her arrival in London gives Emecheta the opportunity to describe immigrant slum conditions through eyes that are innocent of the social meaning of such observations. Gwendolen's family is at the bottom of the social scale, illiterate and unable to cope with the complexities of British society, but they are surviving and gaining pleasure and support from a primitive church community. Granny dies and Mother goes back to Jamaica; during her absence the father starts an incestuous relationship with Gwendolen, who is sixteen. She becomes pregnant, but she also meets a white boy and starts a sexual relationship with him. The outcome of all this is optimistic if slightly confusing. The father commits suicide; the mother is partially reconciled with her daughter. Gwendolen lives with the baby in a council flat and is happy, and the boyfriend remains a friend, despite the shame of the paternity of the baby. This modern ending 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. 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.
Despite variations and contradictions in Emecheta's work, critics--both approving and disapproving--tend to be drawn to her novels for their ideological content. Her criticism of aspects of African cultural tradition invites the charge of being a traitor to her culture, and her feminism, though mild in Western eyes (she refuses to be called a feminist), has enraged some male African critics to a vitriolic attack on her books, which they claim misrepresent Igbo society. Some of that criticism makes one suspect that her books are, indeed, of vital importance. She insists on education and middle-class values as means of female emancipation, and she has summed up her philosophy in an interview in West Africa: "I believe in the power of the Will, with the help of that man upstairs, of course, but one can always achieve one's goal, if one is determined enough." As a role model for other women she is important, and, despite certain stylistic limitations, she represents a new and vigorous departure in fiction about women in and from Africa.
Petersen, Kirsten Holst. "(Florence) (Onye) Buchi Emecheta." Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: First Series, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 117.