Biography of Buchi Emecheta by Alphonce Baraza

Life

Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Yaba near Lagos, Nigeria, to Igbo parents, Jeremy Nwabundinke and Alice Okuekwuhe Emecheta. Her parents were from Umuezeokolo Odeanta village in Ibusa, Delta State. [1] Due to the gender bias in her community, Emecheta was kept at home as a child while her younger brother went to school. Although not having gone to school immediately like her brother, Emecheta’s childhood was filled with the stories of her people and culture, told to her by her grandmother. These stories instilled in Emecheta a desire to write her own stories as well as the ones her grandmother told. Thus Emecheta quickly became interested in going to school, and after finally persuading her parents to consider the benefits of her education, Emecheta was granted her wish and began her schooling at Ladilak School and later Reagan Memorial Baptist, an all-girls school. At the age of nine, her father passed away due to complications brought on by a wound he contracted in the swamps of Burma. He had been enlisted for Lord Louis Mountbatten to fight for the British in Burma [2].

After her father’s death, Emecheta’s mother could no longer support her, and the family was separated. Emecheta was sent to live with her mother’s cousin in Lagos while her younger brother went to live with her father’s brother. According to the cultural custom, Emecheta’s mother was remarried to her husband’s brother. A year later, Emecheta won a scholarship to Methodist Girls’ High school which she attended until she was 16. Emecheta hoped to go on to the University of Ibadan, but that dream was thwarted when she was married off to Sylvester Onwordi to whom she had been betrothed at the age of 11. Together they had four children. Her husband then went to study at London University. Emecheta stayed in Lagos and worked at the American Embassy for two years to support her children while her husband was away. In 1962, she and her children moved to London to join her husband, their father. Together in London they had their fifth child. The names of Emecheta’s children are – Chiedu, Ikechukwu, chukuemeka, Obiajulu, and Chiago.

While in London, she worked as a librarian at the British Museum. Surrounded by books and having had the dream of becoming a writer since childhood, Emecheta began to write in her spare time. However, her husband was suspicious of her writing. When she finally completed her first manuscript, he burned it. After already having a marriage filled with moments of unhappiness and even occasional violence, Emecheta’s husband’s destruction of her manuscript finally led to their separation. After separating, Emecheta continued to work at the library to support her children. In the meantime, she attended classes at the University of London, eventually earning an honors degree in sociology in 1974. Despite the emotional strains, social pressures, and financial difficulties of being an African woman and a single parent in Great Britain, she graduated with her BA Honours. Emecheta speaks openly about the hardships she faced in her autobiography Head Above, stating, “As for my survival for the past twenty years in England, from when I was a little over twenty, dragging four cold and dripping babies with me and pregnant with a fifth one – that is a miracle” [3] (Emecheta 2013,5).

Once her novels began attracting global attention, she began lecturing in U.S. universities such as Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, Yale University, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1980 to 1981, she was senior resident fellow and visiting professor of English at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. From 1982 to 1983 she and her son, Sylvester, started and ran their own publishing company, Ogwugwu Afor, publishing her own work under the company’s name, the first being a novel titled Double Yoke (1982) [4]

Tragically in 2010, Emecheta suffered a stroke.  She passed away at her home in London on January 25, 2017.

Emecheta’s life experiences reflected in her writings are a platform for voicing her desire to achieve human rights for African women.

Writings

Her writings have been said to show her as an author who portrays herself through several identities that coincide with one another. Some of the lenses she presents include single African woman, sociologist pulling from urban African ways of life, narrator of African myths that clash with modern society, and the remembrance of enslaved Africans. These lenses suggest that Emecheta’s novels remain grounded in stories from her personal life as well as cultural facts. Her work accurately reflects Igbo society’s attitudes about the necessity of motherhood as well as the double standards for men and women. Emecheta’s most important lens that most people never see, is her identity as a feminist. She doesn’t consider herself a feminist, saying, “I work toward the liberation of women but I’m not feminist. I’m just a woman” [5]. She considers herself simply a story teller. Emecheta explains, “Apart from telling stories, I don’t have a particular mission. I like to tell the world our part of the story while using women’s voices.” [6] Emecheta’s purpose for writing is to inform her audiences about African lifestyle, and the gender discrimination that not only she faced, but that all African women faced and still face to this day in African society.

Throughout her life, Emecheta was subject to gender discrimination and female objectification. She was kept from attending school simply because she was a girl, betrothed as a child, and eventually married to a man who did not respect her – leaving her to find her strength and independence as a single mother and African woman overseas in an unwelcoming society. In most African cultures, women are viewed as the property of their husbands. They do not have a say. Having experienced this herself, Emecheta took it upon herself to speak against it. Despite the obstacles, writing provided a way for her to rise above these gender injustices and expose the truth of the world she was living in. Emecheta’s writing was not only a way for her to send a message to society but also was a way for her to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming an author.

Emecheta highlights retrogressive Igbo cultural norms that prevented women from participation in a wide range of activities said to be the preserve of men. She speaks out against the subjugation of Igbo women in the quest for social change. She talks about her personal experiences ever since she was a little girl. Emecheta published 16 adult novels as well as four children’s books, numerous articles, and produced televised plays. Each of her novels is based on her life experiences.

Her first novel, In the Ditch, published in 1972, is semi-autobiographical. It first appeared as a series of episodes, published in The New Statesman. This novel follows Emecheta’s own descent into the “ditch” of welfare living and enforced dysfunctionality. It chronicles Adah’s (the protagonist’s) struggle to maintain her pride and dignity as a welfare recipient as well as her keen desire for independence for herself and her children. [7]

Her second novel, Second Class Citizen, published 1974, is the sequel to In the Ditch. It showcases a fictionalized portrait of a poor young Nigerian woman struggling to bring up her children in London – thus it echoes the challenges Emecheta herself faced when raising her children. The young woman in the story classifies herself as a second citizen in Nigeria when her parents initially refuse to take her to school and arrange her marriage instead. When the woman goes to London to raise her family, she realizes she is equally a second citizen in England because she is a black African.

The Bride Price, published in 1976 and The Slave Girl, published in 1977, both focus on the role of women in Nigerian society. Later The Joys of Motherhood, published in 1979 depicts an account of women’s experiences bringing up children in the face of changing values in traditional Igbo society. All three novels reveal the honest struggles that Nigerian and Igbo women face both culturally and societally.  Her powerful storytelling in The Slave Girl won her the New Statesman Jock Campbell Award.

Emecheta’s other novels include Destination Biafra, published in 1982; The Rape of Shavi published in 1983, Gwendolen, published 1989 (was published in the US as The Family); Kehinde, published in 1994 and The New Tribe, published in 2000. Destination Biafra is set in the background of Civil War in Nigeria (sometimes called the Biafran War) while The Rape of Shavi is the account of European colonization of African countries. Gwendolen is the story of a young West Indian girl who lives in London. Kehinde depicts the story of a Nigerian wife and mother who comes back to Nigeria after living in London for many years. In the novel The New Tribe, Emecheta highlights the importance of cultural identity and difference, cultural assimilation, responsibility and proper parenting.

Emecheta’s children’s novels include Nowhere to Play, published in 1980; The Moonlight Bride, published in 1980; Titch the Cat, published in 1979; The Wrestling Match, published in 1981. She also wrote plays which include, Juju Landlord (1975), A Kind of Marriage (1976), Family Bargain (1987). Juju Landlord and A Kind of Marriage, performed at the London theatre also shine a light on the inequalities African women face in their day-to-day lives.

Emecheta also authored several influential articles such as: The Black Scholar, November-December, P.51;  “Feminism with a small ‘f’!” in Kristen H. Petersen(ed.), Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers Conference Stockholm 1988, Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988, pp. 173-181; Essence Magazine, August 1990, p.50; New York Times Book Review, 29 April 1990; Publishers Weekly, 16 February 1990, p. 73; World Literature Today, 1994, p. 867

Resistance

Emecheta translated her real life experiences into narrative novels to use these stories as a platform to expose the hardships African women face in their everyday lives, as well as advocate for the rights of African women in Igbo, Nigeria, and ultimately all of Africa.

In each of her writings, Emecheta laments as well as protests the oppression, powerlessness, and voiceless aspects of life that manifest and dictate the lives of women. In The Joys of Motherhood, her magnum opus, Emecheta breaks away from the common portraiture in African writing that narrates a dominantly patriarchal way of life and instead focuses on a matriarchal approach to African life where motherhood is depicted as honorific and central to African societies, communities, and families. According to the protagonist, Nnu Ego, “the joy of being a mother is the joy of giving all to you children” (Emecheta, 1979, 219). Even though the main theme for this novel is that motherhood ultimately leads to and brings ambiguous joy, Emecheta paves a far different path for her protagonist, Nnu Ego, and she shows us two sides to what it takes to be an African mother. Rather than being self-fulfilling and life-giving, Emecheta shows that motherhood and the responsibilities it creates in African communities can turn into a form of enslavement. For example, for Nnu Ego, her life, hope, and identity depend on her ability to bear children. In the eyes of the community, she has no other primary function and no other means of achieving status and respect other than through this motherhood. As an Igbo mother, Nnu Ego is expected to arm her sons for the future at the expense of her daughters. Emecheta shows her readers that Igbo society views girls as having little worth, valuable only for the bride price they will one day fetch when their marriage is arranged. Nnu Ego anticipates and longs for the day when women in her culture will be of prime importance, rather than simply being vehicles that serve and aid men and children at women’s expense. She hopes that women can achieve a life of satisfaction and self-fulfillment. [8] In this novel, Emecheta believes that women deserve to be liberated from the traditional shackles of having to be mothers who are forced and expected to raise their children a certain way according to specific cultural standards, and have to be servants to their husbands.

Continuing her theme of female oppression, Double Yoke illustrates the tragic limitations of Nigerian women in pursuit of academic excellence. The novel, set on the campus of a Nigerian University, tells the story of two female undergraduates who must confront the conflicting demands of tradition vs. modern and progressive society. One of the protagonists, Niko, ends up overcoming these contrasting demands and pursues her education despite the resistance from those who feel a woman’s role and identity is subsumed in traditional marriage. By describing the sexual and cultural politics of Nigerian society, Emecheta once again advocates against female subjugation in Igbo society and champions women’s liberation.

The female students, heroes, and courageous individuals in her novels do not simply lie down and submit to the cultural “norms” and tradition-based confines of their societies. Instead, her characters resist and challenge their predetermined fate, attempting to negotiate for a peace to exist between what they believe and their accepted traditions.

Even though Emecheta’s works are a cry for the rights for African women, these agitations expressed in her writings, aim to improve the quality of life between men and women and their communities. She also writes to proclaim hope for growth and the realization of equality between African woman and men. Emecheta shows her audiences her vision of an Africa where women and men share cultural and societal roles in common and in harmony; an Africa where neither men – nor women, especially - are enslaved by one another.

Emecheta’s hope for this vision to become a reality is the reason she turned her own life stories, and the traditional stories told by her grandmother, into books. She was able to use her voice to elevate and expose the lives of African women, and advocate for freedom of women from cultural and traditional oppression.  Buchi Emecheta inspires women and men to coexist with one another: she encourages men to respect and understand the role of women in the society and encourages women to fight for their freedom, using herself as an example.

This article forms part of the South African History Online and Principia College Partnership Project

Endnotes

[1] Parekh, Pushpa N., and Jagne, Siga F.. 1998. Postcolonial African Writers : A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated. Accessed November 14, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central

[2] Onwordi, Sylvester, "Remembering my mother Buchi Emecheta, 1944–2017", New Statesman, 31 January 2017

[3]Emecheta, Buchi, Head Above Water, p. 5, quoted in Stephen Jantuah Boakye, "Suspense Strategies in Buchi Emecheta’s Head Above Water", Language in India, Vol. 13:4 April 2013. ISSN 1930-2940.

[4] "Buchi Emecheta, pioneering Nigerian novelist, dies aged 72". The Guardian. 26 January 2017. Retrieved 28 January 2017.

[[5] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38757048

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/10/books/buchi-emecheta-dead-nigerian-novelist.html

[7]

[8] Emcheta, B. The Joys of Motherhood. Oxford, England : Heinemann International, 1994 ©1988. Print.


References:
• Emecheta, Buchi. Head above Water. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1986.
•  The Joys of Motherhood. New York: G. Braziller, 1979.
•  Grims, William. "Buchi Emecheta, Nigerian Novelist, Is Dead at 72." New York Times, February 13, 2017, sec. B. Accessed November 20, 2017. http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/.
•  Makuchi, Nfah-Abbenyi Juliana. Gender In African Women's Writing: Identity, Sexuality, And Difference. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997.
•  Parekh, Pushpa Naidu, and Siga Fatima Jagne. Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
•  Paul, Barnes. "Magil's Survey of Long Fiction." Buchi Emecheta, 2009, 1-6. Literary Reference Center.
•  Topping, Bazin Nancy. "FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES IN AFRICAN FICTION: BESSIE HEAD AND BUCHI EMECHETA." The Black Scholar 17, no. 2 (1986): 34-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41067258.
•  Uba, Josfyn. "Women in Development: Buchi Emecheta." The Sun: Voice of the Nation (Nigeria), September 10, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2017. http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/.