By Taiwo Okanlawon
One of the greatest storytellers, Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta would have been 75 today. The Search Engine Google is changing its logo to a doodle, or illustration, portraying her, to celebrate her posthumous birthday in the UK and Nigeria. This is her story.
Buchi Emecheta was the pioneering Nigerian author whose 20 novels mined her experience as a black single mother in Britain to produce work that inspired a generation of black British writers, has died at the age of 72.
The author of most acclaimed work, The Joys of Motherhood published in 1979, which as its protagonist a woman who defines herself through motherhood and validates her life solely through the successes of her children. She had many other works that encompass adult and children’s fiction, as well as plays, died in London on January 25 at the age of 72.
Born in Lagos in 1944, Emecheta moved to England in 1960 to live with her husband Sylvester Onwordi, who had moved there to study. The couple had been engaged since the age of 11, and whilst the marriage produced five children, Onwordi was a violent partner.
Her 1974 autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen described her unhappy and violent marriage, which included his burning manuscripts of her work. At the age of 22, Emecheta left her husband and worked to support herself and five children. During this time, she completed a sociology degree at the University of London and contributed a column to the New Statesman about black British life. The columns formed the basis of her 1972 book Into the Ditch.
Her novels draw heavily from her own life and address gender imbalance and enslavement, and how women are often defined through the narrow framework of sexuality or the ability to bear children.
Until 1978, she wrote while working as a community worker in Camden, north London, using her experience to inform her fiction. Her third novel, The Bride Price, was the first of many where she focused on the role of women in Nigerian society. In 1976, her first play, A Kind of Marriage, was widely praised when it was screened on BBC TV. Ten years later, she adapted the play into a novel, in the same year in which she published her autobiography Head Above Water.
All her tales had strong female lead characters struggling to free themselves from the shackles of patriarchal and colonial domination. Emecheta relentlessly excoriated the male-chauvinist notion that the main ambition of women should be to have children and stay at home as property of their husbands. She wrote in an uncompromising and unvarnished style, determined to give voice to the voiceless and to portray the bleak world to which African women were often consigned by societal hierarchies.
Emecheta’s most famous novel, The Joys of Motherhood, remains a Pan-African classic. Bathed in pathos and the unfulfilled dreams of the heroine, Nnu Ego, the book was an urban response to the pioneering Flora Nwapa’s Efuru published 13 years earlier. Nwapa’s novel was set in a village and portrayed a childless but independent woman who worships a similarly childless and independent water goddess. Both women, however, achieve fulfilment outside marriage and motherhood.
Emecheta borrows the title of her classic novel from a question in Efuru, responding to Nwapa’s question of why women worshipped the deity despite her never having achieved the “joy of motherhood.” In her novel, Emecheta demolishes this idea as a myth, based on her own largely joyless motherhood. Her novel is an ironic exposition of motherhood’s many humiliations and unfulfilled expectations, amidst the enormous unacknowledged sacrifices of Nnu Ego.
The heroine dies a lonely and tragic death, abandoned not only by friends but by her seven children. Ego’s lament is truly heart-wrenching: “God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled by herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?” Emecheta’s iconoclastic novel sought to shatter the stereotypical, one-dimensional ideal of the pure, heroic mother-figure often portrayed in the first-generation of African literature. The critic, Elleke Boehmer, noted that The Joys of Motherhood “exposes the overall emotional and spiritual barrenness an African woman…can experience, no matter how richly she is endowed with children.”
Emecheta was a pioneer, tackling patriarchy – based on her own personal experiences – even before an international women’s movement had arisen championing a new generation of social rights and equality in male-dominated societies. In that sense, she was like another pioneer, Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, the late Nobel peace prize laureate and environmental, gender, and human rights activist, who also left an abusive husband who was uncomfortable with her self-recognition. She was not afraid to express her discomfort with the alienating, western middle-class feminism that she found in Europe that did not speak directly to her own lived experiences. As she later noted: “If I am now a feminist, I am an African feminist.”
Her talent was recognised in 1983 when she appeared alongside Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis on the inaugural Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. In 2005, she was made an OBE for services to literature. She published her last novel The New Tribe in 2000 and continued to work as a publisher and writer. However, a stroke in 2010 halted her writing. In her later years, with her son Sylvester, Emecheta ran the publishing house Ogwugwu Afor, which published her work.
Busby said she had recognised in Emecheta’s work the experience of many black women in the UK who did not have the same “stamina and signal determination” to speak out. “When I first happened upon her writing in the early 1970s, I was in no doubt about the importance of making her personal experiences – transmuted into autobiographical literature â” known to the British society in which we both found ourselves,” Busby said.
Fellow African writers described Emecheta as an inspiration, not just for pioneering a route in to literature for other black women, but for tackling domestic abuse. “Her fictionalised life story showed women that they could survive and succeed through adversity and abuse and stand up for feminism – all without using those actual words,” said Kadija Sesay, friend and publisher of Sable LitMag. She said Emecheta was “a rock for women writers and single mothers in an unnassuming way … Buchi was warm, caring and humorous. We are going to miss her so much.”
Emecheta published 16 novels, an autobiography, Head Above Water (1984), three children’s books, and three plays. She won the Jock Campbell Award for The Slave Girl in 1978; was listed by Granta magazine as among the “Best Young British Novelists” in 1983; two of her plays A Kind of Marriage and A Family Bargain were produced for BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) television in 1976 and 1987 respectively; she was honoured in 2004 by the British Library as being among the 50 black and Asian writers to have made a major contribution to British literature; and, a year later, was awarded an honorary OBE (Order of the British Empire).
Emecheta described her books as “stories of the world where women face the universal problems of poverty, neglect, violence, and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical.”
She inspired a generation of African and black British writers. Marie Umeh noted that: “It is through Buchi Emecheta that the souls of voiceless Nigerian women…are revealed.” Emecheta was regarded by friends – as Danuta Keane noted in her obituary of Emecheta in The Guardian of London – as “warm, caring, and humorous.”
Her books have formed part of the curriculum of universities across Africa and its Diaspora for decades, and it was in the Diaspora that Emecheta lived most of her life and died. A dyed-in-the-wool Pan-African, she once famously exhorted: “Black women all over the world should reunite and re-examine the way history has portrayed us.”
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