Happy Birthday Buchi Emecheta!
21st Jul 2014
Her novels include Second-Class Citizen, The Bride Price, The Slave Girl and The Joys of Motherhood. Today is her 70th birthday and Nicola Burkhill reflects on her contributions to British and Nigerian literature...
Buchi Emecheta’s autobiography, Head Above Water, tells her story as she follows her husband to London in the 1960s. She soon finds herself age twenty-two in a foreign country, trapped in a violent marriage with five young children to look after.
She eventually finds the courage to leave her marriage and in testament to her character, manages to support herself and her children whilst studying for a degree in sociology.
Emecheta’s novels all deal with huge themes: patriarchy, colonialism and racism, but what is most striking about her work is its relevance and place, particularly in today’s world.
Her novels and influence on modern nigerian writers
There are echoes of Buchi Emecheta in the work of Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, which all explore the effects of Western intervention and colonialism in Africa and the roles of Nigerian women.
It is the sense of self awareness and womanhood which draws us in to Emecheta’s books. Her characters seek to throw away familiar Western labels and terms to explain a culture or a way of life and by doing so, create their own unique blend of feminism and African sisterhood.
Her novels draw upon truths from her own life experience. She was educated by Christian missionaries, much like the protagonist Kambili in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and recognises the value and importance of education for young Nigerian women. She is also quick to highlight the clash between western values and African culture, herself being engaged at age eleven and leaving school at sixteen to marry her husband."In all my novels, I deal with the many problems and prejudices that exist for Black people in Britain today"
Emecheta’s prose style is not fantastically eloquent like that of the more modern Nigerian women authors like Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Chibundu Onuzo. It is, however, utterly raw, honest and poignant. It is also clear that she paved the way for the future of Nigerian Women’s literature. She is fearless in her approach, choosing to address taboo subjects within Nigerian and British culture.
Her novels all have amazing artwork and will look gorgeous on your bookshelf. Although, with over twenty novels, short-stories, children’s books and plays in her impressive bibliography you’ll be spoilt for choice on which to read first!
I started with Head Above Water, as I wanted to know more about her as a person and check out how her life experience had flavoured her other work.
There is also The Joys of Motherhood, an ironically titled book about the role of women and mothers in the 1930’s and 40’s in Nigeria. It deals with the theme of colonisation on African women and mothers and the familial and societal expectations placed upon them.
The Bride Price is a novel about a young Nigerian girl who is allowed to finish her education in order to enhance her dowry. Emecheta explores the Nigerian caste system as well as patriarchy through the eyes of the schoolgirl, Aku-nna.
Alice Walker highly recommends Second Class Citizen saying it’s “one of the most informative books about contemporary African Life that I have read.”
She’s a feminist revolutionary
“I work toward the liberation of women, but I’m not feminist. I’m just a woman.” – Buchi Emecheta
Emecheta is the second generation Nigerian feminist author. Flora Nwapa being the first with her ground-breaking novel, Efuru.
She is a revolutionary because she was writing about the African woman’s experience at a time of massive social and political change in Britain and Nigeria.
In 1966, Nigeria experienced its first military coup. The sixties also saw the birth of the contraceptive pill and the miniskirt in Britain, both symbols of women’s choice and liberation.
Which is your favourite Emecheta novel? Leave us a note in the comments below!