Buchi Emecheta’s (21 July 1944 – 25 January 2017) novels deal principally with the life experiences of Nigerian women, who are subordinated in an indigenous society deeply influenced by the Western values introduced by British colonists. Other Nigerian women, those who have relocated to England, for example, often suffer the emotional effects of being suddenly immersed into an alien country. Their lives are further complicated by the power that Nigerian men, following traditional beliefs, still have over them. Emecheta, who struggled in Nigeria to get an education and who suffered abuse in England by her Nigerian husband, reproduces these and other experiences in fictionalized form. Whether at home or in the imperial metropolis, Nigerian women in Emecheta’s novels experience both sexism and racism in a world of African—and Western— traditions.
A prequel to In the Ditch, Second-Class Citizen explains how Adah became a single parent in a North London slum. At the age of eight she first noticed a “Presence” accompanying her, a wish to acquire education despite her inferior status as a girl. Resisting pressure to leave school at the age of eleven and eventually to marry and become a submissive wife, she wins a scholarship with full board to the Methodist Girls’ School, where she does well. At the end of her stay at the school she marries Francis, but she does so simply to acquire a stable and socially acceptable home. Adah and Francis, who is studying to become an accountant, then move to London.
A defeatist Francis tells Adah that the color of her skin makes her a second-class citizen, her educational achievements notwithstanding. Adah, however, sets out to prove Francis wrong: She gets and keeps a “white man’s” job in a library, where she is accepted by her white coworkers; she refuses to foster out her children, as do many African women in London, and instead finds a nursery for them; and she laments the jealousy directed at her as an ambitious Igbo by other blacks, including West Indians, considering this jealousy as harmful as white prejudice. Adah undergoes other trials. It is difficult for her family to find accommodations, as explicit racist exclusion is still legal (“Sorry, no coloreds”). Francis, unable to cope with British life, not only stops studying but is repeatedly unfaithful while demanding submission and sex from Adah. In response, Adah experiments unsuccessfully with birth control in an attempt to avoid the financial catastrophe of yet another pregnancy.
Later in the novel, Adah is introduced to black writers, including James Baldwin, by a fellow worker, and her own ambition to write begins to form. After Francis burns the manuscript of her novel, Adah takes the couple’s four children and leaves him; she soon realizes that she again is pregnant.
Second-Class Citizen is unpretentiously written and compelling. It is an autobiographical story of an intelligent and resilient woman who is determined not to let sexism and racism limit her life or her talents. Although the book has been criticized for its portrayal of Nigerian society and Nigerian men, it is free of apparent bitterness and explicit special pleading. Second-Class Citizen captures a phase in the relationship between Britain and one of its African colonies, explaining why some Nigerians left for Britain in the late 1940’s and what happened to those who failed there. The novel is also insightful in discussing the experiences of immigrants who arrived in Britain in the 1960’s shortly after Nigeria’s independence. Still, Second-Class Citizen, the work of a young writer, is lumpily episodic in structure, and its ending is disconcertingly abrupt.
The Bride Price
The name of Aku-nna, the central character of The Bride Price, translates as “father’s wealth.” Knowing the importance her loving father places on her bride price, the sum paid to the family of a bride by the family of a suitor, Aku-nna determines to marry a rich man with a substantial bride price. However, after the death of her father, Aku-nna, her brother, and their mother move from pluralistic Lagos to traditional Ibuza, where Akunna’s mother marries Okonkwo, her own brother-in law, according to custom.
Okonkwo’s social ambitions require money. He permits Aku-nna to continue her education because it will increase her bride price, which will now go to him, but he has no interest in her personal wishes. Meanwhile, Akunna and Chike, her schoolmaster, fall in love, but Chike, the descendant of slaves, is subordinated and limited by traditional views as well. When Aku-nna can no longer hide that she is menstruating, and thus marriageable, Okonkwo, in a display of male power, tells her that she must let her friendship with Chike die. Aku-nna is kidnapped for marriage by Okoboshi, a classmate, in a tradition that is tolerated by Igbo society, but she is rejected by him when she falsely claims that she is not a virgin. She is able to escape with Chike, marries him, but dies giving birth to a daughter.
Emecheta’s own fears of powerlessness and loss of autonomy in a male-dominated society are here projected onto an exclusively Nigerian setting and are more extensively fictionalized than in her first two novels. There is, furthermore, the introduction of a new theme, the destructive effects of the caste system within African society: Chike, too, is marginalized. Indeed, the repressive forces that threaten Aku-nna’s happiness are indigenous rather than imported.
Despised by Okoboshi and his relatives when they think she has lost her virginity, Aku-nna reflects that she will be killed by Okonkwo if she runs away from him, and that she will die of shame and rejection if she stays. The point of these psychological pressures is to bring about the very death that is traditionally predicted for those who break custom and taboo. When Aku-nna dies during labor because of her youth, physical frailty, and malnutrition, the omniscient authorial voice informs the reader that Aku-nna’s story is told to every girl in Ibuza: Women who do not accept the man chosen by their people and whose bride price is not paid will die while giving birth to their first child. Ironically, even the rebel against traditional customs and constraints reinforces these traditions by the manner of her death.
The Joys of Motherhood
Nnu Ego, the central character of The Joys of Motherhood, whose life and sufferings will dramatize the story’s main points, is the illegitimate daughter, by a fiercely proud mistress, of the local chief in rural Ibuza. Nnu Ego’s inability to bear children with her first husband causes her father to arrange a second marriage, to Nnaife Owulum, who works in Lagos for an English family. Nnu Ego submits to marrying a man she has never met; indeed, when she does meet him, she finds in him neither esteem nor attractiveness. When Nnaife’s older brother dies, his wife, Adaku, becomes the younger brother’s junior wife. Nnaife is conscripted into the British army for action in World War II, and his two wives are left to their own resources. Adaku becomes a prostitute and does well financially; Nnu Ego remains respectable and does not. When Nnaife returns, he acquires a third wife, sixteen-year-old Okpo. Nnu Ego’s sons, as boys, are favored in society, and decide to continue their education in the United States and in Canada. Nnu Ego’s own life continues to be subordinated to men and their privileged status. Nnaife, after serving a brief prison sentence for attacking a man of a different tribe who wanted to marry one of his daughters, returns to Ibuza, with the young Okpo. Nnu Ego, disowned, dies in Ibuza obscurely, and a shrine is built for her so any infertile granddaughters can pray to her.
Amesh of interconnected themes is developed in The Joys of Motherhood. At one stage, Nnu Ego thinks that if she were in Ibuza she would have her own hut and be given respect; in colonized Lagos, she has the worst of both worlds—polygamy and exploitation. She has been given to a man who is subservient before his English masters, as if he were a woman, but who still tries to exact complete obedience in the home, as if he were part of an organic social system of give and take that justified such demands. Her boys, to whom she has sacrificed everything, end up living in the New World, the epitome of modernity, and do not correspond with their mother. Nnu Ego has obeyed all the old rules but is still taken advantage of, and abandoned in old age.
Other major works
Teleplays: A Kind of Marriage, 1976; Family Bargain, 1987. radio play: The Ju Ju Landlord, 1976. nonfiction: Head Above Water, 1986 (autobiography).
Children’s literature: Titch the Cat, 1979; The Moonlight Bride, 1980; Nowhere to Play, 1980; The Wrestling Match, 1980; Naira Power, 1982.
Booker, M. Keith. “Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood.” In The African Novel in English: An Introduction. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998.
Cox, C. Brian, ed. African Writers. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.
Derrickson, Teresa. “Class, Culture, and the Colonial Context: The Status of Women in Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood.” International Fiction Review 29, nos. 1/2 (2002): 40-51.
Fishburn, Katherine. Reading Buchi Emecheta: Cross- Cultural Conversations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Buchi Emecheta: The Shaping of a Self.” Komparatistische Hefte 8 (1983): 65-77.
Umeh, Marie, ed. Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1995.
Uwakweh, Pauline Ada. “Carving a Niche: Visions of Gendered Childhood in Buchi Emecheta’s The Bride Price and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” African Literature Today 21 (1998): 9-21.