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(Florence Onye) Buchi Emecheta Biography

london braziller allison busby

Nationality: British. Born: Lagos, Nigeria, 1944. Education: Methodist Girls' High School, Lagos; University of London, B.Sc. (honors) in sociology 1972. Career: Librarian, 1960-64; library officer, British Museum, London, 1965-69; youth worker and resident student, Race, 1974-76; community worker, Camden Council, London, 1976-78; visiting lecturer at 11 universities in the United States, 1979; senior research fellow and visiting professor of English, University of Calabar, Nigeria, 1980-81; lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1982. Since 1982, lecturer, University of London. Proprietor, Ogwugwu Afo Publishing Company, London; since 1979, member of the Home Secretary's Advisory Council on Race.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

In the Ditch. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1972.

Second-Class Citizen. London, Allison and Busby, 1974; New York, Braziller, 1975.

The Bride Price. London, Allison and Busby, and New York, Braziller, 1976.

The Slave Girl. London, Allison and Busby, and New York, Braziller, 1977.

The Joys of Motherhood. London, Allison and Busby, and New York, Braziller, 1979.

Destination Biafra. London, Allison and Busby, 1982.

Double Yoke. London, Ogwugwu Afo, 1982; New York, Braziller, 1983.

Adah's Story. London, Allison and Busby, 1983.

The Rape of Shavi. London, Ogwugwu Afo, 1983; New York, Braziller, 1985.

A Kind of Marriage. London, Macmillan, 1986.

Gwendolen. London, Collins, 1989; as The Family, New York, Braziller, 1990.

Kehinde. Oxford, Heinemann, 1994.

Fiction (for children)

Titch the Cat. London, Allison and Busby, 1979.

Nowhere to Play. London, Allison and Busby, 1980.

The Moonlight Bride. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.

The Wrestling Match. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1981; NewYork, Braziller, 1983.

Naira Power. London, Macmillan, 1982.

Plays

Television Plays:

A Kind of Marriage, 1976; The Ju Ju Landlord, 1976.

Other

Our Own Freedom, photographs by Maggie Murray. London, Sheba, 1981.

Head above Water (autobiography). London, Ogwugwu Afo, 1986.

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Critical Studies:

Gender Voices and Choices: Redefining Women in Contemporary African Fiction by Gloria Chineze Chukukere. Enugu, Nigeria, Fourth Dimension, 1995; Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, edited by Marie Umeh. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1996; A Teacher's Guide to African Narratives by Sara Talis O'Brien. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1998; This Is No Place for a Woman: Nadine Gordimer, Nayantara Sahgal, Buchi Emecheta, and the Politics of Gender by Joya Uraizee. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.

* * *

The title Second-Class Citizen which Buchi Emecheta chose for one of her most successful novels constitutes a very fair summary of the major theme which she explores. She always feels for the oppressed and presents their plight in a way that engages the reader's sympathy. From childhood on she observed life in Nigeria, and since her early twenties she has looked at the ways of the west through the skeptical, appraising eyes of a trained sociologist. And what she has seen, whether in Africa or England, has been a bleak picture of antagonisms and tyranny. There are flashes of humor and moments of happiness, but generally she depicts the scouring of human relationships by the desire of the powerful to dominate and exploit those who are weaker.

Married life she depicts as a battle of the sexes, and if some white males are shown in a bad light, that is nothing compared with the portrayal of the Nigerian men. Francis, in Second-Class Citizen, is a Nigerian immigrant in London whose thoughtlessness is the ruin of his more gifted wife; lazy, egotistical, and feckless, he compounds every problem that confronts the pair in their struggle to make ends meet, and his sexual demands and irresponsibility about parenthood leave Adah a physical wreck, distraught and without a penny in her pocket. In The Joys of Motherhood we become aware of the mordant irony of the title as the novel chronicles the misfortunes of Nnu Ego, a simple Nigerian girl who comes to Lagos to marry and suffers every kind of humiliation as her husband proves himself incapable of overcoming the admittedly difficult circumstances of his wretched existence. Her agony reaches its peak when, in accord with custom, he takes as his second wife the widow of his brother and thoroughly enjoys the tensions this naturally creates.

Tyranny and heartlessness outside the domestic sphere also rouse Emecheta's ire. For many young people in Nigeria education seems to offer a route towards self-fulfillment, but Double Yoke shows what the price can be when a young girl tries to cope with the rival claims of tradition and modernity within a system which fundamentally has little to offer that is really valid. The cynicism of the whole enterprise is revealed when the heroine realizes she must trade sexual favors with her professor if she is to gain the examination results she covets. Once she has qualifications she will perhaps be able, like Adah in Second-Class Citizen, to go to the United Kingdom and enjoy what it has to offer. In fact, as Second-Class Citizen and its grim predecessor, In the Ditch, show, London is a hostile world where racialism is rife and housing is squalid. There is the welfare state, of course, yet it operates in such a way that a talented and qualified young woman is gradually but inexorably pauperized and deskilled. Destination Biafra is a chilling account of a different sort of horror, the disastrous civil war that ripped Nigeria apart in the difficult times immediately after the withdrawal of the inadequate colonial powers. No atrocity is too cruel for men in brief authority, and though Emecheta has sympathy for everyone, it is natural that the women are shown as those who suffer the most.

Gwendolen changes the focus to some degree, presenting the plight of Caribbean immigrants in London primarily through the perspective of the difficulties that a young girl has in finding any sort of fulfillment as a child and teenager in a culture which means very little to her at any time. A perfect symbol of this failure of integration lies in the fact that even her own family finds pronouncing her rather highfalutin name impossibly difficult. Emecheta is far from ascribing all her heroine's ills to the failure of the citizens of her adopted country to take her to their heart, though there are some criticisms, especially of the education service, that strike home. Gwendolen's misfortunes had, however, already begun before she ever left Jamaica, and in London tensions within the immigrant community are shown to be particularly damaging. Beneath the psychological problems of immigrants there runs, moreover, the deep current of protest at the exploitation of women by men whose sexual demands are never diminished by any sense of their only too apparent personal inadequacies and general fecklessness.

Few will seek to deny that Emecheta has grounds for the complaints she makes about marital relationships in particular and about the interplay of social and political forces in general. Yet she loads the dice a little too much. The girls and women she takes as her heroines always possess something which places them above the ordinary run of those with whom they mix. Birth or superior intelligence makes them outstanding. But it also has the unfortunate consequence of making them atypical of the group they represent. There is, too, some idealization of rural society in Nigeria in former times. It certainly had merits, which colonial powers were stupid not to recognize, yet by concentrating on the more advantaged members of such communities Emecheta distorts the picture. The problem becomes most acute in The Rape of Shavi, a somewhat mannered allegorical tale of Europeans who are fleeing from an impending cataclysm, and who have the privilege of insight into an almost Utopian Africa.

For the most part, however, Emecheta's mode is realistic. Indeed, Kehinde tackles the problem of idealization head-on, as the title character moves with her husband Albert from London—where she has lived for 18 years—back to Lagos. There she is overwhelmed by the appalling conditions of life, not least her expected role as virtual servant to Albert's every whim. And though Destination Biafra contains some devastating pictures of the pretentiousness and luxurious lifestyle of upper-class Nigerians, Emecheta generally concerns herself with the straightforward portrayal of the underprivileged. There is some description of locales, with Nigerian names for plants, foodstuffs, and fabrics adding a dash of local color which sometimes contrasts, especially in the earlier novels, a little too obviously with literary allusions in a dated English tradition. Dialogue is invariably crisp, highlighting important turns in the narrative or enhancing characterization. Above all, Emecheta is a storyteller. The titles of her novels, like the chapter headings, are direct and explicit, helping the reader to see the way forward through narratives that have the power to convince as well as the capacity to arouse sympathy with the misfortunes depicted.

—Christopher Smith

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