Emecheta, Buchi (Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Emecheta, Buchi (Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta)

Emecheta, Buchi (Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta) (1944- ) Nigerian fiction writer and journalist

An Igbo feminist, Buchi Emecheta writes adult and children’s works exploring the liberation of women from colonialism and tribal androcentrism. A native of Yaba outside Lagos, Nigeria, she grew up in the village of Ibuza, where Yoruba storytellers pounded drums while leading a stream of children about the streets. Although second in worth to her younger brother and therefore traditionally considered unworthy of schooling, she developed her own narratives while completing her education on a scholarship at the Methodist Girls’ High School in Yaba. In 1960, the year her country attained freedom from the British, Emecheta discovered that nationhood for a country did not guarantee civil rights for women. She married unwisely, emigrated to London, and coped with a violent husband, Sylvester Onwordi, who burned her first manuscript in a show of male control. After leaving him in 1966, she raised three daughters and two sons while freelancing for journals and newspapers and majoring in sociology at the University of London. The title of her first novel In the Ditch (1972), serialized in the New Statesman, characterizes her life in an urban slum as marginalized flotsam from the backwash of a vanishing empire.

Emecheta developed a widespread and critical audience for her scenarios of female outrage at a tribally imposed identity. In her autobiographical novel Second-Class Citizen (1974), she characterizes the birth of Adah, her alter ego, as a blow to her father, who anticipated siring a boy. The erasure of Adah’s personhood symbolizes the colonial devaluation of all black Nigerians: “Since she was such a disappointment to her parents, to her immediate family, to her tribe, nobody thought of recording her birth. She was so insignificant” (Emecheta 1983, 7). Ambition buoys her wounded spirit. She leaves her arrogant husband and publishes fiction that the white world ignores, a theme that recurs in Emecheta’s autobiography, Head Above Water (1986).

After seven years of fieldwork in the London education system, Emecheta settled in Camden, New Jersey, and contributed articles to Black Scholar, Essence, New York Times Book Review, and World Literature Today. She dramatized the male- dominated marriage market in The Bride Price (1976), which echoes the themes of AMA ATA AIDOO’S No Sweetness Here (1970). With The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Emecheta tackled issues of polygamy and male privilege. The protagonist, first wife Nnu Ego, fantasizes drowning herself in the river to carry her protests to the afterlife, the ultimate court of appeals for the silenced Nigerian female. Unaware of her infant son’s death, onlookers recoil from the milk dripping from her breasts and upbraid her for abandoning “your husband, your father, your people and your son who is only a few weeks old” (Emecheta 1980, 61). Emecheta creates dramatic irony from the scolding of another female, who charges Nnu Ego with “disgracing the man who paid for you” and with violating “the tradition of our fathers” (62).

In 1985, Emecheta turned to the past with a fable of eden versus empire. The Rape of Shavi is the story of a fictitious nation of the African Sahel (the Saharan border region). The coming of white intruders into the passive kingdom of Shavi disrupts the lethargy of King Patayon and his tribe's contentment. There is irony in the need of Europeans to flee a nuclear catastrophe by flying to West Africa in a plane dubbed “Newark,” a reference to Noah and the flood. The castaway motif creates opportunities for authorial commentary on racial superiority, sexually transmitted disease, and cultural stereotypes of African cannibals and leprosy, the Shavian diagnosis of the intruders' white skin. Emecheta expands on the metaphor by outlining the Western corruption that leads to violence and profiteering. Through Aesopic convention, the FABLE merges blacks and whites into a universal culpability. Late into the 20th century, she continued championing women battered by racism, sexism, and imperialism.


Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. New York:

George Braziller, 1980.

----- . The Rape of Shavi. New York: George Braziller, 1985.

----- . Second-Class Citizen. New York: George Braziller, 1983.

Sougou, Omar. Writing Across Cultures: Gender Politics and Difference in the Fiction of Buchi Emecheta. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.