…To inform and educate women all over the world, especially feminists (both with capital F and small f) about the role of women in Nigeria, their economic independence, their relationship with their husbands and children, their traditional beliefs and their status in the community as a whole.
—Nwapa’s motivations behind her publishing company, Tana Press, from a 1980 interview
Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa, the eldest of six, was born in 1931 to a drama teacher mother and trading company agent father in Oguta, Nigeria. She attended school in Oguta, Port Harcourt and Lagos and earned a bachelor of arts degree from University College, Ibadan, in 1957 and a Diploma in Education from Edinburgh University in Scotland in 1958.
When she returned to Nigeria, Nwapa served as an Education Officer in the Ministry of Education in Calabar until 1959. Following the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70, she accepted an office as Minister of Health and Social Welfare in East Central State until 1971, and Minister of Lands, Survey and Urban Development from then until 1974.
‘We are well,’ Efuru replied. ‘It is only hunger.’
‘It is good that it is only hunger. Good health is what we pray for.’
―Flora Nwapa, Efuru
Nwapa never strictly considered herself a feminist but is best known for her unique perspective in the male-dominated literary world and for shining a light on African women’s lives. A part of the wave of African women writers whose writings resisted typical depictions of African women as passive, her first book, 1966’s Efuru, became Africa’s first internationally published female novel in the English language. The novel “reflects on how society links a woman’s ability to conceive to her womanhood” while exploring “the agency of African women in reclaiming their bodies and identities.” In 1962, Nwapa had sent the transcript to Chinua Achebe, an already famous Nigerian author, who replied with a buoyant letter and included postage money to send the manuscript to the English publisher Heinemann Educational Books.
At first, Efuru was critically panned, many considering Nwapa’s writing weak and the story unoriginal. Yet, as dialogue on the African woman’s experience increased, Nwapa’s stories were inspirational to younger African female writers. In 1974, she founded Tana Press, becoming the first African woman publisher of novels, and in 1977 founded the Flora Nwapa Company, publishing her own adult and children’s literature as well as works by other writers.
Though it was modest, it was the first press run by a woman and targeted at a largely female audience. A project far beyond its time at a period when no one saw African women as constituting a community of readers or a book-buying demographic.
—Professor Ainehi Edoro on Nwapa’s Tana Press
While still eclipsed by her male contemporaries, Nwapa’s work is part of the African literary canon and the author is often considered the mother of modern African literature. Nwapa died in 1993 in Enugu, Nigeria. She is the subject of a 2016 documentary entitled The House of Nwapa by Nigerian filmmaker, novelist and professor Onyeka Nwelue.