“Well, I admit that I’m not really very creative. I have to experience something or know someone who has seen something in order to write convincingly. People keep on going back to them (the autobiographical books) because when they read them they see a mirror of their own lives.”
The modesty evident in this quote from Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta is rendered even more profound by the realisation that she was not sent to school until the age of nine, whereas her younger brother had already been at school for a number of years, and that the original manuscript for the first book that she wrote was burned by her abusive husband. That Buchi Emecheta became one of Nigeria’s most prominent writers, as well as an influential British writer, is a remarkable feat given the challenges she faced. Buchi began writing as a mental escape from her abusive marriage. Eventually, she found the courage to leave her husband and it is therefore no surprise that her writing has been a source of empowerment, validation and liberation for black women all over the world. Born in Lagos to Igbo parents, both of whom she lost in her youth, and moving to London with her husband at the age of 18, it is perhaps her experiences of crossing cultures that led Buchi to write about her personal experiences in a way that enabled her readers to more clearly understand their own. She was, perhaps, exploring intersectionality before the term was even coined. Her early novels exposed the intersecting realities of a black, diasporan, working class woman in post-War Britain. Buchi was also very clear that centering her novels on diasporan women was an important act of liberating historization, commenting that ‘[b]lack women all over the world should re-unite and re-examine the way history has portrayed us.’
“God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage? she prayed desperately.”
― Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood
Discourse is at the heart of Buchi’s literature. Though her prose, she seeks to interrogate and, where possible answer her own questions about life, culture and liberation. Buchi’s characters are normal women, and it is this normality that enables her readers to relate with them. Normal women might not give polemic speeches on gender and racial discrimination, but they battle against these things in almost every encounter of their lives, and they share their stories with one another. In Second Class Citizen, the protagonist Adah is denied a proper education and goes into an arranged marriage because of her gender. When she moves to England, she is afforded another kind of second class citizenship because she is black. Despite all this she pursues her education and betters herself and her family. In The Slave Girl, Ojebeta, the slave girl protagonist of the novel, experiences literal enslavement which is figuratively held against the enslavement of women in marriage as well as the enslavement of Nigeria as a nation by colonial rule. Thus, it is clear that both the strivings of her characters and Buchi’s literature are forms of true activism.
“The female protagonists of Emecheta’s fiction challenge the masculinist assumption that they should be defined as domestic properties whose value resides in their ability to bear children and in their willingness to remain confined at home.
Initiative and determination become the distinguishing marks of Emecheta’s women. They are resourceful and turn adverse conditions into their triumph.”
– Luca Prono, The British Council
Buchi Emecheta continues to inspire black women, and all writers across the globe. In addition to the many awards she won in her lifetime, she leaves behind a legacy of influence of the work of writers including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nnedi Okorafor and Ben Okri. Through her work, she established a language to discuss the interplay between tradition and modernity in the lives of African women as well as the multiplicity of the experience of womanhood. Where some movements for women’s liberation can be exclusive and patronising, Buchi’s writing achieves many of the same goals as them whilst being inclusive and empowering.