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Tribute to a literary lioness

FLORENCE Onyebuchi Emecheta, one of Nigeria’s most skilled novelists, passed away last month (January 25), aged 72, and was buried in London this week.

Late Buchi Emecheta

Her name was usually abbreviated to “Buchi” and I never actually met her. But I have long felt as if she and I had a special relationship because the first article I ever wrote, the article that launched my journalistic career, was a review of her first two books – In The Ditch and Second Class Citizen – which I’d really enjoyed.

In The Ditch and Second Class Citizen were about her struggles as a penurious young Black UK-based single mum. And they were as gripping as they were moving.

Emecheta not only catalogued the gritty day-to-day realities of the human condition, sometimes autobiographically, but also happened to be a feisty, pioneering advocate of the rights of females. And her efforts were not in vain.
Reading for schoolchildren

She eventually earned the recognition and respect she deserved. Her tales of triumph in the face of adversity inspired an entire generation. Her books became required reading for schoolchildren. Her lectures were very well-attended.

In an obituary written for the British Guardian newspaper by my dear friend Margaret Busby, whose publishing company, Allison & Busby, published some of Emecheta’s work, Emecheta’s son Sylvester Onwordi was quoted:
Buchi’s life was always overshadowed by the poverty and the deprivations of her early years. She was a sick, poorly and undernourished child but with a ravenous desire to survive, against all odds. She lost her father [a Lagos-based railway employee], who doted on her, when she was eight years old. With his passing, she and her younger brother were left at the mercy of a mother who, due to lack of education, was unable to appreciate the talent in the young girl.

Fortunately, a benefactor spotted her intelligence and enabled her to continue her schooling, instead of selling oranges in the market (her mother’s preference).

In 1954 she won a scholarship to Methodist Girls High School, in Yaba, Lagos. At 16, she married Sylvester’s father and joined him when he went to London to study.

The couple wound up having five children, but their union was unhappy and marred by her husband’s violence. Emecheta took refuge in writing, which she found cathartic.

When her husband burned a manuscript of what would have been her first novel, she decided to go it alone. Despite having five small children to worry about, she managed to get a job as a library assistant at the British Museum while studying at night and studying for a sociology degree at London University.

She began writing about her experiences for the British New Statesman magazine. In The Ditch was based on her New Statesman columns. And the rest is history. Busby says:

Happening early upon her writing, I resolved to help make Emecheta’s courageous voice as widely heard as possible, and was privileged to become her publisher at Allison & Busby, where we developed a close editorial relationship; I reciprocated her trust in my judgement by doing whatever necessary – from retyping manuscripts to producing cover artwork – to communicate her words to the world.

The dedications of her key books are telling. In the Ditch’s was: “To the memory of my father, Jeremy Nwabudike Emecheta, railwayman and 14th Army soldier in Burma.” Second-Class Citizen (1974) referenced “my dear children, Florence, Sylvester, Jake, Christy and Alice, without whose sweet background noises this book would not have been written”. The Bride Price (1976), the author said, was “for my mother, Alice Ogbanje Emecheta”. With The Slave Girl (1977), which won the New Statesman’s Jock Campbell award, I felt moved and humbled when she insisted on: “To Margaret Busby for believing in me.”

While committed to the liberation of women, she did not label herself a feminist, claiming: “Apart from telling stories, I don’t have a particular mission. I like to tell the world our part of the story while using the voices of women.”
Emecheta also occasionally wrote plays and children’s books, as well as building a career as a visiting academic at US universities, including Pennsylvania State, Rutgers, UCLA, and Yale, and becoming a resident fellow of English at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. With her son Sylvester, for a time she published under her own imprint, Ogwugwu Afor. In 2005 she was appointed OBE.

Other premier league writers, African and otherwise, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, have sung Emecheta’s praises and acknowledged her influence on their own work.
In 2010, she had a stroke that greatly weakened her. Two of her children, Florence and Christy, predeceased her. She is survived by Sylvester, Jake and Alice.


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