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Buchi Emecheta, Nigerian Novelist, Dies at 72
By WILLIAM GRIMES, New York Times, Feb. 10, 2017
Buchi Emecheta in 1985. Her books, she said, “are about survival, just like my own life.” Credit George Braziller Inc.
Buchi Emecheta, a British-based Nigerian writer who, in “Second-Class Citizen,” “The Joys of Motherhood” and other novels, gave voice to African women struggling to reconcile traditional roles with the demands of modernity, died on Jan. 25 at her home in London. She was 72.
The cause was dementia, her son Sylvester Onwordi wrote in the British magazine New Statesman.
Ms. Emecheta (pronounced BOO-chee em-EH-cheh-tah) came to the attention of British readers in the early 1970s when New Statesman began running her accounts of the travails of a young Nigerian woman in London. Adah, a thinly disguised version of the author, lived in a dreary apartment, worked menial jobs to support her young children and abusive husband, studied at night and weathered the slights meted out by a racist society. Buoyed by ambition and pluck, she remained undaunted.
“In the Ditch,” a novel based on those columns, appeared in 1972.
With the publication two years later of a second Adah novel, “Second-Class Citizen,” critics in Britain and the United States hailed the arrival of an important new African writer. Like her immediate predecessor Flora Nwapa, Ms. Emecheta revealed the thoughts and aspirations of her countrywomen, shaped by a patriarchal culture but stirred by the modern promise of freedom and self-definition.
“Scarcely any other African novelist has succeeded in probing the female mind and displaying the female personality with such precision,” the Sierra Leonean scholar Eustace Palmer wrote in African Literature Today in 1983.
In several novels set in Nigeria, including “The Bride Price” (1976), “The Slave Girl” (1977), “The Joys of Motherhood” (1979) and “Double Yoke” (1983), Ms. Emecheta dramatized, in often harrowing detail, the dire poverty and tight web of family obligations that thwarted aspiring women, their worth determined by the number of sons they could bear.
Against long odds, they fought.
“Emecheta’s women do not simply lie down and die,” The Voice Literary Supplement wrote in 1982. “Always there is resistance, a challenge to fate, a need to renegotiate the terms of the uneasy peace that exists between them and accepted traditions.”
She was born Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta on July 21, 1944, in Yaba, near Lagos, to Jeremy Nwabudinke and Alice Okwuekwuhe. When she was 9, her father, a railway worker, died of complications of combat wounds he had suffered in Burma during World War II.
After being kept at home while her younger brother went to school, in accordance with tradition, Florence won a scholarship to Methodist Girls’ High School at 10. Her mother died a year later, and she was passed from one distant relative to another in Lagos while she attended school. One day she was beaten in front of her class when she announced that she wanted to be a writer.
It was a cherished dream, born when she visited the family’s ancestral village, Ibuza, and listened to a blind aunt telling stories about their people, the Ibo.
“I thought to myself, ‘No life could be more important than this,’” Ms. Emecheta told The Voice Literary Supplement. “So when people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be a storyteller — which is what I’m doing now.”
At 16 she married Sylvester Onwordi, a student to whom she had been engaged since she was 11. When he went to Britain to study accounting she followed, with their two children in tow. Three more children would follow in rapid succession.
Mr. Onwordi, a failure at school, took out his frustrations on his young wife, whose early attempts to write he regarded with suspicion. When asked to read the manuscript of her first novel, “The Bride Price,” he burned it. After painstaking reconstruction, it was published after her Adah novels.
Much to her husband’s astonishment, Ms. Emecheta left the marriage and, from 1965 to 1969, worked as a library officer at the British Museum. Aided by a government grant, she studied nights at the University of London while working as a youth counselor for the Inner London Education Authority. She received a sociology degree in 1972.
As her novels attracted critical attention, Ms. Emecheta began lecturing at universities in the United States. In Nigeria, she was a visiting professor of English at the University of Calabar in 1980 and 1981.
“Destination Biafra” (1982), an ambitious novel dealing with Biafra’s bid to create a separate state from the newly independent Nigeria, was poorly reviewed, leading to a break with her publisher, Allison & Busby.
Ms. Emecheta said that editors had cut a large section of the book without her permission. It was based on research she had carried out surreptitiously after taking a job as a cleaning woman at Sandhurst, the royal military academy, for that purpose. She and her son Sylvester started their own press, the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company, whose first title was “Double Yoke,” in 1983.
That year she received a publicity coup when the literary journal Granta listed her among the 20 best young British novelists, placing her alongside such rising stars as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.
Ms. Emecheta took an experimental leap with the postcolonial fantasy “The Rape of Shavi” (1984), about an airplane carrying Western passengers that crashes in a mythical sub-Saharan country. Once repaired, the plane returns to Europe, carrying with it the king’s son. Disaster ensues.
With “Gwendolen” (1989), published in the United States as “The Family,” Ms. Emecheta returned to more familiar fictional territory, telling the story of a Jamaican girl sexually abused in Jamaica by her uncle and in England by her father, whose child she bears.
Through the female protagonist of “Kehinde” (1994) and the male protagonist of “The New Tribe,” Ms. Emecheta explored the predicament of Nigerians with their feet in two cultures.
“My books are about survival, just like my own life,” she told the Nigerian magazine The Voice in 1996.
Ms. Emecheta, who received the Order of the British Empire in 2005, wrote a memoir, “Head Above Water” (1986), and several books for children, including “Titch the Cat” (1979) and “The Moonlight Bride” (1981).
In addition to her son Sylvester, survivors include another son, Jake Onwordi, and a daughter, Alice Emecheta.
“Apart from telling stories, I don’t have a particular mission,” Ms. Emecheta once said. “I like to tell the world our part of the story while using the voices of women.”