Buchi Emecheta, who has died aged 72, was a pioneer among female African writers, championing the rights of girls and women in novels that often drew on her own extraordinary life, its trajectory spanning her struggle for an education to having her books set on school curriculums. Whether in her early vivid documentary novels, In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974) – about a young black single mother living in the slums of north London – or in the ironically titled The Joys of Motherhood (1979), set in a traditionally male-oriented society in colonial Nigeria, or in her autobiography Head Above Water (1984), or Gwendolen (1989), Emecheta’s writings epitomised female independence, the necessity to grow stronger in the face of any setback.
She was born in Lagos, Nigeria – her father was Jeremy Nwabudinke, a railway worker; her mother was Alice (nee Okwuekwuhe) – but it was with the town of Ibusa, where her Igbo parents originated, that she identified, having spent formative childhood years there. “Buchi’s life was always overshadowed by the poverty and the deprivations of her early years,” her son Sylvester said. “She was a sick, poorly and undernourished child but with a ravenous desire to survive, against all odds. She lost her father, 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.”
Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter
According to family legend, said Sylvester, a benefactor “spotted the intelligence in the young girl with the large, forever watchful eyes”, and gave her the necessary support and encouragement to continue her schooling, rather than selling oranges in the market as her mother wanted.
In 1954 she won a scholarship to the prestigious Methodist girls high school, in Yaba, Lagos, mixing with children of the elite. “In her first year there her mother also died and she was passed back and forth between distant relatives within the Ibusa community in Lagos,” said Sylvester. “During holidays, while her classmates returned to their family mansions, she remained in the dormitory taking refuge in books and in her imagination, regaling her friends on their return with the wondrous things she had done during the summer.”
By the age of 11 she had met Sylvester Onwordi, a student who five years later became her husband. In 1960, her first child, a daughter, was born and in 1961 a son. Her husband travelled to London to attend university, and in the chill of February 1962 Emecheta joined him with their two young children. A second son was born that year, and by 1966 the family had expanded with the birth of two more daughters.
Her autobiographical writings chronicle the unhappiness of her marriage. In Second-Class Citizen, Adah – Emecheta’s alter ego – challenged by atrocious living conditions and a violent husband, finds refuge in her dream of becoming a writer.
After Emecheta’s husband burned the manuscript of what would have been her first novel, she left him and set about raising her five small children alone, finding employment as a library assistant at the British Museum while studying at night, earning a sociology degree at London University in 1974.
She began writing about her experiences for the New Statesman, and a book based on her columns appeared as In the Ditch, in which her feisty protagonist, Adah, remains fiercely resistant to the attempts of a welfare system to relegate her and her children to the ranks of a “problem family”.
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 judgment 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 her believing in me.”
The Joys of Motherhood (1980) was dedicated to “all mothers”, while she prefaced Destination Biafra (1982), the first female perspective on the Nigerian civil war, with: “I dedicate this work to the memory of many relatives and friends who died in this war, especially my eight-year-old niece Buchi Emecheta, who died of starvation, and her four-year-old sister Ndidi Emecheta, who died two days afterwards of the same Biafran disease …”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – more celebrated than any previous African woman writer – acknowledged her debt to Emecheta: “I read and admired all her books. Destination Biafra was very important for my research when I was writing Half of a Yellow Sun. The book I adored was The Joys of Motherhood, for its sparkling intelligence and a certain kind of honest, lived, intimate insight into working-class colonial Nigeria.”
Ama Ata Aidoo, one of the few African women to have been writing internationally since the 1960s, and who taught The Joys of Motherhood in a course on African women’s literature, said: “Buchi Emecheta was expert at cutting through mush. So at writers’ conferences and other public meetings, while we fumbled for responses to the perennially frustrating question, ‘Which of your books is your favourite?’, Buchi would be swift with: ‘My books are like my children. I don’t have favourites.’”
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.” Alastair Niven, former director of the Africa Centre, London, recalled the influential storytelling sessions she held there: “Without seeking to be so, she became an outstanding role model for how black women from another country could achieve a respected place in British society through sheer determination and ability.” In the opinion of James Currey, who as editorial director of Heinemann’s African Writers Series later issued Emecheta’s work, “She, Flora Nwapa and Bessie Head gave women from Africa the idea that they might get published.”
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.
Although she had so effectively transformed dreams into reality, adversity into success, in 2010 a stroke curtailed her mobility and her writing, and she became progressively ill. Two of her children, Florence and Christy, predeceased her. She is survived by Sylvester, Jake and Alice.
• Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta, writer, born 21 July 1944; died 25 January 2017.
This article was originally written by Margaret Busby.
Titles by Buchi Emecheta: