Death stalks Nigeria’s writers

One of Africa’s bravest daughters: Buchi Emecheta combined African experience 
with English language

One of Africa’s bravest daughters: Buchi Emecheta combined African experience with English language

Buchi Emecheta (July 21 1944 – January 25 2017), more than anyone else, epitomised the modern Nigerian novel in English during the 1970s, much as Amos Tutuola (The Palm-Wine Drinkard, 1952), Cyprian Ekwensi (People of the City, 1954) and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, 1958) had been the pathfinders in the 1950s, before the literary tradition extended into the 1960s with Wole Soyinka (The Interpreters, 1965), Chukwuemeka Ike (Toads for Supper, 1965), Flora Nwapa (Efuru, 1966) and Elechi Amadi (The Concubine, 1966).

Nwapa died in 1993 and Tutuola in 1997; Ekwensi, Achebe, Amadi departed in 2007, 2013 and 2016 respectively. Death seems to be stalking the landscape of Nigerian fiction.

The media in the West, by and large, ignored the recent sad event of the death of another leading Nigerian novelist of the 1970s, Isidore Okpewho (November 9 1941 — September 4 2016). Okpewho, who died at 74 in Binghamton, New York, was the author of four novels: The Victims (1970), The Last Duty (1976), Tides (1993) and Call Me By My Rightful Name (2004).

As with Emecheta’s Destination Biafra (1982), Okpewho’s The Last Duty, which won the 1972 African Arts prize for literature in manuscript form, tackles that watershed moment of post-independence Nigerian history, the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War of 1967-70. Tides, written in epistolary form, earned Okpewho the 1993 Commonwealth Writers’ prize, Africa region.

Okpewho had a parallel career as a literary critic, theorist and scholar. His major critical and theoretical work comprise The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (1979), Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983), African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (1992), Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (1998) and Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology (2014).

The first of these, The Epic in Africa, is a groundbreaking work of scholarship in which Okpewho authenticates the primacy, provenance and poetics of oral epics in sub-Saharan Africa. He triumphantly transcended his principal motivation of gently skewering the presumptions of anthropologists such as Ruth Finnegan who, in Oral Literature in Africa (1970), denied the existence of the epic in Africa.

Emecheta was also a pioneer of a kind in that she brought to bear upon her work her experiences as a Lagos-born girl whose hometown was Ibusa in the east of Nigeria, and as a young black woman who had been living in Britain since the early 1960s.

She survived the deep angst and anguish she must have felt when her husband, Sylvester Onwordi, burnt the manuscript of a novel she had written, an act that precipitated the break-up of their marriage and her subsequent life as a single mother.

She raised five children — Florence, Sylvester, Jake, Christy and Alice — with Florence and Christy predeceasing her.

Emecheta was the queen of all she surveyed in the vibrant literary scene that was the modern Nigerian novel in English from the 1970s onward. In that decade alone, she published In the Ditch (1972), Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977) and her masterpiece, The Joys of Motherhood (1979).

In 1978, The Slave Girl won the New Statesman’s Jock Campbell Award; the same prize that Achebe took in 1965 for Arrow of God and Soyinka in 1968 for The Interpreters.

Emecheta was not the first Nigerian woman novelist in English. That honour belongs to Flora Nwapa who, with the publication of her debut Efuru by Heinemann in 1966, became not just the first Nigerian woman but also the first black African woman to publish a novel in English. Here is the poignant ending of Nwapa’s novel:

“Efuru slept soundly that night. She dreamt of the woman of the lake, her beauty, her long hair and her riches. She had lived for ages at the bottom of the lake. She was as old as the lake itself. She was happy, she was wealthy. She was beautiful. She gave women beauty and wealth but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why then did the women worship her?”

It is from this passage that Emecheta took the title of The Joys of Motherhood. Emecheta, in turn, has left her mark on many women

writers who have come after her, not least among them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“I read and admired all her books. Destination Biafra was very important for my research when I was writing Half of a Yellow Sun,” declared Adichie. “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.”

Death has now deprived us of the woman and writer who incarnated that lively intelligence, who displayed that honesty and intimacy of insight into both colonial and contemporary times. Emecheta’s death at 72, in London, having suffered a stroke in 2010, has robbed Africa of one of its bravest and most remarkable daughters.

She deserves to be remembered as much for her fortitude as a person, wife and single mother as for her natural talent as a writer.

Idowu Omoyele is a student of the graduate school in humanities at the University of

Cape Town

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