Why you should care

Because she’s that great writer you might have missed.

Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian-born British novelist who died in 2017, wrote indelible books that continue to inspire people around the world. Her writing had a great influence on me as a young writer, growing up in Nigeria. Here, at last, were realistic stories of female independence by an unapologetic Black woman.

Emecheta’s life was a bildungsroman of sorts, forming the basis for her early work. After moving to London in 1962, she overcame the indignities of immigration and gained recognition as a pioneer Black female writer. Ainehi Edoro, assistant professor of literature at Marquette University and founder of Brittle Paper, credits “the likes of Emecheta” with breaking “the spell of male dominance in the African literary community” and for opening doors for other women writers. Today, Emecheta’s oeuvre remains relevant, and new readers will find much joy in the following books.

SECOND-CLASS CITIZEN

In this touching autobiographical novel, a teenage Nigerian girl named Adah deals with a soulless marriage in 1960s London. Despite constant physical and emotional abuse, she raises five children and dreams of becoming a writer. Told with wit and verve, this powerful story never lapses into a self-pity fest. During the pivotal scene where Adah’s husband burns her manuscript, Emecheta likens the act to that of the killing of a child. At its core, the novel is a celebration of human resilience and a searing critique of race, class and gender.

THE JOYS OF MOTHERHOOD

Whenever I meet young women fixated on marriage and motherhood, I recommend this book as an antidote. I don’t know that it has ever worked, but The Joys of Motherhood still resonates because it centers on a specific experience that gives rise to haunting universal questions — cheeky title and all. What would you do if you were Nnu Ego, who sacrifices everything for her children only to get nothing in return? How do you negotiate with your “destiny” when it betrays you? Even though the answers are rather clear-cut, humanity shines through at every turn.

As much social commentary as story, this is an important read in the midst of #MeToo.

THE BRIDE PRICE

Long before resistance became a thing, Emecheta pushed back at the male establishment on many fronts — this poignant story being just one. When Aku-nna falls in love with Chike, a descendant of slaves, her family forbids the union and rejects her bride price — money and gifts offered by a groom to his bride’s parents under Nigerian customary law. As if this fascinating premise weren’t enough, a superstitious belief hovers over the lovers: “If the bride price is not paid, the bride will die in childbirth.” In our increasingly nationalistic world, Emecheta’s timeless clash between tradition and modernity slices clean into the skin.

DOUBLE YOKE

This story draws from Emecheta’s stint as a visiting professor at the University of Calabar (also my alma mater), and takes on sexual harassment in Nigerian higher institutions — a topic rarely discussed in literature. As the narrative unfolds, we meet Ete Kamba, who is entrapped in a spell of toxic masculinity, and his girlfriend, Nko, who yearns to live a full life on her own terms. As much social commentary as story, this is an important read in the midst of #MeToo.

THE SLAVE GIRL

Nobody expects Ogbanje Ojebeta to survive at birth in colonial Nigeria. After all, she is an Ogbanje, a spirit born in human form, a maleficent visitor who torments families by dying deliberately to be reborn in successive children, only to die again and again. But when her parents die, her brother sells her to a wealthy relative. Emecheta casts a necessary light on domestic servitude, pulling off an unflinching exploration of freedom, agency and the ownership of women’s bodies.

Suzanne Ushie has an M.A. in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, and has been a writer in residence at Hedgebrook and Ledig House. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

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