Read an excerpt from ‘Buchi Emecheta: The Burden of Exile’ by Louisa Uchum Egbunike, from The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets and Philosophers

The JRB presents an excerpt from Louisa Uchum Egbunike‘s chapter examining the life and work of Buchi Emecheta from the new book, The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets and Philosophers.

The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets and Philosophers
Edited by Adekeye Adebajo
Jacana Media, 2020

Buchi Emecheta: The Burden of Exile

Louisa Uchum Egbunike

‘Writing my autobiography is not going to be easy. This is because most of my early novels, articles, poems and short stories are, like my children, too close to my heart. They are too real. They are too me.’
—Buchi Emecheta, Head Above Water

Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta’s writing can be described as a form of creative expression centred on experiential knowledge. The biographical details of Emecheta’s life are present at the inception of her career as a novelist, visible in her debut novel In the Ditch (1972) and its 1974 prequel, Second-Class Citizen. These two novels, which were later published in a single volume as Adah’s Story, explore the struggles faced by Emecheta from her childhood in Lagos to her life as a single mother of five in London. When Buchi later penned her autobiography in 1986, Head Above Water, over a decade later, she made her readers aware of the multiple junctures between the imagined and the real in her writing, noting that she would ‘write episodically, touching lightly here and there on those incidents on which I dwelt in depth in my other books: Second-Class Citizen, In the Ditch, The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, The Joys of Motherhood and Double Yoke‘. Thus, distinctions between biography and fiction become blurred as Emecheta’s own lived experience—or the lived experiences of those she comes into contact with—is foundational in many of her books. A semblance of distance is created between Emecheta and her protagonists by her use of the novel form, a point on which she has reflected, stating that ‘although the work was fictitious, it drew heavily upon my personal experiences’ so that ‘I was becoming more and more the black woman in the book, Adah. I was a second-class citizen.’ Emecheta’s words reveal that her literature is not solely a conscious examination of her lived experience, but delves into aspects of her reality that only become apparent to her when she sees them reflected on the pages of her books.

Nostalgia for the Ancestral Home

In her writing, Buchi Emecheta’s ideological project centres on foregrounding the lives of those whose narratives do not feature prominently in mainstream official histories. By examining the life of an orphan in Lagos, a girl sold into slavery in Onitsha, or a single mother in London, Emecheta captures the day-to-day reality of figures who are often located at the margins of society, consigned to the periphery due to their class, gender, race or ethnicity. In her own words, Emecheta describes her fiction thus: ‘What I am doing is writing social documentary novels, based upon what I have seen and experienced.’ Her novels thus become a hybridised genre, drawing on sociology and non-fiction elements to provide the basis for her narratives. For the purpose of this essay, the intersection of Emecheta’s life and works will be explored with specific reference to notions of home, community and belonging in a selection of her diaspora novels. The shifting temporal and physical locations of Emecheta’s works at large demonstrate her capacity to engage with the changing notions of home. Particularly in works set within a diaspora—for example, the Ibusa community in Lagos, or Nigerians in London—the movement from one’s ancestral home to another locale expands the composition of one’s community as people are bound together by circumstances with elements of shared experiences. These communities often create networks of support that extend beyond a traceable common ancestry.

Buchi Emecheta’s approach to writing represents the culmination of an academic background in sociology, as well as the impact and influence of the oral stories she was told as a child. She describes the clear distinctions between the content of her formal education in British colonial schools in Nigeria, and that of tales told to her under the moonlight in her home town of Ibusa in eastern Nigeria. While her colonial education sought to elevate British imperialism, thereby affirming Britain’s right to rule over Nigeria, the stories she was told by female family members affirmed not only Emecheta herself, but also those who came before her. As she noted:

Most of the events that happened before I was born had to be told to me by my mothers. The history of the British Empire and her greatness I learned from my English teachers at school in Lagos. But when it came to events that happened nearer home, concerning my ancestors and me in particular, I had to rely on the different versions told to me by my mothers.

Emecheta goes on to describe the joy of being placed at the centre of a story told to a group of children by Nwakwaluzo Ogbuenyi, one of her aunts. In one episode, Ogbuenyi puts a series of questions to the group of children who have gathered around her, the answers to which gradually reveal who will feature at the centre of that evening’s story-telling session. A young Buchi becomes overjoyed at the prospect of her own narrative being the focus of that evening’s entertainment:

‘Whose father walked seven lands and swam seven seas to fight and kill a bad man called Hitilah?’

‘It’s me,’ I whispered hoarsely, afraid of disturbing the quiet grip her voice was having on us.

‘Who is our come-back mother Agbogo?’

‘It’s me.’ This time I could not restrain myself any longer. I stood up proudly and this movement of mine startled all my little relatives sitting there on the sand at Otinkpu. ‘It’s her, it’s her,’ their voices chorused.

‘It’s me, it’s me,’ I screamed intermittently.

‘Who has a mother that can write and read like white people?’

By this time, I was dancing around singing ‘O nmu. O mu.’ (It’s me, it’s me.)

The excitement that young Buchi develops in the build-up to the delivery of her story is grounded in the public recognition of its importance by somebody both senior and well liked. This affirmation of Emecheta is bolstered by the collective excitement displayed by her peers. What initially may seem like an unremarkable episode in her life is, in fact, a foundational moment. There is space within the oral tradition for the narrative of Emecheta, as well as those in her family and her community. This validation of hearing her story told, and having her narrative given visibility by her aunt and others, not only permeates Buchi’s writing, but becomes central to it. Her work thus serves to make her own narrative visible. But like her ‘mothers’, Emechata also sought to bring the stories of others into the light. This episode in story-telling provides a window into the nature and functions of Igbo cultural constructs of narrative. Literature serves the purpose of both entertainment and education. As I have argued elsewhere, ‘within the oral tradition, narratives comprise both creative and informative components. Art serves both an imaginative and socio-political function and so a conceptual divide was not drawn between literary and historical oral texts. It can include historical truths or it can be purely fictive.’ Reading Emecheta’s works in the light of the conventions of the oral tradition illuminates her approach to the narrative content of her novels. This moment in Buchi’s life can be seen as an inaugural experience, not only in setting her on the path to a literary career, but also in shaping her perspective of what constitutes a good story.

Emecheta’s career as a writer began after she had moved to London in 1962. As a Nigerian writing in London, her body of work has the capacity to speak to both continental Africa and its longstanding and more recent diaspora. Over the course of Emecheta’s career, her work oscillated across time and space, from colonial Lagos to contemporary London. As such, her writings sit comfortably within both black British and African literary canons, with her two most celebrated novels—Second-Class Citizen and The Joys of Motherhood—often featuring on black British and African literature university syllabi. It is this sustained capacity across her oeuvre to engage with continental Africa and its diaspora that marks Emecheta’s work out as Pan-African in its vision and scope. Within the different societies that she explores, there are recurrent thematic concerns: dislocation, displacement, and the sense of not belonging. We see her characters—primarily black females—struggling against the constraints that patriarchal society has placed upon them, as they seek to find a place to call home and a supportive community of their own. Given that many of her texts incorporate migration narratives—be it within the nation or across nations—there is a persistent engagement with competing ideas regarding the location of home. Emecheta’s own narrative of migration, both as a child of Ibusa heritage living in Lagos and, later, as a Nigerian living in London, provides the basis for her engagement with this subject. Her time in Britain introduced her to a range of migratory narratives, including those of post-war Caribbean migrants in Britain. The Caribbean narrative of a double diaspora added further depth and dimension to Emecheta’s writing on displacement, belonging and community. Home to many was not a single locale but consisted of multiple sites, some of which they had lived in, and others which they had imagined.

Emecheta’s frequent references to Ibusa in her works set in both Lagos and London demonstrate the significance and reverence with which she regarded her ancestral home. The persistent engagement with the homeland of her characters speaks to a particular cultural assertion of home as the place of one’s origins, above and beyond where one resides. In Second-Class Citizen, we are told that the ‘virtues of Ibuza were praised so much that Adah came to regard her being born in a God-forsaken place like Lagos as a misfortune’. Ibusa remains a strong presence in many of Emecheta’s works, and while affirming the grounding which her home town has provided for her—in her documentary style of writing—her works engage with the process of creating one’s home. In a scene in the novel In the Ditch, the categories of ancestral home and home in the diaspora collide, as Adah reads her new London home through an Ibusa lens, rendering the unfamiliar as familiar: ‘the Pussy Cat Mansions were built round a large compound. Adah called the open space a compound, remembering Africa.’ This reminds us how the cultural specificity of our socialisation impacts upon how we read our surroundings, and how we interpret our experiences. This search for a connection to a particular homeland while abroad is extended in Emecheta’s exploration of the Caribbean double diaspora narrative in Britain, in which an African homeland is sought and, in a particular way, is found.  

  • Louisa Uchum Egbunike is an Associate Professor of African Literature at Durham University. Her research interests centre on African literature, in which she specialises in Igbo literature and cultural production. Her publications engage with postcolonial nationhood with reference to gender and the personal vis-à-vis the political, orality and history, narratives of resistance, decolonisation, Africa and the Black Atlantic, African speculative fiction, literary activism and the impact of political instability on patterns of migration.


Publisher information

This book makes a unique contribution to the literature on Pan-Africanism by providing lively biographical essays of 36 major Pan-African figures by a diverse and prominent group of African, Caribbean, and African-American scholars. They examine historical and contemporary Pan-Africanism as an ideology of emancipation and unity.

The volume covers well-known Pan-Africanists such as WEB Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki, as well as popular figures not typically identified with mainstream Pan-Africanism such as Maya Angelou, Mariama Bâ, Buchi Emecheta, Miriam Makeba, Ruth First, Wangari Maathai, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, VY Mudimbe, Léopold Senghor, Malcolm X, Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

The book also covers topics such as the history and pioneers of Pan-Africanism; the quest for reparations; politicians; poets; activists; as well as Pan-Africanism in the social sciences, philosophy, literature, and its musical activists. This is a comprehensive and diverse introductory reader for specialists and general readers alike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *