Where Are the ‘Daughters’ of Emecheta? Tracing Buchi Emecheta’s Influence

Buchi Emecheta was an acclaimed author of more than 20 books whose writing, according to Margaret Busby, ‘epitomized female independence’.

In a creative atmosphere suffused by the male writer’s projection of women, the earliest female writers in Africa began to redefine—with authenticity—the ways in which women and their world could be represented, presented, interpreted and reconstructed. Expectedly, creative output by this generation of emergent writers, beginning with Flora Nwapa, Grace Ogot, Mariama Bâ, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and including Buchi Emecheta, ventilated a wide range of womanly concerns.

It is in this regard that Charles Nnolim’s scathing description of Buchi Emecheta as the ‘rambunctious daughter of (Flora) Nwapa’ not only acknowledges the creative debt to a past literary tradition and the thematic concerns set by Nwapa. It also calls the attention of readers, critics and members of the literary community to an emergent perspective by the newer writer, Emecheta, and her prospects of setting new trends on ideology and style to be emulated by others.

TRACKING EMECHETA’S LITERARY IMPACT AND INFLUENCE

Emecheta came primed for the patriarchal red flag raised by Nnolim. The acclaimed author of more than 20 books, whose writing, according to Margaret Busby, ‘epitomized female independence’, Emecheta’s creative scope spanned novels, plays, autobiography as well as children’s and young adult literature. From 1980 to 1981, she taught creative writing to undergraduates at the University of Calabar (UNICAL) as a visiting lecturer. That year-long engagement resulted in the publication of Double Yoke, an ‘…attempt to salvage young minds by imbuing them with the tenants of feminism’. Asides setting up her own publishing house, which she named Ogwugwu Afor, Emecheta also ventured into film with an adaptation of Double Yoke, a bold attempt at evangelizing the tenets of her feminism. But more importantly, the social capital from her visibility as a Nigerian woman writing and publishing abroad on largely her own terms helped to extend the frontiers of possibility for African literature.

The question of an author’s creative influence on a younger generation of writers is a fluid one. Except in cases where overt linkages can be discerned, influence is often within the realm of unconscious assimilation and creative reinterpretation. I have elected to pursue the question of Buchi Emecheta’s influence along four planes: literary style, ideological preoccupation, direct mentorship and public acknowledgement of influence.

TRACING EMECHETA’S STYLISTIC INFLUENCE

One of the more obvious ways through which an older writer’s influence on emergent authors can be divined is through intertextuality. Many intertextual relationships can occur between emergent and older writer, including referencing and (un)intentional borrowing. The new text, enriched by its invocation of the Master, acknowledges the formative stylistic influence of the older. A notch above adaptation (such as undertaken of Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex by Ola Rotimi in The God’s Are Not To Blame), intertextual literary engagement such as exists between Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen serve not only to swell the corpus literati but to celebrate the art of the older author.  Buchi Emecheta, it appears, does not seem to have inspired such mimetic responses from emergent authors, perhaps because she spread herself too thin. Her foray into different genres—for example, children and young adult literature—were sometimes not sustained even after critical acclaim.

Further, she seemed incapable of separating her personality and life experiences from her writings. In ‘Double-Think in Buchi Emecheta’s Double Yoke’ an essay from Many Sundry Wits Gathered Together, Maria Vidal Grau notes:

Towards the end of Double Yoke, Buchi Emecheta has Miss Bulewao, the fictionalized representation of herself as creative writing lecturer at UNICAL, remark to her students: “You’ll be surprised to know that many famous writers write autobiographically.” (DY 156). While Calabar undergraduates might be surprised, it comes to no surprise to Buchi Emecheta’s own readership.

Most of her previous published works have been about the author herself. In Double Yoke, she presents herself as Miss Bulewao, introduced with “a jaunty touch of self-caricature”, with no attempt, apart from the name of disguise.

Autobiographical bits and pieces have their place in a work of fiction especially where such elements are well deployed. But in Double Yoke, such intrusions undermine Emecheta’s intentions and consequently the reader’s engagement with the thematic preoccupations of the novel. As Grau observed in ‘Double-Think…’:

But the problem is, who is the reader meant to listen to – Ete Kamba,  Buchi Emecheta or both at the same time? Is the creative assignment Ete Kamba’s story or an amalgam? The narrative structure of Double Yoke requires that the reader resort to a kind of double-think.

TRACKING EMECHETA’S IDEOLOGICAL INFLUENCE

If it appears that Emecheta’s style has not inspired much creative engagement, she has at least left in her wake successive generations of ‘bright, young feminists’ whose writings continue to challenge not only ‘the patriarchy’ but the notion of feminism itself.

If Emecheta regarded herself as a feminist in the lower case, her ‘daughters’ are less circumspect. While Emecheta’s womanist and motherist feminism shied away from what many of her generation considered to be problematic Western ideals in the 1970s, her daughters fully embrace it. Regardless, contemporary feminist writers in our clime, irrespective of preferred genre of expression, owe a debt to Buchi Emecheta’s bold treatment and subversion of traditional expectations of virginity, premarital sex, pregnancy outside marriage and other protocols that act as control switches to smother the full independence of the woman. Emecheta also shattered the notion of the ‘good, persevering wife’ material on the road to the emergence of the emancipated, modern woman now celebrated as the norm by younger writers.

LITERARY MENTORSHIP AS INFLUENCE

Direct mentoring of potential and aspiring writers can take any number of forms, including teaching residencies at universities, standalone writing workshops or simply a matter of personal interest. The objective of literary mentorship is to guide aspiring writers towards visibility realization. Such guidance can be in the form of university-based writer-in-residence/visiting professor programmes such as was undertaken by Emecheta at UNICAL between 1980 to 1981. It may also take the shape of creative writing workshops and residency projects such as Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop and Wale Okediran’s Ebedi Writers Residency. However presented, the primary objective is to impart and sharpen the writing skills of participants sometimes with the added bonus of post-project assistance towards the publication of manuscripts.

With such direct contact, one might expect some manner of influence. In Double Yoke, which has to be taken as the fictionalized account of Emecheta’s teaching experience at her residency programme at UNICAL, Emecheta promotes Ete Kamba, a male protagonist—a departure from her norm. The evolution of Nko, the main female character in the narrative, as the emergent African woman is seen through Ete Kamba’s patriarchal lens, a defeatist tack suggesting that educated females seem incapable of narrative prowess and voice to tell their own story to attract the attention of the visiting female role model.

Emecheta also established a publishing house—Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company—with branches in London and her hometown, Ibuza, which she ran alongside her son. The company is not known to have published any other writer apart from Emecheta herself.

PUBLIC ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF INFLUENCE

Public proclamation of the impact of an older writer in shaping the literary endeavor of a younger one is, perhaps, the most forthright and overt acknowledgement of the influence. Writers can be rather taciturn about admitting influence although some of that reserve is now beginning to dissipate in a world fuelled by social media. In Emecheta’s obituary, published in the UK’s Guardian, Busby writes:

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.

 Emecheta’s influence on Adiche does not appear to have ended here. After Emecheta’s stint at UNICAL in 1981, she returned to Nigeria in 1985 to co-direct the film production of her novel, Double Yoke. Not much is known of what became of the film thereafter.3 In 2013, a film adaptation of Adiche’s novel, Half of A Yellow Sun, was released to controversy at home and mixed critical reception abroad.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF LITERARY IMPACT AND INFLUENCE

It is the compelling desire of every writer to, firstly, impact on readers and the literary community with the message of a given novel. It is this role that enables literature to be the mirror of society. This base level of impact is a call to read and assimilate the story.

Beyond this lies the hope that a writer’s craft will influence other writers, usually up and coming, into not only buying into the ideological perspective of the older writer, but also be inspired to do something about the new insight gained about the prevalent nuances of the time. Perhaps no one is writing in Emecheta’s style. Perhaps she was unable to use her access to directly impact upcoming writers. But her contribution to African literature is unmistakable from the fiery defiance she bequeathed to her daughters

Author’s Notes:

      1. I have deliberately limited the scope of application to Nigerian contemporary female writers as there may be responses by writers on the continent to the dynamics of Emecheta’s writing that this writer may neither be aware of nor can defend in the scope of this intervention
      2. There is little to no publicly available information about Emecheta’s film and publication company, according to my secondary research. I attempted to reach Sylvester Onwordi, Emecheta’s son, through his social media handles through a mutual friend and activist, Salamatu Sule, but have not received a response.

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