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'Just' an Igbo woman


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Buchi Emecheta arrives a few minutes late, somewhat flustered by the "hectic day and horrendous traffic". Dressed in a sparkly sequinned evening dress, confidence oozes from every pore. It is difficult to believe that this is a woman who, 24 years ago, arrived in England with next to nothing.

Buchi Emecheta has now written no fewer than 19 novels, the proceeds from which have supported her since 1972. Not only is she a successful author, she also has an astounding academic record. She began her university career as a single mother of five children at the age of 22. Taking a sociology degree and working to support her family, she would rise at dawn to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. She was heavily influenced by her Nigerian compatriot Flora Nwapa, and Emecvheta refers to herself as Nwapa's 'new sister.'

Her first article for a magazine, 'Observations of the London Poor' which became the novel In the Ditch, dealt with poverty in London and the difficulties of adjusting to a different culture. Emecheta drew her material directly from her own life, which she describes as "charting my own social reality," and she has continued to focus upon the lives of the Black immigrant woman.

Like her Nigerian ancestors, she uses stories to teach morals, to entertain and to instruct. She brings to her writing the Igbo qualities of vividness, economy and directness. She speaks for the marginalized woman. She views her writing as the "release for all my anger, all my bitterness, my disappointments, my questions and my joy."

Like Toni Morrison, she believes that "fiction has a vital social responsibility."

"In all my novels," she asserts, "I deal with the many problems and prejudices which exist for Black people in Britain today."

Buchi Emecheta is a lively, energetic and strong woman, seemingly unaffected by her success. She is passionate about her heritage, her culture and her writing. As both speaker and writer she has an important role. She highlights the problems and prejudices which many Black people face; she brings the voice of the Black person into existence, a voice which has suffered degradation and humiliation. Diversity

It is message which she is quite keen to take on the road through visits and workshops with ordinary people up and down the country.

"I believe it is important to speak to your readers in person... to enable people to have a whole picture of me; I have to both write and speak. I view my role as writer and also as oral communicator." In this respect, she retains the strong oral traditional of Africa. She combines cultural aspects of both societies.

Within the diversity of her performance, she brings the history and inspirations of her novels into the context of her life. She told me about her latest novel, Kehinde.

Kehinde is centered around an awareness of cultural priorities and differences. Emecheta recounted her experience of visiting a friend in a psychiatric hospital in London where, "out of the 11 patients, nine were Black,". She discovered that this wasn't because any of them actually suffered from a mental illness, but because they had all stated "that they heard voices and spoke to that voice."

Your 'chi' (or spirit) is regarded is part of everyday life in Igbo societies in Nigeria, whereas in spiritually lacking Britain it is deemed a sign of insanity. I asked her what happened to the women. "Well," she said with a grin, "the government introduced cut-backs and they were all released ... and," she says, "they didn't kill anyone!"

Strong and conscientious, she is a woman who has never forgotten her roots. She has written numerous plays for the BBC, as well as children's books, and has recently set up her own publishing firm, Ogwugwu Afor, with her journalist son to provide a much needed platform and financial support for Black artists.

Added to her commitments, she helps her extended family in Nigeria, "where I support 31 people." She keeps in touch with her ancestral roots by returning home for three to six months each year. In her own words, "I keep my two worlds, my two cultures". Going back there on these visits gives her the opportunity to confront the changing traditional culture in her native land.

Born into this Igbo culture which prized boys far more highly than girls, Emecheta had married and had a baby by the time she was 17. Desperate to fulfil her father's wish that a member of his family would visit the 'Kingdom of God' (England), she persuaded her in-laws to let her follow her husband to England, determined to be 'a good African wife.' She quickly realised that she had made a mistake and she broke free, and this is the beginning of her making a life for herself.

She describes those early days in London as a single mother as being "a very, very hard life, both financially and emotionally". I asked how she juggled the role of mother, student, worker and writer. She replied: "If I was not to perish here, I realised that I had to find something I was good at. My books are about survival, just like my own life." How did you manage to write with the children? She answers quietly and simply, "I had to write because of them." Heart

Her success could well have contributed to how she draws on lived reality for the basis of her novels, as autobiography is an intricate part of how she writes. I asked her about her use of this form and how she regarded it. "Well, I admit that I'm not really very creative. I have to experience something or know someone who has seen something in order to write convincingly. People keep on going back to them (the autobiographical books) because when they read them they see a mirror of their own lives." Emecheta uses autobiography to give a true picture of her world, a world which was for so long denied.

I was intrigued to see how she regarded the British society in which she lived for so long. Also her thoughts on her use of English has enabled me to tell my stories to a broader audience, but it will never be my emotional language. Igbo is my emotional language. English sounds colourless and grey in translation. Igbo uses colourful phrases, and the language itself will always remain closest to my heart." Courage

She continues to work hard. She followed her first degree with an MPhil in social education and finally completed her PhD in 1991. Alice Walker considers that Emecheta "integrates the profession of writer into the cultural concept of mother/worker" because she is both.

Buchi Emecheta is an important figure both as an author and as an individual. Her battle cry - "Black women all over the world should re-unite and re-examine the way history has portrayed us" - might have been uttered by many others, from Maya Angelou to South Africa's Bessie Head.
 PHILIP EMEAGWALI'S READING LIST
  The Spirit-Man: Nnamdi Azikiwe

  Nigeria Needs Me; Odumegwu Ojukwu

  In Honour of New Yam; Igbo Day/New Yam Festival

  Africa Has Driven Into Exile Its Best Thinkers

  Works From a Country in Progress; Nigerian Literature

  'Just' an Igbo woman; Buchi Emecheta

  Kehinde, by Buchi Emecheta

  Talking With Ben Okri

  A writer on trial for his life Anthony Daniels recalls his last meeting with Ken Saro-Wiwa

  Slow Start, Sweet Climax; Nigerian Music

  Blacks Are Key to World Progress, Historian Asserts

  Superbrain of Africa

  Please visit http://emeagwali.com for the most recent list.

She challenges and triumphs over the social and political restrictions of race and gender which many Black people face. She writes to educate White and Black society about the realities of Black experience. She uncovers the lies which colonisation wove. "At last," she states, "I have the courage to say I write for Blacks."

Emecheta tells the story of Black women as equals. She gives women positive roles, encourages education and is not satisfied just with the roles of wife and mother: "Women are capable of living for so many other reasons than men," she states with a coy grin.

Dangerously, I asked her about the issue of feminism and whether she regarded her fiction as feminist-based. "I work toward the liberation of women," she states, "but I'm not feminist. I'm just a woman."

Her story is one which gives hope to us all. She turned her dreams into reality. In her own words, whatever you want to do with your life. "Just keep trying and trying. If you have the determination and commitment you will succeed."

Interviewed by Julie Holmes in The Voice July 9, 1996.

Buchi Emecheta can be contacted through her publishers. father of the internet, supercomputer, IQ, quotes, family, timeline, bio, net worth, childhood, inventions, biography, computer, dale, invention, invented, Nigerian, African American, black man created

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