Nigerian-born novelist Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta died on 25 January. Andrea Enisuoh remembers her and her work and describes her legacy.
She reminded me of my mum, Buchi Emecheta did. Around the same age, single parent, working so hard for her children. But she was so much more than that. I called my mum in tears when I heard that Buchi had passed.
We talked about what our favourite books she had written were. We talked about the struggle both of them had faced raising children, with little or no support. We talked about Womanhood.
The first time I ever heard about Buchi Emecheta was at secondary school. A white woman teacher who recognised my love for reading called me back after class and pressed a book into my hand. “Read it and keep it,” she said. It was her own personal copy. I thought it a bit weird at the time, but when I read it I understood.
The book was In the Ditch. Semi-autobiographical but telling the story of so many women of African descent. Living in inner-city slums in Britain, often with abusive partners, then rising to their full potential and juggling family life too. I loved the imagery of her typing at the kitchen table while her children were making noise and eating breakfast. They added to the stories too.
It broke my heart when she told how she showed her husband her first manuscript and he destroyed it. “It was like he killed my baby” she said. But it was like any set back made her stronger — just like my mum.
Buchi Emecheta was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Daughter of a railway worker, she was of the Igbo African ethnicity and that is what she identified with. Though she was born into poverty she had aspirations and talent. Others struggled to make sure that she would be in education rather than selling oranges in the local market. She won a scholarship to a prestigious Methodist High School and mixed with the elite.
n the first year there her mother died. When holidays came, other students would return to family mansions. She would stay in the dormitory reading, writing and retreating into her imagination.
It was at the age of 11 that she first met her future husband, five years later he became her husband. He travelled to attend university in London and she soon followed with their two young children. The marriage was not happy.
That was made clear in her semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen . The primary character faced poverty, rearing children and affected by an abusive husband. Writing was her solace. in the ditch So when her husband burned her first manuscript, what would have been her first novel, she left him. He had “burned her baby”.
She set about raising five children alone, worked as a library assistant and studied at night to earn a sociology degree at London University. In the Ditch was a book based on her writing for the New Statesman. Columns that brought to life a woman trying to challenge the welfare system that not only affected her financially but also tried to label her family: a problem family. Second Class Citizen continued that narrative.
I first met Buchi Emecheta at a formal occasion. Then I met her informally and I almost swooned. We poured libations for her. Then I had the pleasure of helping to organise a celebratory event at her home. African sisters gathered together to hail her. I set next to her on her couch and she did what she did best: storytelling. She made me laugh and made me cry. She was very proud that she had just finally paid off her mortgage. She was proud of her children and laughed and joked about them.
If anyone knew Buchi they would know she had a great sense of humour. I have never felt so humbled by any author/writer in my life. She saw it in me and said “just write my dear, just write”. For her writing had been therapy and a career. A career that she seemed surprised by but ran with.
She said she was not political and not a feminist. Whether that is true or not, she influenced feminists and political activists around the world.
The celebrated African writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche has said she owes a debt to Buchi Emecheta” “I read and admired her books. Destination Biafra was very important for my research when I was writing Half of Yellow Sun. The book I adored most was The Joys of Motherhood, for its sparkling intelligence. And a certain kind of honest, lived, intimate insight into working-class colonial Nigeria.”
Mama Buchi Emecheta told me she was not really political. But with her words, her thoughts and her insight she inspired a generation. Race, class and womanhood are political issues and she addressed them all.
In 2010 a stroke curtailed her writing abilities and her mobility. I know that would have been very frustrating for her. What I will take most from her were her sage words to me. “Just write my dear, just write.” Rest in Eternal Peace Mama.
• Andrea Enisuoh is a writer, literary and community activist based in Hackney.