Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta OBE (21 July 1944 – 25 January 2017)
Buchi Emecheta, the pioneering Nigerian author whose 20 novels mined her experience as a black single mother in Britain to produce work that inspired a generation of black British writers, has died at the age of 72.
The author, whose work encompassed adult and children’s fiction, as well as plays, passed away in her sleep at her care home in London on Wednesday.
Her friend and publisher Margaret Busby paid tribute to her pioneering fiction, which explored sexual and racial politics in the Britain of the 1960s and 70s. “Given the odds she had to overcome, it was a triumph that she produced the powerful writing for which she will be remembered,” Busby said.
Author Aminatta Forna described Emecheta as “one of [Wole] Soyinka’s so-called ‘Renaissance generation,’ those Africans who came of age at the same time as their countries. She and other writers all over the continent had both the challenge and the joy that comes with being first, of writing Africa and Africans into literary existence. They embraced the task.”
Born in Lagos in 1944, Emecheta moved to England in 1960 with her husband Sylvester Onwordi, to whom she had been engaged from the age of 11. Her 1974 autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen described their unhappy and sometimes violent marriage, which included his burning manuscripts of her work. At the age of 22, Emecheta left her husband and worked to support herself and five children. During this time, she completed a sociology degree at the University of London and contributed a column to the New Statesman about black British life. The columns formed the basis of her 1972 book Into the Ditch.
Her talent was recognised in 1983 when she appeared alongside Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis on the inaugural Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. In 2005, she was made an OBE for services to literature. She published her last novel The New Tribe in 2000 and continued to work as a publisher and writer. However, a stroke in 2010 halted her writing. In her later years, with her son Sylvester, Emecheta ran the publishing house Ogwugwu Afor, which published her work.
Busby said she had recognised in Emecheta’s work the experience of many black women in the UK who did not have the same “stamina and signal determination” to speak out. “When I first happened upon her writing in the early 1970s, I was in no doubt about the importance of making her personal experiences – transmuted into autobiographical literature – known to the British society in which we both found ourselves,” Busby said.
Fellow African writers described Emecheta as an inspiration, not just for pioneering a route in to literature for other black women, but for tackling domestic abuse. “Her fictionalised life story showed women that they could survive and succeed through adversity and abuse and stand up for feminism – all without using those actual words,” said Kadija Sesay, friend and publisher of Sable LitMag. She said Emecheta was “a rock for women writers and single mothers in an unnassuming way … Buchi was warm, caring and humorous. We are going to miss her so much.”
British-Nigerian novelist Bernardine Evaristo described Emecheta as “an incredibly important” figure in the history of British literature. “The Joys of Motherhood is a scorching portrayal of a woman’s life in pre-independence Nigeria, and should be up there as the female, feminist counterpart to Chinua Achebe’s celebrated and widely taught novel Things Fall Apart,” she said.
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