by Wilfred Okiche
My first encounter with Buchi Emecheta’s work was as a secondary school student growing up in Lagos, anxiously waiting for my sister to be done with the novels and plays in her Literature syllabus so I could take my turn with them. Shadowing my sister like so, informed my eventual decision to take on Literature by the time I got to SS1 even though I was a science student. Out of a class of sixty plus, there were just two of us who preferred the company of books like the kind Buchi Emecheta wrote to the more sensible concepts of Geography and map reading.
Second Class Citizen was my introduction to Emecheta’s world of active feminism, presented not as vitriol to ignite, but as frank state of affairs commentary. The heroine Adah, whose experiences were based loosely on Emecheta’s own life was one that was a revelation to me, a reader used to navigating characters as either heroes or villain.
Adah and her brutish, husband Francis, plus the book’s other secondary characters,- like Janet and Mr Babalola,- occupied a more ambiguous grey spot. They lived, cried and bled as all humans do, but there remained a complexity to whatever their lives aspired to and Emecheta made sure to remind her readers of this. These characters could suffer through unspeakable acts of indignity, but the direct outcomes and reactions weren’t always cloaked in hatred or a need for retribution. Most of the time, they simply wanted to survive.
In my mind, though, Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood remains Emecheta’s magnum opus. Few novels leave such an indelible print on readers long after the last page has been turned, and fewer still endure with their distinct power and fearless voice. In just a few hundred pages, Emecheta details a riveting, all too familiar saga of love, betrayal, sacrifice and the ties that bind.
I remember reading the novel, entranced by the formidable character Ona, and her unusual romance with the very married Nwokocha Agbadi, a fellow with whom she would eventually bear a daughter. This love child, Nnu Ego grows up to become the typical Nigerian woman of the post-colonial era, one who is raised to aspire towards marriage and motherhood as the sum total of a woman’s entire existence on earth.
The heroine endures a feckless husband, hunger, starvation, a jealous rival, selfish children and multiple humiliations only to be driven mad by disappointment in the end, unable to take solace in the so-called joys of motherhood that everyone around her has promised will come in its time.
I remember zipping through the pages and going along with Nnu Ego on all her tragedies, all the while hopeful that in the end it would all be worth it, after all, the novel’s title did promise some cheer.
But by the time the last page was turned, it became quite clear that Emecheta was not in the business of fairy tales. Her agenda was to depict the stark, uncompromising reality of the Nigerian woman and the limited choices she comes to believe are available to her due to society’s patriarchal dictates.
The physical, emotional and psychological tortures that Emecheta has her heroine pass through depict an alternate version of what is still being sold as truth, one that is closer to reality than the airbrushed happily ever after endings that young girls are fed till this day.
In some ways, The Joys of Motherhood is an anti-fairy tale forcing readers to take a peep into a world that they would much rather pretend didn’t exist; in others, it is a damning study of gender and class disparities. But Emecheta isn’t necessarily looking to trade blames, she just wants to present the facts, in simple and understated terms.
I recall the first reading of The Joys of Motherhood like it was yesterday and the dull ache that the book left on me has intensified after learning that Ms Emecheta has passed to the great beyond at the ripe age of 72.
Emecheta is a survivor, clawing from the ruins of tragedy to make a better life for herself and for her family. Her novels, plays, and essays speak for themselves and mean many things to as many people that have read them.
But if there is one abiding lesson I have learnt from reading Emecheta’s work, it is that pain can be its own form of personal triumph. One just has to look hard enough to find it. We should always remain grateful that she lived a life, and lived to tell it.
Medic. Writer. Reader. Critic. Occasional ruffler of feathers. Works in a health centre in Lagos but manages to find the time to pursue other interests. His writing has appeared on various print and online platforms. He has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and appears on the culture tv show, Africana Literati. He tweets @drwill20