Saturday, May 17, 2008

Buchi Emecheta

Some friends who had lived in Nigeria for a number of years extolled the writings of the expatriate Buchi Emecheta, and reading The Slave Girl (1977) I was not disappointed by their build-up. It is one of a series of novels on the theme of the subjugation of women in African society that she wrote in the 1970s (others are Second-Class Citizen, 1974, The Bride Price, 1976, and The Joys of Motherhood, 1979).

The story is about a seven-year-old Ibo girl who is sold into slavery by her brother after her parents die, in the early 20th century as Portuguese and British colonialism works through its endgame in upriver Nigeria. The writing is clear and direct, an omniscient narrator laying out the facts of the situation in a compassionate but unsentimental voice. It is not a horrorshow, although the slaves of a wealthy merchant woman are beaten and sexually abused. There is much humanity and Ojebeta returns to her home village after nine years in bondage, still a young woman and now determined to have as much influence in her own destiny as possible. She is like a Jane Austin character who happens to be an African from "the bush" with tribal scarifications on her face.

The pacing is excellent and I didn't put the 179-page novel down once I got in to it. It is didactic in a good way, with loads of information for non-African readers about village life along the river, the lingering influence of exploitative Europeans, class and tribal divisions among the Nigerians, and tribal customs around women and marriage. The critical appraisal of the status of women is aimed at Africans and non-Africans alike.

A long time ago in a "Philosophy Through Literature" course I assigned a novel by Tsi Tsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (1988), reputedly the first novel to be published by a Zimbabwean woman. It too deals with the stresses on young African women who have even the slimmest hope of economic and social advancement. The protagonist's struggle with an eating disorder was a good bridge between an account of post-colonial Africans and my mostly affluent students in Boulder.


praymont said...

What other books did you cover in the Philosophy Through Literature course?

Anderson Brown said...

Out of dozens of wonderful books one might mention, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment was loved by the students (I had been warned it would be too hard for them), Tolstoy's Death Of Ivan Ilich is one all undergradutates ought to read, women I would mentionj include Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Gertrude Stein, Ursula K. LeGuin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Marise Conde -AB