her books illuminated in batik by Marina Elphick
Buchi Emecheta was a Nigerian writer who emigrated to the UK in 1960 and whose prolific output would earn her success and reputation during her lifetime. Her work is based on many of her own experiences as well as the struggles of African women to reconcile traditional roles with the demands of modern life.
Through her strength and determination for autonomy, against all odds, she became a critically acclaimed writer and winner of several prestigious awards, including an OBE in 2005.
Buchi Emecheta died in January of 2017, a huge loss to her family, but also to her many readers and young writers who she still inspires.
I felt compelled to write about my own connection to Buchi Emecheta’s work and share some of the batik artworks that she inspired.
In 1986 I was commissioned by Collins Publishers to illustrate the front cover of Buchi Emecheta’s autobiography, “Head Above Water”, it was my first job after leaving Goldsmith’s art school. At that time I had little knowledge of African writers, so learning about Buchi Emecheta’s world was a revelation to me; what an incredible woman and story teller she was.
Back in 1984 five of my batiks were included in ‘Brixton Baroque’ an exhibition of work by various local artists, curated by Rita Keegan at the newly formed Brixton Gallery. At the private view I was approached by an agent for Collins, who showed interest in my work and thought my batik self portrait of “Ophelia” would be suitable as a book cover for “Women Dreaming” by Brenda Mallon. All he needed was a photographic slide of the artwork. I was paid £100 just for the loan of the slide and felt thrilled at this unexpected route for my batik; but my aim was to continue to work in batik as a fine artist.
Click image to see enlarged
A year or so later I was telephoned by an art director at Collins Publishers who, having seen the image for “Women Dreaming”, wanted me to attend an interview with a few examples of my work. I rolled some of my life-sized batiks onto cardboard tubes and took them by taxi to Grafton street, Piccadilly where Collins was based. In the foyer the receptionist was somewhat taken aback by my load, telling me to wait while she telephoned the graphics department.
I sat nervously with my portfolio and bundled up 4.5 foot tall tubes. I hadn’t trained as an illustrator or graphic designer, consequently I didn’t know the protocol, so when I was introduced to John Munday with all my ‘stuff’, he seemed rather bemused as he lead me to his office. I remember being eager to show him how batik was an excellent medium for book illustration and started to unroll some of my work. I was soon told he didn’t need to see any more, I already had the job. I felt a little silly bringing so much along, believing it would take some convincing, but it had turned out to be a stress-free interview.
For reference I was given a streaky photocopy of a photo of Buchi Emecheta and a small part of the manuscript to “Head Above Water” to read. I was given free rein to express my own ideas for a portrait of the author and create the final artwork in my preferred medium of batik.
Head Above Water
Sketches and artwork
I made a few roughs in watercolour of what I had in mind for Buchi’s portrait, playing on the idea of water, dreams and rainbows of colour. The design was approved and I went ahead with the batik, a life-size portrait with decorative border. The job was ideal because I was developing my figurative style and was accustomed to portraiture in batik.
Thankfully it was a great success and lead to more work, re-designing the covers of Buchi’s previously published books, completing the set in a cohesive new style.
Batik is a wax and dye resist technique originating from Indonesia and has been around for thousands of years. It involves applying hot wax on cotton and then immersing it into cold water dye; the waxed areas resist the dye colour and allow a design or painting to be made. Once the work is dry the process can be repeated many times to achieve fine detail and variations in tone and colour.
Batik was an unknown and completely new technique to Illustration at the time and despite a mixed reaction from the world of fine art, it drew attention from several publishers. Admittedly this entailed some leg-work, cold-calling art directors from various publishers, describing batik and its luminescent colour. This lead to further interviews and book cover commissions.
By then I had learned it was best only to bring photographs of my batiks and one actual example, plus the printed proofs from Collins, which helped greatly.
Second Class Citizen
Click an image to enlarge and view within a slide show
In The Ditch
The Slave Girl
The Joys Of Motherhood
The Bride Price
The Rape of Shavi
The last cover I completed was for “Gwendolen” in 1989, the year my daughter was born.
Buchi Emecheta 1944 – 2017
Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta was born two months prematurely on 21st July 1944 to Igbo parents in Yaba, near Lagos, when Nigeria was still a British colony. Her fighting spirit was there right at the beginning and would help steer her through enormous difficulties later in adolescence and adult life. Despite economic disadvantages and racial and gender prejudice, Buchi Emecheta repeatedly rose above her circumstances.
From very humble beginnings and despite flagrant traditional prejudice against education for girls, Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta managed through sheer determination to secure a basic schooling for herself. She spent her early childhood at an all-girl’s missionary school and was only nine years old when her father died. At this time Buchi’s mother, Alice Ogbanje Ojebeta, returned to her native village of Ibusa and the community she knew there. Buchi was determined to continue her education so did not follow her mother to Ibusa and the restrictions of a more traditional life.
Knowing an education would qualify her to be the wife of one of the new Nigerian elite, she secretly sat for a scholarship exam and won a full scholarship to the Methodist Girls high School, where she would study until 1960. Buchi Emecheta had dreamt of being a writer from an early age, influenced by the story telling of her elderly aunt. Buchi was close to her aunt, who was the oldest woman in her family and in Igbo culture meant she held a place of respect. Known as “Big Mother,” venerable and nearly blind, she told visionary stories to the children about the family’s Igbo ancestors, stimulating the young listeners’ imaginations in the moonlight.
In 1960, at the age of sixteen, Buchi married Sylvester Onwordi, a student who she had been engaged to since the age of eleven. In 1962, after the death of her mother and now an orphan with two small children, she left Nigeria and followed her husband to London, where he was studying accountancy. The young family struggled in cold, grey London with poor living conditions and overt racial prejudice. Buchi noticed that her husband’s interest in his education had slackened and felt he had become lazy and unsupportive, which surprised and concerned her.
With her still limited English, Buchi was determined to improve her language skills so decided to begin writing, however three more pregnancies and three more children kept her from following that goal for a while. Furthermore, Sylvester’s lack of ambition forced her to go out to work. Her first job was at Chalk Farm Library, where Buchi became acquainted with colleagues and made new friends who were encouraging of her writing.
In 1965 Buchi found a job in the library of the British Museum and at the same time started writing her first novel. Sylvester was not supportive of Buchi’s efforts and was abusive, resenting her literary initiative. In 1966 when he burned the manuscript to her first book, “The Bride Price,” Buchi Emecheta left her husband.
At the age of 22, the single mother of five young children remained undaunted as she set out on her own to accomplish her goals. Facing harassment from landlords and financial difficulty, Buchi learned to be tough, and finally managed to get a council flat in Camden which she nick-named ,”Pussy Cat Mansions” from her novel “In The Ditch”. There Buchi met friendly, colourful characters, who despite their poverty would make her laugh again and gave her a sense of hope.
By 1970 Buchi had started a sociology degree at the University of London, and with the help of the newly discovered Inner London Education Authority she qualified for a grant. Her children were now all at school and Buchi was surrounded by a new group of intellectuals. They were interested in her life and how she had managed to go to university, a single mother with five children. This motivated a new style of writing, “social reality” in which Buchi recorded her experiences of black British life in London. She sent weekly journals to publishers, which after months of rejection were eventually accepted and published in the “The New Statesman” as a weekly column. This well respected socialist paper attracted a left wing readership and big names would contribute to it; suddenly Buchi Emecheta was in demand. A collection of these articles were subsequently compiled into her first published book, “In the Ditch” in 1972. The hardship and uncertainty that Buchi encountered in London during the early 1960s provided her with significant material for the books that she refers to as her ‘immigrant novels’.
Now fully qualified with an honours degree in sociology, Buchi Emecheta began her dual career: working as a youth worker with the London Education Authority, while writing at the kitchen table early in the morning, often with her children playing around her. After “In the Ditch”, her next novel to be published in 1974 was “Second-Class Citizen”, both were her ‘immigrant novels’ describing a woman’s struggle against sexual discrimination in Nigeria, racism, classism, and sexism as an immigrant in Britain. In 1976 “The Bride Price” was finally published, Buchi had re-written the manuscript that had been brutally destroyed by her husband over ten years earlier. It was the first of her works to be set in Nigeria, focusing on a young woman struggling with the cultural traditions that cruelly restricted her life.
Buchi was the author of more than twenty books and her graphic tales of child slavery, motherhood, female independence and freedom through education won her much critical acclaim. Her work included teenage fiction as well as plays; her television play, “A Kind of Marriage” was first screened by the BBC in 1976. Throughout 1979 Buchi lectured at a number of universities in the United States as a visiting professor, where she was received with welcome. Buchi followed her first degree with an MPhil in social education and finally completed her PhD in 1991.
Buchi Emecheta was a pioneer as an African woman writer in the UK, publishing a large body of work to international recognition. Several of her books are autobiographical in nature, feminist in spirit, and explore issues around identity in postcolonial Nigeria.
I have learned through reading her novels that Buchi Emecheta’s writing was intimately intertwined with her lived experience. She was a conscientious, resilient and loving mother to her five children, showing great fortitude in bringing them up alone. In her struggle for autonomy she encountered sexism, racism and domestic abuse but she would not allow herself to be daunted or discouraged. Her strength shines vividly through her writing, revealing a determined, courageous and dynamic woman who emerges with her ‘head high above water’.
Buchi Emecheta Quotes
Describing her career as a novelist, in the 1980s, “I am simply doing what my ‘Big Mother’ was doing for free about thirty years ago,” ”The only difference is that she told her stories in the moonlight, while I have to bang away at a typewriter I picked up from Woolworth’s in London.”
When asked whether she regarded her fiction as feminist, Buchi answered “I work toward the liberation of women, but I’m not feminist. I’m just a woman.”
“My hope for us all that not only will the nuclear war be a non-starter, but that the white European woman from the North will regard the black woman from the South as her sister and that both of us together will hold hands and try to salvage what is left of our world from the mess the sons we have brought into it have made. “ Buchi Emecheta, Head Above Water.
New Statesman, Sylvester Onwordi Remembering my mother Buchi Emecheta, 1944-2017
Julie Holmes, The Voice July 9, 1996 ‘Just’ an Igbo woman: Buchi Emecheta
A Sort of Career: Remembering Buchi Emecheta by Jane Bryce
*The Igbo are one of Nigeria’s main ethnic groups who in the past had created highly developed city-states, even empires before the Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century to conduct the slave trade.
*Nigeria was under British rule from 1906 until 1960.