Tribute to Buchi Emecheta (1944 – 2017)

1 February 2017



The Council of the Caine Prize for African Writing pays tribute to Buchi Emecheta, a long-standing member of the Caine Prize Advisory Council, who died peacefully at her home in London on 25 January 2017, aged 72.

Buchi Emecheta was a Nigerian author who received great acclaim for her work both in the UK and Nigeria, as the author of more than 20 books. Born in Lagos, her father died when she was very young.  She won a scholarship to the Methodist Girls’ High School, married in 1960 aged sixteen, and had her first daughter that year. Her first son, Sylvester, was born in 1961 and in 1962 she joined her husband in London where he had gone to study. She had her second son in 1962, her second daughter in 1964, and in 1966, aged 22 and pregnant with her third daughter, she left her husband. While working to support her five children as a single mother, she wrote in the early mornings and studied at night classes to obtain an honours degree in Sociology.  Her first book, In The Ditch, details her experience as a poor, single parent in London. It was followed by Second-Class Citizen, The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, which was awarded the Jock Campbell Award, The Joys of Motherhood, Destination Biafra, Naira Power, The Rape of Shavi, Double Yoke, A Kind of Marriage, Gwendolen, Kehinde and The New Tribe. Her autobiography, Head Above Water, appeared in 1986 to much acclaim.

Chair of the Caine Prize Council Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley recalls: “Many years ago, shortly after graduation, I enrolled on a Birkbeck College course on African women writers led by Buchi Emecheta. A warm and spirited teacher, she sensibly introduced us to her books Second-Class Citizen and The Joys of Motherhood, and other passionate novels by writers of her generation. Buchi made us laugh and nudged us to be determined. She described rising at dawn to write before work and finding inspiration in her family's stories. She was a true pioneer and will be greatly missed.” 

Vice-President of the Caine Prize and MAN Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri said that Buchi Emecheta “re-ignited the rich place of women at the heart of African literature and wrote brave tales about survival and motherhood. Without her the current strong generation of women writers, who write well and fearlessly, would not exist. We owe her courage a debt of gratitude. May she rest in peace.”

Margaret Busby, Caine Prize Advisory Council member, was Buchi's editor and publisher at Allison & Busby for more than a decade in the 1970s-80s, and says: “It is with pride and a feeling of privilege that I now reflect on the fact that it was on my watch, so to speak, that her best remembered books were published - Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Destination Biafra (1982), and also her books for children. Sadly, her health deteriorated progressively over the past seven years, following a stroke, so her writing career was prematurely halted. But the resonant impact her work made on readers and fellow writers lives on."

Nii Ayikwei Parkes, 2017 Chair of Judges and council member, commented that “Buchi Emecheta was a model of the kind of humility that makes a great writer; never self-aggrandising, always ready to listen. What made her great was that she had, in tandem with her humility, a self-possession that meant that, like Toni Morrison, she knew her voice, her story, was central and complete, needed no validation from any quarter. Her confident representation of certain realities of Nigerian womanhood gave courage to a generation of young women of the global south to express themselves fully and unapologetically. I am certain her work has played no small part in the rich array of complex creative work being produced by young writers today. From her I learned that it’s important to put work out there to start a conversation, to be part of the world of conversations that affect us all as humans.”

Wangui wa Goro, Caine Prize Advisory Council member, added: “Buchi Emecheta's towering presence is always there and will remain.  She was a fierce trailblazer, both in her writing and in her insistence on being heard.  I had the privilege of knowing Buchi, both in the literary world and privately, and she was as funny as she was generous.  She was honest about the struggles in her personal life and in the publishing and reception of her work. Her stance and courage have been vindicated as through her legacy, she has opened the doors for, and to, so many.  She remains iconic to many African literature scholars and others, and especially for us here in the UK, both for her brave writing, and for her presence for younger generations of African women writers, such as mine.  I owe a great deal of my own inspiration to women like Buchi and feel blessed to have known her and her work.  May she rest in peace.”

James Currey, Caine Prize Advisory Council member and publisher of the African Writers Series at Heinemann, states that “Buchi Emecheta's work was of double importance. She, Flora Nwapa and Bessie Head gave women from Africa the idea that they might get published. She also gave women - and indeed men - the idea that they could write about the wider world of the diaspora."

She served as a judge for the Caine Prize in 2001, alongside J.M. Coetzee, Patron of the Caine Prize, the year that Helon Habila won. Nick Elam, Administrator of the Caine Prize from 1999 to 2011, recalls: “Buchi did not reveal her preference for Helon as winner, for fear of its being discounted as mere partisanship in favour of the Nigerian candidate, but she let out an explosive ululation when it became clear the decision was going his way.”

2001 Caine Prize winner Helon Habila, now Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, added: “Buchi's death is a tragic loss. She was a supportive, positive role model. Her personal story of overcoming adversity and abuse to become the writer she was is inspiring not just to women but to all of us. We thank her for her books.”

2004 Caine Prize winner and 2015 Caine Prize Judge, Brian Chikwava, added: “It is not just the stories Emecheta chose to tell that were bold and inspiring but also the story of her commitment to writing, even when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against her. The first and last time I saw her she told us, a group of writers, that if you’re writing just to get published and not to earn from your work, then you are a blockhead. That sets things into perspective for any beginner writer.”

Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree remembers first meeting Buchi Emecheta as a result of her contributions to the African Visions series at the British Library, programmed by the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, which ran from 2001 – 2005. Buchi was also involved in the Reading Africa libraries project organised and funded by SABDET (Southern African Book Development Education Trust) and co-produced by Lizzy with Kate Arafa.

Buchi Emecheta was a great supporter of the Caine prize and we are extremely grateful for her service as a member of the Advisory Council. She set a great example for a new generation of African writers through her life and work, and her work was an inspiration for the shortlisted and winning authors throughout the years.  She will be greatly missed.

Buchi Emecheta died peacefully in London on 25 January 2017.  She is survived by three of her five children.

--- Additional Comments and Tributes to note ---

Further tributes to Buchi Emecheta have been posted online by numerous friends and admirers. 

Read the tribute in the Guardian led by Bernardine Evaristo which includes comments from Margaret Busby, Aminatta Forna and Kadija Sesay here.

Read the tribute in the New Statesman written by Buchi Emecheta’s son Sylvester Onwordi here

Chika Unigwe posted on Facebook (26 January 2017) about meeting Buchi in 2004, the year Brian Chikwava won the Caine Prize: “I remember meeting Buchi years ago in London (with other Caine Prize shortlisted writers Monica Arac de Nyeko, Brian Chikwava, Parselelo Kantai and Doreen Baingana) and the conversation turned to the whys of our writing. A journalist asked if we wrote for the love of writing or for money. And we all said for the love of it of course. Buchi gave us an earful.  ‘You don't hear journalists say they do their jobs for the love of it! There is nothing wrong with making money from writing! It's a job like any other!’ (Or something along those lines) She taught me the very valuable lesson that pursuing your passion and making money from it are not mutually exclusive.”


For more information:

Henry Gilliver

020 7922 7719