A Personal Tribute for Buchi Emecheta, Igbo woman storyteller: 1944- 2017

Photo© SABLE LitMag


Buchi Emecheta was the writer who started my love affair with African literature. She opened up my world when I visited my local library in Hackney and I saw a hardback book with a black person on the cover. The book was called Destination Biafra. I had no idea where Biafra was and I couldn’t pronounce the author’s name, but it looked like a book about Africa – I read the blurb at the back, it was –  and I was African and I thought that I had better know a bit more about it.

From Destination Biafra I learned what a civil war was; I learned that Nigeria covered a huge expanse in West Africa and that Nigeria was near my parents birth land of Sierra Leone and  that war was not just for adults – that it also involved and affected children, that looked like me and were a similar age to me.

Emecheta helped me to understand Achebe’s classic work. I had been given a copy of Things Fall Apart some years earlier by my uncle whom we stayed with on my first visit to Sierra Leone. He was taken aback that I didn’t know who Achebe was. I was equally taken aback – that a Black person had written a book!  I read it, immediately as I did with everything else that was placed in my hands, but I read without really understanding it.  Destination Biafra coloured in Nigeria for me and I was ready to tackle all stories African. I was able to enjoy Things Fall Apart when I read it the second time around because I had been introduced to Nigeria through Buchi Emecheta’s wonderful storytelling.

Later in life, the opportunity to meet Buchi Emecheta in person was presented to me through Vincent Magombe, the General Secretary of the African Writers Abroad (PEN) Centre. He wanted me to meet this African woman writer who cared about African writers living in Britain, struggling to live as writers. She had had to find her writing feet on her own, so one of the main reasons I became involved with African Writers Aborad was because I wanted to meet Buchi. Buchi was a member of English PEN but she realised after some time that they did not really serve the needs of African writers in the UK and that we needed an African-led organisation that did. One case in point was that we had to convince International PEN that a writer could still be called and validated as a writer even if they had not published a book.  She founded the African Writers Abroad Centre, assisted and led by Vincent Magombe who was a Ugandan writer in exile. The launch of African Writers Abroad was in Buchi’s garden at her home in Muswell Hill. I wasn’t there but I heard all about it! From AWA, there were enough Sudanese writers to form a breakaway ‘Sudanese writers in Exile’ group and from AWA after Vincent, I became the African Writers Abroad General Secretary and helped to launch PAN, the PEN African Network caucus. This was just one of the activities that Buchi instigated that few people knew about; one of the many sharings of herself to benefit other people, particularly writers and women. Buchi got things going, just by making herself available and accessible and would encourage and support people like Vincent and myself to lead.

She was a multifaceted fiction writer: she told her stories through novels, memoir, children’s stories and plays. She was also a publisher, setting up a company, to publish her autobiography Head Above Water she knew the power of owning your own.

Her value, her contributions to African literature, women’s literature, children’s literature, is extensive. Without putting the labels on herself, she was a pan-Africanist, a feminist, a publisher, a scholar, as well as a prolific writer. For herself she was simply an all-encompassing Igbo women’s storyteller – she stated this with a huge grin when I interviewed her for SABLE LitMag in 2004.

She was supportive of my endeavours. Buchi Emecheta was the cover woman for the official launch of SABLE Litmag.  The traditional white text/black cover magazine was colour reversed for the launch issue and I was honoured when she came to the launch at Manjaro’s a West African restaurant and bar on Holloway Road in North London.

She was a multifaceted fiction writer: she told her stories through novels, memoir, children’s stories and plays. She was also a publisher, setting up a company, to publish her autobiography – she knew the power of owning your own.

Buchi Emecheta was the first Black writer I knew to receive an OBE.  A dozen or so people came to a dinner to celebrate with her at a dinner that I organised in her honour at Beewees Caribbean restaurant in Finsbury Park. She seemed surprised that we would want to do this for her, she deserved no less, and really much, much more. She was a quiet inspiration in the sense that she would talk and encourage you to get on and do what was closest to your heart.

One of the things, we do, when someone such as Buchi has such an impact on our life, is to commit, or recommit ourselves to our own creative work, whether it be finishing writing our own novel, sending it out to agents to get it published, setting up or developing a creative projects on our own or with others.  But too often those commitments are not sustained. So if like me, you have made a commitment in Buchi’s name – let’s stick to it – let us move, to make those ‘promises’ happen whether it be for ourselves or to others. We are in a period of global crisis – our storytelling will save us as it nurtures us, as our ancestors watch over us.

In December 2016 when I was in The Gambia, I made a commitment to see three women writers who were important to me when I returned to the UK; one of those was Buchi Emecheta and that commitment, sadly for me was unfulfilled.

Buchi Emecheta was to have been the Special Guest Writer at the first SABLE LitFest in The Gambia ten years ago. She was determined to go, but she wasn’t well enough to travel. Even today, I’m asked why didn’t I bring her to The Gambia, so we will remember her in a celebratory event to honour her life and achievements at the next SABLE Litfest, which is now part of the Mboka Festival of Arts, Culture and Sport in January 2018.

More information on Buchi Emecheta here

Tributes, Publications and Events around the world for Buchi Emecheta

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