Nnu Ego’s father is a great man, so much so that when his senior wife dies, her burial is a grand affair. She must take everything she will need in the afterlife with her, including her personal slave, a beautiful and vivacious young woman captured from another tribe. The woman begs for her life, but to no avail, she is executed. Her restless soul bonds with the recently conceived Nnu Ego and becomes her chi, her personal god.
The great father, Agbadi, feels compassion for the slain slave and to placate her angry spirit, frees all of his slaves and bans the practice of enslaving captives taken in conflict, but the legacy of slavery is not so easily expunged: Nnu Ego suffers the rage of her chi. Another character later comments on the irony of white settlers banning slavery and continuing to employ native black workers in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. This agitated, complex, multivalent engagement with troubled histories of slavery is characteristic of Buchi Emecheta’s fictional biography of an Igbo woman born to a prosperous, highly respected family in a village where pre-colonial lifestyles seem undisturbed. In contrast to this setting is the British colonial city of Lagos, where Nnu Ego, having not conceived a child by her first husband (due to the machinations of her chi) is married to a washerman. Having lived in comfort in Igbo villages, she spends her years in Lagos locked in a constant desperate struggle to earn enough money to feed her ever-expanding family, consoling herself with the knowledge that she has fulfilled society’s expectations of her as a mother and wife.
Recently I have been reading a lot of books by women that I find to be strongly feminist, and have what strike me as silly, patronising cover notes that are rendered ironic by the content. John Updike reckons, approvingly, that this ‘graceful, touching, ironically titled tale… bears a plain feminist message’. Although this is praise, I actually feel it creates a false and belittling impression of the work, which is not simple, in its structure or in its feminist ‘message’ . The book appears to reach a conclusion when Nnu Ego asks
God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?
and Emecheta elaborates in Nnu Ego’s thoughts as she names her younger twin daughters
The men make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That’s why when I lost my first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father and my husband — and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man’s world, which women will always help to build.
But there are several chapters to go, Emecheta is not done here exploring her interlocking themes. Significantly, Nnu Ego’s struggles are shaped by the contrasting environments she moves through. Emecheta suggests that the pre-colonial context offers a better way of life to Nnu Ego and to most others. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened to Oshia, for example, if Nnu Ego had not been forced to return to Lagos. However, Emecheta employs images of healthy female and especially male bodies to complicate this point, when Nnu Ego contrasts the younger and older Nnu Ego, or Nnu Ego herself with Adaku, and contrasts her first husband with Nnaife. The colonised body is shown as distended, aged, faded, odorous, somehow unnatural. Even more significantly, the colonised body loses its gender. Nnu Ego’s constant gender-normative criticisms of Nnaife’s work and body reveal how her socialisation in the village structures her critical, attritive, but overall solid acceptance of patriarchal gender roles. In fact, Nnu Ego’s trans-phobic horror of Nnaife’s job, and Adaku’s decision to seize independence by becoming a sex worker, suggest that gender roles may be less rigid in Lagos; the city is a site of disruption as it forces desperate measures.
This is not to say that the colonial context of Lagos is less patriarchal or less hostile to female independence. As if to foreshadow continual gendered violence, Nnu Ego is raped by her husband when she arrives. For me, this recalls bell hooks writing about African American disaporas
African men, even those coming from communities where sex roles shaped the division of labour, where the status of men was different and most times higher than that of women, had to be taught to equate their higher status as men with the right to dominate women, they had to be taught patriarchal masculinity. They had to be taught that it was acceptable to use to violence to establish patriarchal power. – bell hooks, We Real Cool
While her mother enjoyed comparative sexual freedom and qualified affirmation of her desires in the village, Nnu Ego experiences the moralistic, misogynistic Christian approach to sexuality enforced by Nnaife’s employer. The relationship between Nnu Ego and her husband’s inherited younger wife Adaku also provides rich material to investigate the complexity of village/urban gender dynamics. When Adaku arrives, Nnu Ego speculates, only partly accurately, about the kind of relationship the beautiful woman will have with her husband. Emecheta explicitly suggests that a senior wife must behave in some respects ‘like a man’ and Nnu Ego certainly feels unfeminine beside Adaku. She does not give birth to any sons, thus ‘failing’ to affirm her husband’s manhood, yet, resourceful Adaku attains a degree of autonomy and, significantly, the means of education for her daughters, thus casting off the male-orientation that Nnu Ego retains to the end.
Another ‘compliment’ from The Sunday Times (a British newspaper) reads ‘Emecheta is a born writer’. No doubt well intended, this comment is often made condescendingly about writers of colour, especially female, and even white women, who are seen to have produced great art by chance, by a freakish gift of talent, rather than by effort and intelligence. The simple and direct prose is full of irony “[Nnu Ego] crawled further into the urine-stained mats on her bug-ridden bed, enjoying the knowledge of her motherhood” and the story encompasses global events from an exploited and underinformed colonial viewpoint. Nnaife is forced to fight for the British in the war, leaving Nnu Ego to struggle on to provide for the family alone. Emecheta also explores the theme of tribal tensions in Lagos, where the Igbo are a minority among the Yoruba. Emecheta has these groups making near identical criticisms of each other, founded on generic fears of difference, despite their commonalities, for example the sense of community ‘we all belong to each other’ conveyed extraordinarily vividly in a scene of attempted suicide. Yet Nnu Ego’s thoughtful daughter (second born) Kehinde is able to cross these divides. As the narrative dissipates, hope flows out in many unexpected directions.