What Flora Nwapa’s writing lacked in artistry, she made up for with the purpose and defiance which filled their pages. For her, writing stories was not something you did because you wanted to do but was what you did because you had to do it…
By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
In 1966, Heinemann, under the African Writers Series (AWS) published Flora Nwapa’s first novel, Efuru, the first adult novel by a woman from Nigeria. This marked a watershed for women in African literature, and from that move, a number of novels written by women emerged over the following decades.
Efuru tells the story of a beautiful woman, Efuru, who went from the tragedy of a marriage where her husband abandoned her and the loss of the child who was the only fruit of that marriage, to the misery of another marriage which ended on account of its childlessness. The former marriage was a result of the naivety of Efuru’s youth; Adizua, the man whom she married had fallen short of her from the get go. Her second husband, Gilbert was better off, but having been chosen by the goddess of the lake, a spiritual privilege which subjected Efuru to childlessness, her second marriage, too, headed for doom. Eventually, Efuru emerges as a woman conscious of all her ordeals, full of questions for how the goddess treated those who she had chosen to worship her, by subjecting them to barrenness.
The success of the book lies in its portrayal of the inward and outward lives of women in such vivid terms. Even with its structural flaw, the book’s depiction of the psychological state of its female characters was better than whatever had been seen in the novels by her male counterparts from Nigeria.
Despite Efuru being the first of its kind, its publication was greeted with widespread criticisms for its weak prose, and the summation of the book failing to live up to the expectations of a work of fiction. One of the very popular criticisms the book received was from the South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, who said Efuru was more of a sociological work than a work of fiction. Eustace Palmer, the Sierra Leonean critic argued that the novel left the reader with the impression that its author had not yet mastered her craft, and could have told its story better with half its length but for all the unnecessary sociological information in the book. The Guyanese poet, O.R Dathorne opined that, “Efuru, the main character does not posess distinctiveness… Nwapa’s style of writing is unimaginably pedestrian. Her heroines are good women, but their passivity contributes little to the action.” H.L.B Moody criticised the book on the grounds of its weak structure, and many of the book’s critics were unable to recommend the book for reading beyond secondary schools. If literary criticism were anything to go by in the determination of how a book was to fare in the world, Nwapa’s Efuru would have been destined for doom. This, however, is a matter for further discussion in this essay. The critical hostility which surrounded the release of the book was not the only challenge it faced, however. The newly independent Nigeria was in turmoil at the time, having been plunged into a succession of coups which soon snowballed into a civil war. As a result, the book did not get enough publicity in its first few years of release.
Nwapa, whose literary career was just beginning, had to flee Lagos, back to her hometown, a fate which she shared with Chinua Achebe and millions of other easterners living and working in various parts of Nigeria at the time. The Nigeria-Biafra war, a bitter genocidal war eventually lasted 30 months, ending on January 15th 1970. Nwapa soon completed her second book, Idu, a novel about a couple, a woman Idu and Adiewere her husband, who loved each other to the point that even death was unable to come in between their love. Part of the story the book tells is how, when Adiewere eventually dies, Idu sought to die, too, so she could join him.
Heinemann published Idu in 1970. It was after its publication that Nwapa got fed up with the difficulty she faced with getting published in London and the treatment of her works by the European Canon, and decided that she wanted to be more influential in steering the ship of her literary career. As such, she came upon the necessity of having indigenous publishers handle the publication and distribution of her works. She founded her own publishing company, Tana Press in 1974 to publish and distribute her books more effectively. In 1975, she published Never Again under her own publication, and in 1976, the book was also published with Nwamife, another indigenous publisher for more widespread publicity. By self publishing her books and collaborating with other indigenous publishers, Nwapa was able to lead a more comfortable and prolific literary career, despite the lack of appraisal from the literary establishment. The reluctance of Heinemann to produce and distribute Nwapa’s works to meet up the demand in Africa had constituted an obstacle to Nwapa’s literary career. Ama Aita Aidoo, the Ghanaian playwright and short story writer, a younger kin of Nwapa, would recount later, probably from similar experience, how the publishing establishment kills the creative spirit of writers by refusing to publish and distribute their works. Hence, Nwapa’s decision to tow the self-publishing path and bring her books closer to its African audience is regarded as an effort to resist the demotion of her works to the literary backwaters.
According to V.S Naipaul, “Books go into the world like orphans. They live or die according to their destinies.” Same could be said of the destiny of the writer who writes books. The importance which Nwapa’s work came to embody in the African literary sphere eventually proved too much to be overlooked. And despite the propositions of many critics — many of them accurate even in their harshness — Nwapa’s books came to hold a place of prominence in literature on the continent. Her books were credited for changing the narratives surrounding the place of women in the Igbo society, using as a yardstick, Oguta, from where she came — and also pointing out the changing roles of women in the rapidly changing society, altered by the iron fist of colonialism which sought to relegate women, as well as the winds of a genocidal war which blew women out again, dangerously close to the war fields in the hidden markets to fend for themselves.
One of Nwapa’s earliest literary achievements was establishing the difference in the narratives between women in African and those in European societies. Nwapa believed that when it came to the African woman, the gender factor was secondary to class and race. She reiterated how, historically, in the Igbo society, talented women were not forced to stay at home but were allowed to take on various trades and occupations in farming, and so played very important roles in the society. Nwapa recounted that in Oguta where she came from, women who had either attained very respectable age or achievements were allowed to break kola nuts, a task which was mostly reserved for men in most Igbo societies. Nwapa’s worldview, having been shaped by coming from a society as her native, Oguta, hence struggled to identify with the European model of feminism, which she saw as tackling different set of problems as that which women faced where she was coming from. She held a mentality that women from many other places in colonial Europe and even Africa aspired to, and it reflected in her characters. Consequently, it seemed to readers that her female characters which included resilient farmers, brave wives who played important roles in the lives of their husbands, successful and independent traders, all embodied the whole essence of feminism. Hence her name continually came up in spaces where feminism was discussed within the context of women’s literature from Africa.
Born Florence Nwanzuruahu Nk’iru Nwapa, on January 13th 1931 in Oguta to Christopher Ijeoma, an agent for the United African Company (UAC) and Martha Nwapa, a drama teacher, Nwapa was educated in Oguta, attended secondary school at the Christian Missionary School in Lagos and Ibadan. At the age of 22 in 1953, she gained admission into the University College, Ibadan where she studied Arts, graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor’s degree at the age of 26. She moved to Scotland shortly afterwards where she earned a Diploma in Education in 1958, and became an educator upon her return to Nigeria. In childhood, she had fallen in love with stories, both in oral and written forms. She would read as many books as she could lay hands on and go after the elderly women in Oguta who told children folktales, seeking them to tell her stories. This fascination for stories followed Nwapa into adulthood and would later materialise into the passion which edged her on into becoming a novelist.
By the late 1970s, Nwapa was one of the most prominent female writers and publishers in Africa and her works and life had inspired many other women, including Buchi Emecheta, Zaynab Alkali and Ifeoma Okoye, to step up the mantle in the literary pursuit. That she was a woman writing and publishing her works, mostly independently, was a great motivating factor to many. Emecheta in her novel, Second Class Citizen depicts her admiration for Nwapa, when her protagonist, Adah, during an argument with her husband about the feasibility of a woman being a writer, refers to Flora Nwapa as an example of a woman defying the odds. Emecheta, in her autobiography, Head Above Water, had also admitted to having been inspired by Nwapa.
Nwapa who had been able to scale her hurdles and continue her literary pursuit despite the difficulty which pervaded it. What Nwapa’s writing lacked in artistry, she made up for with the purpose and defiance which filled their pages. For her, writing stories was not something you did because you wanted to do but was what you did because you had to do it.
“When people ask me how I manage to find the time to write so much, I tell them it has nothing to do with time. If you have a story inside of you, it will haunt you until you tell it,” she once told Marie Umeh in an interview shortly before she died from pneumonia in Enugu in 1993.
Perhaps, the biggest lesson to learn from Nwapa’s literary career and the place she came to occupy in history is the role of perseverance in the projection of artistry. Intelligence and creativity, sometimes even when profound, struggle to find for themselves an impressive place in the world. As important as the brave stories Nwapa told and her love for the art itself, was her determination to put her work out irrespective of how the establishment or the critics regarded them. Nwapa understood that the role of art critics was important and was very graceful in how she handled criticism, yet she understood that a story, no matter how flawed, had its audience if it got to the right hands. Eventually, her works found their way to the spaces where they were not only celebrated, but given their historical dues. In 2017, on Nwapa’s posthumous 86th birthday, she was honoured by Google when she was used as the profile for the company’s doodle campaign. One year earlier, on the Golden jubilee of Efuru’s publication, there had been widespread discussion of the book and its influence in African literature as a bedrock of feminism in African literature. Around the same time, the filmmaker Onyeka Nwelue released a revelatory documentary titled, “House of Nwapa” which detailed the life and times of the writer, and served as a monument to remember her legacy and the world she left behind.
Of the writers of her generation, Nwapa was one who largely carved out a path for herself when she seemed to fall out of place with the establishment. It is important to pick a leaf from her, about the role grit plays in fostering literary legacy. It is this lesson that the life and work of Flora Nwapa, almost more than that of any writer, teaches.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a freelance writer and editor who regularly contributes pieces on literature, culture and music to Afrocritik. You can contact him at Chukwuderamichael@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @ChukwuderaEdozi.