Reserve Text from Omar Sougou, Writing Across Cultures: Gender Politics and Difference in the Fiction of Buchi Emecheta. New York: Rodopi, 2002
Chapter 3: Articulating
(1982) can be added to these, for, even though it investigates new areas
-national politics and war -it rests broadly on women's preoccupations.
There seems increasingly to be an interest in national -Nigerian -issues,
and also a greater degree of equanimity or fatalism about the tone of
protest, as will be seen in the later chapters.
The Bride Price and The Slave Girl focus on the implications of such societal factors as tradition, Christianity and colonialism on the lives of girls and women.2 The novels retrospectively chart how these phenomena individually operate or collude to entrench the oppression of the female gender. Emecheta goes as far back as the nineteenth century in order to probe into womanhood in traditional, precolonial, colonial and urbanized Nigerian society, which might stand for Africa in general
The chronological order of production and publication of these novels does not correspond to the time in which the events and characters are set; the action of The Bride Price occurs in the 1940s onwards. The Slave Girl covers a span of time from the early 1900s to the end of the Second World War. Both novels are supposedly influenced by family history.3 The Joys of
completes what will be referred to as the African trilogy. This third
book spans a period of time equal to that covered by the other two novels
together. It delves into the mid-nineteenth century and ends in the
1950s, as if to offer an overview of the representation of African women.
My enquiry into the novels seeks to otfer insight not only into the
manner in which African women are defined by the world in which they
live, but also into the process by which they articulate their subjectivity.
In the present chapter I shall concern myself with The Bride Price
and The Slave Girl. The Joys of Motherhood will then be
considered alongside Destination Biaji-a.
will remember The Bride Price as the novel Adah wrote and that
her husband burnt to ashes. It was to be the first novel written by
Emecheta.4 It is the story of a young girl, Aku-nna, who marries Chike,
an osu or outcast. "Having been dedicated to a god, the osu was
taboo, and was not allowed to mix with the freeborn in any way."5
Emecheta re-creates "The Bride Price" as her third
novel. In the meantime, the first version of the book has undergone
a change which Emecheta explains with hindsight:
like that of the traditionalist, stresses the communal sense of belonging.
This text, like The Slave Girl, carries some significance as one produced by a displaced African writer living in a metropolitan environment and addressing an audience seemingly located in this area. Both of the narratives set in Africa are likely to be loci of tensions, assertions, silences, and perhaps mimicry. The Bride Price reveals ambivalent attitudes, also catalogued in The Slave Girl, such as rejection, endorsement of local customs, and identification with and resistance to the defining norms of the metropole. Indeed, matters correlative to or inherent in women's bondage, resulting not only
patriarchal ideology but also from colonial culture and politics and
the mode of production that comes along with these, are under consideration
in the fictional world of pre-independence Nigeria where the heroines
of The Bride Price and of The Slave Girl are found.
The narrative tone
of voice and ideology identified in The Bride Price have currency
in The Slave Girl, through which transpires a gendered perspective
sustained by a discourse aiming at subverting the privilege of patriarchy
and colonialism. In the following analysis, I wish to show how the texts
work towards a kind of mimicry of the centre or resist it, and to analyse
the manner in which they set out to undermine the societal practices
obstructive to women's fulfilment.
The Bride Price
is based on the notion of the subjection of women; as the title suggests,
it radically questions this custom. The commodification process is shown
in operation by means of an adolescent girl, Aku-nna. The idea is coupled
with slavery, and this time men are the victims of the traditionalslave-
holding system which, although nominally abandoned, still tacitly regulates
people's lives. This move away from the female-only emphasis reduces
the gender focus in a way. The parallelism established between the situation
of Aku-nna and the exclusion of the slave family, the Ofulue, serves
to condemn the discriminating principles in force in Ibuza society.
The slaves --osu as Emecheta names them --are lodged in a silenced space
by the "unwritten laws/ways' of Ibuza, a phrase that recurs repeatedly
in the narrative (46).
It is practically
the same voice that we hear in all the novels, including the African
trilogy. It is double-voiced, both castigating and condoning, affiliating
itself with yet dissociating itself from the dominant ideology of patriarchy
and the colonial culture. What justifies the double standard? Does it
The voice that
comes through the novels speaks within tile frame of the patriarchal
discursive field while questioning patriarchal assumptions. Similarly,
it speaks against a culture some of whose aspects are loathsome and
uncouth to a writer who has been to the centre or metropolis. The discursive
scheme at some moments discloses a sense of filiation with the centre
that indicates a distancing from the motherland. This disaffiliation
is expressive of anger and resentment at the reprehensible side of customs,
especially when they go against the writer's convictions -feminist,
in the present case. Whatever Emecheta's claims, her writing is feminist,
especially the first half of her production, from In the Ditch
to Double Yoke. The evolution of the narrative
There is evidence
that The Bride Price makes allowance, albeit unintentionally,
for a non-Nigerian readership. The target audience of both novels is
without doubt Western. The profile of this community of readers is primarily
defined by the text-producer, but it may also be predetermined by publishers
in some cases. The publishing story of The Slave Girl may be
an indication of the agency of marketing pressures on literary production
and their influence on the text. This novel, following the Heinemann
African Writers Series' silence after being solicited, was to be slightly
altered to allay the concern of a publisher about the taste of his non-African
readership. Head Above Water reveals that The Slave Girl was
turned down by George Braziller on the grounds that the language did
not quite fit Emecheta' s early books, and he "was not quite sure
how the average American reader would take it" (184). This book
was considered too African, according to Emecheta. Renaming the first
chapter "Introduction" ("Prologue" in the current
edition) was the subterfuge the agent hit on to get it published by
Braziller. This is an example of how the mechanisms of publication can
affect literary production -indeed, induce the filiation process.
On the other hand,
this occurrence requires attention as an indication that the audience
may be the determining factor in the ultimate creative output of writers,
especially such professional ones as Emecheta. The politics of literary
production in such cases may weigh on the orientation of a text. In
the case of Emecheta, one may wonder whether awareness of potential
audience interest did not orient her creative energy towards catering
to the needs of
'Programmatic negativity' may be part of the strategy behind the reproduction of stereotypes in Emecheta' s African trilogy, and which caused critics to take issue with her.8
7 As quoted by
Maya Jaggi in her review of Rob Nixon's London Calling: V. S. Naipaul.
Postcolonial Mandarin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992) in The Guardian
8 Some Nigerians
scholars are critical of Emecheta's treatment of traditional life and
9 Ashcrott Griffiths
& Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back, 4.
This view is relevant
to the writing of Emecheta. Ashcroft et al. maintain that in Naipaul's
The Mimic Men the idea of the imperial centre as locus of order is both
stated and deconstructed:
There is no centre
of reality, just as there is no pre-given unmediated reality. If language
constructs the world then the margins are the centre and may reconstruct
it according to a different pattern of conventions, expectations and
has been commonly agreed upon. "Yet," as Ashcroft et al. put
it, "such an ambivalence is by no means disabling, tor it provides
the tension out of which emerges a rich and incisive reconstruction
of postcolonial experience" (91). The same could be said of the
ambivalence symptomatic of Emecheta's works. That the narrative voices
she employs consciously signposts and documents items which do not fit
the frame of reference of a metropolitan audience seems to fall into
the category of mimicry rather than into that of appropriation or abrogation.10
Reading The Bride Price, one notes the many bracketed references,
the narrative voice's asides, and the long glossing notes to the reader.
This may be explained by the background of the author as a sociologist,
on the one hand, and, on the other, by the attention paid to a readership
for which anything falling outside the realm of the normative dominant
culture needs to be justified. This justification may appear, too, as
a sort of legitimization rather than something motivated by empathy
alone. More than once, Aku-nna's attitude and feelings are thought worth
explicating: "However in Nigeria you are not allowed
10 These strategies will be examined in Emecheta's later works, especially The Rape of Shavi; see Chapter 6 below.
A tissue of ambivalence
spreads over the text, just as in The Slave Girl, which are grounded
on the centre/margin binarism. Such an ambivalence is best explained
as partaking of the struggle for power, "that power focused in
the control of language."JJ The Bride Price was presented,
in the history of its production as provided in Second-Class Citizen,
as a struggle to control the language of the centre, of authority, by
a writing subject from the periphery. The novel also reflects the manichaean
opposition of colonizer/colonized, dominant/muted. In this respect,
it may be useful to note that these binary opposites also characterize
domination by the "free' over the slaves in colonial Ibuza. The
dominant principle, then, denotes the site of authority, but we can
easily perceive that the dialectic of dominance ensures that the dominant
patriarchy in Ibuza is under thecontrol of the colonial metropolis while
holding sway over women and slaves. A similar pattern is found in The
Slave Girl. Both novels display ambivalence about the colonial culture
in the same way as they do about Igbo culture.
The Bride Price
On the other hand,
the narrator, juxtaposing the followers of traditional religion and
the Christians at the funeral of Ezekiel Odia, emphasizes the discrepancy
between them and shows appreciation for tradition. During the wake,
autochthonous songs sound harmonious, whereas Christian hymns "though
sung in Ibo to a heavily Africanized beat, [...] still had far to go
before they could compete with the traditional death songs" (41).
The picture is a clear indication that Christianity alienates these
people, as is the case in The Slave Girl. This is dramatized
in the resolution of the quarrel between
11 Foucault, quoted in The Empire Writes Back, 167-68.
traditionalists for which of them will sit nearer the mortal remains
of Ezekiel. The treatment of the funeral reveals the narrator's loyalty
perhaps that part of tradition which is consistently depicted in a positive
light. In Lagos, Auntie Uzo's stories are appreciated by the narrator
and Aku-nna. But the stated philosophical and didactic value of such
folktales is slighted by the Tarzan-film evocation of "wild dances
of coal-black maidens wearing short raffia skirts" they conjure
up (29). A similar device is the elaborate description of the funeral
dance as a nostalgic representation which, upon closer examination,
reveals a tension between the narrative voice and the main character:
from latter's perspective, the beauty of the dance and its rhythm finally
look chaotic and wild, so that the compound resembles a battlefield
and items lying around are "like swords and shields of the Zulu
warriors after their numerous defeats by the British soldiers"
(41). Such textual events betray the nostalgia of a narrative voice
looking at these customs from a Western angle. Furthermore, they suggest
a gesture towards a Western audience whose exotic expectations the text
seeks to anticipate.
The centrepoint of The Bride Price is the tension between traditional patriarchal values in Ibuza and the requirements of the modern world. The link between The Bride Price and slavery is forged effectively. Both structures of dependence derive from customary practices, and slavery serves as a metaphor for women's experience in traditional society as the tethered chattels of patriarchy. The members of Aku-nna's family are introduced early in the
first chapter with
an emphasis on the father's illness and the mother's barrenness since
the birth of her second child (Ma blackie has not conceived since her
husband, Ezekiel Odia, returned from the war). Here we are in Emecheta's
t'avourite terrain of struggle, the assimilation of womanhood to mothering
Ma blackie is said, by a narrative voice disapproving of this tradition, to have sought a cure for infertility:
Ma blackie is an
important character through whom Emecheta represents womanhood as defined
by the gender ideology at work in traditional society. She remains an
absence, an absence confirmed by Ezekiel Odia' s final words to the
children: "Always remember that you are mine." This injunction,
repeated at the close of the first chapter, expresses the might of patriarchy.
Ma blackie's physical absence symbolizes her erasure. Tradition sends
her for a cure to facilitate childbearing and denies her claim to her
family. Just as she is not present in the initial part of the novel
and during Ezekiel Odia' s funeral, so she is absent from her daughter's
Jife. Ma's physical strength and stature as "a giant of woman [...]
so tall and straight" is countered by her selfeffacement before
the authority of tradition.
While Ojebeta's loss of her mother is an absence in real terms, Aku-nna's mother is present but missed. This absence denotes lack of proximity and affective relationship, and is due to Ma's flight into patriarchy. Her deep involvement in the economy of Okonkwo's household is repeatedly resented by Aku-nna and the narrative voice. The mother is so preoccupied that she is unaware of her daughter's growing-up problems. The narrator very often moves into close emotional identification with Aku-nna, and this produces a joint perspective, as when Ma's levirate is mediated:
The text emphasizes
that the bond with her father is stronger than that with her mother.
The father is grievously missed:
the mother occurring after the death of the father and consequential
upon the mother's second marriage is a fairly common theme in literature,
and psychoanalysis has thrived on how it affects children regardless
of gender. The narrative designates Okonkwo and tradition as obstacles
barring Aku-nna from her mother's love. Tradition is instrumental in
Akunna's doom, and kindles anger in the character: "Oh, what savage
custom was it that could be so heartless and so make many people unhappy"
Aku-nna, more than
her brother, finds herself caught in the web of tradition, at the centre
of which are domestic slavery and The Bride Price.
the heroine the name Aku-nna, which is a derivation of Ojebeta's father's
praise-name in The Slave Girl, Aku nna yi ka meaning "your
father's wealth is the greatest" (31). But The Bride Price
makes Aku-nna signify "father's wealth"; a debunking metaphor
for patriarchal expectations with regard to daughters. It is suggested
that Okonkwo is likely to negotiate his niece's bride price with Chike's
father despite his slave status because he needs the money to acquire
a higher title, that of Eze. Thus the bride price, which at the beginning
was said to be destined to pay her brother's school fees, changes function
and beneficiary. This transfer and Aku-nna's name, "father's wealth,"
are textual strategies to undermine traditional practices that oppress
women in order to secure them as male property.
The romance thus goes against the community's conventions, and to the detriment of Aku-nna. Aku-nna as a girl suffers more than Chike, in that she has no say in her destiny. Society has cast her in a mould within the confines of which she must remain. Their courtship, portrayed in romantic language, remains surreptitious. "Sometimes they listened to the music of the river and the noises made by the leaves of the nearby bushes, but in the main they listened to their hearts" (129). The courting is mediated by way of such romantic symbolism as birds building nests (109- 10) and by such other signifiers as angels, softness, richness and the like. Even the rescue operation that
The narrative voice endorses Aku-nna's resistance to forced marriage and identifies with her when Okoboshi wants to force her into bed (170). The lie Aku-nna tells in order to escape from rape -that she has slept with Chike is tantamount to what Susan Gubar calls a "potent act of resistance" in her essay'" The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Creativity.,,13 Just as the wedding sheet of one princess refuses to display the mark of virginal blood, so Aku-nna remains silent about her own virginity, although she Imows that this entails public humiliation and chastisement that will also affect her family. The lie pertains to the trope of refusal and silence in the face of patriarchal imperiousness. This self-inflicted disgrace in order to escape the sacrificial altar of tradition is equivalent to a questioning and rejection of harmful mores. Aku-nna's act becomes a twofold sacrifice: one made on behalf of love, the other in the name of the other female members of the community. Further developments suggest physical self-sacrifice, enhanced by her elopement with Chike.
12 I discuss African
romantic fiction in Chapter 5 with reference to Naira Power and
13 Susan Gubar,
" , The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Creativity,"
Events are packed
dramatically into the two last chapters of the novel. Following their
elopement, the couple is shown on the verge of living happily forever,
as romantic fiction would have it. Aku-nna obtains a teaching post,
and is expecting a baby. It is then that the monstrous aspect of traditional
superstition is conjured up in terms of the taboo about her. She is
an Ogbanje "a living dead," and such people are said to be
likely to die in childbirth.14 Moreover, local superstition has it that
failing to pay The Bride Price may cause the bride's death at
aspects of traditional customs also appear in the manner in which Aku-nna
and her mother are turned into scapegoats for Okonkwo's humiliation.
He is the vehicle through which the narrative represents the worst part
of tradition, such as his exposing his backside to seal his repudiation
of Ma blackie and his employment of occult means to retaliate against
Aku-nna. His treatment is a metonym for patriarchal injustice, greed
and ugliness. He is portrayed as a covetous, self-centred man, unfair
and despotic in his polygamous menage. His behaviour towards Aku-nna
makes him a destructive person, hence a symbol and tool of the notorious
side of tradition which Emecheta here decries. She expresses disapproval
of traditions that are deemed no longer relevant in this era, deploying
through Okonkwo a counterdiscourse to the prevailing adulation of traditional
social formations found in mainstream African literature. That his name
can be associated with Achebe's well-known hero seems to be intentional
and parodic, and further reinforces the challenge of patriarchal ideology.
The chapter "Tempting Providence' is perhaps one in which the narrative voice conflates more with Aku-nna' s to disparage oppressive customary practices. The slippage is clearly achieved in the episode where Aku-nna is under severe pressure following the night at Okoboshi's. There the narrator loudly expresses sympathy for the heroine, saying "but she was wrong," then goes on to describe the assault from a distance before shifting back to mingle her voice with that of Aku-nna. The perspective of the heroine blends with her own; the character's thoughts are thus mediated in a manner that points to closeness of the two voices in condemning the traditional laws:
The reader is left
in some slight doubt as to the real cause of her death. Was it the result
of Okonkwo's curse, or because she was an ogbanje? Did she die because
of her anaemic condition? The novel provides no definite answer. But
the narrator unambiguously concludes the novel with these often quoted
The Bride Price sanctions the might of tradition and the helplessness of the individual, especially the female, against the community governed by the law of the father. The scathing manner in which oppressive customs are denounced leaves no doubt about the militant ideology driving the novel, which clearly supports feminist ideals. It equally emerges from this reading of the text that anger with the motherland and the mother and awareness of an alien readership tinge the narrative and sometimes invest it with a vision close to that of colonial stereotypes. Again it appears that the attitude towards tradition is fickle, inconsistent, as if subject to ambivalence. There is pride, nostalgia and aversion, notably in the shifts in perspectives. It is noteworthy that positive aspects of traditional ways are highlighted in Lagos. By contrast,
In Ibuza, apart
trom the tact that people "seemed more relaxed, more naturally
beautiful than their relatives in Lagos" (75), nothing but the
ugly side of tradition is shown, except for the initiation dances. It
is significant that Emecheta's impeachment of local practices is all
the more patent when these hamper temale fulfilment; even the theme
of slavery and its condemnation are conveyed via Aku-nna's predicament.
Despite its dogged resilience, tradition seems to be losing out to modernity,
which is depicted here in the economic status and confidence ofMr Ofulue,
who is sharply contrasted with Okonkwo. Otlilue epitomizes, perhaps,
the ideal modern African man. IS Chike's tather and his osu family are
represented in a light that is the antithesis of Aku-nna. Their social
freedom, symbolic of victory over traditional institutions, does not
match the parallelism established between the women's condition and
their own within in the social formation depicted in the novel.
Ambiguity sustained in a "double-voiced discourse" is a feature of this novel and of The Bride Price, which are in dialogue with both masculine and feminine traditions and with Western and African literary traditions. However, double-voiced discourse is expected to shift focus under the influence of one of the binary poles that constitute it. The prologue similarly shifts the focus to the female goddess of the river. Weare also informed that the women ofUmusuiagba do not subscribe to the fact that The Bride Price should tie a woman to her husband to the point of alienating her, as traditional culture allows the man to be the master once The Bride Price has been paid.
Apart from this,
the prologue ushers the reader into a world not yet tampered with by
the colonial order. Contact with this order occurs in Chapter One in
the aftermath of the massacre at Benin. The indigenous population is
mostly unaware of the subsequent appropriation of the land, since they
cannot distinguish between the Portuguese and the English. That in itself
points to the fact that the native population, confronted with the imperialist
system, lacks a a frame of reference to decipher it. "Felenza,"
the title of the chapter, suggests the alien nature of the phenomenon,
located in the corruption of "influenza," as the German nerve-gas
effect was deceitfully explained
war in Europe disturbs the agrarian community, wreaking death more rapidly
than the familiar cyclical droughts of nature. The helplessness of the
Ibuza community in the face of this new language of power and technology
indicates the opposition between their culture and mode of life and
the technological power emerging from the West. The effect of the "felenza"
plays a part in the subjugation of the female hero: Ogbanje Ojebeta.
Her name and its
cultural connotations root her in a muted mythic world, that of the
spirits in the traditional signification system. This world functions
as a "wild zone" for earthly beings. The contiguity of this
sub-text, represented by the concept of Ogbanje and its meaning in the
world of Ibuza, with the supra-text developing around the subjection
of Ojebeta since her birth will be exploited to good effect by Emecheta.
She uses it to inscribe the narrative in a gender-oriented rhetoric
that exposes the dark side of a world that shackles women, silences
them, and reduces them to inarticulate members of society.
In the narrative process there appears another aspect of Showalter's double-voiced discourse, which can be detected in the inversion of the notion of the strong Igbo women as related by anthropology. 19 This idea, invoked in the prologue, is displaced if not abrogated by the life story of Ojebeta, who is becomes more and more firmly entrapped in structures of muteness as a consequence of the loss of both her parents, victims of "felenza." This event places her in the hands of her brother Okolie, designated by the patriarchal order as responsible for her. That she falls under the sway of a brother, next in the male power hierarchy in the absence of her father and elder brother, thrusts her into the "symbolic order" of the Lacanian world.
is grounded on two concepts: the imaginary order and the symbolic order.
The imaginary order corresponds to the earliest stage of the child's
total union with the mother, prior to the oedipal crisis. It is a period
when there is no "difference, no absence, only identity and presence."
The oedipal crisis marks the entry into the symbolic order, represented
by the father's interference, which splits the dyadic relation between
mother and child by preventing the child's access to the mother's body.
Thus the phallus, symbolic of the Law of the Father, the threat of castration
in Freudian theory, signifies separation and loss for the child. As
a result, the desire for the mother, imaginary unity with her, is repressed.
This is a primary repression in Lacanian theory. The transitional phase
from the imaginary to the symbolic order seems to be the "mirror
stage" when the baby can identify itself with its own reflected
image, or with another child it sees. The "body ego" or separate
self is alienated in the Other. The mirror stage is a dual relationship
transformed by the father into a triangular structure of relationship
which ushers the child into the symbolic order.
says "I am"
it says "I am that which I am not." Thus, Lacan posits, "the
unconscious is structured like a language."
Toril Moi expands
on this in a way that opens possibilities for applying Lacanian theory
to domination as exercised by patriarchy and imperialism:
The Other, in Moi's
fonnulation, is the locus of the constitution of the subject or the
structure that produces the subject. Furthermore, the Other is the differential
structure of language and of social relations that constitutes the subject
and in which it must assume its place.
resultant from the repression of desire for "symbiotic" unity
with the mother can appear in one sense as desire. In this, every desire
behaves the same way as language, moving ceaselessly from object to
object or from signifier to signifier. As there is no final signifier,
in the words of Moi, there is no final satisfaction of desire (the lost
harmony with the mother); the end of desire would only be possible with
death, which Freud regards as Nirvana.
Julia Kristeva offers a further articulation of Lacan' s linguistically embedded theory, which Toril Moi summarizes. Kristeva considers the signifying process as being constituted by the interaction between the imaginary and the symbolic order, for which she substitutes the terms the "Semiotic' and the "Symbolic." The semiotic is linked to the chora (enclosed space, womb). The chora is described by Plato as "an invisible and formless being which receives all things and in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible" (161). Signifiance takes place when the semiotic continuum is split. This "splitting of semiotic chora enables the subject to attribute differences and thus meaning to what was the ceaseless heterogeneity of the chora" (162). The mirror stage, in Kristeva's view, "opens the way for the constitution of all objects which from now on will be
life can be read through Kristeva's semiotic. Indeed, the trope based
on the traditional concept of the Ogbanje and the spirit world looks
very much like the continuum Kristeva describes in the semiotic, the
rupture of which allows entry into the symbolic. Ojebeta' s father,
in accordance with their community's belief, takes action in order to
sever Ojebeta's ties with the world of the spirits. In the metaphysics
of the land, in order to ensure the Ogbanje a stable and continued life
on earth, the link should be broken. This stage of bondage to the metaphysical
world, which I shall call the first act of Ojebeta' s drama of subjection,
ends with her entry into both the corporeal world and the symbolic order.
The cutting of
her charms under Ma Palagada's injunction marks the second stage of
her bondage, a material one effected by way of commodification. Ojebeta
is literally sold to Ma Palagada, who is trading at Otu Onitsha market,
an outpost of British colonial monopoly, early in the twentieth century.
The sale is doubly significant: it heralds, for Ojebeta, entry into
an order governed by the market economy and exploitation of domestic
slaves. This order corresponds to the nascent stage of capitalism in
colonial Nigeria in the fictional world Emecheta creates.
The cutting of the charms somehow prolongs the metaphor of subject constitution. It is synonymous with severing the ties with the metaphoric imaginary order of relative security in the motherland, Ibuza. The removal of the charms is also consonant with the splitting of Kristeva's semiotic chora; the thetic phase will enable Ojebeta to attribute signification to the world she finds herself in, that of the market economy and subjugation. She tries to articulate the dialectic of the symbolic order (patriarchy and imperialism) that rule this world. The narrative renders the event as loss of identity through a character's perspective:
The cognitive process
indicates the structuring of a fragmented "selt'." The writing
subject clearly points to this in the proleptic ending of the paragraph.
This quotation rei ties the underlying parallelism between slavery and
gender subjugation. "Whatever identity they had was forfeited the
day money was paid for them" extends to cover Ojebeta's marriage
years later. The novel revolves around this idea, imparted by an undisguised
feminist narrative voice averse to the kind of marriage that defaces
It is fitting to
consider another aspect of Ojebeta's subjectivity: the significance
of the mother. The concept matters because of the emphasis on the relationship
of Ojebeta to her mother, which is suggested in their closeness as terminated
by the mother's death while her nipple is still in the six-year-old
with the mother, physical and affective, is paired with the father's
caring memory. The rapport with the father is buried in this novel;
it remains deep and mysterious. The motif recurs in The Bride
Price and The Joys of Motherhood. In The Slave
Girl, the relation functions as a "sub-text, [...] indicated
through ellipsis and metaphor."22 The textual construct of The
Slave Girl forces the father in the sub-layers of the narrative
and foregrounds the mother, the absent figure to whom Ojebeta turns
in times of despair. The absence of the mother constitutes a lack, one
that the character registers as negation of security and nurture. In
The Bride Price, as has been seen, the mother-daughter relationship
is depicted negatively to the benefit of the father. The father is where
security lies in Second-Class Citizen andThe Joys of Motherhood,
the absent mother being compensated for by the father figure.
Ojebeta does not
substitute the distant relative and slave owner Ma Palagada for her
lost mother, but the slave common-room instead. Security lies there,
and in her charms. The intimacy of the room, the closeness of her mates
-this is the space in which the repressed discourse of the muted finds
its outlet. The Slave Girls confide in each other. It is in this
room that Ojebeta
22 Sherry Dranch,
quoted by Ann Rosalind Jones. "Inscribing Femininity: French Thcories
of the Feminine." in Making a Difference, ed. Greene &
In other respects,
the symbolic order is synonymous with the colonial order both for Ojebeta
and for the country at large. This order is dominated by capital and
its language, which the indigenous people have to learn and master.
Emecheta's novel denounces both the transatlantic slave trade and the
domestic slaveholding system, and fashions a further metonymic construct
to condemn the oppression of female subjects by The Bride Price.
is given gender connotation at the very start when Okolie defines the
commodity exchange value in terms of The Bride Price to be paid
by a husband when she grows up. The violence done to The Slave Girls,
starting with their sale into forced labour in the household and at
the market stall and going on to sexual molestation and physical violence,
echoes the violence Fanon sees in colonialism.23
The vile character
of the feudal practice of slaveholding and the collusion with the colonial
order is mediated through Ojebeta, as is the predicament of women generally.
Sometimes the voice of the narrator comes unmediated. These moments
correspond to an emotive involvement that bridges the seeming distance
the third-person narrator mostly observes, as in the following examples
when the narrating voice comments directly on events. The narrator spells
out Ma Palagada's calculated move by rectifying Chiago's mistaken interpretation,
which bears out her collusion with the Church in
23 Frantz Fanon,
The Wretched of the Earth, tr. Constance Farrington, intro. Jean-Paul
Sartrc (Les damnées de la terre. 1961: Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1967; repr. 1990: ch. 1)
This dialogue with
the characters continues elsewhere, as in the following passage where
the narrator is reacting to Ammana's question:
The Palagada and
the market women function as representations of the outlets of capitalism.
The women traders, too, have to articulate their own experience in the
new language of metropolitan power by redesigning their relation to
capital in the manner of Ma Palagada. She converts to the imported faith,
Christianity, a signifier of colonial ideology. The two systems are
conflated in another signifier of the imperial economy: The United Africa
Company (UAC), depicted in the novel as the first European trading company,
the head of which is the husband of a Mrs Simpson who runs the Christian
Missionary Society (CMS). Mrs Simpson is depicted as the archetypal
cultural imperialist invested with the white man's burden.
money and power; conversion to it bestows on the merchants privileges
such as the monopoly and preferential trade terms that Ma Palagada enjoys.
The ideology of the colonial order penetrates the semiagrarian Otu Onitsha
and its pre-industrial economy in the guise of "evening tea."
Evening tea and a walk, sartorial variety -these become the identifiers
of those who, like the Palagadas, subscribe to the new ideology and
constitute a new class in the process offormation.
It is significant that Mrs Simpson is shown in action, not her husband. In doing this, Emecheta rewrites the representation of the colonizing 'Other' as a male person, a patriarchal figure, as is customary in African fiction. The Slave Girl reminds us that the white man seldom brings his wife to the colony (124). The white woman is significant in many respects. First, she serves to highlight Ma's alienation from the market women. Secondly, she is emblematic of cultural dominance of the symbolic order into which Ma Palagada gains entry by means of calculated bartering. Thirdly, Mrs Simpson symbolizes the third stage of Ojebeta's bondage, a mental one that determines the fourth stage of her enslavement, Christian marriage in the rhetoric of the text. Mrs Simpson,
is operative here, opening up the rift between the two worlds and emphasizing
the notions of class and race. This is an aspect of Emecheta's questioning
of the metropolitan politics of representation. Cumulatively, the double-voiced
discourse recounts the girls' fascination for the new religion they
conceive of as the greatest thing to happen to them, and adopts the
Fanonian view of religion under colonialism:
Ma Palagada represents a type of African women who, in the eighteenth century, established commercial relationships with the Portuguese and the French merchants on the West African Coast. Most of them entered matrimony or simply entertained concubinal liaisons with European sailors. Emecheta's novel grants these women a rare appearance and significant treatment in African literature in the person of Ma Palagada.26 In the opinion of the historian George E. Brooks, Jr.,27 the socio-economic role of such women is
25 Frantz Fanon,
The Wretched of the Earth, 32.
26 See also Tita
Mandeleau's novel Sign are Anna (Dakar: Les nouvelles editions
27 George E. Brooks, Jr., "The Signares of Saint-Louis and Goree: Women Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth-Century Senegal," in Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. ed. Nancy J Hatkin & Edna G. Ray (Stantord CA: Stanford UP. 1976): 20.
not sufficiently researched; his portrayal of these women matches that which Emecheta creates tor the fictional character of Ma Palagada:
Ma Palagada was
'kept' by a Portuguese merchant and slave-dealer who left her a fortune.
This enabled her to build her wealth and enjoy privileged treatment
from the representatives of the colonial corporations like the UAC.
Emecheta projects through her the function of a buffer class, which
such women and their descendants served as in the colonial era.
Ma Palagada's collaboration
with the colonial authorities reaches its peak in the representation
of the women's war of 1929. They reacted to the census of women and
their property as ordered by the colonial administration for purposes
of taxation. Hitherto only men had been subject to direct taxation "in
accordance with the British imperial philosophy that the colonized should
pay the cost of co!onization."z8 In the fictional recollection
of the movement, the attitudes of the Palagada couple and their son
Clifford stand in stark contrast to the anger of the majority. The unrest
in the market shows Ma Palagada in a light that is markedly different
from the image of a strong influential woman with which she is otherwise
represented. While the other women prepared to fight because this issue
involves them directly, Ma Palagada intends not to "take part in
such senseless fighting," and wants men to handle the situation
themselves. "It is all silly and idiotic," in her view a negotiated
solution with the white men is better (132). Later, Emecheta speaks
of this "war" as an example of women's unity, not simply of
rich market-women but of the grassroots.
Ma Palagada is
nonetheless a significant figure, second only to Ojebeta herself. Ma
Palagada' s position in the novel seems to be a way of hailing the power
of women and their ability to adapt themselves to new relations of
28 Judith Van Allen, '" Aba Riots' or 'Igbo Women's War'?" in Women in Africa, ed. Halkin & Bay, 71.
The practice of
slavery is seen in a double vision. It is a "necessary evil,"
as stated in the title of one chapter; then this notion is mediated
through Ma Mee and restated at the end of the chapter. This is a tactic
which the textproducer uses to impress on the reader the fact that slavery
allows Ojebeta to escape hunger and want. At one time we are told that
at least the slaves were sold with their stomachs. The sense of relative
comfort can be detected in Ojebeta's reaction when The Slave Girls
are given a bale of soiled muslin to make dresses for themselves:
an "elite slave" destined to be a wife to Clifford, Ma's son.
She is a fairly literate seamstress by the time Ma Palagada dies. This
death, as one of The Slave Girls says, "is the end of the
, as the narrator
suggests. The new religion frees Ojebeta, insofar as it permits her
access to literacy and to a trade; this Emecheta calls a "mushroom
freedom." In the semantics of the text, Ojebeta anticipates a kind
of liberty without the food she used to eat at the Palagadas'; that
freedom quickly blooms and dies, too. The termination of this period
is suggested by Ojebeta's musings on the threshold of her imminent liberation
from the Palagada yoke:
her freedom in relation to being married or belonging to someone else,
subordinating her identity to dependence, The parallelism between slavery
and subordination to males is sustained throughout the narrative. This
strategy aims to impress on readers the relationship between marriage
and the commodification of women and girls. Both the traditional institutions
of the bride price and of domestic slavery are shown as expressions
of a violent and repressive ideology implemented by occult psychological
threats such as the curse that would befall slaves failing to remit
their purchase dues, or lost babies and other calamities for brides
with unpaid dowries, as seen in The Bride Price. Ojebeta gives voice
to her utter subjection to and dependence on the patriarchal dictates:
"My bride price will be enough to do that, because my brother told
Ma to free me as soon as my future husband repaid her with my bride
Ma's death allows Ojebeta to venture into what Cixous refers as to the "dark continent" which she urges women to penetrate in order to discover themselves!9 She returns to her sources, as it were, to rediscover herself. The return to Ibuza could also be said to resemble entry into Showalter's "wild zone" of female experience, because the character has so far not been able to look into her herself or evolve within a community of women other than that
of the slave girls.
The return to Ibuza also compares with a return to nature after the
stay at the Palagadas.
sweet home," as the chapter is entitled, is depicted in two conflicting
languages reflecting the double-think I pinpointed earlier. Elaine Savory
Fido picks up the point that Emecheta has perpetuated and reinforced
certain negative stereotypes about Igbo culture and Africans in her
writing, and sees this as the symbolic equivalent of a "false self,"
which "is not only the result of patriarchy but the result of trauma
between mother and daughter." This may result from an attempt to
solve the loss of the mother and of the line of communication with other
women by turning to men and trying to please them.3D The "false
self," Fido contends, when discussing The Slave Girl, "is
created for the false mother, to hide the real selfwhich can no longer
grow in harmonious relation to the real mother." A significant
point here is the fact that the writer, just like the woman solving
the problem of the missing mother, might as well create a false self
in order to win the sympathy of an audience he/she knows is alien to
the world he/she builds in the fictional text. This endorses the problem
of filiation and mimicry based on "programmatic negativity"
which I referred at the beginning of this section.
to Ibuza is contrasted negatively with the warm and enthralling welcome
accorded. There is a shift in the narrative voice from positive to negative,
enthusiasm to dejection. The interplay of voices alternately discloses
attitudes favourable to Ibuza and negatively disposed. The voice fuses
with Ojebeta's perspective on entry to the native soil. People are repellent
"in [their] faded outfits." Ojebeta's clothes were like velvet
compared to what the market women wear (182). This picture is not an
unfamiliar one; earlier in the narrative, at Otu, Ojebeta had registered
the Ibuza women in cheap canoes, shouting instead of talking, and badly
dressed (131). At the time she was being "polished," as an
appreciative narrative voice reports, "gone was her abrasive Ibuza
accent; she now spoke like a girl born in Onitsha, with rounded 'Rs'
and a slowness in delivery, each word drawn out" (131). The 'refined'
Ojebeta in the midst of women perceives other differences: women are
ugly, with tobacco-stained teeth. The sought-after belonging produces
a sense of "otherness." Ibuzapeople are the 'Others.'
30 Elaine Savory
Fido, "Mother/lands: Self and Separation in the Works of Buchi
Emecheta, Bessie Head and Jean Rhys," in Motherlands, ed.
Nasta, 337, 341. See also note 8 above.
The othering process
is mediated through Ojebeta, but, as already suggested, the narrating
voice shares in it, as can be seen in unmediated enunciations such as
"However, their open hearts compensated for their small defects"
(182). Contradictory propositions alternate in this chapter, which shows
Ojebeta learning Ibuza ways, such as the operation of collective consciousness.
The tacit acknowledgement of the cause of her long absence as being
a sojourn in Olu Oyibo rather than enslavement works like a plot of
concealment to avoid shame, and the narrative voice marvels at this.
a patriarchal estate. Ojebeta does not respond to the memory of her
mother insistently evoked by the wife of Ukabegwu; she tries, rather,
to find out where her father's compound used to be. The mother/land
seems displaced by the patrilineal structure of Ibuza. In the same way,
the fact that women are referred to as non-subjects identifiable -and
defined only -by their husbands' names evidences gendering in Ibuza.
Ojebeta recognizes filiation to the male gender, in that after her subconscious
search for the father's estate she expressly enquires about her brother
Okolie, despite his vile deed. This reminds the reader of a proverb
recurrent in The Bride Price, "the day of blood relatives, friends
would go." Okolie is the blood relative. Ibuza permits a look into
the community of women and how it functions; Ukabegwu's wife and Auntie
Uteh are the agents representing traditional Ibuza women. The former
defends patriarchal ethos, the second is ambivalent. Ukabegwu's wife
asserts the patriarchal values while the narrator explains to its implied
foreign audience that "in Ibuza women were usually more conservative
than men" (185).
(though there it is Naife who takes part, not Nnu Ego) and in Gwendolen.
Versions of it can be found in many other African novels, where it involves
all the members of a village community living in a town, for example.
Ojebeta's group operates as a 'class' apart or, more precisely, an underclass
in the emerging monetary economy, and within the restricted economic
circle of Ibuza.
The sojourn in
Ibuza falls within the cyclical structure of the African trilogy, which
is based on journeying from one environment to another. In The Slave
Girl, the pattern is Ibuza to Otu Onitsha (semi-urban) and back to Ibuza,
then on to Lagos. In The Bride Price we have a reversed pattern of Lagos
to Ibuza, then on to Ughelli (urban). Depending on the novel, the journey
is synonymous with a return to the motherland. It is generally a quest
on the part of the alienated or nostalgic displaced person for the "self,"
for a secure place in which to rebuild a fragmented subjectivity. It
is sometimes psychologically motivated, whether on a small inland national
scale or on a transcontinental one.
The quest is a
staple of fiction dating back to the early days of literature. However,
it is useful to examine its signification and interpretation within
the framework of women's studies. A point of reference may be Susan
Willis's study of the journey, in which she concentrates on the novels
of Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall and Zola Neale Hurston and addresses
the notion of the community, the journey and sexuality. The journey,
our focus here, is treated as a means to self-knowledge through re-entry
into collective historical experience, itself defined by the journey
from Africa into slavery, and from the (North American) rural south
to the urban north. Willis observes:
Journey in the
novels by black women is not just a structuring device upon which the
author might conveniently string the incidents of the plot. Rather,
the notion of travelling through space is integral to the unfolding
of history and the development of the individual's consciousness with
regard to the past.
In The Slave
Girl, the journey seems to be both a structuring device and an expanded
metaphor for the process in which Ojebeta gradually comes to know who
she is. She gathers up the collective experience of The Slave Girl,
figurative and actual. By using the trope of the dead slave girl, the
Ogbanje myth and the voyage between different spheres of experience,
Emecheta contrives a metonymic treatment of the African woman's experience.
The journey assumes another dimension in Second-Class Citizen,
as already seen.
In The Slave
Girl, the journey to Ibuza illustrates Ojebeta's subjectivity, the
articulation of a self realized in community and moving towards consolidation
and independence. Yet, and quite purposefully, we are made aware of
the precariousness of her newly found personality by her uncritical
espousal of the colonial culture. Her attachment to the Church gives
her the illusion of elite status in Ibuza, and makes her dream come
true: Jacob appears as a God-sent saviour from the lock-cutting threat.
The narrative moment when this happens is almost a celebration in which
both the narrator and the character participate. Jacob's aura and smartness
disarm both the narrator and Ojebeta.
The narrator undercuts
the condemnation of colonialism that functions as a sub-theme in the
novel in the way she reports how the heroine perceives her future husband
on their first meeting:
and in tune with the double consciousness in the narrative, the forthcoming
union is described in a critical perspective summarizing the gendering
This reminder has
the effect of making Ojebeta subscribe to it, "being philosophical
about the situation." "No woman is ever free. To be owned
by a man is a great honour," reifies Uteh. Emecheta's heroine sees
marriage as an end by agreeing to being a slave to a master of her choice
(208). The total surrender of Ojebeta is carried right through to the
end of the novel, where she is objectified anew, as a living commodity
to exchange for cash in an all-male transaction. A feminist narrative
perspective dominates the final stage of the story, where tradition,
slavery, colonialism and marriage are yoked together as oppressive factors
for women. "So as Britain was emerging from war once more victorious,
and claiming to have stopped the slavery she has helped to spread in
all its colonies, Ojebeta, now a woman of thirty five, was changing
In concluding this section, I would suggest that in both of the novels examined here Emecheta sets out to counter the dominant discourse of phallocentrism. She takes a subversive perspective that is antagonistic to the initially imparted image of women in African literature. The paradox underlying the discursive construct of the novels derives from the double-voiced discourse employed in both works. It is expressive of anger at the patriarchal order at home, doubling with a desire to be accepted by the centre, and of profound disagreement with metropolitan colonial assumptions. What Richard Terdiman notes about counter-discourse applies to Emecheta's conscious or unconscious strategy in these texts:
The works of Emecheta
that I am concerned with locate themselves, as pointed out in the general
introduction to this study, in the margin of two discursive formations:
that of literature dominated by men, and that of a society under the
domination of patriarchy and foreign power. This is what is implied
by Elaine Showalter's notion of "double-voiced discourse,"
a discourse that speaks within the dominant patriarchal formation and
against it. Thus the fiction of Emecheta holds, at its heart, the paradoxes,
ambivalences and contradictions accounted here as double-voiced discourse
resulting from the pressures exerted on the writing subject that are
transmuted in the texts. Anger and revolt of a feminist thinking writer
against gendered societal norms harmful to the female subject, yet a
feeling of belonging to the society under attack; vigorous disapproval
of colonial facts, yet an attraction to some aspects of Western ways
-all conglomerate to produce a complex view.