Credit: Sylvester Onwordi
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Remembering my mother Buchi Emecheta, 1944-2017

The Nigerian-born British novelist Buchi Emecheta wrote a regular New Statesman column which became her first book, In The Ditch, in 1972.

An Ibusa village girl, brought up in Lagos of the 1940s, Buchi Emecheta had a life that was always overshadowed by the poverty and the deprivations of her early years. She was a poorly, undernourished child both physically and emotionally, but with a ravenous desire to survive.  She lost her father - who doted on her - when she was eight years old. Her father, my grandfather, was a railway worker who died of complications brought on by a wound contracted in the swamps of Burma, where he had been conscripted to fight for Lord Louis Mountbatten and the remnants of the British Empire.  With her father’s passing, Buchi and her younger brother were left at the mercy of a mother who, due to lack of education, was unable to appreciate the talent in her young daughter.  

It was a benefactor in Ibusa, Mr Hallim - a former government Permanent Secretary – who, according to family legend, spotted the intelligence in the young girl with the large, forever watchful eyes. He gave her the support she needed and encouraged her to continue her education, rather than work in the market selling oranges as her mother wanted. 

Buchi won a scholarship to a prestigious high school in Lagos where she mixed with children of the Nigerian nobility. In her first year there her mother also died and she was passed back and forth between distant relatives within the Ibusa community in Lagos. During holidays, while her classmates returned to their family mansions, she elected to remain in the empty dorms taking refuge in books and in her imagination - regaling her friends on their return with the wondrous things she had done during the summer. 

She used to tell us as children that if you believe in yourself strongly enough then you could make any dream come true. It was almost an article of faith with her, one that made her the forceful character she became, but which could also render her impatient with people who were less driven than she. When her schoolteacher beat her in front of the class for announcing that she wanted to be a writer, she bore the pain in silence and became more determined than ever to make her transgressive dream a reality. Years later, in the UK, when her husband burned the handwritten manuscript of her first novel, she again quietly determined that she would find her own way.  She surprised him with a separation and set about raising her five small children (of whom I was the second eldest) alone, while studying at night school for a Sociology degree and working by day as an administrator at the British Museum.

Some writers write because they have to. Buchi was a compulsive writer. She once admitted half-jokingly that writing kept her sane and that this and the love of her children were what made her get up in the mornings. She would write whole manuscripts long-hand before later transcribing them to type. Hardly was one novel finished when she would be starting on the next, bouncing ideas around the kitchen table which was where she did her typing - an activity that seemed as normal to me and my siblings as her cooking or her storytelling.

I recall as a child at the close of the 1960s being very poor - living, in a series of one- and two-room slum apartments, and later, on various council estates. By my mid-teens I realised that we had somehow become comfortable and middle-class. We could afford holidays and even a car - a red Austin 1100, in front of which I remember my mother proudly posing in her black gown and mortarboard for graduation photos, to send to Ibusa to let the folks back home know that she had “arrived”.  

These changes were reflected in Buchi’s often-autobiographical literary output, from In The Ditch, her 1972 breakthrough novel (with origins in a New Statesman column), which dealt with a single black mother struggling to cope in England against a background of almost Dickensian squalor; Second-Class Citizen (Allison & Busby, 1974), which focused more squarely on issues of race, poverty and gender, through Gwendolen (1989), The New Tribe (1999).

The main source of inspiration for her writing, however, was Africa, and in particular the villages of Ibusa in Eastern Nigeria where her family came from. Even though she had spent a relatively brief period of her childhood there, the villages and the stories she heard on her visits with her mother left an indelible mark on the impressionable young girl and became the lodestone for all she wrote. In The Slave Girl (1977, for which she won the New Statesman’s jock Campbell award), The Bride Price (1976), and the ironically titled The Joys of Motherhood (1979), she poignantly captured, in a manner reminiscent of her male contemporary Chinua Achebe, a vanishing Igbo culture in the process of transition to modernity. 

Buchi was flattered by her success, but also bemused and irritated by it. Though a feminist in all she said and did, her feminism was very much inscribed in her identity as an African woman, with African values, and political discourse did not always chime with the rhetoric of her sisters in the UK and US. Writing was a vocation but it was also a job, a way to feed the family and keep the wolves from the door. Always preferring the life of the family, she would return from some far-flung conference and plonk herself in front of the telly with a sigh of relief to be back home.

A constant refrain throughout my childhood was that she would one day return to Ibusa - a place that took on an almost mythical significance for us within the family.  She made many plans to return over many years, even building a house in the village while working as professor at the University of Calabar – an experience that formed the basis for her novel Double Yoke (1983).  But having lived in the UK for so many years, she found it increasingly difficult to adapt to life in modern Nigeria. And Ibusa, in her long absence, was transforming itself into a town and a conurbation that she barely recognized any more.

The death of her two daughters affected her in later years, and I felt that as a person and as a writer she was never quite the same again. As she entered middle age, some of her drive seemed to leave her and the passion for writing that had fuelled her for so long became swallowed in a private grief. My deepest sorrow was that Buchi did not understand how much she was loved and appreciated by her readership, not only in continental Africa but all over the world. I also felt that always living a provisional life, based to some extent on survival, she did not really get to enjoy the full fruits of her success. A few weeks before receiving her OBE, she suffered a devastating stroke, which left her housebound and increasingly disabled.

Though towards the end of her life her illness stole from her the ability to manipulate words and to travel, the cruel beauty of dementia allowed her to take refuge once more in her imagination, where she would revisit the landscapes of her early years, peopled with characters and stories that she would no longer be able to write.

Sylvester Onwordi is the son of the late Florence Onyebuchi "Buchi" Emecheta.

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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