‘The Joys of Motherhood’ and the women’s fiction shelf


The two novels that recently brought me to rethink the categorisation of women’s fiction are good stories exceptionally written. They just happen to have a female protagonist and to be written by a woman.

‘The Joys of Motherhood’, by the late Buchi Emecheta and ‘Nervous Conditions’, by Tsitsi Dangarembga take the reader with them on the sweep of a life’s journey. So what if the life is that of a woman? The story and its telling is what matters.

Let me explain, by focussing on Emecheta’s ‘The Joys of Motherhood’.

It is set in pre- and- post- independence Nigeria and tells the story of Nnu Ego. She is the daughter of a great Ibo chief and hunter Nwokocha Agbadi and Ona, a rebellious woman who refused to marry him.

Nnu Ego herself is twice married, having been cast aside the first time round for her alleged barrenness (in this instance, not having a child within nine months of the nuptials).

Remarried to Nnaife, who serves as a washerman to a white couple in Lagos, Nnu Ego lives a life that centres around bearing children and raising them. She does not like her husband’s soft and flabby appearance, nor his womanly job (washing the white woman’s smalls, for instance) but she puts up with intimacy in her desperation to fall pregnant, have a child and win society’s respect.

This she does, successfully raising a family of nine, albeit with some interventions on her own part. These include selling cigarettes and other small items in order to have enough money to feed her children, for her husband is not always resourceful and dependable (especially when the white couple make an emergency return to England because of the outbreak of WWII).

Nnu Ego puts up, as Nigerian women do, with the reality of socially required polygamy – when Nnaife’s brother dies, he inherits his four wives and brings the youngest to Lagos.

When Nnaife is away and unreachable (having been conscripted), Nnu Ego does everything she can to keep her oldest son in secondary school. That son does well and leaves for the US as soon as he graduates. A second son graduates and leaves for Canada. One of Nnu Ego’s daughters elopes with the son of a Yoruba Muslim butcher and Nnu Ego’s husband Nnaife’s murderous fury results in him wielding a weapon and being thrown into jail. Another of Nnu Ego’s daughters marries a lawyer.

Now a matriarch, Nnu Ego eventually leaves Lagos to return to her village, where she dies on her own. After her death, her sons ensure she has a grand funeral, lavishing on her the time, money and consideration they never afforded their mother in her life.

There are some moving and insightful passages about the lot of women. For instance, Nnu Ego thinks to herself: “God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?”

Again: “On her way back to their room, it occurred to Nnu Ego that she was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned by her role as the senior wife. She was not even expected to demand more money for her family; that was considered below the standard expected of a woman in her position. It was not fair, she felt, the way men cleverly used a woman’s sense of responsibility to actually enslave her. They knew that the traditional wife like herself would never dream of leaving her children.”

Another character says “we women set impossible standards for ourselves. That we make life intolerable for one another.”

And Nnu Ego thinks:“In Ibuza sons help their father more than they help their mother. A mother’s joy is only in the name. She worries over them, looks after them when they are small; but in the actual help on the farm ,the upholding of the family name, all belong to the father.”

‘The Joys of Motherhood’ is about a woman’s life and lot – a universal story about a life lived.

We’ll next look at ‘Nervous Conditions’.

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