I’ve read a little spread of postcolonial African literature, including some set in Nigeria, but I’ve never read anything like The Bride Price. Partly because the older ones were in French and some nuance was inevitably lost as I read in a second language, but still. The Bride Price, published in 1976, addresses feminist issues in post-WW2 Nigeria, specifically in Igboland, and it feels, not dated as in “outdated” but dated as in “of a past time”, certainly.
I don’t know to what extent the issues it describes, of a strong community pressure on women and former slave families to conform to traditional roles in the face of outside cultural shifts, are still present, but what does for me tie it to a time past is the writing style itself. According to the foreword of the edition I have, it was written while Emecheta was living in London, and I wonder if that’s why the narrative has this explanatory angle threaded throughout, which feels like it’s aimed at outsiders to the culture. It feels like a style that’s fallen out of fashion now, in the way that early socially progressive waves of literature can feel like they’re written in a way that’s very conciliatory to the majority/non-marginalised audience.
And while I’m talking about the meta stuff, the foreword also tells me that the original, happy endinged, manuscript, was burned by Emecheta’s then-husband, who saw himself in the semi-autobiographical story and didn’t like it. She rewrote the story, but this time gave it a downer ending, reflecting her increasingly unhappy marriage.
So it was an interesting read – I absolutely benefited from the explanations and informative asides in the story, not going to lie – and a sharp, somewhat bleak coming-of-age story. The relationship between the protagonist, Aku-nna, and her teacher, Chike, was a little uncomfortable for me to read, with its complex power imbalances of age, social position and family background, especially in Chike’s returning of Aku-nna’s schoolgirl infatuation. Still, he’s kind to her beyond obligation, and on the other side, he’s the only thing that can shake Aku-nna out of her natural timid passivity.
Speaking of Aku-nna and her timid passivity, she’s not always an easy character to like from a reader’s perspective, letting herself get swept along in outside events and taking little interest in the larger circumstances affecting the course of her life, making seemingly little effort to integrate into her new life in Ibuza. But sometimes coming of age is like that, a force you’re powerless against. And given Aku-nna’s prospects and the way they change through the story, what could she realistically do against them, alone?
Knowing the backstory about the ending did change the way I read it, and probably for the better, as embarrassing as that is to admit. Without knowing how Emecheta’s own life changed the tone of the ending, it might have felt a little didactic? Quietly condoning? On the side of the status quo? As passive as Aku-nna herself? But with that extra knowledge, it feels a lot more empathetic almost, and Emecheta’s withholding of a hopeful end hits harder and with more realism.