Book Club

Flora Nwapa: Pioneering African Women's Literature and Publishing

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Sep 13, 2023

Fondly known as the mother of modern African literature, Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa was the first African woman novelist to publish a book in English in Britain, setting the stage for a generation of African women writers. She attained global recognition by publishing her debut book, Efuru, by Heinemann Educational Books in 1966. According to Wikipedia, She never considered herself a feminist, although she was most recognised for reenacting Igbo women's lives and rituals.

She championed women in African society through her work as an author and publisher and published works of African literature. When she established Tana Press in Nigeria in 1970, she was one of the pioneering African woman publishers. Nwapa worked for the government throughout the Biafran War's restoration. She specifically dealt with refugees and orphans who were displaced due to the war.

Nwapa was born in Oguta, in south-eastern Nigeria, the eldest of the six children of Martha Nwapa, a drama teacher, and Christopher Ijeoma, an agent with the United Africa Company. Flora Nwapa attended Oguta, Elelenwa Secondary School in Port Harcourt, and CMS Girls School in Lagos. After CMS Girls School and Kudeti Girls School merged, St Anne's School Ibadan was created. Nwapa, the oldest child, helped her mother with her sewing and repair business with great care and responsibility. 

According to a biography written by Eily Coolidge, Nwapa's earliest literary inspirations for her authentic and riveting stories of African women came from working alongside her mother. When Nwapa would go to have her clothes repaired, local Igbo women would share fantastic tales about Igbo mythology, deities, and magic with her. Despite these fascinating traditional stories, Nigerians were persecuted and subjugated under British colonial control during Nwapa's childhood. 

She began attending college when she was 22 years old, and in 1957, when she was 26 years old, she graduated from University College, Ibadan, with a B.A. She next travelled to Scotland, where, in 1958, she graduated from Edinburgh University with a diploma in education.

She married Chief Gogo Nwakuche and had Ezine Nzeribe (from a previous relationship), Uzoma Gogo Nwakuche, and Amede Nzeribe for Chief Gogo NWakuche, according to the documentary The House of Nwapa by Onyeka Nwelue, her uncle A. C. Nwapa served as Nigeria's first Minister of Commerce and Industries. 

Nwapa joined the Ministry of Education in Calabar, Cross River State as an Education Officer after leaving Nigeria and worked there until 1959. She then accepted a position as a teacher at Queen's School in Enugu, where she worked from 1959 to 1962, instructing English and geography. She held several posts in government service and education, including Assistant Registrar at the University of Lagos from 1962 to 1967. She accepted a cabinet position as minister of health and social welfare in East Central State (1970–1971) following Nigeria’s Civil War, and later as minister of lands, survey, and urban development from 1971 to 1974.  At the Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education in Owerri, Nigeria, she was a guest lecturer. She was chosen to teach creative writing as a visiting lecturer at the University of Maiduguri in 1989. 

At 30 years old, Nwapa's debut book, Efuru, was released in 1966 and is regarded as a groundbreaking work as an English-language novel by an African woman author. In 1962, she sent the transcript to the well-known Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who responded with a very encouraging letter and even offered money for the postage to send the manuscript to the English publisher Heinemann. 

The novels Idu (1970), Never Again (1975), One is Enough (1981), and Women are Different (1986) came after Efuru. This is Lagos (1971), Wives at War (1980), and Cassava Song and Rice Song in 1986 are two story collections she has written. She has written numerous children's novels as well.

She established Tana Press in 1974 and the Flora Nwapa Company in 1977, publishing both her writing for adults and young readers and other authors. To "inform and educate women all over the world, especially Feminists (both with capital F and small f) about the role of women in Nigeria, their economic independence, their relationship with their husbands and children, their traditional beliefs, and their status in the community as a whole," she stated as one of her objectives. The description of Tana as  "the first press owned and operated by a woman, with a sizable female audience. An endeavour that was well past its time at a time when no one thought that African women made up a readership or a market for books.

Nwapa initially had little interest in feminism since she believed it was prejudiced against men during the beginning of her literary career because of how it was perceived and depicted. Still, she gradually came to terms with it. Her battle with feminism, however, is illustrative of the current discussions about the movement in Africa and the rest of the world. From Daughters of Africa in 1992 through Africaine and Black Orpheus in the 1960s and 1970s.

Nwapa's work as a teacher later on spanned the remainder of her life. It included teaching at institutions across the globe, including New York University, Trinity College, the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, and the University of Ilorin. In a conversation with Contemporary Authors, she stated, "I have been writing for almost thirty years. My focus has been on urban and rural women's struggles for survival in a rapidly changing, predominately male world.

At 62, Flora Nwapa died from pneumonia on October 16, 1993, in a hospital in Enugu, Nigeria. The Lake Goddess, her last book, was released after her death.

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