Nwapa, Flora (Writer)


(1931-1993) novelist

Flora Nwapa was born in Oguta, East Central State, Nigeria. Her parents were both teachers, and Nwapa grew up in a popular and wealthy family. She graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1957 and received her postgraduate diploma in education from the University of Edinburgh the following year. Nwapa returned to Nigeria and worked as an education officer in Calabar for a short time before assuming the position of geography and English teacher at Queen’s School in Enugu from 1959 to 1962. She remained in Lagos until the Nigerian civil war—the attempt by the Igbo people of Nigeria’s eastern area to establish a separate country called Biafra—broke out in 1967. Like many members of the Igbo elite, Nwapa and her family were forced to return to the eastern region. Three years after the war ended, she became the minister of Health and Social Welfare of the east central state from 1970 to 1971 and then the minister of Lands, Survey and Urban Development from 1971 to 1974.

Nwapa was the first African woman writer to publish her works in English. She is also the first African woman to use the Igbo as the basis of her stories. She established Tana Press in 1976, which became the first indigenous publishing house to be owned by a black African woman in West Africa. The company published mainly adult fiction, but Nwapa soon set up another publishing house, Flora Nwapa and Co., that specialized in children’s fiction. Nwapa took her role as an educator seriously: She continued to teach at colleges and universities throughout her life and published works dealing with moral and ethical issues. She taught at various institutions in the United States, including New York University, Trinity College, and University of Michigan. Nwapa died at age 62 in Enugu, Nigeria. At the time of her death, she had just completed her final manuscript of The Lake Goddess (1995) about the goddess Mammy Water, who was a source of inspiration for Nwapa’s fiction.

Nwapa is best known for her recreation of Igbo life and traditions from a woman’s point of view. In many ways, she could be considered one of Nigeria’s and Africa’s first feminist writers. She conveyed the positive optimism of her female protagonists and their strength and freedom to choose their own paths. For instance, in Idu (1970), Idu’s quest for personal fulfillment leads her to take her own life in defiance of her community’s belief that motherhood is the sole purpose of a woman’s existence. Idu, however, prizes her qualitative life with her husband above all else, including her child’s welfare. Her suicide is a commentary on a woman’s love.

Critical Analysis

Nwapa’s debut novel, Efuru (1960), retells an Ibo folktale about Efuru, a woman whose life mirrors that of the lake goddess she worships. Efuru has beauty and wealth but few children like the goddess. Efuru, however, has to struggle to find her place in the society in which she lives. The novel is indicative of Nwapa’s portrayal of strong female characters who are adventurous, independent, materially comfortable, and also have the freedom to make their own decisions. These portrayals of women in Ibo society, however, go against conventional views as presented in traditional Ibo texts, which tend to show Ibo women as weak, promiscuous, and fickle minded. Nwapa challenged these traditional views and set the foundation for later women writers to challenge and question the depiction of Ibo women in literature.

Nwapa also wrote short stories, poetry, and children’s books. Her stories were not restricted to themes that dealt only with women’s rights or a woman’s place in society; she also drew on experiences from the Nigerian civil war, folktales, and other political conflicts that occurred during her lifetime. In Never Again (1975), which is set in the Nigerian civil war, her main character starts off as a fervent supporter of the Biafran cause but ends up trying to piece her life together and questioning her actions. In her children’s stories, Nwapa drew on her rich reservoir of legends and folktales to emphasize the morals of the stories. Her major contribution to world literature rests in her characterization of the heroine as independent and strong and in her descriptions of the continual subjugation of women in Africa.

Other Works by Flora Nwapa

Efuru. London: Heinemann, 1966.

Never Again. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992.

One Is Enough. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992.

This Is Lagos and Other Stories. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992.

Wives at War and Other Stories. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992.

Women Are Different. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992.

Works about Flora Nwapa

Brown, Lloyd W. Women Writers in Black Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Emenyonu, Ernest. “Portrait of Flora Nwapa as a Dramatist.” In  Umeh, ed., Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998.

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