A portrait of Buchi Emecheta against a collaged background
A portrait of Buchi Emecheta against a collaged background

There was a side to my mother which was a stranger to me. This was The Writer – Buchi Emecheta, the public figure whose name was on the cover of the books she wrote and who led a separate existence beyond the personal relationships with her in the family. I first encountered her aged eleven when on returning from school I learned that her first novel In The Ditch, had just been published. That her scribblings were now a proper book like those in the library, was amazing to us in itself, but as soon as I sat down to read it, I was immediately gripped by the story and even though I knew I was one of its characters, had the disconcerting feeling of having one’s experience objectified in prose and seeing oneself from the outside. To this day I regard it as a gentle masterpiece, one of the best social documentary novels of that type that I have ever encountered.

Second-Class Citizen is both a sequel and the prequel to In The Ditch. It is the fictionalised autobiography of my mother’s early life up until the early 1970s when she became an established writer. She was only 27 when she wrote it, and as with her first novel, she framed the work around her experience as a Black, single mother on welfare, raising five young children in North London council estates.

Second-Class Citizen could arguably be read as embedded ethnography. Though colourfully fictionalised it is authentic in its depiction of Black life in the 1960s and 70s. This was a time when Britain was still transitioning from colonial status, Right Wing parties were on the rise, and England the “Motherland” was still a viable trope for many newly arrived Africans.

The subject matter of the book is sometimes gruelling in its depiction of the struggles that Adah (the novel’s central character) must overcome to ensure the wellbeing of her family. What gives the book its quiet strength is my mother’s candid writing style and the African humour which offers a “foreigner’s” perspective on a society which at the time was still quite alien to her. In Adah I recognise my mother’s self-effacement, a quality that allowed those around her to take centre stage while she quietly observed, made mental notes, and went home to write about them. 

A black-and-white photograph of Buchi Emecheta with her children

Buchi Emecheta with her children. Image: Sylvester Onwordi

My mother wanted to be a writer from a very early age, but as an orphaned teenager from an impoverished family it was not something she dared to openly admit. She came of age in the 1950s, in pre-independence Nigeria. As a scholarship girl, she was educated by white Ma'ams in a boarding school in Lagos.  She describes in Second-Class Citizen how a form mistress publicly humiliated her for believing that she could one day be a writer, and later, after moving to London, how her husband rather than supporting her ambition to write, burned her first manuscript. To have proved them wrong in print seems both a validation and a vindication of these painful experiences. 

My mother was only 16 when she became pregnant and married, a fact I can still barely comprehend when I look at the monochrome photo taken of her in the Lagos registry office with her future husband (Frances in the book). She arrived in the UK when she was 18 and though she spent most of her subsequent life here, it was Nigeria – particularly the town of Ibusa – that retained a strong presence in her mind. As children we shared this vision because she domesticated it and made it part of our home identity. Growing up in Kentish Town, Ibusa, which we had never visited, was somehow as real to us the slums and council estates in which we lived and which she wrote about so evocatively.

Books were also domestic things. We were poorer than I realised at the time, but we never seemed to lack for books and stories – not just the ones we read and shared, but the ones my mother wrote in front of us at the kitchen table, after supper and when we had gone to bed. She wrote copiously in long hand with barely any corrections, filling exercise book after exercise book, before transcribing everything into manuscript form on an old Olivetti typewriter. 

A photograph of Buchi Emecheta in Trafalgar Square

Buchi Emecheta in Trafalgar Square. Image: Sylvester Onwordi

Many of the incidents in Second-Class Citizen I recall vividly, although my perspective was that of a small child. I was unaware, for example, of the implications of the racism that we experienced from neighbours on a daily basis, the domestic abuse of my father, and the intrusive interventions from not always well-meaning social workers and school educators. My mother – still in her early twenties – negotiated all this on her own and still managed to write novels and complete her degree.

It was quite a task and that she carried it off when she was so young is remarkable. Was there a downside to all this? With hindsight, possibly. As children, we were deprived of our mother to some extent. Orphaned by her studies and her need to work, we were for some of those years, latchkey children. Later, as she became a public figure and our social situation changed, we had to learn to mediate our personal experiences through the printed version of those events. When I read Second-Class Citizen today, I have to keep reminding myself how young my mother was when these things occurred and that she was an African pragmatist who responded to events as she found them and always did what she felt was best for us. 

My mother’s account in her books of her life at that time, of her relations with my father for example, is perhaps selective. But it provides a wonderful glimpse of a remarkable woman at the start of the most creative period of her life, capturing instinctively the tenor of the times and writing it down, diary fashion, in the manner of the story tellers she knew and loved from her home village in Ibusa.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Val Wilmer/Ryan McEachern/Penguin

  • Second-Class Citizen

    Penguin Modern Classics

  • 'Fresh, timeless ... a lively work of art' Observer

    'Buchi Emecheta was the foremother of black British women's writing . . . powerful fictions written from and about our lives' Bernardine Evaristo

    'Most dreams, as all dreamers know quite well, do have setbacks. Adah's dream was no exception, for hers had many'

    They nicknamed Adah 'the Igbo tigress' at school in Nigeria, she was so fearless. Now she has moved to London to join her husband, and is determined to succeed. But her welcome from 1960's England - and the man she married - is a cold one. Providing for her growing family, struggling to survive and negotiating everyday injustices along the way, Adah still resolves that she will never give up her dream of becoming a writer.

    'Bold, brave, defiant ... its exploration of blackness, the white gaze, and the development of the main character Adah's sense of self is extremely powerful' Gal-dem

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