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Introduction to Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

Our book for September – and the final book we will be discussing in our book club – is Buchi Emecheta’s second novel, Second-Class Citizen (1974). This semi-autobiographical novel follows the life of a young girl called Adah from Lagos in Nigeria from the age of eight. Adah is determined to acquire an education, and aspires to one day go to England:

Her arrival there would be the pinnacle of her ambition. She dared not tell anyone; they might decide to have her head examined or something. A small girl of her kind, with a father who was only a railwayman and a mother who knew nothing but the Igbo Bible and the Igbo Anglican hymn book, from the Introduction to the Index, and who still thought that Jerusalem was at the right hand of God.

That she would go to the United Kingdom one day was a dream she kept to herself, but dreams soon assumed substance. It lived with her, just like a Presence.[1]

The novel is a moving coming of age tale of personal development (a Bildungsroman) in which the young heroine acquires knowledge about herself and the world, in order to attain maturity and independence.[2]

Buchi Emecheta in 1985
Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017) in 1985

Florence Onyebuchi (‘Buchi’) Emecheta was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1944. She was initially kept at home while her brother attended school, until one day on impulse she turned up at the Methodist school where her neighbour Mr. Cole taught, compelling her parents to enrol her in the same school as her brother. At ten, she won a scholarship to the prestigious Methodist Girls’ High School in Lagos.

At sixteen, she eloped with Sylvester Onwordi – to whom she had been engaged since she was eleven – as his family was unable to pay the bride pride of £500. He moved to London to study accounting in 1961, and Emecheta joined him the following year, with two children in tow, and a third on the way. While their marriage was initially happy, it soon deteriorated and became violent; in a final confrontation her husband burned the handwritten manuscript of her first book, The Bride Price, believing that it would shame his family. She later reflected:

“by that time this urge to write had become more important to me than he realised, and that was the day I said ‘I’m going to leave this marriage’ and he said ‘what for, that stupid book’ and I said ‘I just feel you just burn my child'”.

As soon as she was financially able, Emecheta separated from her husband and set about raising five children as a single mother in London. By day, she worked as a librarian at the British Museum, and by night studied for a Bachelors degree in Sociology at London University.

Her first two novels In the Ditch (1972) and the aforementioned Second-Class Citizen describe life in London in the 1960s, and were republished jointly as Adah’s Story in 1983. In her autobiography Head above Water, Emecheta described the two novels as more than fifty per cent autobiographical.[3]

In 1975, Emecheta received the Daughter of Mark Twain Award for Second-Class Citizen, and in 1983 was listed among the twenty best young British novelists. The same year, she set up her own publishing house, Ogwugwu Afor, specialising in African literature. She received an OBE in 2005, and died in 2017 aged 72. Her obituary in the Guardian in 2017 argued that her writings ‘epitomised female independence, the necessity to grow stronger in the face of any setback’.[4]

We hope you enjoy reading Second-Class Citizen, and look forward to hearing your thoughts about it!

Further Reading

Buchi Emecheta, Head Above Water (1986)

Sylvester Onwordi, ‘Remembering Buchi Emecheta, Nigerian Novelist, Feminist, My Mother’, 1 February 2017

https://africanarguments.org/2017/02/01/remembering-buchi-emecheta-nigerian-novellist-feminist-my-mother/

Jane Bryce, ‘A Sort-of Career: Remembering Buchi Emecheta’

https://www.wasafiri.org/article/sort-career-remembering-buchi-emecheta/

 

[1] Buchi Emecheta, Second-Class Citizen, p. 11.

[2] Abioseh Michael Porter, ‘Second-Class Citizen: The Point of Departure for Understanding Buchi Emecheta’s Major Fiction’ in Marie Umeh (ed.) Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta (Trenton, NJ, 1996), pp. 267-75.

[3] Christine W. Sizemore, ‘The London Novels of Buchi Emecheta’ in Umeh (ed.) Emerging Perspectives, pp. 367, 370.

[4] Buchi Emecheta Obituary by Margaret Busby, 3 February 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/03/buchi-emecheta-obituary

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