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Second-Class Citizen: Our Readers’ Verdicts

Our readers at Mycenae House were divided over Second-Class Citizen and had mixed views about the main character, Adah. They liked the fact that she was a strong spirit, and that she refused to be a victim. However, they wanted her to be more emotional and open up about how she was feeling. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, we wondered whether the author’s emotions were the only thing she felt able to keep back in what could otherwise be seen as quite an exposing book. In interviews, Buchi Emecheta revealed that English was her third language (speaking Igbo at home and Yoruba at school), and so would never be her ’emotional language’, in which she would naturally express her feelings. For her, English was ‘colourless and grey’ compared to the ‘colourful phrases’ of Igbo storytelling.[1] While some of our members found that the book’s seeming emotional detachment made Adah difficult to relate to, we still admired her ambition, her steely determination, and hope for a better future.

We felt ambivalent about Adah’s marriage to Francis, and found it difficult to understand fully the degree to which there was ever really any love between the two. Literary scholars such as Abioseh Porter have attributed Adah’s rushed marriage to her naivety, her juvenile understanding of life beyond school, and want of previous romantic relationships:

she enters into a hastily arranged and ill-conceived marriage without the least idea about the real nature of love, marriage, and the related notions of individual liberty and mutual support. This situation is so because Adah has grown up in environments where she has been deprived of learning about or experiencing such concepts, which are so vital for succesful marital relationships…She sincerely believes that all it takes to have a successful marriage is to be married to a young spouse of modest means.[2]

Marrying Francis initially provides Adah with status, a home, and a quiet space where she can continue her studies. However, by the time she arrives in London she has become disillusioned, deciding that marriage is ‘not a bed of roses but a tunnel of thorns, fire and hot nails’.

We also discussed the author’s wider views on how women were treated, both in Britain and Nigeria. For example, Adah suggests that a daughter, in Nigeria, is valued less than a son, and that among the Igbos bearing children was the greatest asset a woman could have. On more than one occasion she refers to women as being like cattle. In subsequent interviews, Emecheta described herself as “a feminist with a small f”, seeing the world and the minutiae of everyday life through an African woman’s eyes. She wanted to tell women’s stories in her work since “Women in our area are silenced a lot…My hope is that in the future, people will start reading more books by female writers and realise that African women do have voices”.[3]

We felt that the book provided valuable insights into British culture in the 1970s – of life in London, and of class, poverty, immigration, racism, motherhood, and work. A couple of our members felt that one of the times where they were most able to empathise with Adah was when she went to have her contraceptive cap fitted. We noted, for example, that Adah needed a signed permission form from her husband. We were also conscious of the invasive procedure itself which was carried out insensitively by the doctor, who tutted and scolded her for failing to relax.

Some members were unclear as to why Adah had stayed in her marriage, particularly as she was never well matched with Francis, who proved a violent and cruel husband, eventually becoming her ‘enemy’. Others acknowledged the reality of Adah’s limited choices, her dependence on Francis, her sense of isolation in Britain, and the shame she may have felt if she left. Some of our members felt that Adah broadly accepted the violence in her marriage. However, we had a discussion about the reality for women in abusive relationships and how challenging it is to leave. We felt that perhaps this is what Emecheta is showing through her depiction of Adah, and the choices she makes. Through her many pregnancies, her violent marriage, and the hardships of life in London, Adah is resolved ‘to live, to survive to exist through it all…Some day her fingers would touch something solid that would help pull herself out’.

We ultimately concluded that Second-Class Citizen was a tale of self-discovery and personal development, as with other books we have read in our book club, such as Letters of a Peruvian Woman and The Bondwoman’s Narrative. We saw the novel as an exploration of Adah’s dream to move to the United Kingdom (‘the Kingdom of God’), how she made this come about, and the shock of her life when she arrived. We enjoyed following her journey and her progression to being an independent woman.

You can read an interview with Buchi Emecheta in 1996 at http://emeagwali.com/nigeria/biography/buchi-emecheta-voice-09jul96.html and discover her other books at ‘The Brilliant of Buchi Emecheta in 5 Books‘ and on her website https://www.buchiemecheta.co.uk

 

[1] Olga Kenyon, Writing Women: Contemporary Women Novelists (London and Concord, Mass., 1991), pp. 115 & 117, citing the author’s interview with Buchi Emecheta on 14 June 1988.

[2] Abioseh Michael Porter, ‘Second-Class Citizen: The Point of Departure for Understanding Buchi Emecheta’s Major Fiction’ in Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, ed. Marie Umeh (Trenton, NJ, 1996), p. 270; Christine W. Sizemore, ‘The London Novels of Buchi Emecheta’ in Emerging Perspectives, p. 369.

[3] Oladipo Joseph Ogundele, ‘A Conversation with Dr. Buchi Emecheta’ in Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, ed. Marie Umeh (Trenton, NJ, 1996), p. 449.

 

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