Buchi Emecheta’s novels deal principally with the life experiences of Nigerian women, who are subordinated in an indigenous society deeply influenced by the Western values introduced by British colonists. Other Nigerian women, those who have relocated to England, for example, often suffer the emotional effects of being suddenly immersed into an alien country. Their lives are further complicated by the power that Nigerian men, following traditional beliefs, still have over them. Emecheta, who struggled in Nigeria to get an education and who suffered abuse in England by her Nigerian husband, reproduces these and other experiences in fictionalized form. Whether at home or in the imperial metropolis, Nigerian women in Emecheta’s novels experience both sexism and racism in a world of African—and Western—traditions.
A prequel to In the Ditch, Second-Class Citizen explains how Adah became a single parent in a North London slum. At the age of eight she first noticed a “Presence” accompanying her, a wish to acquire education despite her inferior status as a girl. Resisting pressure to leave school at the age of eleven and eventually to marry and become a submissive wife, she wins a scholarship with full board to the Methodist Girls’ School, where she does well. At the end of her stay at the school she marries Francis, but she does so simply to acquire a stable and socially acceptable home. Adah and Francis, who is studying to become an accountant, then move to London.
A defeatist Francis tells Adah that the color of her skin makes her a second-class citizen, her educational achievements notwithstanding. Adah, however, sets out to prove Francis wrong: She gets and keeps a “white man’s” job in a library, where she is accepted by her white coworkers; she refuses to foster out her children, as do many African women in London, and instead finds a nursery for them; and she laments the jealousy directed at her as an ambitious Igbo by other blacks, including West Indians, considering this jealousy as harmful as white prejudice. Adah undergoes other trials. It is difficult for her family to find accommodations, as explicit racist exclusion is still legal (“Sorry, no coloreds”). Francis, unable to cope with British life, not only stops studying but is repeatedly unfaithful while demanding submission and sex from Adah. In response, Adah experiments unsuccessfully with birth control in an attempt to avoid the financial catastrophe of yet another pregnancy.
Later in the novel, Adah is introduced to black writers, including James Baldwin, by a fellow worker, and her own ambition to write begins to form. After Francis burns the manuscript of her novel, Adah takes the couple’s four children and leaves him; she soon realizes that she again is pregnant.
Second-Class Citizen is unpretentiously written and compelling. It is an autobiographical story of an intelligent and resilient woman who is determined not to let sexism and racism limit her life or her talents. Although the book has been criticized for its portrayal of Nigerian society and Nigerian men, it is free of apparent bitterness and explicit special pleading. Second-Class Citizen captures a phase in the relationship between Britain and one of its African colonies, explaining why some Nigerians left for Britain in the late 1940’s and what happened to those who failed there. The novel is also insightful in...
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