In the essay “Feminism with a Small’f’!” and in her autobiography, Emecheta states that it was through growing up listening to storytellers that she decided that she wanted to become a storyteller herself. This explains her writing style, which is much like that of storytelling. Although her work does not only tell stories about the subjugation of women or advance an African view of feminism, as is often asserted by critics, it is writing that focuses primarily on the experiences of women. Running throughout Emecheta’s fiction are the themes of women desiring education, defying tradition, and making choices about their own lives.
The desire for education is present in almost all of Emecheta’s novels, from a young girl who decides to attend school, even when her parents do not allow it, to a young woman enduring humiliation and harassment while pursuing higher education. Choosing a husband of one’s own choice, rather than being controlled by the bride price, is also a prevalent theme. A number of Emecheta’s women choose men who cannot afford the bride price; other women run to the men, likewise keeping them from having to pay the bride price. Women also choose to have or abort children, to leave abusive husbands, and to reject polygamous relationships.
While Emecheta does reveal a number of African practices and traditions that may be repressive for women, she also writes about practices that empower them. Thus, while women suffer because of problems with fertility or because of incest and polygamy, there are those who experience financial independence as traders and businesswomen, as well as those who achieve emotional and psychological independence.
Emecheta also tells stories about family. She focuses on issues such as orphans (both female and male), women bonding, and mother-daughter as well as father-daughter relationships. Because feminist readings of the novels often become the focus of her work, the fact that the father-daughter bond is stronger than that of the mother-daughter relationship in a number of her novels is usually ignored.
Emecheta is aware that her work serves not only to reveal African practices and traditions, and their contradictions, but also to introduce readers to African culture and traditions—mythic histories before the era of colonization, proverbs and sayings, songs, foods, cultural artifacts, and language, both African (such as the words “dibia” and “lappa”) and Africanized English (such as “dokita” for “doctor”, or “felenza” for “influenza”). The setting for many of her novels is the early half of the twentieth century, where traditional cultures are affected not only by the end of colonialism but also by modernism. As a result, her work presents such themes as the clashing and blending of cultures—African and European, traditional religions versus Christianity, and the generational differences between elders and the young. Whatever the themes, almost all of Emecheta’s work is tinged with irony, which she asserts is a feature of storytelling, and all of her stories contain philosophical lessons.
First published: 1974
Type of work: Novel
Adah immigrates with her husband to London, where she is treated as a second-class citizen, not in society but in her own home.
Second Class-Citizen, which tells the story of Adah Ofili from her childhood to her early years in London, begins with a discussion of dreams. The eight-year-old Adah, who was born in Lagos during World War II, can only dream of going to school, since she was not allowed to attend because she was not a boy. One day when her mother is distracted, Adah goes to the Methodist School where a neighbor teaches, and he allows her to remain for the day. When she returns home, the police are there. Her mother is punished for child neglect, yet Adah is allowed to continue attending school.
A few months later, Adah’s father goes to the hospital but does not return. Her mother is inherited by her father’s brother, her brother goes to live with one of her father’s cousins, and Adah is sent to live with one of her mother’s brothers. Only because she could bring a higher bride price if educated, she is allowed to remain in school. Suitors come; however, she is not interested in any of them. Instead, fascinated with the possibility of winning a scholarship to secondary school, Adah steals the money for the sitting fee, passes the examination, and wins the scholarship. She attends the Methodist Girls’ School and completes the four-year course.
Wanting to continue her education at the university, Adah knows that she will not be allowed to live on her own. Therefore, she marries a student, Francis Obi, who is too poor to pay the bride price, with the hope of being able to attend school and study at her own pace. Instead, she gives birth to a daughter and begins working for the American consulate library. Having had the dream of going to the United Kingdom, she shares it with her husband. They decide to go, but his family, who depend upon her income, approves of his leaving but insists that Adah remain in Lagos. She agrees for a time but eventually persuades her in-laws to allow her also to travel to England.
Adah’s dream comes true as she sails for London with two young children; however, the narrator makes it clear that all dreamers know that there are setbacks to dreams. For Adah, there are complications when she gives birth to her third child. She is in the hospital for a few weeks but is ignored by her husband. Rather than being concerned about her welfare or the child’s, he is more interested in using the money she receives from work for his personal advancement. Adah then comes to accept that she did not marry the man of her dreams.
Francis informs Adah that in England she is a second-class citizen. Noting Adah’s disappointment at their living conditions among a lower class than they would have associated with in Lagos, he tells her she cannot discriminate against her own people, for they are all second-class now. In spite of Francis’s conciliation, Adah rejects the notion...
(The entire section is 2535 words.)