When Granta produced her first list of Britain’s best young novelists in 1983, a handful of star authors – Amis, McEwan, Rushdie – covered the cover. But also on the list was Nigeria-born Buchi Emecheta, who continued to publish novels until 2000 (she died in 2017) but did not get the thumbs up. So it’s a belated justice that she’s one of the few Granta alumni, alongside Martin Amis and Shiva Naipaul, to be promoted to the Penguin Modern Classics list.
Second class citizen (1974) was Emecheta’s second novel and a prequel to his early days In the ditch, even if he stands comfortably alone. She called them “documentary novels”, closely inspired by her immigrant life in England in the 1960s. The center of the book is Adah Ofili, a young woman who pursues a series of dreams: go to school, earn a job. scholarship and, ultimately, go to England. On the last one, “she dared not tell anyone; they might decide to have their head checked or something, ”but when she sees medical graduates coming from England to work in Nigeria, she knows she’s right.
Adah has to make her way while respecting local traditions: she gets married very young (to François) and soon has two children. Life in Nigeria is only partially described – her marriage and first job takes up less than a page – and it’s clear that Emecheta, like her heroine, is eager to live in England. Adah and Francis arrive by boat – “Liverpool was gray, smoky and looked uninhabited by humans” – and head to London, where they struggle to find a place to live (“Sorry, No Colors”).
Where they end up is among other immigrants, but Adah, who had been an elite in Lagos, is dismayed to have to live alongside Nigerians who had “the same level of education as her paid servants.” But as Francis points out, “the day you land in England, you are a second-class citizen. So you cannot discriminate against your own people, because we are all second class. “
Adah’s story is trivial but unique: sick children (three more arrive at the end of the book), racism and domestic violence. What never fails him is his ingenuity, the ambition that takes him to England and later fuels his determination to become a writer. She observes the distinctions between Nigeria (churches have a “party air”; she can “go to her neighbor and babble in trouble”) and England (churches “without joy”; “no one was interested in other people’s problems ”). Her Nigerian language, says Adah, makes “a song of everything,” but Emecheta is not a showy stylist. The simple, informal prose gives the story durability: it is still fresh even without its on-trend self-fictional form or the timeless subject of the black woman’s experience in Britain.
Emecheta’s son recently wrote that the portrayal of his father in the book – Francis in the novel, who assaults Adah and burns the manuscript of his first book – is “perhaps selective”. But selectivity is an author’s job and that’s what makes Second class citizen not just a representation of a lifetime, but a living work of art.