In the Ditch 
by Buchi Emecheta.
Penguin, 147 pp., £9.99, August 2023, 978 0 241 57812 4
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The Joys of Motherhood 
by Buchi Emecheta.
Penguin, 264 pp., £9.99, September 2022, 978 0 241 57813 1
Show More
Show More

In the summer of​ 1975, the Nigerian-born British novelist Buchi Emecheta went missing for a day. She tucked £10 into her purse and went to Buckingham Palace to watch the Changing of the Guard, then went to look at the glossy black door of 10 Downing Street for the first time. For lunch, she ate what she fancied – salad, cheesecake and not one, not two, but three glasses of bitter lemon – and for once had not cooked any of it. Then she bought a plastic policeman’s hat and a Union Jack flag on a stick and had a picture taken in front of Big Ben for 50p. When she arrived home at 7 p.m. the police were waiting, called by her panicked eldest daughter. They suspected Emecheta had been at a boyfriend’s house and questioned the absconding mother until her daughter cried. ‘I don’t think those policemen understood that I love my family very, very much, but that I needed time to escape,’ Emecheta wrote in her autobiography, Head above Water, which was published in 1986 when she was 41, already the author of ten novels and the mother of five children. ‘If not, I would have drowned. Doing things like that, rather impulsive to them, kept me afloat, kept my head above water.’

Emecheta said that all her books were about survival, but survival doesn’t always mean gritting your teeth. Sometimes it means acting the tourist for a day, skipping the royal press conference for a Vespa ride through Rome, leaving your kids a note saying you’re joining the circus. Because what is the point in getting through something only for the other side to be pleasureless? Written from the hot centre of second-wave feminism, Emecheta’s novels do as much dreaming as consciousness-raising. Her heroines survive rape, domestic violence, the petty and grand humiliations of racism, poverty, illness and genocidal war, but they don’t give up on life – it’s rather that the problems are their life, and interesting in themselves if held in the hand, as it were, at a short distance. Difficulties are to be expected, and you don’t get to choose their scale, only your approach to them.

Following her death from dementia in 2017, Penguin has added three of Emecheta’s books to the Modern Classics series, commissioning Chris Ofili to make new covers, one of which substitutes a Black woman’s head for the queen’s on the second-class stamp: in place of a stiff crown, a gele fertile with colour and movement. In 2024, her work appears almost picaresque: not philosophical or responding to other canonical books or experimenting with form, but bristling with incident, in love with plot twists, glowing with complaint at the shabby way of things. Emecheta didn’t go through life as if she were a heroine, but found that writing about her experiences changed them: ‘I think that I am a shy, jellylivered woman with no shred of confidence. But when people read the patterns of my life, they usually do not agree.’ It is the survivor, after all, who lives to tell the tale.

Emecheta was born in Lagos in July 1944, the wettest month at latitudes just north of the equator. Her father was a railway worker who had fought with the British in Burma and her mother was a seamstress. She was born eight weeks early, a baby not much bigger than a rat, and a girl when every newlywed wished for a boy. She survived by screaming for milk; at the age of nine she survived the death of her father by winning a scholarship to the Methodist Girls’ High School; at ten she survived the death of her mother, who was said to have cursed her daughter with her dying breath, by clinging to her ‘pet dream’ of becoming a writer. Refusing the men her mother had picked out for her, at eleven she became engaged to Sylvester Onwordi, who was focused on securing a better life for himself by studying accountancy in England. She couldn’t remember when she had first heard the words ‘United Kingdom’, but she did remember the way her father had said them, ‘so heavy, so reverential’. That prompted her to vow inwardly to go there in order to make him happy. ‘I loved my father so much,’ she wrote in her early forties, ‘that I still think I am going through life looking for him.’ And so at eighteen, married with two children in tow, she joined Onwordi in the UK. She arrived in Liverpool in March 1962, hoping to be warmly welcomed to Austenland and live among Lizzy Bennets and Anne Elliots. Dashing out on deck as the ship approached harbour, she found that it was cold, grey and wet: ‘It felt like walking into the inside of a grave.’

Her landfall did come to seem like a death of sorts, at the very least of her illusions about life in the former colonial seat (Nigeria had gained independence from Britain just two years earlier, in 1960). Joining Onwordi in London, she found that her marriage was dead on arrival, notwithstanding the conception of another son on their first night together. Onwordi, who hadn’t yet passed his accountancy exams, had spent the £30 she had sent ahead of her on a suit for himself and a deposit on a sofa; there was no winter coat for Emecheta or beds for the children. ‘SORRY NO COLOUREDS’ appeared everywhere in the rental listings, and they were turned away again and again, finding lodging eventually with a couple from Benin, outcasts ‘like us’. On the day she brought a fourth child home from hospital, she found Onwordi in bed with a female friend, who was white: ‘I thought I would die of sorrow … and I knew that I could not afford to die of sorrow.’ Instead, she left, taking the children to a new flat near the eldest’s school, but gave Onwordi one more chance when she heard he’d found himself a job. She had not come to England to be a pioneer but to be a housewife to a breadwinner; Onwordi had not come to England to work so that his wife could stay at home and daydream. ‘To show him … I wrote my first book.’ She allowed her colleagues at Chalk Farm library, where she’d been working, to look at the draft of The Bride Price, and when they encouraged her, she gave it to Onwordi, whom she had to beg to read it. His reaction when he did was to burn the handwritten manuscript, like a male Hedda Gabler. There followed a dangerous period where she bore his beatings and gave in to his sexual demands – her fifth child was conceived this way, not long after the manuscript was burned – but she had decided to leave him for good. The last act of her marriage was dramatic: at Onwordi’s trial at Clerkenwell Magistrates’ Court after her GP reported him for marital rape, Emecheta cursed him in Igbo when he denied the charges, recommended his children be adopted and told the court he had burned their birth certificates. The magistrates required him to pay maintenance anyway, though the money would never arrive. Emecheta was 22, eight months pregnant, mother to four young children already and far from family and home. ‘I stripped from my mind any idle or wasteful thoughts,’ she said, and tried to see the advantages of being forced to make another sort of life, one the culture she’d grown up in hadn’t prepared her for.

‘Only god knows why other women, married, single and widowed,’ Emecheta wrote later, ‘were all interested in hearing about the boring way I coped with five children single-handed.’ Was it boring to Emecheta because it felt like drudgery – up at 4.30 a.m. to write for three hours before the children woke, getting them ready, going to work herself, and then back at 4 p.m. for their return, before dinner, homework and bed – or because it wasn’t a choice? The decision to write about it was a choice, however, as it was to imagine herself worthy of more. In Second-Class Citizen (1974), one of her early ‘self-documentary novels’, she traced the change. Adah, an authorial stand-in, has woken up in the maternity ward with a rubber tube running into her nose, and her baby being cared for in the hospital nursery. While spending several days in recovery, she becomes curious – like Sylvia Plath collecting notes for the poem that will become ‘Tulips’ – about the other women in the ward, about their frilled housecoats and kind husbands, especially the ‘sleek woman’ in bed eleven, whose husband visits just to hold her hand. ‘Why was it she could never be loved as an individual,’ Adah wonders, ‘the way the sleek woman was being loved, for what she was and not just because she could work and hand over her money like a docile child?’ The Greek woman in bed eight has a satin bow on her blue nightdress, and waves smilingly at her visitors. The nurses create legends around Adah’s boy: they tell everyone on the ward he is their ‘special baby, born miraculously, for whom the mother had suffered so’, as they show him off on discharge day. When her husband, Francis, visits, without a nightdress or flowers or even soft words, and confesses that he had thought of handing their children over to his mother in Nigeria if she had died in childbirth, she exploded:

I hate you now, Francis, and one day I shall leave you … I brought my children here to save them from the clutches of your family, and, God help me, they are going back as different people; never, never are they going to be the type of person you are. My sons will learn to treat their wives as people, individuals, not like goats that have been taught to talk.

It’s an awakening that is at first a rebellion against the old ways in Africa, but is also part of Western feminism, learned from ‘staying together with other women for thirteen days’, as Adah puts it. Adah’s ‘new code of conduct’ is also the product of a health system free for all at the point of use, at a time when new mothers were routinely kept in hospital for a few days after giving birth. When so much of British society denied a Black woman entry, the NHS maternity ward was practically a social utopia. It is not a Union Jack-waving day off, recovering from the birth of a baby who had the cord wrapped round his neck, but Adah might not have been able to think differently had she not been suspended from her own life for the length of an average summer holiday.

Leaving her husband behind, Emecheta centred her life on her children and her own education, as she had first done when she was nine. She got her family into a council flat, and then out of it by working at the British Museum library during the day and studying for a degree in sociology at the University of London at night. She began writing again when she came across books like Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow and Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Hands, which captured working life and showed her that what she had experienced was interesting too. On weekend mornings, between 6 a.m. and whenever the kids woke up, she wrote, and then typed up her ideas at the kitchen table, ‘with the noise of children coming in and out and banging the doors’. She sent her stories out on a Tuesday and received her rejections by Friday for years, until Richard Crossman, who had become editor of the New Statesman in 1970 after six years in Harold Wilson’s cabinet, liked one of them enough to buy several in 1972. With her first cheque for writing, she bought the children sausages and chips for dinner, like the family in The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

The columns​ became her first book, In the Ditch, which fictionalised Emecheta’s life on a council estate after she left Onwordi: the rotten tomatoes left on her doormat, the green mould on the walls and the smell of piss in the stairwell, but also the students who bathed her children while she was at night school, the other mothers who taught her to kick up her heels when she could, and the social worker who always managed to find a new pair of kids’ shoes. Emecheta’s chronicle of Adah’s life at Pussy Cat Mansions was more complicated than the sociological theories she had been taught. Instead of dependence on the state, ‘a sort of community had worked itself into being, everybody knew the business of everybody else. That sort of life suited her. There was always a friend to run to in time of trouble.’ The book ends when Adah disentangles herself from Carol, the social worker, whose help shaded into infantilisation. ‘The world had a habit of accepting the way you rated yourself,’ Adah thinks. ‘The last place in which she was going to incarcerate herself was in the ditch.’ Critics were mostly kind; Emecheta remembered many of them noting that this was ‘the first book they had read about the English working class written by a foreigner living among them’. Others couldn’t work out how an educated woman had ended up in such a parlous state.

It was in response to this that Emecheta began Second-Class Citizen the summer she graduated, rounding out Adah’s life to begin in Nigeria and end with the desire to write or, as Adah puts it, ‘to do her own phrases her own way’. But the publisher of In the Ditch, Barrie & Jenkins, home to P.G. Wodehouse, rejected it, and the manuscript languished, partly because of those phrases, some of them in the Igbo language she’d grown up speaking. (This wasn’t the only reason: Emecheta’s prose isn’t polished and her plots can be jerky.) She took a job as a social worker and continued to write, eventually showing Second-Class Citizen to Elizabeth Stevens of Curtis Brown, who had the good idea of sending it to Allison and Busby, run by Margaret Busby, the UK’s first Black woman publisher. ‘Here was a group of people around my age who were talking of what they were going to do in the literary field,’ Emecheta remembered of their first meeting in a scruffy but good Indian restaurant not too far from Allison and Busby’s offices on Noel Street in Soho. ‘They were not too rich or sophisticated like my early publishers,’ she said. Busby, who became a force in UK publishing and wrote Emecheta’s Guardian obituary, would edit all her novels until they fell out in the early 1980s over the length of her novel about the Nigerian Civil War, Destination Biafra. By 1974, Emecheta’s confidence had rebounded enough to inspire her to return to the novel Onwordi had burned, which she decided to rewrite from scratch. Out of the flames, The Bride Price became her third novel. It tells the story of Aku-nna, who defies her parents’ choice for her and dies giving birth to her first child, after she and Chike elope instead of paying her bride price. ‘Aku-nna died the death I ought to have died,’ Emecheta said later – or did her death come, rather, when she left the husband she had made such sacrifices for? And if Emecheta was dead now, ‘then why in real life was I enjoying my independence?’

Emecheta had found her way to a life that suited her, consisting of writing and mothering. ‘I did not know where my early trust of men had gone; I just did not fancy living with a man.’ She didn’t believe in abortion either, and tended to keep her relationships with men platonic. ‘It is very possible not to regard sex as the main reason for our existence. Women are capable of living for so many other reasons … And because writing that comes from one’s innermost soul is therapeutic, it could also probably be contraceptive.’ Many women writers, gay and straight, sublimated their sexuality like this; Emecheta was not so unusual, even if she seems it now. But she also dreamed of a rare type of marriage, one ‘in which we would be companions and friends, a marriage in which each member would perform his or her role, and in which neither role, least of all the kitchen one, was looked down upon’. If she had found that, she might have succumbed. As it was, she accepted a visit from Chidi, an academic friend she knew from Nigeria now living in London, but they just talked to each other about their work, and she refused all his offers of marriage. It was Chidi who thought it would be a good idea to send her stories to the New Statesman.

The success of Second-Class Citizen brought her an American publisher, George Braziller, followed by praise from John Updike in the New Yorker and offers to write for TV: her dream of buying a house was within reach. And an appearance on a panel organised by the Women’s International League in June 1975 made her name as a feminist, even if she claimed in her autobiography never to have heard the term before. When the other women on the panel, ‘Lady this and Princess that’, spoke of the suffering of Third World women, Emecheta bridled:

I don’t know why I hated people talking about us like that. I still hate it, and because of this I find myself disagreeing on everything suggested by white women, even though I know that some of those suggestions could be quite relevant … So I got up and shocked all those ladies, telling them to mind their own business and leave us Third World women alone. One could have heard a pin drop.

The silence was succeeded by applause. Emecheta rang her children during a break to tell them to bring copies of her book, and she autographed and sold them all.

Herlater books, of which the best-selling and best-known was The Joys of Motherhood (1979), are more distinctly feminist, whether she accepted the label or not. Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood can’t conceive with her first husband, but has several children with her second, and comes to see her culture’s – and therefore her own – veneration of motherhood as enslavement. To keep and found a family, she has to bear her first son’s death as an infant, a divorce, remarriage to someone she doesn’t like, starvation, the indignities of petty trading in things like single cigarettes, her second husband’s absence, a second and a third wife coming to stay, a late miscarriage, and more that I have forgotten. It is often Nnu Ego’s friends who lift her out of trouble: the childless woman who gives the boys a meal when she guesses that their mystery illness is malnutrition, the older relative who advises her to return to her husband’s home before the ambitious second wife usurps her place once and for all. ‘It was not fair,’ Nnu Ego thinks, ‘the way men cleverly used a woman’s sense of responsibility to actually enslave her.’ When she decides to tell her husband she’s unhappy, ‘confidence sprang inside her like water from below the ground and seemed to wash away her gloomy thoughts with its clear, sparkling gush.’ Nnu Ego had lived by the Nigerian saying that children are wealth, believing they would take care of her in her old age. But at the end of the book, she wonders if she’d been right to put all her energy into her children. ‘Nnu Ego told herself that she would have been better off had she had time to cultivate those women who had offered her hands of friendship; but … she had shied away from friendship, telling herself she did not need any friends, she had enough in her family.’ She dies by the roadside in her native village, ‘with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her’. It can be no comfort that her eldest son in America paid for the grandest funeral her village had ever seen. Emecheta wrote the novel in six weeks after her eldest daughter, Chiedu, threw a milk bottle through the living-room window when she learned there wasn’t enough money for her to go to a private school for her A levels. She asked her mother to remove the novel’s dedication to her, which she did before publication in 1979.

Destination Biafra, the novel that Busby cut in half before publication in 1982 and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said was ‘very important’ to the genesis of Half of a Yellow Sun, features Emecheta’s ‘dream woman’, Debbie Ogedemgbe. Ogedemgbe, the Oxford-educated daughter of a corrupt millionaire, begins the war as mistress to Alan Grey, our man in Lagos. But as the country descends into civil war, she becomes a soldier and then volunteers to cross the country to persuade the Biafran leader to lay down his arms. Her journey is horrific: she is gang-raped in front of her mother, she witnesses a massacre, she nearly starves while hiding in the jungle, a newborn she has rescued dies of dysentery while strapped to her back. She can’t persuade the men to stop fighting, even though she is constantly told how lucky she is to be a woman and spared death. When she finally escapes to London to tell the world what she has witnessed, they think she’s telling them of someone else’s war in her cut-glass accent, and when she returns to assassinate the Biafran leader he escapes before she can lay her bomb. The last scene takes place on a Lagos airstrip, with debris falling and planes taking off like in a Bond movie – if the hero was allowed to be a Black woman revolutionary. Grey stands on the tarmac with Ogedemgbe, imploring her to leave and offering marriage. She delivers a blistering riposte:

I am a woman and a woman of Africa. I am a daughter of Nigeria and if she is in shame, I shall stay and mourn with her in shame … there are many other orphans that I am going to help bring up with my share of my Father’s money. And there is my manuscript to publish … I didn’t mind your being my male concubine, but Africa will never again stoop to being your wife; to meet you on an equal basis, like companions, yes, but never again to be your slave.

It is glorious, and a little nuts. But no one apart from Buchi Emecheta could have written it.

In 1983, Emecheta was chosen as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, alongside Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. In the photo, she sits above Kazuo Ishiguro in a red and black checked dress with her hands clasped, the sole woman of colour. The following year her daughter Chiedu died of anorexia nervosa at the age of 23. She became the dedicatee of Head above Water, which appeared in 1986. ‘We talk about you every day,’ Emecheta writes on the first page of her autobiography, admitting that a piece of herself had died too. In a posthumous remembrance of his mother, her son Sylvester says she was never the same after the death of Chiedu and then of her sister Christy. In Head above Water, Emecheta writes, gloomily for the sentiment, that her story is testament to the reality of miracles: ‘If for any reason you do not believe in miracles, please start believing, because my keeping my head above water in this indifferent society, which is probably succeeding in making me indifferent and private too, is a miracle.’ She had a stroke a few weeks before receiving an OBE in 2005, and lived with dementia until her death in 2017. She didn’t know her work would be republished, or, her son says, how much her readers appreciated her.

When Emecheta found Busby in 1974, she had already accepted that she wouldn’t make a living as a writer. ‘I watched Somerset Maugham, Jimmy Baldwin and the rest of them on television and regarded them as stars. I could never be like them: they were writers of the first grade, and the best I could ever achieve would be the lower bottom of the second grade.’ But you don’t need to be a star to create a distinctive body of work; you don’t even need to be a star to write. You can be a second-class citizen and still pursue your dream. Emecheta wanted to tell her stories, and she did. She wanted to survive, and she did, ingeniously. At the launch of The Bride Price, the novel her husband burned and she resurrected, she spoke off the cuff. ‘Why could I not write out my speech and read it like a nice lady?’ She lamented. ‘But then I find it difficult to be a nice lady. I am just me, Buchi Emecheta.’

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