Books As Ammunition How I Found Solace in Rereading Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen

I couldn’t see writing in my future, despite leaving Nigeria for a creative writing course. Then I read Buchi Emecheta.

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Norwich, United Kingdom

On November 7, 2020, I stood outside Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, crying. My mask covered my nose and mouth, thankfully, shielding my contorted face from people nearby. I was leaving to complete my master’s degree in creative writing in Norwich, United Kingdom, which I had started online a few weeks earlier. My partner patted my back through the three cardigans I wore in anticipation of the English winter. My two leather boxes filled with clothes, books, pap, pepper and egusi were en route to the plane. I leaned into my partner’s arms, sad to leave him, to leave Nigeria. Although I had my boarding pass and my gate had been announced, I lingered in the hot Lagos night, a part of me wishing that something—anything—would stop me from traveling.

We eventually broke apart and I made my way to the boarding gate. Truthfully, I was afraid to leave but I kept my fears to myself as they would undoubtedly be deemed irrational—young people were leaving Nigeria in droves, uprooting their lives and moving to new countries in pursuit of better opportunities. As a writer, it was the norm to travel and see the world in order to write and be successful; it was the norm to get a master’s in creative writing or a related course from a prestigious university. I was following in the footsteps of many writers before me: Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Even if I admitted having cold feet to anyone, they would promptly remind me there was nothing for me in Nigeria. Not as a writer, not as a young person. The brain drain had recently intensified with police brutality, rising unemployment, inflation, poor electricity, etc., so, I was lucky to be leaving. I, too, was baffled by my last-minute hesitation; leaving Nigeria had been the solution for as long as I could remember.

‘Even if I admitted having cold feet to anyone, they would promptly remind me there was nothing for me in Nigeria. Not as a writer, not as a young person.’ OPE ADEDEJI

I started writing at the age of ten, the same year I decided I was going to be a lawyer. My parents, uncles, and aunts took pride in my ambition and bought me Ladybird storybooks, Bible stories, and Enid Blyton collections. Unsurprisingly, I was writing stories that imitated what I read: my characters were Black, like me, but they mostly had English names; they had tree houses, they talked back to their parents with no consequence; they had curly, long blonde hair and investigated exciting mysteries. That my stories were a poor reflection of my reality was of no consequence. No one took my writing seriously. It was a hobby they supported when it was convenient, like when I won the Ecobank National Essay competition in 2011, and law was to be my focus at university. I often said once I left to study creative writing abroad, people would take my writing seriously. My mother didn’t seem keen on the creative writing part, but she was sure there would be opportunities to leave the country. Until then, I was stuck in Nigeria, studying a ‘serious’ course in a federal university frequently on strike. It was during one of these strikes I discovered Buchi Emecheta’s books and a profile on Buchi Emecheta, which described her as ‘the first successful black woman novelist living in Britain after 1948’. This could be me, I said to myself.

Buchi Emecheta’s success validated my belief that it was possible to have a writing career as a Nigerian woman. I also felt a particular kinship with the protagonist of her novel Second Class Citizen, Adah Ofili. Like Adah, I was comfortable enough, privileged even, but ultimately dissatisfied with life in Nigeria; we both wanted more. Even though I was studying law, a part of me still wanted to explore writing. The first thing I had to do at this point was convince myself that my writing was in fact serious, that it was something I wanted to pursue as a career. A lecturer once explained that although a case could be decided based on a single piece of evidence or witness, there were cases where corroboration was essential. My writing career felt like one of such cases. I believed supporting evidence would ground me in my decision to be a writer and Buchi Emecheta’s work was the perfect study. I studied her work and her writing style intently, and discovered similar authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who started studying medicine in Nigeria before leaving for the US and eventually completing a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. I learned about Sefi Atta, who, after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, got an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. I decided then that my final piece of evidence would be leaving Nigeria to study creative writing after qualifying as a lawyer.

‘I often said once I left to study creative writing abroad, people would take my writing seriously.’ OPE ADEDEJI

‘United Kingdom of God’

As I left Nigeria, I reflected on Adah’s path to becoming a writer. At the core of Second Class Citizen—Adah’s biggest dream and driving force throughout the novel—is her leaving Nigeria. It is on this premise that the novel starts:

It had all begun like a dream. You know, the story of a dream which seems to have originated from nowhere, yet one was always aware of its existence.

The first time I read this opening sentence, I thought nothing of it or its significance throughout the novel, nothing of Adah’s confidence and zeal. Adah leaves Nigeria in search of her dreams and the ‘United Kingdom of God’. But like many Nigerians who emigrated in the 50s and 60s, she arrives in the UK to find a different reality. The cold welcome and dreary half bedroom on her arrival were clear indicators that Adah would struggle to achieve her goals and give her children a good life. She dealt with racism, classism, domestic violence, and poor living conditions. Unlike Adah, even with all the resources at my disposal, I was ill-prepared and hesitant to accept the adventure in front of me. Would I also meet a different reality, as a young black woman making the same journey 40 years later?

In my third year at university, I had taken a course called ‘Gender and the Law’ and discovered feminism, and among other things, feminism’s place in literary texts. Soon after, the second time I read the Second Class Citizen, I considered the novel’s plot from a feminist perspective. The novel begins in a patriarchal community in Lagos. Boys are customarily prioritized over girls when it comes to education, and Adah’s brother, Boy, is enrolled in school while Adah remains at home. Adah’s parents only agree to educate her after she sneaks into a school, and her mother is chastised for losing her daughter. Adah proves herself as a star student all through but cannot afford to go to university. Her only practical alternative is to get married, and, within a short time, she starts to have children. By the time she is 19—the same age I was when I read the novel a second time—Adah has left Nigeria, is working in a library, and has three children under the age of five. My 16-year-old self may have not given as much thought to Adah’s situation, but my 19-year-old self was incensed. At 19, with my future looming ahead, the difficulties of being a woman had only become more apparent to me. Women are expected to live a domestic and subservient life, subject to the whims of their father, husband and children while no such fate awaits men.

As the novel is based on Buchi Emecheta’s early years and chronicles the challenges she overcame to achieve her personal and professional dreams, I scoured the internet to find out how much of the novel was based on fact. I found myself deep in academic texts and essays on Buchi Emecheta’s novels. The more I discovered about her experiences, the more disappointed I became in the UK, which I had assumed to be far more progressive than Nigeria for women in the 60s. Adah could not access birth control without her husband’s consent and her husband was not arrested despite being reported for domestic violence. The only silver lining was that Adah’s experiences had somehow birthed her writing career—leaving Nigeria had not been completely in vain. Adah admits that ‘the librarianship was simply a stepping stone to bring her closer to the books she dreamt of writing when she was forty…but moving to England had fast tracked her career by twenty years.’ Would her career have panned out as it did, if she had not left Nigeria when she did? If she had not left at all? I often ask these questions, the same way I wonder if I would be writing today if I had taken a job in a law firm after law school, instead of a publishing job or if I did not discover Buchi Emecheta when I did in university. I still wonder how different my career will be once I am done with my writing programme. Will this be my own steppingstone?

‘Unlike Adah, even with all the resources at my disposal, I was ill-prepared and hesitant to accept the adventure in front of me.’ OPE ADEDEJI

Sharing New Realities

‘Are we going to live here?’ Adah asks Francis as she takes in the room she is to live in with her children after arriving in England. In response, Francis goes on a tirade—the first of many in England—yelling that, in England, Adah is a second-class citizen. Perhaps for Francis, a Nigerian man who has lived all his life in Nigeria, this is a novel experience. But for Adah who had to sneak into school to get the same education as Boy, being a second-class citizen is nothing new. In Nigeria, Adah had been a second-class citizen as a woman, yet this had never stopped her from thriving. Now in England, aware of her blackness, she would be a second-class citizen for an additional reason.

In the 40 years since Buchi Emecheta shared her story, there are still challenging nuances that come with being Black in a foreign country like the UK. In their tell-all interview with Oprah, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle shared the difficulties they faced as senior royals, including a comment a family member made during Meghan’s first pregnancy about how dark their unborn child would be. The child had not even been born, but its skin colour was already a cause for concern. Blackness has, for a long time, been synonymous with inferiority and Buchi Emecheta paints a picture of this in Adah’s experiences living and working in the UK, in the pedestal upon which Adah places white people. However, Buchi Emecheta also uses one of Adah’s experiences to challenge the view that white people are superior. After an experience in which a childminder, Trudy, abandons Adah’s children in the backyard where they played with toilet water, Trudy lies to the children’s officer about what happened, claiming she cared and loved the children. Buchi Emecheta writes:

But Adah could not stop thinking about her discovery that the whites were just as fallible as everyone else. There were bad whites and good whites, just as there were bad blacks and good blacks! Why then did they claim to be superior?

My personal experiences as a Black woman in the UK vary. There are good days—especially the sunny ones—when I bond with my colleagues and housemates, outside of Zoom seminars. There are days when I experience those same emotions from the airport, days when it is hard to be a Black woman living alone in a foreign country. One night in March, I found myself walking down an empty path with my groceries and had an overwhelming fear of being attacked. I thought about Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old white woman, whose face had been all over the media that week. Sarah’s body was discovered a week after she went missing on her way home. News of her death had reignited discussions around the UK about women’s safety and drawn attention to the less publicized case of Blessing Olusegun. Blessing was a 21-year-old Black woman who was reported missing before she was found dead in September 2020. Although the cases were similar—both women had been walking home alone and were later found dead—fewer people were aware of Blessing’s death and her family and friends had to petition for further investigation.

Walking home, I felt uneasy as I remembered Second Class Citizen, and the rant Francis gave about Adah being a second-class citizen in the UK because she was Black. I wondered, did the same concept determine how society responded to Sarah’s and Blessing’s murders? If I was attacked, would I get the same treatment as Blessing or as Sarah? The night ended with me on my bed, curving myself into a ball and shedding those same tears from the night at Murtala Mohammed airport. Why am I here? I asked myself.

In moments like that night, I read to find comfort in the world and words of other writers. James Baldwin said:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

Living away from home has led me to constantly seek solace in experiences that mirror mine, even to the smallest degree. Books about being Black, Nigerian in particular, and in a foreign country give me comfort. They remind me that I am not alone, that my experience is not new and that I, too, will wade through it.

‘I wondered…  If I was attacked, would I get the same treatment as Blessing or as Sarah?’ OPE ADEDEJI

A few weeks ago, I started reading Second Class Citizen again; this time, my third time, I am reading the novel as a 25-year-old creative writing student struggling to find her voice as a writer. The novel has taken on a different meaning for me, and I have greater clarity and appreciation for its themes and complexities. Growing older has also brought me a measure of clarity about myself and my ambitions. At 25, I am less concerned about convincing others that I am a writer and that writing itself is a serious affair. While recognition—for instance, being shortlisted for the Koffi Addo Creative Nonfiction Prize in 2018 and winning the Brittle Paper Prize for Fiction in 2020—has validated my talent as a writer, I find equal validation within the texts of the female authors that showed me at 16 that fiction could also reflect my realities. Today, I realize that Buchi Emecheta carved a place for me to exist as a writer. Thanks to her and the influence of writers such as ’Pemi Aguda and Eloghosa Osunde, my writing has evolved to reflect my own reality.

In Second Class Citizen, after Adah finishes writing her first novel, The Bride Price, she shares her manuscript and dream to become a writer with Francis. Francis, however, burns her manuscript and sneers at her ambition: ‘you keep forgetting that you are a woman and that you are black.’ Adah counters this with the success of Flora Nwapa, the female, Black author of Efuru, whose books Adah comes across while working at the North Finchley Library. Reading the works of contemporary novelists, ultimately, prepared Adah for the freedom to write and to leave an abusive husband. In many ways, Buchi Emecheta is my Flora Nwapa.

Rereading Second Class Citizen has left me wishing for an easier world, especially for Black, female writers. But the novel has also left me with a sense of responsibility. These days, I think of books as ammunition; tools to help us navigate the world.

‘These days, I think of books as ammunition; tools to help us navigate the world.’ OPE ADEDEJI

More than four decades since it was first published, Second Class Citizen’s exploration of the prejudices that exist against Black people in the UK has proven invaluable to me. As soon as I finished the novel and tucked it into my bookshelf, I took a walk around my neighbourhood. It was a bright evening, and I felt light on my feet. I took long, fast strides as I walked into the woods and then around a swamp. A few days later, I called an aunt who has lived in the UK for 30 years. We had never been close, so I expected it to be a short catch-up. Instead, she asked about my course and said ‘So, what next?’ a question everyone had been asking me. My response, which would have been uncertain a few weeks earlier, felt sturdy. I told her about the women-centred story themes I planned to focus on for my dissertation. She told me about her time in the UK and her recent desire to return to Nigeria, which puzzled me. Later, as I ruminated over our conversation and my own decision to study creative writing, I sent my partner a text: ‘I’m right where I’m supposed to be.’

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