TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Atilla Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Postcoloniality, Knowledge, and Creativity in Buchi Emecheta's
Early Autobiographical Fiction:

In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen

Rezzan Kocaöner Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey) [BIO]



Lindah Mhando in “Theorizing African Identities and Multiple Modernities: Questions Revisited” states that “'subaltern'/'post colonial' perspectives ... demand a different conceptualization of knowledge and knowing” as opposed to the universalist claims of Eurocentric ideology (29). Stuart Hall in “New Ethnicities” also suggests that “the black subject and black experience ... are constructed historically, culturally, [and] politically”. Making a distinction between 'race' and 'ethnicity', Hall further claims that “all knowledge is contextual ... [and] [r]epresentation is possible only because enunciation is always produced within codes which have a history, a position within the discursive formations of a particular space and time” (226).

Thus, with an emphasis on the fact that knowledge and creativity in the new world order are closely related to social, gendered, ethnic, and spatial classifications, this paper aims to discuss how Buchi Emecheta challenges the patriarchal and colonialist representations of African woman, and becomes a role model for the transformation of African society in her early autobiographical fiction, In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974).

After the migration from the indigenous home to the global setting, transnational black writers started to give voice to their experiences from an overseas space. As Bronwyn T. Williams in “'A State of Perpetual Wandering': Diaspora and Black British Writers” claims, immigrant Black British writers “are not writing as the postindependence or postcolonial subject displaced in Britain; they are writing as the British subject in a postcolonial world trying to contest and displace the dominant narrative of nation” (1). Thus, Britishness has been re-constructed through some “heterogeneous, transnational, and continually evolving … cultural narratives” (Williams 3).

In light of this argument, Jago Morrison in Contemporary Fiction describes Buchi Emecheta's early novels, In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen, as novels, written by “a 'Black Briton' in the 1960s ... [in] a quite different, documentary realist style” (192). To Emecheta, her both novels are indisputably “sociological handbooks” (Second-Class Citizen viii). In Emecheta's early writing, it is possible to trace the experiences of immigrants in Britain during its decline as an imperial power. In In the Ditch, a young Nigerian woman, Adah, struggles hard to overcome her faith of being financially dependent on the British institutions and become a liberated woman through her hard work and education. Second-Class Citizen also elaborates on the difficulties of the migrants, positioned within the two cultures, like Emecheta's protagonist Adah Obi herself. The only way to Adah's liberation is her industrious endeavour to become a famous writer.

As Morrison further states, “In In the Ditch, Emecheta seeks to establish an explicit analogy between Adah's condition of subjection and that of postcolonial Nigeria. In the same moment that she struggles for autonomy, she finds herself manoeuvred into a position of complex dependence” (193). Although Adah got used to living in the imperial metropolis, she was still a defender of the national independence of Nigeria which was obtained in 1960. Her desire to wear her “lappa”, signifying that national event, was also an emblem of her personal independence as a woman. However, “[i]n Second-Class Citizen, ... she [was] critical of middle-class Nigerian men['s] ... unquestioning attitude towards the imperial 'centre' ... [and] their failure to live up to the ideal model of English education” (Morrison 194). Nigerian men who failed in achieving success in the metropolis got married with white women. As Emecheta's narrator describes, “the dream of reading Law and becoming an élite in their newly independent country ... The dream of becoming an aristocracy became a reality of being a black, a nobody, a second-class citizen” (Second-Class Citizen 69).

In her foreword to her first book, In the Ditch, Emechetaalsostates that “Everything in this book really happened ... I decided to write in the third person, but only names, including my own, have been changed” (9). In her introductory remarks to her second autobiographical fiction, Second-Class Citizen, however, she mentions some doubts about the authenticity of her first book: “I decided it would be easier to write another book explaining Adah Obi's background and to give an insight into how she found herself in London, living in the ditch as a second-class citizen” (vii).

In In the Ditch,Emecheta discusses the universality of her subject matter and defines 'ditch' as a borderline between life and death “into which, perhaps, ... widows, unmarried mothers, separated mums, prisoners' wives”, either black or white, might one day fall (9). To emphasize the authenticity of her first book, she gives certain dates about Adah's arrival in England in 1962, like Emecheta herself, who emigrated there in the same year with her family to provide them with a better life opportunity and education. Adah's plans to go back to Nigeria after the fulfilment of her dreams failed when she was betrayed and left alone by her husband. Thus, she had to struggle against the difficulties of life with five children in London, where she was “othered” as a black woman.

Emecheta in her factual autobiography Head Above Water (1986)confesses that most of her early works are true to life “like [her] children, too close to [her] heart ... too real” (1). She thinks that autobiographical writing helps the subject face her real self. Thus, Buchi Emecheta's female characters in her fictional autobiographies, like the author herself, are very much aware of the difficulties of being a 'third world' migrant in the imperial metropolis. Emecheta furthers this argument in her autobiography as follows: “[M]any of my readers ... [wonder] how an African woman could come to Britain and make a modest living writing books in a language that is not her first nor her second or third but her fourth” (Head Above Water 2). When Emecheta looks back upon her early childhood in Nigeria, she remembers her father's eldest sister whose stories fed her soul to become a writer. As Emecheta writes in Head Above Water: “[T]his woman whom I see constantly when I look at my image in the mirror; this soft ...; this mysterious woman who had the art of punctuating her stories with long silences and deep breathing” had a mesmerizing power as soon as “[s]he closed her eyes and slowly drifted into one of her story-telling trances ... to speak” (6-7).

Emecheta, however, has been criticized of dealing with the experiences of migrant women in the metropolis rather than her own native culture. In her fiction, she has also successfully combined her early and late life experiences both in colonial Nigeria and postcolonial London. As a Nigerian Ibo, Emecheta translated her local experience into a global context through her knowledge of another language and culture. Yet the difficulties she experienced in becoming a liberated woman and an acclaimed writer at the same time originated from the imperialistic and patriarchal discourses which classified her as racially inferior and ideologically marginal.

In this regard, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin in The Post-colonial Studies Reader state that “African women writers whose representations of their societies, and of patriarchal oppressions within them, are seen as conflicting with the processes of decolonisation and cultural restitution ... African cultural values ... [have] frequently been seen to conflict with feminist reformation” (249). According to the Western feminist discourses, the problematic issue is raising women's position in society through education and liberating them from the manacles of patriarchy. In the African society, however, feminist emancipation is a two sharp- edged phenomenon. African women have to fight both against cultural imperialism and patriarchy that oppress them. As the African writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o claims, cultural liberation is a vain attempt “without women's liberation” (qtd. in Petersen 254). Thus, the impact of African writers like Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta had been profound in change of attitudes toward African woman. They were both transformed and transformed the representation of African woman on an international platform. Gayatri Spivak also considers the condition of “[t]he subaltern woman” problematic, since she has to struggle against the dominant systems of power either at home or on a global scale to deserve a respectable status in society (qtd. in Boehmer 354).

 Thus, with the emergence of cultural and economic globalization, people moved from their native homes to imaginary spaces which Kathleen Kerr identifies, with reference to Arjun Appadurai's term, as “permanently shifting 'ethnospaces'” (364). In this regard, “Modern identities are increasingly liminal and hybrid, given the historical 'overlapping [of] diasporas' and a globalizing process in which capital, commodities, information, technologies, images, and ideologemes circulate across borders” (Kerr 364).

In Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis, John Clement Ball also states that “London has been transformed; demographically it is becoming more and more global (or transnational) and less and less traditionally – that is, ethnically, racially, or even nationally – English or British” (4-5). London novels of postcolonial imagination provide the reader with “transnational models of identity” which is adopted through the exploration of “the world city of London” (Ball 13). London becomes the in-between space of the Atlantic Ocean for the “black identities whose definitive quality is fluid diasporic mobility” (14). In fictional representations of the writers from the old British colonies, London turns out to be a special place for “experience and education” (5). Thus, “[a]s writers render those experiences into autobiographical or fictional narratives, they reinscribe the metropolis against their backgrounds and identities as formerly colonized subjects. The London that once imposed its power and self-constructions on them can now be reinvented by them” (9). In this regard, postcolonial writers employ subversive tactics to challenge the hierarchical coercive powers of the dominant ideology that categorize them as “Other”. Emecheta in Second-Class Citizen, for instance, successfully combines her national and transnational identities to create a new space in between, through which she reaches the global reader.

For the postcolonial migrants, London is a global setting to have access to “a 'world' from which they otherwise feel cut off” (Ball 27). They learn through reading the same publications, journals or newspapers, and the circulation of such a shared knowledge among different ethnic races establishes a mutual communication and interaction. London, then, with its peculiarity, is a space which gradually becomes a place for the migrant. Ball aptly notes,

As for the humans who negotiate this dialectic in postcolonial fictions of London, the degree to which they either thrive or flounder in their efforts to appropriate and reinvent the city depends on their success at transforming abstract space to meaningful place and reinscribing oppressive place as liberating space. (33)

In his introduction to Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis,John McLeod also discusses the “transformative potential” of London with the arrival of coloured migrants (1). Writers with the colonial background greatly contributed to this restructuring process through their representations in their works. Accordingly, Emecheta's both novels In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen are set in North London during the great migration from the colonies in the 1960s. Thus, Queen's Crescent Saturday Market becomes a central setting to her first novel, In the Ditch, in which “Africans, Pakistanis and West Indians shopped side by side with the successful Jews, Americans and English from Highgate, Hampstead, Swiss Cottage and other equally outlandish places” (In the Ditch 154). Emecheta in her fiction has mostly dealt with the poor and the black women with children. From such a perspective, in the representations of the African diaspora in London, issues of class, race and gender have always been emphasized by her.

Susan Yearwood in “The Sociopolitics of Black Britain in the Work of Buchi Emecheta” also focuses on the “sociopolitical” aspect of Emecheta's work as well as its insight into the lives of the Nigerian women. Yearwood identifies such women as sufferers of neo-colonialism. Thus, “Emecheta's fiction maps the social trajectories of West African women on the continent and in Britain and reveals the political nature of mores and communities that shape a woman's destiny wherever she may live” (138). In this regard, 'the ditch' into which Adah is pushed becomes “a feminized space” and such a space can be identified “by her Otherness and the sociopolitical conditions that place her there” (Yearwood 138-40).

Hence, after the publication of In the Ditch in 1972, Emecheta writes her second autobiographical novel Second-Class Citizen, in which she discusses 'cultural conflict' as one of the essential issues. She states that “Second-Class Citizen, apart from explaining why Adah Obi found herself in the ditch, also had to describe a culture conflict if it was going to be successful. It had to describe the experience of young African families, uprooted from their own culture to the one they encountered in Britain” (Second-Class Citizen vii-viii). Thus, she believes in the significance of learning both by experience and reading for cross-cultural understanding.

Emecheta also emphasizes the contribution of being familiar with the works of great English writers like Dickens, Brontë sisters or Shakespeare to her knowledge of the English language and culture. She believes that reading from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist has been very beneficial in designing the structure of Second-Class Citizen. As she notes, “I still write in that way, starting from childhood, developing the character through to maturity ... including Second-Class Citizen, [in which] the character copes with adolescence through to adulthood” (Second-Class Citizen ix). Emecheta confesses that the way she writes is like the way she speaks, which is a cultural issue. In their African story telling tradition, mothers tell stories to their children before bed time and “children are usually fascinated by the storyteller's voice and intonation” (x). Emecheta feels anxious about the difficulty of expressing her deep emotions while writing them in another language.

From such a perspective, the use of language in postcolonial writing is characterized by “complex” and “hybrid” issues in a “constantly changing environment” to contradict the linguistic structure of the standard usage. For example, Emecheta in an interview describes her difficulty in translating her feelings into English as follows: “I remember when I was writing In the Ditch and I made a sentence, 'The girl danced her thanks' and, then, they told me 'this is not English' ... In Africa, when you give a girl something, instead of saying just 'Thank you' stiffly, she would dance round and say 'Thank you very much, thank you'” (Second-Class Citizen 175).

In addition, Adah identifies Second-Class Citizen as “autobiographical” except “a few details, like the names of the characters, and ... a little drama ..., like the incident of Adah burying the two shillings” to enter the exam (Second-Class Citizen xi). Emecheta's protagonist Adah Obi, in her own terms, was mistakenly born during the Second World War into a family wishing for a baby boy rather than a girl. As she grew up, she witnessed that yearning for a baby boy was a cultural issue and she felt sorry for her mother and father. Having experienced such a disappointment in her early life, Adah started to develop a very critical attitude towards the African patriarchal ideology which deprived women of their rights to educate themselves. She was aware that the only alternative to be successful in life was education. In Adah's culture, boys were given right to educate themselves whereas girls were kept at home and their attendance to school was considered with doubt “whether it would be wise to let her stay long. 'A year or two would do, as long as she can write her name and count. Then she will learn to sew'” (3). Not only Adah but all girls in Nigeria were potential “unpaid servant[s]” in the house and they were also considered commodities to be exchanged with a high bride price between fathers and husbands. To Adah, marrying at an early age would not solve her problems: “One might think on this evidence that Africans treated their children badly. But to Adah's people and to Adah herself, this was not so at all; it was the custom” (Second-Class Citizen 11).

As the time passed by, Adah realized that living alone was not appropriate for a young girl. She had no alternative but to marry after the death of her father. Although Francis did not have money to pay her bride price she had to marry him and give birth to their first child. Adah also started to work in the library of the American Consulate with a good salary. Both Adah and Francis used to make plans about their future. Adah would work hard to save money to go to England and Francis would attend school in England to become an accountant. However, life in England for Adah and her husband Francis was quite difficult. The major problem for the blacks in England was accommodation. Nobody would like to rent a flat to the blacks. As Francis says, “We are all blacks, all coloured, and the only houses we can get are horrors like these” (Second-Class Citizen 29).

Thus, Frantz Fanon in “The Fact of Blackness” claims that the black's “inferiority comes into being through the other” when he encounters the white world (323). Fanon elaborates on the Black psychology as follows: “The Negro is bad, ... mean, ... ugly; ... the little white boy throws himself into his mother's arms: Mama, the nigger's going to eat me up ... I sit down ... and become aware of my uniform ... The white world, the only honorable one, barred me from all participation” (324). The privilege in England belonged to “first-class citizens” (Second-Class Citizen 38). Like most immigrants from the colonies, Francis wanted to equal himself with the superior race by using its language in an efficient way. He never desired his children to speak any of their native languages but English. To him “An intelligent man was judged by the way he spoke English” (43-4). In Black Skin, White Masks,Fanon also describes language as a powerful tool to rival the 'other'. To speak a language is “to assume a culture” and “to support the weight of a civilization” (17-8). The black who travels to Europe “lock[s] himself into his room and read[s] aloud for hours ... determined to learn diction” with the expectation of breaking the barriers down (21).

In this regard, Adah's most significant experience had become her efforts to find a suitable place for her family when her first landlord forced them to move from their flat. As a woman, she took the initiative to search for an appropriate place where she would dwell. She first refused to be treated like a native woman who was not expected to be involved in important matters as was in her own native culture. In England, she learned how to act like a member of the superior race, and speak English fluently which would provide her with much better opportunities.

During her stay in England, she learned that her colour was of an anomaly that “she was supposed to be ashamed of ... This had a curious psychological effect on her” (Second-Class Citizen 59). It was the sense of “otherness” which encouraged Adah to become a part of the British culture. She knew that there were various accents in London and her voice on the phone calling for the vacant room in Hawley Street would make clear that she was an African. With this objective in mind, Adah mimicked the London accent on the phone to the landlady to transgress the boundaries of her black identity which had been a great obstacle for social acceptability. She also gained awareness of her strong personality to achieve success in any field she would like to: “She practised and practised her voice in the loo, and was satisfied with the result. The landlady would definitely not mistake her for a woman from Birmingham or London” (62). The only problem would occur at their meeting with their old landlady. She thought, “If only they could paint their faces; just until the first rent had been paid” (64).

Thus, Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture describes mimicry as one of the most “effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge” (85). The aim of the colonial mimicry is to create an 'Other' who “is almost the same, but not quite” (86). Mimicry is a partial representation and there is no “identity behind its mask” (88). As Bhabha further comments, “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority ... The question of the representation of difference is ... always ... a problem of authority” (88-9).

Apart from her elaboration on the racial discrimination, Emecheta also discusses the discrimination between the sexes as represented in biblical and patriarchal discourses. In Nigeria, men have been brought up according to the expectations of the patriarchal ideology. Thus, British culture had been quite demanding for a man like Francis. Adah thought about African women like “her mother-in-law for spoiling all her sons ... [T]he boys grew up thinking they were something special, superhuman creatures” (Second-Class Citizen 84). Emecheta also mentions the biblical discourse in which woman is told to be created out of the ribs of man. She ironically says that “Jehovah God took one of his own ribs and broke it into seven little pieces and made her own cage for them ... [S]he was called 'wo-man' because she was made from the ribs of a man ... What would be Francis's interpretation of the Western Ibo word for woman, opoho which had no relevance to the word for male okei?” (84-5).

To Francis, Adah was simply born to fulfil her stereotypical role as a woman: to stand her husband, take care of his children or work for him. While giving birth to her third child, she had a dream in which all negative aspects of her life changed that Francis had already been a rich farmer in Nigeria to protect his family from the horrible dream of living in London as second-class citizens. Adah wanted to educate her children in the Western system. She would like her sons to respect their wives and her daughters to educate themselves to become self-confident and independent. She thought that, “Her children were going to be different[,] ... enjoy being black, be proud of being black, a black of a different breed” (Second-Class Citizen 121).

Adah also longed to become a great writer like Achebe and Nwapa, who were of African origin. Experiences she had undergone in England as a second-class citizen and her job as a librarian provided Adah with the greatest knowledge of her life. She thought how to transfer her life experience into creative fiction. As for the language, she had to write in the language of the colonized. She would write in English since it was the global language. Her experiences and creation would reach a wide readership. In Adah's world view, writing in English would be her challenge, a challenge to the dominant ideology that subjected her race to degradation. It meant she would have to consult the greatest literary works of the dominant ideology and bind her librarianship experience with that of everyday experience to create a masterpiece. With this aim in mind, Adah, expecting her fifth child, left her husband Francis who burned the manuscript of her Bride Price to take the control of her life.

In this regard, in Post-colonial Transformation, Bill Ashcroft states that “[t]he attempt to understand how post-colonial cultures resisted the power of colonial domination in ways so subtle that they transformed both colonizer and colonized lies at the heart of postcolonial studies” (3). Representations of postcoloniality are closely related to “the positioning of cultural identity” which can only be accomplished through struggle and experience (4). The most significant property of postcolonial appropriation and transformation is language which is a discursive site to negotiate the 'standard' and 'variant' usages of it.

Apart from language, “location” is another issue to the postcolonial imagination. As Ashcroft states, “The place of a diasporic person's 'belonging' may have little to do with spatial location, but be situated in family, community, in those symbolic features which constitute a shared culture, a shared ethnicity or system of belief, including nostalgia for a distant homeland. It is when place is least spatial, perhaps, that it becomes most identifying” (125).

Thus, born in Nigeria and lived in London, Buchi Emecheta has contributed to the transformation of the African society through her literary works. Julie Holmes identifies Emecheta as “a woman who has never forgotten her roots” (3). In the “Epilogue” to her autobiography, Head Above Water, Emecheta says:

I love making a home of some kind and my new home in Crouch End needed years of hard work; I love telling stories and now I could tell my stories from my new home – and unlike my big mother Nwakwaluzo, I was even being paid for them. Maybe I did not have the ideal family but I sometimes wonder whether a man could have done better. (228-9)


Works Cited

3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding

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For quotation purposes:
Rezzan Kocaöner Silkü: Postcoloniality, Knowledge, and Creativity in Buchi Emecheta's Early Autobiographical Fiction: In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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