Books by Nigeria's Buchi Emecheta likely for digital revival

Buchi Emecheta was a prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction,
drama and children's books
I have been so enchanted by Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta OBE and her books since my early teens and sorely regretted missing an opportunity to see her in my 20s. So, in my 30s – some months after she had passed on – I jumped at the opportunity to celebrate her life at a tribute event. This event included an audience with her son Sylvester Onwordi, Diane Abbott - MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and Margaret Busby OBE – Buchi's publisher who just happens to be the UK’s first Black female publisher.

Greenwich Book Festival
I was surprised that the event – organised by the Greenwich Book Festival and chaired by writer Ade Solanke – wasn’t filled to the rafters. I was even more surprised that I was one of the youngest people there. I had assumed that, like me, Buchi’s books had been staple reading material for most Black people growing up. Over 40 years on and her books are still hugely relevant. They touch on themes related to racism, sexism, poverty, and the exploration of African identity, belonging and displacement. And yet, these books are not as widely accessible as they used to be. 

A quick search on Amazon reveals that although most of her 21 books exist, some are only available as pre-loved copies. Her three plays, 'Juju Landlord' and 'Family Bargain' and 'A Kind of Marriage' were even harder to track down. I could only find the latter, which was retailing at a whopping £150. But Sylvester wants to change this and is working on an ambitious project to revive awareness of her books and digitise those that have fallen out of print.

Bingeing on Buchi
Exciting stuff because I literally binged on Buchi books in the late 80s/early 90s after my mum gave me her own copy of ‘Second-Class Citizen’. 'Second-Class Citizen' is Buchi's second book - the first I ever read - and a sequel to her debut novel 'In the Ditch'. My mum told me she had picked it because it was written by a ‘bibini’ – a Black person in the Ghanaian language Twi.

(L-R) Sylvester, Diane, Ade, Margaret © MisBeee Writes
This book was an acknowledgement that my frustrations at living between two cultures as a British Ghanaian and not fitting into either seamlessly were a clear articulation of Buchi’s too.

Here was a woman from a village in Ibusa, Delta State, who challenged the status quo. She wanted to do something culturally ‘unAfrican’ as a woman – writing – and did so against the desires of her husband and in a country where being a Black woman was also a huge disadvantage.

I think I drank that book in – I just couldn’t get enough and thus started my obsession with reading every book of hers that I could find. This hunger drove me to my local library, then to high-street book retailers, and as far afield as Legon University Bookshop in Accra, Ghana.   

Being an Afri-Brit
Buchi helped me to make sense of my world. At the time that included the menace of anti-Black threats and walls emblazoned with swastikas from the National Front and British National Party. She legitimised my initially unconscious desire to be a writer. Like me, she was Black, West African and female and yet, she had made writing her success. She had not succumbed to the pressure of being the only three things my parents believed were acceptable professions (doctor, lawyer and teacher). Buchi taught me about that chilling 'Rivers of Blood' speech of 1968 by MP Enoch Powell, which heavily criticised Commonwealth immigration to the UK. His words may have fallen out of favour, but in recent years the rejection of multiculturalism and the popularity of UKIP’s anti-immigration policies, and Brexit are fuelling a revival. Buchi's words exposed me to a world that was never verbally articulated in my house. You knew there was prejudice and a dislike among some to Black people, but you could not always put your finger on it. It taught me that life was far harder for my parents and the people who came before them in the 50s and 60s.

Greenwich Book Festival 2017 © MisBeee Writes
They were the pioneers who had to endure signs like ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ when looking for accommodation; shit through their letterboxes and being denied jobs despite being highly skilled. Things have definitely moved on since then, but some of these attitudes still prevail, which makes her work not only a historical and social legacy of Black struggle but also a living, breathing reference for modern societies.

Her legacy
Although reading Buchi’s books was dependent on which one I got my hands on first, I have since learnt from this book festival that her novels fall into three distinct categories. Early work such as ‘In the Ditch’ and ‘Second-Class Citizen’ reflect her adjustment to UK life. Buchi came to the UK as an 18-year-old wife and mother to two children. By the time she left her husband – who incidentally burnt her only draft of 'In the Ditch' – she was 22 years old and had five children in tow. Imagine! Her work evolved to her looking back to life in Nigeria in such novels as ‘The Rape of Shavi’ and ‘Destination Biafra’.

The future
I remember reading ‘The Rape of Shavi’ in a matter of hours and thinking how could a story be so beautiful and yet so brutal at the same time? The scenes she created had an immensely positive impact on how I viewed my own origins in Ghana. Prior to reading that book, my references of anything African came from the poverty porn spewed out from the TV that dominated discussion of the continent. For me, Africa was emaciated Ethiopian children, until I met Buchi.

Her final category of novels looks at a return to Nigeria in books such as 'Kehinde'. But in Buchi’s case, she has spent too long outside Nigeria for her to be able to return and live back there, according to Sylvester. This is a common theme running through the lives of today’s first-generation immigrants and one - I believe as a member of the Africa diaspora - needs to be explored more. For me, Buchi's stories speak of the experiences of my parents, me and even today’s youth in her discourse on diaspora Africans, immigrant peoples and the establishment. That is why I am cheered to know that maybe out there someday soon – there will be a new generation of e-bookworms obsessed by Buchi’s work just like I am!

Which Buchi book inspired you the most and why?

· To learn more about Buchi's life and legacy, read this New Statesman piece 'Remembering my mother Buchi Emecheta, 1944-2017' by her son Sylvester Onwordi. (Buchi was a columnist at the New Statesman and her columns eventually became the book we know today 'In the Ditch').

· There will be a tribute to Buchi's work at the African literary festival Africa Writes on Sunday 2nd July 11.30-12.30. Click here for more details.

To keep reading blogs like this, check out MisBeeeWrites @ Africa Writes 2015.

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