With the publication of her autobiographically-inspired novels, In the Ditch (1972) and its sequel Second Class Citizen (1974), which began as a column in The New Statesman and appeared as a single volume entitled Adah’s Story a decade later, the Nigerian-born Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017) was the first female novelist to convey the experiences of being black in post-war Britain. Not surprisingly, most critics have concentrated on the sociological concerns that Emecheta raises in her fictionalised account of a Nigerian immigrant mother of five struggling to keep her “head above water” in 1960s London, to use the title of Emecheta’s 1984 autobiography. In an attempt to turn around black British literary criticism’s preference for “social and political relevance over aesthetic considerations and innovations” (Weedon 2008: 19), this chapter takes a special interest in how Emecheta innovates the established genre of the Bildungsroman, that “symbolic form of [European] modernity” (Morretti 2000: 5). It extends the label of “novel of transformation,” which Stein (2004) reserves for fiction combining subject formation with societal transformation published after 1985 by authors of African, Asian and Caribbean descent born and raised in Britain, to the fictional life writing produced well over a decade earlier by a first-generation black immigrant in Britain. Emecheta’s presentation of Adah’s life story in the early 1970s is read as a gendered and ethnic-minority variation on the traditional Bildungsroman that not only highlights the cultural and sociopolitical changes taking place in post-Windrush British society but, no less significantly, also heralds later black British women writers’ growing concern with aesthetics. Emecheta is thus repositioned as an early pioneer of the increasing formal innovation in black British literature in the late 20th century, when especially women novelists are experimenting with hybrid subgenres and metareferential techniques and thus “opening up a range of vistas which are quite some distance removed from the purview of Black British writing as it has been predominantly understood” (McLeod 2010: 46). The chapter's genre-focused appraisal of Emecheta’s debut novels illustrates how the predominant perception of post-war black British women writers as sociological-informants may be challenged by an Aesthetic Turn in criticism that draws attention also to their earliest ‘novel experiments’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBritish ExperimentalWomen’s Fiction, 1945–1975, edited by Andrew Radford and Hannah Van Hove
Subtitle of host publicationSlipping Through the Labels
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-72766-6
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-72765-9
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

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  • Buchi Emecheta
  • Black British literature
  • bildungsroman


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