In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print books that shouldn’t be.
“Who will be interested in reading the life of an unfortunate black woman who seemed to be making a mess of her life?” This was the question Buchi Emecheta asked herself in the early seventies before she began writing what would become her first published novel: In the Ditch (1972). Closely based on Emecheta’s own life, it’s the story of Adah (the author’s fictional alter ego), a young Nigerian single mother living on a London council estate. Like the other “problem” families around her, Adah’s doing her very best, but life is a daily struggle. Unable to work because there’s no one else to look after her children, she’s entirely dependent on the welfare state. There’s never enough money to make ends meet, and the apartment block she lives in is a site of almost Dickensian squalor: the stairwells are “smelly with a thick lavatorial stink,” the trash chutes are blocked and overflowing, and the apartments themselves are damp and poorly heated, the cupboards all “carpeted” with mildew. It’s a world rarely brought to life on the page with the candor and intensity of firsthand experience. “She, an African woman with five children and no husband, no job, and no future, was just like most of her neighbours—shiftless, rootless, with no rightful claim to anything. Just cut off … none of them knew the beginning of their existence, the reason for their hand-to-mouth existence, or the result or future of that existence. All would stay in the ditch until somebody pulled them out or they sank under.”
Upon learning that Emecheta had written up episodes from her life, a friend suggested she try sending them to Richard Crossman, then-editor of the New Statesman, Britain’s socialist paper. Emecheta typed up a few “Observations” and began sending one to Crossman every Tuesday (the day she visited the post office to collect her weekly family benefit payment). After a few weeks, she heard back, and he began printing her work as a regular column. This led to interest from publishers and agents, and soon Allison & Busby published In the Ditch—the collected columns turned into a novel. This was the beginning of Emecheta’s long and acclaimed writing career. By and large the reviews were excellent, but some critics wondered how a supposedly well-educated woman found herself in the ditch in the first place. These questions, Emecheta explains in her autobiography Head Above Water (1986), motivated her to write a prequel: Second-Class Citizen (1974).