Next Wednesday, a group of delegates from Cambridge, England will meet with a group of delegates from Benin City, Nigeria and hand over a bronze cockerel. The cockerel, known as the Okukor, was taken – in the ‘looted’ sense – from the Kingdom of Benin at around the turn of the twentieth century. It ended up at one of Cambridge University’s colleges and was kept on display as a kind of themed ornament, owing to how the crest of Jesus College itself features three cockerels. It will be the first time that one of the Benin bronzes, thousands of which are scattered around the world, including in the British Museum in London and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has been returned.
Our Book of the Month is Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, a fictionalized account of moving from Nigeria to England in the middle of the twentieth century. Lagos, where Emecheta was born, had once been part of the Kingdom of Benin, though, by her birth year of 1944, it was the biggest city in Nigeria. Since visiting Lagos (population: 20 million) a few years ago, I’ve never forgotten the sheer bombardment of the senses that greeted me, nor the dynamism of the artists and writers I met there, nor have I complained about any non-Lagosian traffic jam. At that time the streets were plastered with posters advertising the Aké Arts and Books Festival, one of Nigeria’s pre-eminent literary events. As it happens, this year’s instalment begins next week and, in the pandemic-era mode, offers many of its talks in virtual form, such as this panel discussion on manhood, including the author Musa Okwonga, taking place on the morning of 29 October.
Second-Class Citizen is semi-autobiographical in the sense that the story of its protagonist, Adah, maps onto all the main contours of Emecheta’s own life story: the difficult childhood, the dream versus the reality of moving to London, the five children, the abusive husband. The cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, which was released this month, features a newly created artwork by the brilliant artist Chris Ofili, whose own parents moved from Nigeria to England in the 1960s, and indeed, he shares a surname with Adah. Entitled Classy (for Buchi Emecheta), his design features a woman’s profile – Adah? Emecheta? – emblazoned onto a second-class stamp.
As per this TV interview with Emecheta from 1975, the term ‘second-class’ refers in the novel to both the way that Black British immigrants were seen in the UK and how women were in turn seen by their male partners. ‘We’ve been brainwashed,’ she says of the trope of England as a sort of promised land. ‘You think you come here and you have everything ready-made for you, all you have to do is just stretch your hand and there you are.’ By the time Emecheta died in 2017, she had published sixteen novels, an autobiography, three children’s books and three plays. Ben Okri (who interviewed Grace Wales Bonner for The Happy Reader) says of Emecheta that she ‘re-ignited the rich place of women at the heart of African literature’.
Adah looks out of the train window then: ‘She saw the factory where Ovaltine was made. Somehow that factory, standing there isolated, clean and red against the snowy background, lightened her spirit. She was in England at last.’ Someone looks out of the train window now: ‘Although the Ovaltine factory has been gutted to construct apartment blocks, the façade has been sympathetically restored.’
This week in 1851 saw the original publication of Herman Melville’s sixth novel, Moby-Dick. The book had a pathetic original print run of just 500 copies. But surely it caught on quite quickly after that? Not especially. The reviews were mixed; Melville made just $556.37 from the book before he died. Moby-Dick only accrued that hard to define quality of ‘classic-ness’ in the years and decades to come. If you’ve been too daunted by its reputation to read it, here’s a map that might help.
An essay by Johanna Thomas-Corr explores why Middlemarch still matters (remember: it’s Book of the Season in the next issue of The Happy Reader).
This week, singer Solange Knowles launched a free community library filled with rare books and art by Black creators. Elsewhere, L.A.-based rapper Noname has opened the Radical Hood Library, a physical headquarters for what was previously a digital-only book club. A librarian by training, Buchi Emecheta worked at: the British Museum library, Chalk Farm Library, North Finchley Library, and the library of the American Consulate in Lagos. Until next Thursday 28 October, the Buchi Emecheta Space in the library at Goldsmiths, University of London, is host to an exhibition of CopyArt, or art made using a photocopier, with emphasis on the work of Black British artist Rita Keegan.
Despite the change of clocks, November’s Book of the Month will cling to whatever traces of summer remain: it’s Denton Welch’s final novel In Youth is Pleasure. Please read along and send thoughts, as ever, to [email protected].
Editor-in-chief, The Happy Reader