The World of Montague Tibbles House


From The Paris Review:

“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.

Born Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta in 1944 in the Nigerian city of Lagos, her railway-worker father died when she was only eight, and her uneducated seamstress mother only wanted to see her daughter marry well. Emecheta, however, had other plans. She saved herself from an early marriage by taking—in secret—the scholarship exam for a place at the prestigious Methodist Girls’ High School. And, although she married Sylvester Onwordi and quickly bore him two children when she finished school at sixteen, she also procured a sought-after job at the American Embassy, which paid a very impressive salary. Her plan, however, was to emigrate to the United Kingdom. As she recalls in Head Above Water, her father always spoke of the UK in “hushed tones wearing an expression as respectful as if it were God’s Holiest of Holies,” and Emecheta wanted to make him proud by making it big there herself. In 1962, shortly before her eighteenth birthday, she and her two children sailed for Liverpool, on first class tickets courtesy of Emecheta’s hard work, where Onwordi (who’d gone on ahead) was waiting to take them to their new life in London.

What greeted Emecheta was a far cry from the promised land she’d imagined. As she explained in a British TV interview in 1975, she, like many others, had been “brainwashed” into thinking of England as “the United Kingdom of God.” Emecheta’s education, which had afforded her both respect and riches back in Lagos, was considered irrelevant in London. Here she was judged first and foremost by the color of her skin. Many landlords refused point-blank to rent to black tenants, and those that did offered only the most squalid rooms in slum housing.

Emecheta’s first few years in London were an uphill battle. Onwordi felt no responsibility to provide for his growing family, nor was he prepared to do any of the domestic labor, thus forcing his wife to be the breadwinner while also giving birth to another three children, for whom she had to care. At the same time, Onwordi became increasingly cruel and violent. She eventually left him—the final straw was when he burnt her first manuscript, a novel titled The Bride Price, which luckily she later went on to rewrite and publish. By the mid-’60s, Emecheta was a twenty-two-year-old single mother of five. When her youngest child was ten months old, the council rehoused the family in Montague Tibbles House, a large block of public housing in Kentish Town. This is the world she brings to life so vividly in In the Ditch.

“Re-Covered: In the Ditch”, Lucy Sholes, The Paris Review

Image by Pigsaw via Flickr (cc).