THESE ARE NOT white-man-listen novels. Nor are they examples of that sweetly bitter, proliferating American genre, black gothic. Buchi Emecheta is a Nigerian, an expatriate who lives in London. In 1971 when her starkly personal sketches of urban proverty begin to appear in The New Statesman, Emecheta was 26 - a black woman with five young children, living on welfare in a country that hasn't so much opposed integration as failed to consider it. To the dismay of social workers, Emecheta was working on a night-school degree in sociology.
The following year saw publication of In the Ditch, a "documentary novel," only now available here. Adapted from The New Statesman series, derived from a diary Emecheta had kept for years, it depicts life at Pussy Cat Mansions, a public housing project, where Adah and her cockney neighbors develop a transient sense of community - despite "pink-skinned little boys" who steal milk from the front stoop.
Listen to an overeducated welfare mother haranguing her children:
"You don't want to start going to a dentist before you are old, do you? Look at my teeth. I've never been to a dentist, and they are perfect. You know why? I never had sweets when I was your age.'"
"Titi burst out laughing."
"'What's so funny?'"
"'Nothing, I just wondered whether there were any sweet shops when you were little, in Africa.'"
The "ditch" of the title is a metaplior for poverty. The book is sad, sonorous, occasionally hilarious, an extraordinary first novel.
The Joys of Motherhood, which transcends. Its treacly, half ironic title, is Emecheta's fifth novel. Set in Nigeria mostly before World War II, it tells the story of Nnu Ego, a timid woman exceedingly set in village ways, who learns to live in Lagos, an ugly and uglifying shanty town. As the novel opens, we see her barefoot, running: "Nnu Ego darted past the Zabo market stalls covered with red corrugated-iron sheets . . . Little sharp stones in the footpath pricked her soles as she reached Baddley Avenue, she felt and at the same time did not feel the pain. This was also true of the pain in her young and unsupported breasts, now filling fast with milk since the birth of her baby boy four weeks before."
A chiefs daughter who has been married oil unhappily to a paunchy "jelly of a man," Nnu Ego defines herself entirely by her traditional roles - as daughter, as wife, in a few years time as chief wife, and paramount, as mother. Finding her first-born child dead - a mat death, there are no cribs in Lagos - she feels sadness compounded by shame.
Her husband Nnaife is a domestic servant, a washerman whose job includes laundering the white mistress' silk undies - what would be woman's work in the village. Nnaife, however, has not lost his self-respect. "I am still your husband and still a man," he says. "Did I not pay your bride price? Am I not your owner?"
Nnu Ego herself never disputes that - though to get food for their children, she and his junior wife join forces in a brief Lysistrata-like rebellion. Nnaife is sent to war, later a "modern" court sends him to prison for a crime tradition demands. Nnu Ego and her children starve: she learns to peddle cigarettes.
The catalogue of hardships would be incredible in the West, but Nnu Ego occupies a time and a place where living is always living dangerously. The truths she lives by are hacked away - by the British, by war, by poverty, by change.
Emecheta tells this story in a pain style, denudling it of exoticism, displaying an impressive, embracing compassion. Like any village story-teller whose tale is sad and meaningful, she laces it with humor. Her three generations of unlettered Africans can be as ornery and individualistic as any California voter.
Expatriate writers often dwell in a fertile country of the mind and body, but are denied the soil. Fauikner had to slink home from New Orleans and settle on the land to create an oeuvre based on it. Exceptionally, Emecheta writes compellingly and utterly without condescension of agrarian African modes she personally rejected. Hers is an urbane sensibility, and her novels - very much of our time - even reverberate upon each other. In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego's eldest surviving son, the one who will grow up to study science in America, has a nightmare that terrifies his mother. He dreams that someone has pushed him into a ditch.