Monday, January 21, 2008

Much of Buchi Emecheta's work explores both British and Nigerian life, a reflection of her arrival in Britain in the 1960s and struggling to reconcile herself and her writing with the contrasts between both cultures. In THE NEW TRIBE the Rev. Arthur Arlington and his wife Ginny adopt a baby girl left in a Tesco shopping bag in a phone booth. A Nigerian woman reading the resultant publicity asks them to take in her son Chester too.

This book would be well suited to a class of high school teenagers, as it raises plenty of important issues about family and identity. Chester is adopted and raised in a small English coastal town, clergy household. While he loves his family, he gradually becomes aware that he looks different from them, beginning a process of exploring for himself what that means.

There's a lovely song by Youssou N'Dour and Neneh Cherry called 7 Seconds, from the album THE GUIDE (WOMMAT) containing the lyrics: "When a child is born into this world, it has no concept of the tone of skin its living in." This book reminds me of that:
"You're a real African king!" exclaimed Ginny. "Now try on your crown." She had made the crown of cardboard, and covered it in gold paper. It was a little big, but Chester was happy to wear it.
"What do you think, Arthur?"
"Oh yes, Chester, you look grand." Chester looked at his parents admiring him, and felt excited.
On the day of the play, he enjoyed himself enormously in his purple velvet robe and shiny crown. After the play there were hot mince pies and different kinds of juice. Many of the parents congratulated him on being such a good king. As they left the school hall, Chester ran up to say goodbye to Ray who was dressed as a shepherd, with a crook in his hand. His father laughed and said jovially, "Chester, King of the Orient!"
On his way home in the dark with his parents, Chester slipped his hand into Ginny's and asked, "What's the Orient, Mummy?"
"It means the East, where the wise men came from," she responded.
"What's the East?" he pursued. Ginny was silent for a moment, then she said, "Africa's in the East. Where your people came from."
In bed that night, he thought about her words. "Your people." He thought the Arlingtons were his people. The sense of unbelonging strengthened." (pp.11-12)
I did find the "surprise explanation" behind the driving force in Chester's life to be no surprise at all as it appeared (to me at least) as obvious from the start. However, the book is still well worth a look for the description of a teenage search for identity. Particularly successful is Emecheta's portrayal of friendships (especially those with Mr Egwu and his sons, the first black family Chester encounters), and her descriptions of Nigeria when Chester returns there to search out his roots are highly evocative.



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