The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988

The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988

by Susan Z. Andrade


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The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988 by Susan Z. Andrade

In The Nation Writ Small, Susan Z. Andrade focuses on the work of Africa’s first post-independence generation of novelists, explaining why male writers came to be seen as the voice of Africa’s new nation-states, and why African women writers’ commentary on national politics was overlooked. Since Africa’s early female novelists tended to write about the family, while male authors often explicitly addressed national politics, it was assumed that the women writers were uninterested in the nation and the public sphere. Challenging that notion, Andrade argues that the female authors engaged national politics through allegory. In their work, the family stands for the nation; it is the nation writ small. Interpreting fiction by women, as well as several feminist male authors, she analyzes novels by Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria); novellas by Ousmane Sembène, Mariama Bâ, and Aminata Sow Fall (Senegal); and bildungsromans by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia), and Assia Djebar (Algeria). Andrade reveals the influence of Africa’s early women novelists on later generations of female authors, and she highlights the moment when African women began to write about macropolitics explicitly rather than allegorically.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822349211
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/02/2011
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Susan Z. Andrade is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and the co-editor of Atlantic Cross-Currents/Transatlantiques (Africa World Press, 2001).

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The Nation Writ Small

African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958–1988

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4897-9

Chapter One

The Joys of Daughterhood Achebe, Nwapa, Emecheta

People who had mothers like he had were lost if they did not know how to care for themselves. She looked at him in a sort of agony and thought: "Journeys into the soul are not for women with children, not all that dark heaving turmoil."—BESSIE HEAD, A Question of Power

I begin by tracing a particular narration of the African literary tradition, one that corresponds to and underlies the plotting of the anticolonial struggle. As I claimed earlier, most nationalist narratives written by men effaced female agency, featuring women primarily as items of exchange between men. Just as the historiographic tradition suppressed the feminine in its writing or telling of history, so, too, was literary historiography unable to comprehend women's novels that did not explicitly inscribe themselves within the nationalist drama. These invented traditions have been unable to assimilate either women's novels or those anticolonial uprisings by women that predated nationalism, because neither feminine discourse participated in the nationalist story as so named. The erasure of women as subjects is illuminated through examination of Chinua Achebe's ultra-canonical first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. Reading this "father text" of African novels and its reception through the critical lens of gender exposes some of the male anxieties manifested in orthodox nationalism. I will juxtapose literary reading with the Igbo Women's War of 1929—an indigenous women's uprising to which Things Fall Apart has a complex and vexed relation—and with two later novels written by women: Flora Nwapa's Efuru (1966) and Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood (1979). This reading illustrates nationalism's tendentious and gender-marked schemes for regulating the field of postcolonial African writing and for distributing cultural capital within it. Achebe's fellow Igbo female writers, Nwapa and Emecheta, must, according to orthodox understandings of African literary production, either plot themselves into a nationalist literary history whose outlines are masculinist or be consigned to the heap of marginal writers. Emecheta does learn how to emplot herself into this literary history; she embraces cultural nationalism while continuing to make domestic politics of primary importance. I submit that her way of doing so is eased because of her awareness of Nwapa as foremother. Nwapa's engagement with domestic politics (to the exclusion of macro-politics) allows Emecheta to see what is missing, encourages her to feel as if she is not the first to tackle these topics. Her perspective as a second-generation writer and as a daughter allows her greater freedom of engagement and thus permits more on the relation of macro-politics to micro-politics. (We will see something of this sort later, in the first novel by Mariama Bâ)

Nwapa is the classic example of an early female writer who was too timid to speak in the macro-political language of men. Unable to change the nationalist story and patently lacking the confidence to enter into dialogue with it, Nwapa, the first female Nigerian novelist, appears to refuse engagement with nationalist politics altogether. Efuru, her first novel, captures her imaginary resolution of a contradiction in the male-dominated ideology of the writers of her generation and employs a self-consciously feminine style and domestic subject matter to do so. Only with the subsequent publication of The Joys of Motherhood by the more assertively feminist and openly nationalist Emecheta, and with the advent of both another literary generation and the outlines of a counter-discourse in African literary tradition, does Nwapa's working out of the contradictions of nationalist ideology become visible. The Joys of Motherhood establishes an explicitly intertextual relationship with Efuru that acknowledges Nwapa's historical status and secures the earlier novel a place in literary history—indirectly exposing the older novelist's ambivalent representation of women's independence.

Things Fall Apart, Efuru, and The Joys of Motherhood participate in the genealogy of an Igbo novelistic tradition, as well as of its putative "master" discourse, nationalism. The way that feminist anthropologists, historians, and now literary critics have reread the Igbo Women's War, rescuing it from semi-obscurity and re-inscribing it as an indigenous feminist instance of challenge to colonialism, serves as a metaphor for my reading of these two novels by women. If the act of writing is one of the most powerful ways by which women inscribe themselves into history, then the acts of female African writers inscribing themselves and re-inscribing their precursors into a literary history functions as a powerful response to Hegel's infamous dictum on the exclusion of Africans from history. Moreover, when juxtaposed against the canonical Things Fall Apart, the popular rebellion of the Igbo Women's War invites an alternative reading of African literary historiography by pointing to the convergence of gendered and nationalist politics and by offering a productive tool with which to read both men's anxieties about gender and women's silence about nationalism.

Historians and anthropologists generally agree that the decentralized polities that constituted nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Igboland in Nigeria provided significant economic and social mobility to its people, particularly to its women. (In fact, social mobility is what allows Okonkwo to rise to the rank of a great man of the village, even though he began his adult life with no benefits from his father.) Igbo social institutions that helped protect women from patriarchal excesses were the inyemedi (wives of the clan) and the more influential umuaada (daughters of the clan) (Amadiume 1987; Van Allen 1976). Although most women could not own land, they could, and were expected to, make money by trading and could exert economic and political pressure if they prospered.

The Igbo Women's War of 1929 (Ogu Umunwanyi in Igbo) constitutes one such instance of feminine pressure. Archivally recorded by the British as the "Aba Riots," this uprising may be read as the violent culmination of traditional manifestations of Igbo women's power. The uprising was not the first, just the most violent. Other documented women's rebellions took place in Igboland in 1919 and 1925, according to Elizabeth Isichei (1976). In her chapter on the Women's War, Judith Van Allen explains some of the mechanisms of precolonial Igbo women's power:

To "sit on" or "make war on" a man involved gathering at his compound at a previously agreed upon time, dancing, singing scurrilous songs detailing the women's grievances against him (and often insulting him along the way by calling his manhood into question), banging on the hut with the pestles used for pounding yams, and in extreme cases, tearing up his hut (which usually meant pulling the roof off). This might be done to a man who particularly mistreated his wife, who violated the women's market rules, or who persistently let his cows eat the women's crops. (Van Allen 1976, 61)

This raucous and destructive behavior by women was usually directed at men who were perceived to threaten their personal or economic security.

Contrary to what its name might suggest, the British system of indirect rule under which these women lived did not retain traditional forms of government. The British established a system of native courts and designated Africans to serve on them. Called warrant chiefs, these men rarely held customary positions of respect, were ultimately beholden only to the British, and were, because of their linguistic abilities, powerful intermediaries between colonizer and the rest of the colonized. British reliance on these intermediaries was compounded by the fact that the British themselves rarely spoke the Igbo language. Under these conditions, the colonial judicial system soon became hopelessly corrupt.

With the onset of world economic depression in 1929, and with the steadily falling price of palm oil, a crucial resource in the women's economy, the political setting was complete. When the British indicated that they would extend direct taxation to the eastern provinces, meaning the taxation of adult individuals rather than just of men as heads of household, the women took collective action. In November and December 1929, tens of thousands of Igbo and Ibibio women from the Calabar and Owerri provinces "made war on" the warrant chiefs, as well as on the British overlords. They originally mobilized around the issue of the taxation of women, but their demands soon included abolition of the native courts (or the inclusion of women on them) and the return of all white men to their own country. Information and money for the uprising had been conveyed through the elaborate system of women's market networks.

These uprisings were conducted in a manner consonant with women's traditional exercise of power in the village. Van Allen (1972, 175) describes the Women's War this way:

Traditional dress, rituals and "weapons" for "sitting on" were used: the head wreathed with young ferns symbolized war, and sticks, bound with ferns or young palms, were used to invoke the powers of the female ancestors. The women's behavior also followed traditional patterns: much noise, stamping, preposterous threats and a general raucous atmosphere were all part of the institution of "sitting on" a man.

The war ended violently, however; approximately fifty women were killed, and another fifty were wounded by gunfire from the police and soldiers. According to Van Allen (1972, 174), "The lives taken were those of women only—no men, Igbo or British, were even seriously injured." Significantly, the women had not believed that they would be hurt, so culturally appropriate were their actions. Of the archival (mis)representations of the Women's War as the Aba Riots, a name that limits its scope and de-politicizes its feminist impetus, Van Allen (1972, 60–61) notes that the control of language means the control of history:

The British "won," and they have imposed their terminology on history; only a very few scholars have recorded that the Igbo called this the "Women's War." And in most histories of Nigeria today one looks in vain for any mention that women were even involved. "Riots," the term used by the British, conveys a picture of uncontrolled irrational action, ... "Aba Riots," in addition, neatly removes women from the picture. What we are left with is "some riots at Aba"—not by women, not involving complex organization, and not involving thousands of women over most of southeastern Nigeria.

Rather than a devastating political reverse, the uprisings can be more accurately read as one of the many blows dealt the colonial state by the natives. The women succeeded in toppling the corrupt system of the warrant chiefs, though none of their other demands were met. As a result of their efforts, the British attempted to emulate the precolonial Igbo model through a new system of administration.

In the introduction, I pointed out that although other Africans had published novels before it, Things Fall Apart is not only the novel most commonly taught and written about in contemporary African literature, but it has been claimed for paternity. As C. L. Innes (1992, 19) puts it, Achebe "may be deemed the father of the African novel in English." Simon Gikandi elaborates this claim and even when challenged has continued to espouse it (1991, 2001). He anchors this filiative model in the suggestion that Achebe was unique in his ability to recognize the function of the novel both as a depiction of reality and as a vehicle of limitless possibility for constructing and representing a new national identity:

Achebe's seminal status in the history of African literature lies precisely in his ability to have realized that the novel provided new ways of reorganizing African cultures, especially in the crucial juncture of transition from colonialism to national independence, and his fundamental belief that narrative can indeed propose an alternative world beyond the realities imprisoned in colonial and postcolonial relations of power.

Gikandi reads Achebe's contradictions as inherent in the anxieties of an early anticolonial nationalist, and, like Achebe, he accepts as unchallenged the idea that nationalism consolidates itself through gendered formations. In an earlier version of this chapter (1996), I interpreted mainstream literary nationalism—represented here by Things Fall Apart—and in particular, the character of Okonkwo—as an unmediated expression of masculine anxiety. My intent was to sketch the psychic landscape onto which women's novelistic writing emerged, so as to make visible the obstacles writers had to surmount in getting to publish. Filiation, which I attribute to Gikandi on Achebe, is commonly associated with male authors. It captures two different perspectives, both of which shape my understanding of the gendering of African novelistic history. One involves beginnings, in this case that which helps make visible literary traditions, male and female. The other sense of filiation, family relations, refers to the intimate or domestic sphere which organizes much of women's writing and through which it has been read. I claimed of the established terrain, where the novel loomed large, that feminist readers have long noted that female characters are generally absent from—and are silent when they do appear in—this novel. Okonkwo's mother, whose lineage gives the novel's hero seven years of protection; his senior wife; and almost all of his daughters are unnamed. This was more than simple inattention to women, for the absent presence of women was necessary to the construction of the novel's nationalist ideology. Igbo women's social organizations and their "war-making" are effaced in orthodox nationalist history so that masculine anticolonial rebellion can avoid occupying a subordinate, feminized role. Achebe's novel is structured by erasures in a roughly analogous manner and attempts to avoid the representation of colonial relations in gendered terms by inscribing an excessively masculine Igbo man. Female characters are not represented in any significant numbers; anticolonial nationalist subjectivity operates in a gendered social space defined primarily by male bodies, namely, Okonkwo; Unoka, his somewhat lazy father; and Nwoye, his gentle son. I also claimed that Achebe's preoccupation with the implicitly gendered pattern of colonial relations meant he could only imagine male characters as negatively masculine (violent, impatient, proud, driven to prove self-worth) such as Okonkwo, or negatively feminine (passive, lazy, perhaps gentle) such as Unoka and Nwoye. Achebe, I claimed, had no room for a celebratory representation of masculinity. I was mistaken on the last point.

The preoccupation with anxiety in reading and writing literary history, especially in feminist studies, is, as Jennifer Fleissner (2002) notes, itself marked as representing the author in ideological terms, wherein the critic, removed from the maelstrom of history, is able to select valuable aspects of what an author says against less valuable aspects: "[T]his reduction of thought to 'culture'—indeed the nearly universal assumption that 'culture' is the overarching field in which we do our work—has tended to result in the understanding of literary works as the product not of any rational individual expression but rather of collective 'anxieties'" (50). Authorial choice and responsibility is diminished at the cost of producing a structure: forces determine writing. I suggest that Achebe chose his battles.


Excerpted from The Nation Writ Small by SUSAN Z. ANDRADE Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 The Joys of Daughterhood: Achebe, Nwapa, Emecheta 44

2 The Loved and the Left: Sembène, Bâ, Sow Fall 71

3 Bildung in Formation and Deformation: Dangarembga and Farah 114

4 Bildung at Its Boundaries: Djebar, Two Ways 165

Conclusion 202

Selected Chronology of African Novels 209

Notes 213

References 239

Index 253

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