By Anote Ajeluorou and Greg Nwakunor (just back from Port Harcourt)
Unarguably, patriarchy, the practice of male authority and control in society, with women perceiving themselves to be at its receiving end, has been blamed for the continuing denigration women suffer in African societies. At its best, patriarchy seeks to take away women’s voices and render them of little value than their male counterpart, with the attendant effect that women’s rights are denied them in preference to men’s.
Last week at the 5th Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF) in Port Harcourt, the issue of women involvement in literature, especially as writers, took centre-stage. With the theme, Women in Literature, the stage was set for women to rise up and stake their claim to long-denied privileges as defined by male-dominated African societies.
The women discussants included University of Science and Technology teacher and gender expert, Prof. Chioma Opara, who chaired the discussion, Prof. Onyemachi Udumukwu of Department of English Studies, University of Port Harcourt, Ugandan writer, Doreen Baingana, one of Nigeria’s youngest and newest authors, Chibundu Onuzo (author of The Spider King’s Daughter) and Cote D’Ivoire writer, lecturer at University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, and keynote speaker, Veronique Tadjo.
Interestingly, it was Rivers State governor, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Chibuike Ameachi who put matters in their proper perspective when he submitted, “Call it what you like, those (women) who write have been hurt by society. Buchi Emecheta wrote as though she was fighting with society. It’s clear that literature cannot divorce itself from society. You either belong to the people or the ruling class. Look at Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa’Thiong’o; what did they write? Achebe’s A Man of the People is a replication of political life after independence…”
Amaechi, who also studied literature and is inspirational in Rivers State Government’s sponsorship of the festival, GCLF, said women writers joined the fray as a result of the imbalance of feminine portrayal in men’s writing where women always wore the tag of subservience and mere objects that could be seen and not heard.
Amaechi, who has long found Achebe’s grim political novel written in 1966, A Man of the People, as his own political manual, insisted that the novel has remained key in his understanding of political behaviour on the continent. For Amaechi, therefore, while the first republic politicians failed as Achebe records in his novel, his counterpoise and a sequel to A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, which ushered in military government, reveals the sham of military rule.
But while the woman in A Man of the People, is used as a mere stool for satisfying men’s pleasure, Achebe responds to have listened to female critics that his treatment of women in his previous novels was stereotypical. So, he elevates Beatrice, the heroine in Anthills of the Savannah to a pedestal of prestige. But Amaechi still contended that sex was not an issue in Nigeria’s political arena, as both sexes have failed in being able to manage the nation’s huge oil resources, saying that it had more to do with whether you belong to the ruling class or the ordinary masses.
Earlier, keynoter, Tadjo had wondered whether there was such a thing as female writing, what the role of African writer is, who an African writer really is and what globalization has done to African writing and if globalization should cow African writers. She, however, affirmed the reality of female writing, with the deluge of theoretical constructs they have employed to describe what their writing, which is intended to achieve in the big fight to rescue women from the stranglehold of traditional patriarchy that denies them their basic rights as human beings.
So, such terms as feminism, motherism, womanism, to Akachi Ezeigbo’s snail sense feminism, to Molara Ogundipe’s ‘Stiwa’ or Stiwanism’ (Social Transformation Including Women in Africa), to nego-feminism (that is, feminism through negotiation, with society, with men) and several such other terms. Tadjo argued that these were valid means through women have made a case for patriarchy to make room for women for self-expression.
Tadjo, however, stated, “Whatever content we give to the word and its variants, the bottom line is that it will always be relevant to the female condition in Africa. Women should have the same the same rights and opportunities as men and in this domain, a lot of work still needs to be done. The struggle of women to take their lives into their own hands and to be independent-minded, is part and parcel of our literary history. It is also one of the defining qualities of women writing.
“Let’s be clear: women do not want to become men. They simply want to have the same rights as men. However, since this is still denied to them in many countries, they must continue to affirm their presence as women. But their final objective is for their difference, that is to say, their womanhood, to be fully accepted in their societies”.
She concluded thus: “As time goes by, it is my contention that the perceived difference between men and women writing will shrink. Already, a growing crop of African women writers has departed from the conventionally “feminine” themes of love and domesticity, (though we will agree that “the personal can be political”) to tackle subjects like war, genocide, exile and history, with some of those who have gained international stature, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Atta and the late Yvonne Vera on the English speaking-side and Fatou Diome, Calixthe Beyala and Werewere Liking on the French-speaking side”.
On social commitment by writers, Onuzo would rather shun any form of prescription for writing or writers, although she said it was hard for a writer to run away from “commitment but to always focus on it is not good” so as not to lose the essence of art. She also noted, “when engaged in art, you can create wider messages otherwise, it’s not enjoyable; let the particular become global”.
For Baingana also, there is no separation of messages from art, just as social impact cannot be separated from art. She, however, touched on the issue of identity, with the element of choice being very important. She said the many variants of feminism highlights how important and seriously women take their position in African society with a view to changing old perspectives for new, better relationships with the menfolk in predominantly patriarchal societies. She contended that the difference between men and women was merely a social construct that has poisoned normal relationship that ought to exist between the sexes.
Widely regarded as sympathising with feminism in his works, Prof. Udumukwu said his interest as a teacher of literature enables him to examine all writings whether by men or women. He regards commitment as a writer being answerable to something or society in their writing, saying, “You must master your craft; you must be committed to your art and not necessarily to something. A writer must be committed to signature, to be responsible.
He noted, “My interest is to understand women and their signature – the manipulation of resources, subject matter, the mastery of language. Most women write from the first person narrative voice as opposed to the third person, as a device that calls attention to themselves as subject, and as calling attention to women’s space in society to her existence”.
Tadjo stated that African writers have long expressed commitment in their writing, starting from Negritude writers to independence and post-independence writers, adding, “We need something more at the back of our minds when we live in our kind of societies”. Tadjo also echoed what has come to preoccupy the minds of most writers on the continent: the absence of readers! Whatever the disposition of writers to their crafts and societies, there have to be readers to drive the messages home otherwise it becomes a futile effort. Absence of robust readers poses a limitation to writing, she noted.
Self-censorship was a limitation she said that was peculiar to African women writers, as they are not able to say what they have to say because of cultural constraints and taboos erected by patriarchy, which she said encumbered women’s writing.
Prof. Opara put it down to what she called cultural ambivalence, the many constraints to women’s full self-expression, but which she called alienation in male writers as a result of foreign influence that has come to define most writings on the continent.
For young Onuzo, the call to write in local languages is a bit outdated, noting that Nigerian writers have long adopted a brand of English that has come to be accepted in the world as a nuance that is unique and native to Nigeria, which has universal application at the same time.
ALSO, why is it that in critical canon, African women writers are often left out? Baingana put it down to a reinforcement of status quo, saying that sometimes criteria used were suspect. She asked: Who is to determine a good book? The more women get involved in canonisation, the more things will get better. She also said the personal narrative voice often employed by women was to give agency to the female voice that has long been muffled by the male’s, but that it shouldn’t be prescriptive so as not to lose its potency.
On when an African female writer would win the Nobel Prize, Udumukwu said the politics of the Nobel has to be examined first, noting that it was possible for an African ‘woman in our generation’ to win it, just as women elsewhere have won it. He enjoined women writers to pay attention to critical structures of writing such as plot construction, characterisation, style and language, where some women writers have performed poorly in the past, adding that writers must write well to merit being regarded as such.
On the material condition of writing on the continent, Onuzo acknowledged the renaissance taking place on the continent and foresees a bright future for Africa as a place where readership would emerge, just as Europe had foreseen the death of the novel.
Baingana, however, lamented the absence of “structures to support literature in Africa” as found in Europe and America, where festivals such as GCLF happen all the time as avenues for writers to expose their writings to the public. She noted that the problem of infrastructure needed to be resolved to lift the continent from its current parlous position.
On the differences between men and female writers, Pa Gabriel Okara said he was interested in hearing about women and male writers. He asked, “Can a female singer change her voice to a male voice and vice versa? Is it possible? They may sing about the same things, say political situations, but it must be with different voices. If you’re a female or male writer, be yourself and let the readers or critics talk about it. When I’m writing, I don’t think about myself as a male writer; and I don’t think female writers should think about themselves as such. There is no such thing as female or male writing styles; they may differ but they are doing the same thing”.
Elechi Amadi (author of The Concubines, Estrangement, The Great Ponds, etc), who has written a great deal about and on women, noted that half the human population is made up of women, saying, “Whether we like it or not, there are different ways men and women think. A great way to enter into the psychology of a woman, into a woman’s mind is to read her; so, too, she can’t get inside a man’s mind. So, there are bound to be differences in writing.
“Sexual discrimination is a reality and it has to be examined. It’s bound to colour a woman’s work, like it was in South Africa during Apartheid. Women cannot escape the discrimination they suffer in society; it’s a grim social reality. Take women not being allowed to do certain things in society, it’s bound to feature in their writing. So, men and women live in different situations; they cannot write the same way. So, critics should examine the psychology of women’s writing and come up with a complete picture of their writing”.
Also, emeritus professor of History, E.J. Alagoa stated how really proud he was of young author, Onuzo, who recently bagged a first class degree in History from King’s College, London, who is a historian like himself. He went on to chronicle women ascendancy in the Niger Delta region, saying they had been a creative force in time past. Although men now take political leadership, Alagoa said it wasn’t alway so in the ancient past where renowned women had previously held sway. A certain Queen Tambassa of Bonny, he said, had held office and led the island town with great wisdom.
A retired librarian in the audience restated that importance of readers in the book chain, saying, “If there are no readers, writers will not be able to write and vice versa. We must put books in libraries. When we were young, books were much more easily available. Now, there are no public libraries”. She accused governments of talking glibly about reading culture without necessarily taking direct action to effect it.
While commending Rivers State Government of building model schools, she expressed the hope that government would have the presence of mind to also equip them with libraries where students could find books to read. She lamented the absence of public libraries in a city as big as Port Harcourt, saying, “We need to make books available in our communities”.
Dr. (Mrs.) Onuzo, Chibundu’s mother, a medical doctor, brought a biological slant to the discourse on creative writing when she argued that all writing should be viewed from feminine prism “because all writing comes from ideas to fertilization, and then to crystallization like conceiving a child; men and women are not on different sides but on the same side”, and should therefore channel their writing towards creating harmony between the sexes rather than create needless frictions.