I belong to “The Classics Club.” The stated goal of The Classics Club is ”to unite readers who blog about classic literature and inspire people to make the classics an integral part of life.” The Classics Club Event this month (May 2014) is to blog about post-colonial and world literature. For more information, see this page: http://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/classics-club-event-post-colonial-literature-in-may.
As part of this event, I would like to highlight some African women writers whom I think are amazing. This list is far from exhaustive; it is just a place to start if you are unfamiliar with African writers. For the purpose of this posting, I will focus on sub-Saharan Africa. In a later post, I will list some recommended North African women writers.
Buchi Emecheta (1944- ) grew up in Nigeria, but moved to England as a young adult. She married and had five children. The marriage disintegrated after a few years. Her novels focus on the struggles facing African women—in both Nigeria and in England. Many people consider her to be a strong feminist writer, although she prefers the term “womanist” which encompasses the struggle for all people, including men of color.
Probably her most famous novel is The Joys of Motherhood (1979). Nnu Ego, the protagonist, was raised with traditional Igbo values. She believes that having children, especially male children, is not only the most important thing a woman can do, but really the ONLY way to achieve a valuable life. The struggles she faces in her quest to bear and raise children force her to question this belief.
Emecheta was one of the pioneers in African literature; she was one of the first published African woman writers, and one of the first to focus on women’s struggles against sexism. I appreciate her sharp insights into gender inequality as well as her ironic writing style.
Some of her other works include Second Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), the Slave Girl (1977), and Destination Biafra (1982).
Mariama Ba (1929-1981), along with Buchi Emecheta, was another pioneer in African women’s writing. She was Senegalese and wrote in French. Her works, however, are easily available in English translation. She was raised by her traditional grandparents as a Muslim and had to struggle with them to receive an education. She was married and had nine children, but later divorced her husband.
Her most famous novel, So Long a Letter, is in the form of a long letter written by woman named Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou. In this letter, Ramatoulaye reveals the anguish she felt when her husband married a second wife. This letter expresses not only her broken heart but also her anger at the traditions which allow polygyny and other forms of female oppression.
Ba’s work complements Emecheta’s nicely. They both focus on women who struggle with marriages and children. Emecheta tends to focus more on the economic struggles of women as well as the injustice they face. Her tone is ironic. Ba’s work is less about economic struggles and more about emotional anguish.
She has also written Scarlet Song, about two young lovers whose union is torn about by social pressures.
Bessie Head (1937-1986). Bessie Head was born in South Africa of a union between a white mother and a black men. Her parents were not married (such a marriage would have been illegal). She was separated from her mother at birth and raised in foster care. In her twenties, she was forced to leave South Africa, and she became a refugee in Botswana, where she wrote her major works. The characters in her novels grapple with problems of mixed-race identity, discrimination, political oppression, and interpersonal relationships.
For me, her most interesting novel is A Question of Power (1973). This novel is different from anything else I have ever read. Bessie Head suffered from mental problems at one point in her life; these problems led to a mental breakdown with psychotic features. A Question of Power is based on this experience. In this novel, the reader is sucked in to the mind of the protagonist Elizabeth, who suffers from visions that torment her. She is “visited” by characters whom we are led to believe are only figments of her imagination. She has conversations with these characters as an attempt to understand her life and to wrestle her way back to health. The mental anguish Elizabeth faces is personal, but the struggles she has with people—both real and imaginary—reflect the very real power dynamics of the society in which she lives. I highly recommend this novel, but it is not an easy read. Be prepared for a trip through hell.
She also published When Rain Clouds Gather (1968) and Maru (1971), among other works.
Tsitsi Dangarembga (1959- ). Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is of a younger generation than the three women previously discussed. She was born in what was then called Rhodesia. She spent a few of her early years in England, but grew up mainly in Rhodesia. Later, she went to university in Cambridge, but returned back home to what was now called Zimbabwe.
Her novel Nervous Conditions tells the story of two girls growing up in Zimbabwe: Tambu and Nyasha. Tambu grows up poor and struggles against gender discrimination within her family who strongly favor her brother. She is in awe of her cousin Nyasha whose parents are relatively well-off and who spent many years in England. Nyasha seems so sophisticated and glamorous to Tambu, but as the novel progresses we learn that Nyasha suffers from her own problems, including anorexia nervosa. People tend to think of anorexia as a “Western” disease that afflicts mainly well-off white women. This novel makes us look at eating disorders in a new way. It also encourages readers to question the role of education, especially Western, post-colonial education. Dangarembga creates characters that for me, at least, were easy to relate to, and she effectively dramatizes the emotional turmoil of coming of age, especially for young African women who feel that they are caught in between cultures (traditional and modern, African and Western).
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie ( 1977- ) is a rising young star in African literature. She is Nigerian and grew up in Nsukka, a university town. She went to college in the United States. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was published to wide-spread critical acclaim when she was only 26 years old.
Purple Hibiscus is about a girl named Kambili who grows up in a wealthy Nigerian household. To outside observers, her father is a generous and admired member of the community who constantly fights against government oppression. He rules is household, however, with an iron fist. At home, he is tyrannical and violent. His wife and children are terrified of him. What saves Kambili from utter despair, however, is her lively and outspoken aunt with whom she spends a considerable amount of time. Purple Hibiscus is an intense book with remarkable characters. Although parts of the novel are frightening, ultimately Kambili finds sources of growth, hope and resilience.
The other novel by Adichie that I have read is Half of a Yellow Sun. Whereas Purple Hibiscus focuses intently on one family, Half of a Yellow Sun has a much broader canvas. In this novel, Adichie portrays the lives of several different characters across a span of several years as they live through the Biafran war. Her portrayal of this conflict is enlightening for those of us Westerners who knew little about this tragic war. Her characters ring as true-to-life complex beings who sometimes behave badly. For me, Half of a Yellow Sun lacked the intensity of the more domestic Purple Hibiscus. However, what it lacked in intensity of individual characters, it made up for in its broad scope and the compassion for a broad swath of society. As an added bonus, Half of a Yellow Sun was recently made into a movie. It should be distributed in the U.S. this summer!
Other works by Adichie include The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah.