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Who should write the stories of African women?

Why is there an absence of African women in nonfiction writing? Why is there a perception of so-called “feminine” subjects as less important than the “masculine”? Writer Valérie Bah explored the questions this week at a workshop in Uganda.

In a recent opinion piece for Al Jazeera, Minna Salami, of Ms. Afropolitan fame, wrote about the absence of African women in the pantheon of creative nonfiction written about Africa. She blamed systematic deterrents, such as limited publishing opportunities in African countries, the persecution of women who speak out within patriarchal cultures, and the perception of so-called “feminine” subjects as less important than the “masculine,” the purview of politics and history. She is correct on all counts, but I wanted to explore the question in greater depth.

And I did, this week, at a creative nonfiction workshop that sought to promote female writers from Africa and the diaspora. It was jointly organized by the African Women Development Fund (AWDF), a pan-African grant-making organization and Femrite, a Ugandan women writers’ association, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (more on this later).

Held in Entebbe, Uganda in a garish chic hotel, the workshop ran alongside multiple conferences in a mishmash of meet-ups; public health meetings, safari tourists decked out in enough khaki to survive a Henry Morton Stanley-esque expedition, evangelical Christian revivals, and bikini-clad tourists sunning themselves en masse on the lawns.

The workshop gathered journalists, academics, international development workers, novelists, queer women, feminists, and activists. No topic was off limits; we commiserated over our invisibility in western male-dominant spaces, shared essays, poetry, and short stories, and exchanged practical criticism, encouraging each other with applause and ululations. Monkeys crashed the sessions, creeping through the windows to steal refreshments with humanoid deliberation. Yet still, we carried on and fawned over the poetry of Maya Angelou, speculated on the patronizing nature of Nicholas Kristof’s “Half the Sky movement,” shared the requisite thoughts on Beyoncé, and discussed the problems with “An African City,” a web series about glamorous women in Accra. The latter provoked a caustic response from its producer Nicole Amarteifio on Twitter. “She’s oversensitive,” someone joked.

A selection of participants at the 1st AWDF & FEMRITE creative non fiction writers workshop held between the 21st-31st of July 2014 in Entebbe, Uganda
A selection of participants at the 1st AWDF & FEMRITE creative non fiction writers workshop held between the 21st-31st of July 2014 in Entebbe, Uganda

Confronting “the Man”
More jarring than the monkey interruptions, the register of the workshop changed when one of its donors checked in. David, a programme officer from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was invited to deliver a chat about writing for international platforms. He was cordial, and in as non-threatening a manner as possible, clicked through a slideshow that hit politically correct notes, including references to Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi’s famous TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” and Teju Cole’s Twitter treatise on the White-Saviour Industrial Complex.

He even acknowledged the incongruity of his presence.

“I know that it’s a bit weird for me, a white non-African man, to stand here addressing you at a workshop about how to tell your stories,” is approximately how he prefaced his presentation.

“Damned right,” I thought.

But even this acknowledgement failed to assuage my discomfort. I felt that he had encroached on our temporary space. Everywhere else, I was the only black woman in the room. Had we not talked about our fatigue of male dominant space? Did we even have enough snacks? I was undeniably sulking.

The paradoxical legacy of creative nonfiction
Still, David had reason to tread carefully. The problematic representation and power dynamic that he pointed out are well-founded. Those who are familiar with the Caine Prize workshop collectively gasped in recognition of a character in Chimanda Adichie’s short story collection, That Thing Around Your Neck. In a story entitled “African Writers Workshop,” Edward Campbell, an older British man grossly dominates a workshop conceived for African writers and later makes a pass at the black female protagonist. Adichie later admitted in an interview that the story was based on an experience in which she felt enraged at having to write to conform to the external agenda of her workshop leaders, non-Africans who purported to dictate what she could write about for an African literary prize.

Tangentially, this reminded me of a passage in a novel by Martin Amis in which he humorously commented on “the deep scholarship in lechery” cultivated in professions that cloister men with unattended women. These include the driving instructor, the police officer, and the milkman. I reckon the university professor and the artistic mentor could comfortably join this list.

I’m reminded of the humanizing legacy of a branch of creative nonfiction that emerged in the US as a departure from a more matter of fact journalistic style. Branded “New Journalism,” and propelled by journalist Tom Wolfe, it tended toward compelling narratives rather than ostensibly reliable narrators propped by numbers and a neutral voice.

“About 52% of the world’s population is female. But most of the positions of power and prestige are occupied by men. The late Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai put it simply and well when she said ‘The higher you go, the fewer women there are.’” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie based one of her stories on her experience of having workshop leaders, non-Africans, telling her what she could write about for an African literary prize

Today as it was back then, a problem with creative nonfiction is that, just like conventional journalism, it still filters reality through the lens of privileged outsiders. The male gaze and all that.

This also applies to the preponderance of men in travel writing. In college, when I read British writer Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde, I relished the humour of his fumbled romances with French women, his bumbling experiences with local etiquette that explored a laughable kind of vulnerability, the played up but non-violent cross-cultural experience of an Englishman in France. It did not occur to me then that my own travels, even across the Canada-US border, would be peppered with sexual harassment and racism incited by my gender and color, spawning bleaker narratives.

In anticipation of the rebuttal that women such as Joan Didion, Jessica Mittford, and even women of color such as Zora Neale Hurston received due accolades, the numbers tell a different story today. Writer Josh McCall compiled statistics on the demographic profile of writers who win American creative nonfiction prizes. Among others, the prestige of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft have gone to a disproportionate 91%, 78%, and 63%, who are, in that respective order, white, male, and from the east coast of the US.

Delving respectfully
Then again, a more equitable distribution of awards would probably not counter the invisibility and dearth of African women in nonfiction. When more of us take on the privilege of writing on behalf of others, on “hard” subjects of politics and history, extending further into traditionally male space of scholarly and scientific writing, we could meander into the same elitist pastures as the first two waves of western feminism. We could recreate the same oppression as those who have been accused of neglecting women who are more vulnerable, stopping at emancipation and suffrage, and neglecting intersecting issues like race, class, and orientation.

The most no-nonsense seminar of the workshop came from Stella Nyanzi, a medical anthropologist and research fellow at the Makerere University, who discussed writing about sexuality, heralding the discussion by pulling out from a large tote bag, dozens of scientific publications that she authored. An avid spokesperson in academic and social media spaces on sexuality, Nyanzi has a history of dismantling, essay by essay, post by post, controversial notions, like for example, the un-Africanness of homosexuality.

Nyanzi left us with a caution against exercising bad ethics in writing about the reality of others, that is, stepping in and misrepresenting them in public or elite spaces, to which most academic and media outlets belong.

“If we want to write well about places where we are different, especially where we haven’t been invited, it is important to be respectful. If we wanted to disrupt, we must disrupt respectfully.”

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