On the 13th of July last year, Nadine Gordimer—South African Nobel Laureate—passed away, aged 90. I am still stunned by how hard this hit me: I began frantically re-reading her works, trying to memorize them, to make them—and her—an indissoluble part of me. Maybe it was the extended stint away from home. Maybe it was studying Shakespeare, and being overcome by the fear that history might not grant Gordimer due acknowledgement, that she might not become as worshipped an institution. I tried to rationalize my foolishness: ‘don’t be silly, there have been loads of accomplished African women writers’; except, when I tried to name them I could barely get beyond the standard fare (Emecheta, Saadawi, Bâ, Aidoo, Head, Lessing, Nwapa). To be fair, there has been a recent surge of articles and thought pieces on contemporary African women’s writing. CNN ran a feature on African writers; Minna Salami reflected on women writers in non-fiction, to which Valérie Bah responded quite deftly; and Wanja Maina from Kenya has also addressed similar themes. Even so—while we must commend Okwiri Oduor, Taiye Selasi, NoViolet Bulawayo and others of that ilk—I argue it is equally necessary to remember and celebrate their brilliant predecessors who worked within an even more trying milieu, not just to respect them, but also ourselves as borne of that effort.
In the self-consciously upbeat tone that has become characteristic of articles on the theme of African women’s writing, and our ever rising Africa in general, Felicia R. Lee recently wrote for the New York Times on the ‘New Wave of African Writers with an Internationalist Bent’. She closes with a quote from Ishmael Beah, a Sierra Leonean author currently living in the US (The Radiance of Tomorrow, 2014): “My hope is we [African writers] all become part of the canon, not just here [in Africa, ostensibly] but internationally.”
I found this statement profoundly disturbing.
Firstly, if you are Burkinabese or Namibian, and I, a Kenyan, have read your work, you are internationally read. I resent the assumption of an essential or amorphous Africa, even by fellow Africans, perhaps even more so. Secondly, what is “the canon”? Is there a secret facility in Santa Fe or Glastonbury with rows and rows of dusty crystal balls proclaiming ‘the canon people’ à la the Department of Mysteries in Harry Potter? How, then, is it possible that since the invention and standardization of written language (3200 BCE apparently), African women writers are out in the cold, desperately knocking on a door that probably does not exist? And it need not, since there is an established tradition of women writing well about their diverse African experiences. So far, in my obsessive collecting, I have accumulated a spreadsheet of 770 names. 770. If I choose to—and I am seriously considering it— I can subsist on works by African women writers until I expire.
Though Audre Lorde’s famous conversation-stopper, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” has been variously misapplied, I find it consistently pertinent to me, as a young Kenyan woman considering work in academia. I have fears that I will wake up my tongue anchored permanently to hell with the weight of footnotes, and qualifications, and clarifications. But all this supposing, this cautious venturing, is it only so as not to rouse the disapproval of columns of dead white men? I fear, in the case of work around African women’s writings (if you allow me to generalize), it also reflects an ignorance of the wealth and breadth of prior works—outside of a specialized and/or particularly tenacious few. Effective womanist resistance must include a reclamation of knowledge and the names behind them; how can we erect a monument to women writers if we don’t know their names, let alone their accomplishments?
As we continue to make more spaces for African women to address their various oppressions and oppressors, mustn’t we consider that merely acknowledging the many many women who fought and won before us is incomparably inspiring?
In Islamic scholarship, isnad is a complex chain of transmission illustrating the route by which content (matn) has followed and is essential in determining the authenticity of hadith. It might seem odd to apply this to our discussion of literature, but I am convinced the metaphor of isnad can reveal the place of microhistory or biography in securing African feminisms as encoded in women’s writing. How can we cherish women writers without explicit knowledge of the same? I was moved by isnad in hadith studies more specifically because of the concept of personal connectedness (ittisaliyah); what hope we can gain from identifying with an established authority! Looking over those 770 women, I am heartened; they say to me: we been here, we still here, and we won’t stop.
Since we must now agree that there are already exceptional works by African women, well what then? The #ReadWomen2014 challenge has been quite successful, so #ReadAfricanWomenForever—or until it is physically impossible. Then I charge you to cite them in scholarly work, reference them in conversation and invoke their wisdoms privately and publicly.
Much has been written on men’s capacity to cite themselves, and rate their skills higher than women are wont to. I find this confidence is taught to boys at an early age, and derided in girls. It is such that by the time both reach adulthood, men can exercise selfishness so well it is pardonable if not commendable; while women, when they decide or are compelled to express the same, fumble about clumsily. If they fail, they are scorned for conforming to the common conception of femininity; if they succeed, they are chastised for aspiring to masculinity. Therefore, to be an African, a woman and a writer is to be non-conforming; to be all three successfully and proudly is a potent political act of protest. This is cause for celebration.
I think an informal measure of success now for African women writers and academics might be this: do people pretend to have read your work because they are so ashamed of their cultural incompetence? How many friends do you know who claimed to have read and “loved” Moby Dick, War and Peace, Paradise Lost, the Iliad etc.? While this may seem silly, I argue it speaks to a greater issue: are works by African women writers so embedded in the literary establishment and popular psyche that reading them is a justifiable measure of one’s social engagement?
They should be.
So once the hype dies down, I would hope we not only continue to recognize Chimamanda Adichie, Mamle Kabu, Lauren Beukes and Yewande Omotoso, but also Flora Nwapa, Taos Amrouche, Miriam Tlali and even Queen Hatshepsut. Our collective demand for a bigger fraction of the sky requires us to plant our feet firmly on a foundation countless, and often nameless, women before us have established. To do this, we must reclaim these women from the clutches of anonymity and write their names in the stars.