Doyennes of writing in Nigeria
As the world celebrated the International Women’s Day,
looks at the prominent women who have contributed to the changing perception of women in literature and have set the path for women writers coming after them.
This week, the world is celebrating the International Women’s Day, to look at the contribution women have been making and could make to the development of the world.
It is a fitting time to look at the contribution of women to Nigerian literature.
Literature has been a potent force in the portrayal of peoples and ideas. The female demography has always fascinated writers over centuries for very different reasons and their portrayal in literature has been a subject of great debate. Who will forget in a hurry characters like Anna Karenina in Toltsoy’s classic or Madam Bovary in Flaubert’s masterpiece or even Hester Pryne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and even to a less extent Lolita in Nabakov’s masterpiece.
In Nigerian literature, finding its feet after the colonial disruption of the oral story telling traditions, women too, like their male counterparts, had to struggle to find their place in literature. And if the early portrayal of women was not considered positive, or were deemed passive, especially considering the powerful domineering roles women have played in pre-colonial African societies, either as the powerful queen mothers of the Kanem Borno empire, or the fearless Dahomey worriors or even the legendary conqueror queen, Amina, among others.
The portrayal, as a writer and academic Razinat Mohammed noted in her essay, Female Representation in Nigerian Literature;
“The society had no time to waste with the womenfolk whose significant contributions to communal matters centered around singing and dancing during ceremonies. The women did not fit much into the heroic cadre of the society at that time and, therefore, were not subject of literary imagination or creativity. Indeed, in such a society, being a woman was like being sentenced to a life of insignificance and subsidiary existence. Perhaps, it is for this reason that Okonkwo’s mother hardly exists while his father, Unoka, an efulefu or worthless man who has never cleared even a footpath of his own, receives a mention even if it was a juxtaposition to his son.”
She argues that this portrayal is tied to the patriarchal nature of traditional society. These portrayals were common place and only started to take on different perspectives when women started telling their own stories in their own voices.
“In the novels of Flora Nwapa, Nigeria’s first published female novelist, and the plays of Zulu Sofola, we see women as backbones of families by actively engaging in commerce and agriculture. More often than not, women are the stabilizing force in men’s life, a fact that only began to rear up its head when women began to tell their own stories,” Dr. Mohammed wrote.
The birth of the feminine pen warriors
A lot has been said of the pioneer generation of modern Nigerian writers. The dominance of the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Amos Totuola, Cyprian Ekwensi and others likes was reflective of the realities of life in the time. Male dominated women were relegated to the background.
When female writers began to stir, their male counterparts had attained international repute. With the emergence of Achebe as an internationally acclaimed writer in the late 1950s and colonisation folding up across the continent, the time was right for a female voice to challenge the single story of the continent. Flora Nwapa Up steps the pioneer woman Flora Nwapa (1931-1993). In 1961 she became the first African woman to be published in English language and to an international audience with her book Efuru, bursting open the gate for women writers to come through.
Her titular character Efuru, and Idu in her subsequent novel,