Doyennes of writ­ing in Nige­ria

Sunday Trust - - ARTS & IDEAS - By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

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,

Buchi Emecheta

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