Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region/Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel

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Women writing Africa: the Southern Region (The Women Writing Africa Project, Volume 1); edited by M.J. Daymond and others. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2003, xxx, 554 pp. ISBN 1-55861-406-0, pbk 1-55861-407-9. (Hardback) $60, (pbk) $23.96

Women writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel (The Women Writing Africa Project, Volume 2); edited by Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2005. ISBN 1-55861-501-6, pbk 1-55861-500-8. (Hardback) $60,(pbk) $23.96

The mission statement of the Women Writing Africa Project is set out opposite each title page:

Women Writing Africa, a project of cultural reconstruction, aims to restore African women's voices to the public sphere. Through the publication of a series of regional anthologies, each collecting oral and written narratives as well as a variety of historical and literary texts, the project will make visible the oral and written literary expression of African women. The definition of "writing" has been broadened to include songs, praise poems and significant oral texts as well as fiction, poetry, journalism, and historical and legal documents. The project has been undertaken with the expectation that the publication of these texts will allow for new readings of African women's history.

The project had its origins in conversations between interested scholars in 1990 and the inspiration of a volume on Women Writing in India 600 BC to Present also published by the Feminist Press. It is an impressive enterprise involving the mobilisation of funding and teams of national committees and regional research teams, editors and translators (150 of them working in 11 countries and 26 languages for vol. 2). Two further volumes on East and on North Africa are scheduled to follow. The West Africa volume will also be published in a French edition.

The teams were always aware of oral tradition. "Writing in Women Writing Africa metonymically suggests a blend of verbal and written forms of expression embodying the experience of African women in envisioning their lives in relations to their societies." So "Women verbalising Africa" would be a more accurate if less euphonious title. The editors of the West Africa volume express their awareness that many of these texts are experienced in performance and their hope to produce an accompanying audio disc.

The editors approached their task with great seriousness, an awareness that the project "represented] the largest undertaking of our lives, a responsibility to set the reality of African women's lives in history and in the present before a world that is only just waking up to their importance." They are open about their ideological and feminist/ womanist agendas and methodology. So the editors of the West African volume write that their general principle was that the "authority of African women scholars should be presumed primary in shaping intellectual parameters of the project; that egalitarian partnerships between African and non-African scholars should be maintained; that collaborative feminist work should be promoted." They are honest enough to admit occasional tensions, painful compromises, problems of definition (how inclusive should they be of women of the West African diaspora who had spent most of their life abroad? …