Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender

By Florence Stratton | Go to book overview

4

FLORA NWAPA AND THE FEMALE NOVEL OF DEVELOPMENT

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the first title in Heinemann’s African Writers Series. His Igbo compatriot Flora Nwapa’s Efuru, the first novel in the series by a woman, is the twenty-sixth. Because Heinemann was the major English publisher of African literature between 1958 and 1986, such figures are significant: the gap of eight years and of twenty-five titles between the appearance of Achebe’s canonical text and the publication of the first female-authored work in the series. Furthermore, the next work in the series by a woman, Idu, also by Nwapa, did not appear until 1970, thirty male-authored texts later. How can these gaps be explained? What are the factors to which the relatively small number of women authors can be attributed?

Male bias in education is clearly one such factor. As we have already seen, colonial policy in Africa favoured the education of boys over girls and hence operated to cut women off from the written word. The same male bias is evident in education in ‘post-colonial’ Nigeria. Speaking in 1984 at the Third Annual Conference of Women in Nigeria, Ayesha Imam referred to the notion of equality of opportunity in education as a ‘myth’. ‘Not only are there more boys than girls in schools’, she says, ‘but also there are more schools (and school places) for boys’. Citing a study that shows that 76 per cent of families ‘would educate their sons but not their daughters, if finances were limited’, Imam also points to the role of ‘social prejudice’ in limiting girls’ access to education (99).

Critical devaluation of women’s writing is another factor. Although Nwapa has recently been hailed as ‘the mother’ of an African female tradition in fiction, when Efuru was first published, its critical reception was, like that of Ogot’s The Promised Land, mainly hostile. One notable exception was a review by Ogot which appeared in East Africa Journal in 1966. ‘Of the many novels that are coming out of Nigeria’, she writes approvingly, Efuru is one of the few that portrays vividly the woman’s world, giving

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