Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender

By Florence Stratton | Go to book overview

6

‘LITERATURE AS A…WEAPON’

The novels of Mariama

Mariama Bâ’s first novel, Une si longue lettre (1979), brought its author immediate worldwide recognition when it won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa shortly after its publication. The novel was soon available in ‘sixteen different editions or translations’ (Zell et al., New Reader’s Guide 357), including the English version, So Long a Letter (1981). As Lindfors’s data shows, the novel also quite quickly gained a place in the syllabuses of Anglophone African universities where in 1986 it ranked eighteenth in a list of books which, in Lindfors’s words, ‘teachers of African literature…evidently regard as worthiest of their students’ attention’ (‘Teaching’ 50). As a result of the award, critics, too, have given considerable attention. This criticism, as it has appeared in English-language journals, has not always been favourable, and it brings to the fore some of the trends we have noted in the commentary on African women’s writing, indicating that these are negative trends and not isolated instances of perversity. It also makes evident that Bâ’s novel has become one of the sites of critical controversy over the issue of gender.

Interestingly, Eldred Jones chaired the committee that chose as the recipient of the first Noma Award. In announcing the Committee’s decision, Jones stated:

Mariama Bâ’s novel offers a testimony of the female condition in Africa while at the same time giving that testimony true imaginative depth. The distinguishing feature of this novel is the poise of its narrative style which reveals a maturity of vision and feeling. As a first novel, it represents a remarkable achievement to which the Committee, with this Award, is giving recognition.

(Zell, ‘First Noma Award’ 199)

But the awarding of a prestigious literary prize to a woman seems to have provoked a male critical backlash. Frederick Ivor Case and Abiola Irele use

-133-

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