Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender

By Florence Stratton | Go to book overview
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7

GENDER ON THE AGENDA

Novels of the 1980s by Ngũgĩ and Achebe

Some men writers, ‘men of good will’ as Mariama would call them, 1 have also attempted to transcend the sexual allegory and hence to resolve the problems of gender in ways that run counter to the biases embedded in the contemporary African male literary tradition. In my first two chapters, I sought to uncover some of those biases, to probe from the perspective of gender the ‘unconscious’ of the male tradition in order to reveal what that tradition, as it is embodied in both literature and criticism, has tried to conceal: its social determination in patriarchy. The literary texts that were examined in those chapters were published over a thirty-year period, beginning in 1945 with the appearance of Senghor’s ‘Femme noire’ and ending in 1977 with the publication of Ngũgĩ’s Petals of Blood. In this, my last chapter, I will examine two male-authored novels that were published in the 1980s, Ngũgĩ’s Devil on the Cross (1982) 2 and Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987). These novels signal an important new departure in contemporary African literature: men writers’ engagement with women writers in a dialogue on gender. They also mark a new departure in Ngũgĩ’s and Achebe’s work, for in each an attempt is made to transform the status of women from that of object to that of subject.

Both Ngũgĩ and Achebe have made statements of authorial intention with regard to the role of their central female characters, statements which indicate a commitment to gender reform. Ngũgĩ opens Detained, his prison diary, by hailing Warĩĩnga as his inspiration: ‘Warĩĩnga heroine of toil… there she walks haughtily carrying her freedom in her hands’ (3). Later, he tells of the decision he made regarding her characterization: ‘Because the women are the most exploited and oppressed section of the entire working class, I would create a picture of a strong determined woman with a will to resist and to struggle against the conditions of her present being’ (10). In an interview he gave shortly after the publication of Anthills, Achebe also

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