Unbending Gender Narratives in African Literature

By Fonchingong, Charles C. | Journal of International Women's Studies, November 2006 | Go to article overview
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Unbending Gender Narratives in African Literature


Fonchingong, Charles C., Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

The last century has witnessed an upsurge in literature triggered by the feminist movement. This unprecedented event has transformed the various literary genres that are being deconstructed to suit the changing times. African literature has not been spared by the universalized world order. The paper attempts a re-analysis of gender inequality from the pre-colonial to post-colonial period from the lenses of literary narratives. Male writers like Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and Cyprain Ekwensi in their literary mass are accused of condoning patriarchy, are deeply entrenched in a macho conviviality and a one dimensional and minimalised presentation of women who are demoted and assume peripheral roles. Their penchant to portray an androcentric narrative is at variance with the female gender that are trivialized through practices like patriarchy, tradition, culture, gender socialization process, marriage and domestic enslavement. The paper concludes with some contemporary showcases and metanarratives by both male and female writers like Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba, Ama Ata Aidoo, Flora Nwapa, Sembene Ousmane and Leopold Sedar Senghor who attempt to bridge the gender rifts in the African literary landscape.

Keywords: Africa, Gender, Genre, Literature, Narratives, Women.

Introduction: Revisiting the gender question

African literature is replete with write-ups that project male dominance and inadequately pleads the case of the African woman. It becomes imperative to trace the genesis of gender inequality in African literature. As Kolawole (1997) notes, by omission or commission, most male writers in the early phase of African literature encouraged the marginalisation of women. In this context, female characters are made marginal to the plot of the fiction, while only a few emerge as powerful and credible protagonists. Chukukere (1995) affirms that the ideal female character created by male writers often acts within the framework of her traditional roles as wife and mother. So strong are social values that the respect and love which a woman earns is relative to the degree of her adaptations to these roles. For instance, while Chinua Achebe's Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart (1958) slaughters a goat for one of his wives who has had three sons in a row, Elechi Amadi's Madume in The Concubine (1966) is demoralized by his wife's inability to produce a male heir. On the other hand, a barren woman is stigmatized, considered a social misfit and invites the wrath of her family and society. There existed a complementarity between male and female roles in pre-colonial African societies (Van Allen, 1975 Hay and Stitchter, 1984) and it is during and after colonization that the downfall of the African woman from a position of power and self-sovereignty to becoming man's helper occurred. The omission of female authors from the collection of works that are definitive of literary excellence is a matter of great concern and this lack of acclaim can be partly attributed to the lack of criticism these authors' works receive (Kumah 2000). Increasing attention is being accorded to the mediation of gender relations in contemporary African literature. However, there has been very limited account to the nature and historiography of gender in all avenues of African society, and by the same token, taking cognizance of the contextual realities of earlier African literature. This study departs from this tradition by mapping the contours based on onslaughts from feminist critiques. The central questions taken on board are: How are men and women in particular depicted in African literature in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras and how is the 'battered' image of the female gender being redeemed in contemporary write-ups? What reading can be given to literary text by early male writers and how do female Africanists react to sexist depictions of women and gendered power structures?

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