Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region

By Penvenne, Jeanne Marie | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region

Penvenne, Jeanne Marie, The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region. Edited by M.J. Daymond, Dorothy Driver, Sheila Meintjes, Leloba Molema, Chiedza Musengezi, Margie Orford and Nobantu Rasebotsa. The Women Writing Africa Project, Volume 1. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2003. Pp. xxx, 554. $29.95 paper.

Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region is the first in a projected series of regional anthologies of women's texts for the continent, produced by The Women Writing Africa Project of the Feminist Press, with support from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. It contains a broadly defined range of print and oral texts rendered in print-including historical and legal documents, songs, praise poems, oral narratives, fiction, poetry, journal entries, and much more-all produced by and having to do with African women. "The project has been undertaken with the expectation that the publication of these texts will allow for new readings of African women's history" (p. ii). The texts certainly promise more fully gendered perspectives in Southern African history.

Issues of coverage and organization are basic considerations for any anthology, so that is where we begin. Although the cover and title page carry the subtitle, "The Southern Region," it is taken to mean Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Mozambique was probably excluded-despite sharing borders and peoples with Swaziland, South Africa, and Zimbabwe-because it was part of the Portuguese rather than the British colonial empire. Colonial divisions thus persevere.

Uneven coverage is probably inevitable given the diversity of populations, academic traditions, and publishing opportunities in the region, but it is nonetheless startling to see only three authors from Lesotho where editor David Coplan has done such extensive work, and only two authors from Swaziland. South Africa, appropriately on the basis of population alone, leads with more than 60 authors, followed by Namibia with less than half that number, Botswana with 23, and Zimbabwe on the light side with 18. The 120 entries were harvested from existing publications or archives and are arranged chronologically. Each is introduced by a headnote providing context and commentary. An anonymous "song of the afflicted" from Lesotho opens the collection. The title and table of contents date the song 1842, although the headnote tells us that it was collected by Thomas Arbousset in 1836. The remaining 16 entries for the nineteenth century date from mid-century to the 1890s and cover only South Africa, Namibia, and Lesotho.

Coverage of the twentieth century is weighted toward the later decades: 10 entries for the period 1900 to 1918, 24 between 1921 and 1959, 22 for the 1960s and 1970s, 17 for the 1980s, and 30 for the 1990 to 2001-more than twice as many entries for the last four decades of the century than for the first six. The book's preface provides a very detailed explanation of the process. The 54-page introduction with nearly 30 pages of notes and bibliography does much more than provide guideposts for the texts that follow. Notes on the contributing editors, associate editors, translators, and headnote writers, permissions, and indices close out the last 30 pages. The material is conveniently and professionally presented, and reasonably priced for classrooms and personal libraries. There you have the necessary but least interesting information about the book.

This is a fine effort to bring together a rich range of women's perspectives. The introductory essay raises theoretical issues for specific kinds of texts and repeats the appropriate, if now standard, cautions about silences, appropriation, translation, responsible and accountable engagement, and the limitations of print presentation.

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