Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Dea(r)th of Female Presence in Early African Literature: The Depth of Writers' Responsibility

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Dea(r)th of Female Presence in Early African Literature: The Depth of Writers' Responsibility

Article excerpt


There is a sharp contrast between the African first novels set in the past and largely written by men, and contemporary ones, some of which have been authored by women. This contrast has to do with the delineation of women in the novels. A relatively short while ago the popular notion of Africa as an arid farmland with respect to literary production was sustained by many who truly believed that Africa had contributed nothing of value to world literature. But by the 1980s works by African authors had begun to generate a great deal of interest. By its sheer authenticity, African literature could no longer be ignored, and so, finally, its contribution to world literature received full recognition and acceptance. So the 1980s would go down in history as the decade during which African literature flourished.

Some of the prominent names around which early African literature revolved were Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, Elechi Amadi, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Leopold Senghor, and Sembene Ousmane. These authors invariably became favorites of Western academic discourse on modern literature, and prestigious literary magazines and journals enthusiastically sought interviews from them as well as carried reviews of their latest books. Such international visibility and respectability brought rich rewards: prestigious professorships, honorary degrees, and even the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only are these authors at home in their cultural milieu, their works provoke immediate aesthetic response for they deal honestly and effectively with things that matter in Africa. But in spite of the critical success enjoyed by these authors, all male, the dearth of a strong female presence is apparent in their works and presents an unbalanced picture of African rural life, ignoring the important roles that women have played and continue to play in African society. As a result, feminist critics have denounced the patriarchal bent in these novels, citing that women have been cast in marginal roles and depicted as mere objects of sexual gratification, procreation and idle gossips.

Feminists' Reactions to the Male-Authored First Novels:

The dearth of female presence in the early novels has been taken up by feminist critics for the obvious disparity in the delineation of male-female relations. Helen Chukwuma, an acclaimed feminist critic and advocate for African women's causes, comments that "The female character in African fiction is a facile lack-lustre human being, the quiet member of a household, content only to bear children, unfulfilled if she does not, and handicapped if she bears only daughters. In the home, she was not part of decision-making both as a daughter, wife and mother even when the decisions affected her directly" (219). Chinua Achebe, the best known and best read African author, who has been acclaimed for having restored a sense of pride to Africa through his novels has been at the center of this criticism for, critics contend, creating "back-house, timid, subservient, lack-luster" female characters, particularly in his historical novels--Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God (Chukwuma 2). This lop-sided depiction of male-female relations has prompted feminist critics such as Helen Chukwuma, Merun Nasser, Rose Acholonu, Theodora Ezeigbo, Rose Mezu, Mabel Segun, Florence Stratton, Andrea Powell, and many others, to lend voice to this patriarchal delineation of women in the African first novels. They question the consistent pattern in these novels in which women have been portrayed as voiceless and in which the actions solely revolve around the male.

It is against this background that the epochal explosion of African female writers onto the world stage has been received with much excitement because they have dared to challenge the status quo of male domination by redirecting the course of the female character in the African novel. This new breed of women writers are determined to entrench feministic sensibilities in the African novel by casting the African female character in a new light and in ways hitherto unknown. …

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