Redefining the African literary tradition
As JanMohamed claims, a dialogue on race with colonial discourse is ‘a fundamental component of contemporary African literature’. Colonialism is, in other words, as he and other critics have demonstrated, a factor which has influenced the development of African literature. What I have tried to show is that a dialogue on gender is also a definitive feature of the African literary tradition, that patriarchy, too, is an important factor in the development of African literature. It is a factor that has been ignored by critics who, like JanMohamed, theorize African literature as having been shaped by the socio-political conditions of its production. For them, colonialism or, as with Ngũgĩ, neo-colonialism—and these only in their racial or class aspects —constitute the sole political context of African culture and history. The exclusion of patriarchy as a determinate historical, social, and political condition has a number of interrelated consequences for current theories of African literature. These include an obscuring of the complexity of the interaction between colonial and African (male) literature; and the construction of a literary tradition from which women’s writing is excluded.
Gender is a submerged category in colonial discourse, a status that it has maintained until recently in African men’s literature. While African men writers challenge the racial codes of colonial discourse and attempt to subvert them, they adopt certain aspects of the gender coding of their supposed adversaries in their representation of African women. Thus what Busia calls ‘the voicelessness of the black woman’ is a trope with a very long history, one which can be traced from Shakespeare’s The Tempest through colonial texts like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to African representations of the colonial encounter such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The genesis of the Mother Africa trope, a trope that pervades the African male literary tradition from Senghor to Soyinka, can also be seen as colonial literature.
Such figures illustrate the way in which colonial and African (male)