From the 1960s onward
Cet article en français
|'Putting words into action'|
|African women writing since the 1960s|
In the late 1960s, the publication of the first literary material by women writers of Black Africa marked a significant evolution in French literature. Not only did their books offer a broad overview of African society but they also reflected the concerns of women buoyed by recent Independence, but still hampered by social and religious constraints. The poetry, plays, novels and essays written at the onset of a new era, all demystified the status quo and put forward new ways of being, thinking and doing things. No topics escaped the authors' scrutiny, and even cultural elements firmly rooted in the imagination of previous generations were being questioned by these writing pioneers. Obali, a play by Josephine Kama Bongo of Gabon, performed in 1974 in Libreville, for example, centres on a young village girl who does not want to marry the older man her parents have chosen for her in order to cement ties with another family. Another example is Le Revenant, by Aminata Sow Fall published in 1976. This novel discusses the problems engendered by the overbidding and extravagant gifts made during customary celebrations, a practice that distorts inter-generational and inter-family solidarity and perverts the requirements of traditional succour. The play La Famille africaine by Cameroonian Marie Charlotte Mbarga Kouma staged in 1967 and published in 1989 under the title Les Insatiables also addresses the issue of people's aberrant expectations that destroys time-honoured family solidarity as kin lose all sense of proportion in their demands. Meanwhile Une si longue lettre, the iconic novel by Senegalese Mariama Bâ (1979), denounces the anachronism of polygamous marriages and explores the problems caused by an institution that no longer meets the requirements of increasingly urbanised African societies.
Witchcraft, girls' limited access to education, early marriage, dowry, wives' dependence and the dispossessing of widows upon the death of their husband are among many topics addressed by women novelists of the first generation keen to highlight discriminations. Each one of their books exposes the burden of common practices on women's lives. Their opinions were not sought, and literature offered the perfect means to voice their point of view. All the literary genres called upon in 1970s heralded an important evolution of literature's themes and content. To the few titles already given as examples, one could add many others that have remained influential to this day: Femme d'Afrique, the autobiography of Aoua Keita, a prominent Malian midwife and political activist of the African Democratic Rally, published in 1975; or La Parole aux négresses by Senegalese Awa Thiam who denounced, in her provocative essay published in 1978, the mystification of Negro-African women's aspirations, expressing the hope that the African youth of her generation would: "Speak to cope. Speak to tell their dissent, their revolt. Put words into action. [...] ACT ACT ACT [...]"». Awa Thiam interviewed women from all walks of life, ages and circumstances, and she stigmatises the pain and suffering that befall her sisters: arranged marriages, genital mutilation, polygamy, skin-whitening, etc.. The first few lines of her work express fittingly a conviction shared by many, determined to take control of their own destiny: "For a long time, black women have remained silent, she said. Isn't it time for them to rediscover their voice, to take the floor if only to remind everyone of their existence".»
Notwithstanding their claims, these trailblazers did not limit their writing to the denunciation of common practices inherited from tradition and colonial impositions. They also expressed the need to deal with customs in a constructive manner, to adapt their demands to the requirements of a free and independent society, rather than swapping local praxis for unsuited foreign usages and values. In the realm of the theatre, for example, La Puissance de Um by Werewere Liking (1979) proposed a new kind of aesthetic consonant with the rebirth of African art and unique in the development of a pan-African contemporary culture. In the field of poetry, authors attempted to disenthrall women from the stereotyped images in which they had been confined. They argued that they were neither the "Gazelle limbed in Paradise" sung by Leopold Sedar Senghor in his famous poem "Black Woman", nor slaves living permanently at the gates of hell. Under their pen, the African woman became a person who loved, lived and tried to make sense of the vicissitudes of her existence. For example, Clementine Nzuji's poetry, Murmures in 1968, Le Temps des amants the following year and, in 1976, Gestes interrompus, evokes love and the author's universe of her twenties. The collection titled Filles du Soleil by Ndèye Coumba Mbengue Diakhaté (1980), rather focused on the all important role played by mothers in modern Africa. And her poetry blissfully expresses her desire to break boundaries while remaining committed to a "triumphant" Africa "endlessly renewing herself". Thus the plan of action she proposed in her poem "Liberation":
Remaining an African Woman, but winning Other.
Creating, not only procreating.
Assuming one's own destiny in the destiny of the world.
These few lines well encapsulate the ideals of the writers of the '80s, a decade that saw the emergence of new authors whose work expanded the topics broached earlier. La Révolte d'Affiba, by Ivorian Regina Yaou, tells the story of a young woman victim of a pack of in-laws determined to strip her of her assets following the death of her husband. L'Oiseau en cage, by Cameroonian Delphine Zanga Tsogo, evokes the fate of an adolescent girl forcibly removed from school and married, against her will, to a perfect stranger she does not love. But as her mother told her: "Love has nothing to do with it. You must obey. You do not own yourself and have no right to want anything. It is your father who is the master and your duty is to obey". Calixthe Beyala's first novel, C'est le soleil qui m'a brûlée, tells the story of 19 year old Ateba, whose wild temperament is well concealed behind her deceptive good manners and compliance. As for Fureurs et cris de femmes by Gabonese Ntyugwetondo Angèle Rawiri, it proposes a poignant evocation of the harrowing experience of a successful business-woman who suffers the infidelities of her husband, the harassment of her stepmother, and the murder of her child at the hands of a child-molester.
If the denunciation of inequalities and oppression plays a major role in the novels published in the 1980s, the literary production of this period also highlights some important victories by women over difficult circumstances. For example, the novels by Delphine Zanga Tsogo, Ntyugwetondo Angèle Rawiri and Calixthe Beyala, already mentioned earlier, draw attention to the misfortune of their main characters, but they also place the accent on their emancipation at the end of a hard-fought battle for freedom. Other books bear witness to an easier path to independence, though. It is the case of the autobiography De Tilène au Plateau, une enfance dakaroise (1975) by the Senegalese nurse Nafissatou Diallo relishing her upbringing in a loving family, "Mademoiselle" (1984) by school-principal Amina Sow Mbaye who evokes her exciting beginnings as a teacher, and many others.
The 1980s also marked the beginnings of African women's exploration of themes which had been traditionally the preserve of men. Ex-Père de la nation (1987) by Aminata Sow Fall, for example, stands out as one of the first woman's attempt at a "political" novel. This fiction tells the sorry tale of Madiama, a popular nurse elevated to the presidency by his compatriots only to be ousted a few years later as he had became a manipulative tyrant of the worst kind. This book is also important as it shows that, while women feel they have to have their say on issues affecting them primarily, they are also interested in matters that affect society as a whole. They do not intend to restrict women's writing to women's issues and characterisation. Thus the many books such as Werewere Liking's L'Amour-cent-vies (1988); Khadi Fall's Mademba (1989) and others titles that, like Ex-Père de la nation, follow the destiny of a male character. The publication of A vol d'oiseau (1986) by Ivorian Véronique Tadjo no doubt also contributed to the 1980s consecration of the woman's voice. This cult-novel follows the narrator's journey toward an understanding of self and others. Her hopes, fears, feelings and preoccupations found echoes among a wide range of readers as the narrators's concerns went beyond the scope of a country, and indeed a continent, to reach the universal. Many could relate to the book's preamble: "Of course, I too would have loved to write one of these nice stories that have a beginning and an end. But as you know only too well, life never goes like that: people intermingle, they come together and part; and eventually their destinies fade out".
Half a century after their debut, African women writers occupy a prominent place in the literary landscape of French literature, and many of the issues raised by the 1970s' and 1980s' pioneers are still of concern at the beginning of the 21st century. Economic hardship, wars, pseudo-independence, foreign interference, corruption, violence and other blights that befell the continent did not permit an easy resolution of the old problems, while a plethora of new issues have been added to the list of obstacles to be negotiated. Amongst them, AIDS transmitted by philanderers, polygamous husbands, predatory teachers or sugar-daddies settling school fees of adolescents in exchange for sexual favours; so too unemployment that affects a large percentage of the population, from the highly qualified women to the poorly educated mother struggling to feed her family. Rapes, violence of all kinds and lack of opportunities are pushing thousands of traumatised individuals on the road to exile. These issues and more are central to many of today's publications, but as before, they allow readers to understand better African women's predicaments, attitudes and hopes for a better future in the face of adversity; they highlight the elusive and shifting nature of the problems people have to face in today's Africa and the many challenges awaiting future generations.
For example, African women academics were quite rare in the 1980s, but it is no longer the case. Women are reaching the top in all disciplines, but at the same time, illiteracy is worsening in many parts of the continent and thousands of girls do not have access to school for economic reasons. There are more and more women writers, but a diminishing number of Africans able to read their work. More excellent books written about Africa, but fewer penned by women living in Africa. Barely pubescent girls are not married to leering old men as often as before but, as such novels as La Nuit est tombée sur Dakar by Aminata Zaaria (2004) and De pourpre et d'hermine by Sanou Lô (2005) show, more and more young girls are selling their virtue to men twice their age in order to put food on their parents' table, to subsidise their studies, or to buy designer clothes. Much more is known of Malaria and some other tropical diseases but, in the meantime AIDS is casting a dark shadow over the continent and has inspired many powerful narratives such as Micheline Coulibaly's short-story Le Plafond (1997), Sokhna Benga's La Marche aveugle (2007) and Fatou Keita's children's book Un Arbre pour Lollie (1995). Work has become harder for women staying in their village and massive unemployment in the city, especially among intellectual elites of both sexes, encourages people to leave and to work abroad, often well below their qualifications. And those who stay at home are not immune to sudden fratricidal wars and outbreaks of nationalist fervour that push entire populations onto the road to exile, stirring into action inspirational authors, such as Yolande Mukagasana recalling the massacres, that in 1994 cost over 800,000 lives, in Les Blessures du silence. Témoignages du génocide au Rwanda; Tanella Boni evoking Côte d'Ivoire's civil war in her novel Matins de couvre-feu (2005); Liss bearing witness to Congo's rampant wars in her short-stories collection Détonations et folie (2007), to mention just three of the numerous women who have given a literary form to their hate of senseless violence.
The commanding presence of female authors in African literature is the result of a long struggle against social practices that "adduced unfair customs to keep women in a subordinate position". The fact that French became the language of choice of many African women writers in the 1970s, though, was rather incidental. As France had imposed the use of French on women enrolled in its African nursing schools and teachers colleges during colonial times, women who entered the literary fray in the 1970s had a perfect mastery of French linguistic idiosyncrasies and they made good use of their skills. However, this appropriation of a foreign language was not followed by an abandonment of their mother tongue as anticipated by the coloniser. Studying French culture, history and language allowed them instead to better understand colonial oppression, to appreciate the value of their own culture and to perceive the need for a compelling fight against inequalities and women's abuse. By mastering the language of the other as well as their own, a new generation of African women was freed from the obscurantism perpetuated by racism, sexism and a debasing colonial jargon; they were freed from interpreters, fanciful translations, colonials' myths, and a patriarchal stranglehold on knowledge. They could take the true measure of a language that was necessary to understand French attitudes in Africa, but not divine and universal as noted by the Beninese Gisèle Hountondji in her satirical short story "Get up to date Black Madam: express yourself in French!" (1988). Taking charge of one's own voice "in translation" also meant being able to revisit some old clichés associated with the pseudo-science of a raft of ethnologists whose limited linguistic competence did not allow for a proper understanding and interpretation of what people said. As Denise Paulme wrote in her correspondence to Leiris: "Obviously, the ideal solution would be to speak the language fluently but, as one must admit, we never managed to do so".
The first titles published in the 1970s signalled the end of a Franco-French literary hegemony that had taken hostage African imagination. They heralded the beginning of female self-representation and unleashed the polyphonic nature of their voices. The themes and concerns they echoed were enlarging the scope of African preoccupations and their multi-facetted cultural experiences testified to the diversity of their personalities, interests and concerns. So too, their diverse origins and relationship with the continent. Long-term residents of a town or country were writing alongside others who had just arrived in thrall to their family, or just came back home after completing their studies in a different region, or even overseas. Women writers were of different castes, religions and complexions, but united in their desire to tell Africa the way they saw it.
The idea of finding a place one can call home, for example, has been fictionalied from a variety of perspectives and it is fascinating to the see the different emphasis put on the issue by authors of different generations. In 1956, when Cameroonian Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury wrote Rencontres essentielles (published in 1968), African students sent to France were eager to go back home where plenty of work and opportunities were awaiting them; but half a century later, very little work, if any, is awaiting African graduates going back home. Authors such as Ken Bugul in Le Baobab fou (1983), Aminata Sow Fall in Douceurs du bercail (1998), Nafissatou Dia Diouf in Retour d'un si long exil (2001), Chantal Magalie Mbazoo-Kassa in Fam! (2003), Elizabeth Ewombé Moundo in Analua (2005), and many others testify to the evolution that has taken place, both in Europe and Africa over the years.
The testimonies of people who adopted Africa as their home is also interesting as they offer another take on the continent. Julétane (1980), by Guadeloupean Myriam Warner-Vieyra, who settled in Dakar after her marriage to Senegalese film-maker Paulin Vieyra, is a fascinating novel about loneliness and disempowerment. So too the short-story L'Etrangère (1985) by Anne Marie Niane whose mother was Vietnamese and her father a Senegalese soldier in the French army. Her contemporary Micheline Coulibaly was also born in Vietnam to an African father but this time an Ivorian and a Vietnamese mother whose story she tells in Les Larmes de cristal (2000). And Tita Mandeleau who wrote the impressive historical novel Signare Anna (1991), lived with her mother in Martinique until the age of ten before leaving for Africa at the end of the Second World War, when her father was demobilised. As for Haitian actress Jacqueline Scott-Lemoine who also settled in Senegal with her husband at the invitation of Leopold Sedar Senghor, she testifies to the cosmopolitan make-up of the continent. From Geneviève Poncet, to Michèle Manceaux, Elisabeth Delaygue, Françoise Ugochukwu, Michèle Assamoua, Sylvie Argondico, Claude Bergeret Njike, Nadine Bari, Rosamond Ahou of Saintange, Marie Dardenne, Marinette Secco, Anne Piette and a great many others, many women writers of various origins have expanded Africa's literary production beyond essentialist concerns in chosing writing to share their vision of the Africa they knew, and often loved, with significant others and unknown readers.
Meanwhile, many women born in Africa left the continent in a reverse movement that led them from Africa to the rest of the world. While their absence was usually temporary in the 1970s, it has increasingly become permanent as one gets closer to our time. Fratricidal wars, slump in the economy, cronyism and lack of opportunities make a return "home" all but impossible. Thus the ever increasing number of "African" women writers who found their mark in Canada, the United States, France or elsewhere. The expansion of world literature thrives in part on the hiatus that ensued between host country and country of origin The autobiography Safia, un conte de fées républicain (2005) by Somali Safia Otokoré, the novel Je vous souhaite la pluie ( 2006) by Cameroonian Elizabeth Tchoungui and the cookbook La Cuisine africaine de Marie Louise (2006) by Congolese Marie Louise Borremans, all suggest a one-way journey out of Africa. Moreover, the plot of many novels unfolding in Europe explore the lives of characters who no longer live in Africa and feel increasingly at home overseas. Even if they keep ties with their country of origin, the characters of Diasporama ( 2005) by Bilguissa Diallo, Icône urbaine (2005) by Lauren Ekué, Sa vie africaine (2007) by Catherine Shan, Tels des astres éteints (2008) by Léonora Miano or Amours tyranniques (2006) by Brigitte Tsobgny, say more about France than Africa, even if these novels would lose much of their meaning and appeal without Africa's subliminal presence in the background of the narration. And the same could be said of some novels written by authors even more remote from their African roots, such as Simone Sow and Marie NDiaye.
The contribution of African authors to French literature has been substantial for many years and the late arrival of African women writers on the scene has only increased the continent's visibility as some female authors are now attracting considerable attention from lay-readers and the critics alike. In re-colonising the French language to their advantage, women have democratised knowledge, initially thought to be the preserve of a small and predominantly male elite. As Africa was adapting an old tool to new needs, as shown with humor by Mercédès Fouda in Je parle camerounais (2001), French began to drift away from its geographical origins and gave rise to a more flexible and autonomous language suited to writers in and out of Africa. Motus et bouche... décousue (2002) by Jacqueline Fatima Bocoum, La Mémoire amputée (2004) by Werewere Liking, Jeté en pâture by Adelaïde Fassinou, Le Deuil des émeraudes (2005) by Assamala Amoi, Et l'aube se leva... (2006) by Fatou Kéïta, Féminin interdit (2007) by Honorine Ngou, D'Abidjan à Tunis (2007) by Mariama Ndoye, represent only a tiny fraction of the large number of novels showing that French has now become a means of communication politically neutral, a language to which African authors are assigning new tasks and meanings. A language that gives substance to the mingling of cultures within the continent, reflects authors' linguistic freedom and allows writers to emphasis the important role played by women in 21st century Africa at all levels of society. The opening of literary writing to African women belongs to a great movement of emancipation by ordinary people who, like the main characters of Nathalie's Etoke novel Je vois du soleil dans tes yeux (2008), took it upon themselves to change the course of history. The interest of women writers in Africa dates back to the distant epoch when English Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko (1688), one of the first anti-slavery novels. A century later Madame de Stael took up the torch in her short-story Mirza and since then, a great many women writers have recorded their vision of Africa in countless novels and travelogues. The arrival of French-speaking African women writers on the scene marks a new milestone in the development of the African literary field. After many years of struggle, African women barred from speaking their mind managed to overcome the cultural impediments put in their way, and it was not long before they mastered the skills necessary to tell their story to the world, in their own words. Seemingly indomitable barriers are still falling and African women's claim to independence and freedom are beginning to be heard far and wide.
Jean-Marie Volet 2008
(English translation 2014)
|Keeping track of women writing: African penwomen of the colonial era|
 Thiam, p.17.
 Ndèye Coumba Mbengue Diakhaté. « Afrique-Cœur » in Filles du Soleil. Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1980, p.34.
 Ndèye Coumba Mbengue Diakhaté. « Libération » in Filles du Soleil. Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1980, p.28.
 Delphine Zanga Tsogo. L'Oiseau en cage. Paris: EDICEF, 1983, p.66.
 Véronique Tadjo. A vol d'oiseau. Paris: Nathan, 1986, p.2.
 Célestine Ouezzin Coulibaly (1961) in Judith Graves Miller et Christiane Owusu-Sarpong. Des femmes écrivent l'Afrique: L'Afrique de l'Ouest et le Sahel. Paris: Karthala, 207, p.326.
 Gisèle Hountondji. « Mettez-vous au goût du jour, Madame la négresse: exprimez-vous en français! ». Peuples Noirs Peuples Africains no. 59-62, 1988, pp.59-63. [http://mongobeti.arts.uwa.edu.au/issues/pnpa59_62/pnpa59_07.html] [Sighted 18 January 2014].
 Alice Byrne, « La quête d'une femme ethnologue au cœur de l'Afrique coloniale. Denise Paulme 1909-1998 ». [http://sites.univ-provence.fr/wclio-af/numero/6/thematique/chap1Byrne.html] [Sighted 18 January 2014].