|Africaness an the ongoing interpenetration of cultures in Africa|
The degree of "Africanness" of the authors mentioned in the site "Lire les femmes et les littératures africaines" has been a contentious issue from the very beginning of our listing of "African women writers". It was evident from the start that a clear definition of who was and who wasn't African was rarely clear-cut and we conveniently ignored the issue. Common sense, it seemed, would provide an adequate means in determining people's association with the continent. But "common sense", unfortunately, is often a by-product of stereotypical ideas that tend to lead towards dogmatic proclamations rather than an open-minded evaluation of complex situations. Let us consider just one example : "Common sense" would suggest that an African woman author is a Black woman writer who lives in Africa. Indeed, many African women authors answer to this broad definition, but many do not because neither being Black nor the fact of living in Africa are necessarily good clues in assessing someone's Africanness.
Whereas the first "African women authors" publishing in the mid/late 1970s were Black women living in Africa, many writers of the following generation were not. Some lived in Europe, others in America, begging the question: "How long do you remain an African author once you have left the country of your forebears?" Inversely, one may ask "How long does it take one to qualify as an African author after one has settled on the continent?". Furthermore and contrary to common stereotypes, complexion is not necessarily a determinant of Africaniness as many people are conspicuous proof to the contrary: Black American activist Angela Davis is not African, whereas White anti-apartheid writer Nadine Gordimer is.
Faced with that conundrum a decade ago, we were happy to take the easy way out and "to bestow on the reader the power to decide for themselves who is and who is not African". In light of the narrow "racialist" and "natalist" models that have developed subsequently, I am not sure it was the right thing to do. Common sense based on stereotypical views of self and others led to nonsensical and arbitrary distinctions between native and non-indigenous individuals; this, in turn, gave rise to ill-fated dichotomies, dogmatism and violence. In any case, ten years on, Achille Mbembe's reflection on the issue debunks a few myths and provides new parameters that can help in moving beyond the inadequacy of common perceptions of self and others' identity*.
His initial contention is that "African citizenship" cannot be gauged in terms of complexion. Black-Africans represent the majority but by no mean the whole of Africa's population and they are not the sole producers of African arts and cultures. Through the centuries, many other groups who came from Asia, Arabia, Europe, etc. have sojourned or settled on the continent and a large percentage of their population consider themselves 100% African, even if they have roots extending to other parts of the world. Reciprocally, one has to acknowledge that for centuries, flux to and from Africa has been multi-directional; thus the millions of people of African origin who have settled throughout the world and consider themselves fully integrated citizen of the county in which they are living , even if they have roots reaching back to Africa.
One outcome of that mobility is the dispersion of people of common ancestry and a permanent evolution of cultures. Challenged by alterity, no collectivity ever, remained immune to outsiders' continuous influences and challenges. So, Mbembe's argument that what we commonly call "Traditional practices" is largely illusionary as, over time, peculiarities specific to a location are being mercilessly steamrollered by metissage and common parlance. Traditional practices and cultures are not bestowed, once and for all, by Mother Africa to a select few and their descendants. It is rather the product of a continuous adaptation resulting from human mobility and encounter with others. In losing sight of the transient nature of cultural identities and origins, recent configurations based on a narrow set of traditions and values have led to a surge of ill-waranted nationalistic pride. They have pitted "locals", very keen to ascertain hypothetical "ancestral rights", against so-called "invading non-native" who have been charged with all of society's woes. The concept of `Ivoirity' is one of the most recent examples, but it is not, by any means, the only one. Recent harassment of Muslim individuals in some Western countries and Europe's "Management of migration flux" are of a similar nature. They pit "locals" against "ill-defined terrorists" and "clandestines" who, willy nilly, have to play the part of the villains.
Little has been gained from attempting to determine what characteristics, physical, cultural or otherwise, qualify one as an African and it is time, Mbembe argues, to leave aside old dichotomies in order to move forward towards the development of a new ethic of tolerance: one that could find its power in the multiplicity of racial inheritances, strong economies, democracy and a full participation in current globalisation forces. That, I would suggest, includes asking a new set of research questions and abandoning those that led to a dead end. The question is no longer : "Who is and who is not African ?", but rather "What binds individuals to the African continent? How strong is this bond and how does it fit with competing loyalties and demands from other parts of the world?"
This line of inquiry is not without implications for the website "Lire les femmes et les littératures africaines". To begin with, author selection is no longer guided by impressionistic criteria based on a loose definition of the term "African". Rather, it focuses on women writers who have added their voice to those of hundreds of others whose writings are concerned with the building, witnessing and endless reinventing of African cultures, traditions, ways of life and relationship with the rest of the world ... This, of course, entails a widening of the scope of our investigation in order to include the contribution of the many women writers who preceded the arrival of Black African writers on the literary scene in the 1970s. Witness accounts of women sojourning in Africa for pleasure or due to professional reasons - before and after the 'Independences' - testify to Mbembe's "circulation des mondes". They provide an interesting facet of intercultural penetration, increasingly openness to hybridity and a genuine curiosity for the foreign.
Secondly, early preoccupations with the dearth of Black African women authors in university curricula is temporarily on the wane due to an impressive expansion of literary material by women living in, or originating from Africa. Nowadays, no one would challenge the high literary quality of some of their work. The current problem is rather one of imbalance between the trickle of books coming out of Africa and the large number of those published in Europe. Globalisation, neo-colonial style, does not favour a reciprocal exchange between cultures. The hegemony of large publishers skews African literary representation towards the West. In a bygone era, White writers could not provide a satisfactory depiction of Black sensibility in spite of all their skills, nor could male writers provide a first-hand account of women's perception of the world. The current takeover of the world literary production by a few powerful companies in search of new markets displays the same shortcomings, thus the need to put a special emphasis on work published by small, independent publishers in Africa - rather than published by "Africans" -.
Finally, in choosing to limit our site to the work of "African women writing in French", we are in a sense eschewing the rich linguistic diversity of the continent, hence the importance of translations which provide a small window on other parts of Africa and transcend the rigid cultural and political borders that people have persistently attempted to implement, both from within and from outside the continent.
jmv - 2007
The University of Western Australia/French
Created: 27 Feb 2007
Modified: 31 March 2014