Beverley Ormerod et Jean-Marie Volet|
Female African Novelists writing in French : South of the Sahara
Paris : l'Harmattan, 1994
For many years, the attention shown to a handful of Francophone African women writers did not go beyond their families and friends. Nowadays, things are different. Readership is rapidly expanding as these authors are widening the field of African literatures, a domain which had so far been dominated by male writing. In giving a literary form to their own experience, women writers explore the many issues confronting African women in the second half of the Twentieth Century and expose their thoughts without intermediaries.
The first openings
By and large, African women writing in French goes back to the time when many African countries gained independence in the 1960s. Senegalese Annette M'Baye d'Erneville says, for example, that "from the sixties, one could see young African women from West Africa who began writing poems, children's tales and short stories". At first tentatively, but persistently, this literary avant-garde opened the way to the next generation of women writers. "Of course," M'Baye d'Erneville says, "these pioneers did not tackle the novel or long pieces because they were still under the influence of the self-image imposed by male writers"; yet a critical step had been taken and writing was no longer the prerogative of men only. The work of these women, often unpublished, out of print or forgotten, is scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa and a complete inventory remains to be done. So far, only one text published in the 1950s has been unearthed: Ngonda, a short autobiography by Cameroonian teenager Marie-Claire Matip, written in 1955. Other books were probably published and it would be interesting to know how many students from Rufisque girls' school, of M'Baye d'Erneville's generation, still keep among their possessions letters, poems, tales or short stories written in the 1940s. Amina Sow Mbaye, who belongs to the next generation, says for example, that she still keeps a collection of short stories and poetry written in the 1950s, and she is probably not an isolated case. In 1969, Cameroonian Thérèse Kuoh Moukoury re-works a short story written in the 1950s and publishes it under the guise of a most interesting novella titled Rencontres essentielles. Unfortunately, this book has been forgotten. Initially published by some unknown publisher, soon out of print and to our knowledge never reprinted, this work is truly lost to contemporary readers.
The true beginning
Up to the middle of the 1970s, women's literary contribution had been sporadic. 1975 - the year designated as the International Women's Year by the UN - marked an important milestone as it signalled the true beginnings of a regular stream of publications that would increase steadily in subsequent years. Three books were published in 1975 : Aoua Kéita's autobiography titled La Vie d'Aoua Kéita racontée par elle-même, Nafissatou Diallo's titled De Tilène au Plateau, and the short story Dernière genèse by Zairean Christine Kalondji. Both Nafissatou Diallo's and Aoua Kéita's publications attracted a fair amount of attention at the time of their publication and, for the first time, two African women writing in French removed the shroud of anonymity that characterised African women's writing. For the first time one of their texts was commented on by critics and the literary intelligentsia in Africa and in France. In 1976, Aoua Kéita's autobiography was awarded the prestigious literary prize Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique Noire, a consecration that would be followed in subsequent years by other prize-winning women authors such as Mariama Bâ (1980) and Tita Mandeleau (1992). The end of the decade saw the emerging of new authors and publications : Lydie Dooh-Bunya, Simone Kaya. Aminata Sow Fall and Mariama Bâ published new books. Some authors were "discovered" by university scholars and abundantly commented on by critics over the following decade. As for Mariama Bâ, she became one of the most popular African women authors of her generation; even so, her best-seller Une si longue lettre, translated into many languages and reprinted a number of times, was out of print at the end of 1991 !
Since 1980, publication gathered speed, writer numbers grew and some excellent books highlighted the decade, starting with Ntugwetondo Rawiri, published in 1980 and Ken Bugul's harrowing autobiography published two years later. This latter book evokes the author's gripping obsession and belief she had been rejected by all - hence her pseudonym. In 1984 Caterine N'Diaye called for an aesthetic renewal of the novel as a literary genre and offered a very personal view of her country of origin in Gens de sable. In 1986, Valérie Tadjo published a well crafted - and very original - little novel under the title A vol d'oiseau. The following year, Calixthe Beyala also proposed a fascinating novel that explored the life of a young woman who, under the critical examination of her soul, "gets burnt by all the suns, that is the fire of desire, custom, hidebound traditions in their most repressive forms"; and in the process, attempts to "recover the woman in herself and abolish chaos". The collection of short stories by Assamala Amoi, published in 1988, can be read at a single sitting and the novel-song proposed the same year by Werewere Liking under the title L'Amour cent vies dazzlingly blended a present obscured by corruption, treason and absolutism with the glory of mythical African figures of the past.
As far as the 1990s are concerned, the decade had a promising start with the publication of Tanella Boni's Une vie de crabe, a novel that has tremendous human values and literary qualities. As one will realise in reading the following pages, women's publishing in recent years has grown considerably and dozens of authors and titles should have been added to those mentioned above. The large number of texts and authors "discovered" in the course of our project went beyond our wildest dreams and every week still brings its share of novelties. To mention only a couple of examples, at the very time this introduction is being written, the first three volumes of a new series "Plaisir d'Afrique" - a collection that specialises in cheap romance - are hot off the press; l'Harmattan brings to our attention the fact that they have recently published in their collection "Encres noires", Le jeu de la mer (1993), a novel by Senegalese Khady Sylla who is portrayed on the front cover of our book..
The origin of this book
For many years, the French Department of the University of Western Australia has offered its students an undergraduate unit dealing with African literature and only male authors were included in the proposed program of study. The arrival of women writers -mainly Senegalese - on the literary scene offered an opportunity to change the list of authors previously selected. However, the decision to include African women authors came up against some unexpected difficulties, primarily due to a dearth of information, steep prices, out of print titles and an overall lack of availability. African women's writing which, for socio-cultural reasons, had been kept out of reach during colonisation, seemed doomed to failure again, but this time for socio-economic and practical reasons.
In 1990, a small grant from the University of Western Australia allowed us to publish a first bibliography of Francophone African Women authors. It was compiled with the help of a large number of publishers in Africa and Europe. This bibliography has been extended and it comprises 70 authors (mentioned on page 159 of this book); it also includes in excess of one hundred novels, short stories, tales and autobiographies (mentioned between page 19 and 157). With the exception of some recent publications, the hunt for these books was quite arduous : much energy and persistence were required to unearth the majority of the books - some remaining very much out of reach despite innumerable messages and follow-up letters. Uncertainty, lost letters, cheques going astray and the overall challenge of purchasing African titles have convinced us that the issue of distribution is one of the factors - and possibly the most important - contributing to the marginalisation of African literature. If after painstaking effort and delays, teachers can only get hold of the books they want to analyse during their lectures, if their students cannot acquire their own copy and have to fight over a single copy located in the library, it is easy to understand why African woman writers are struggling to have their voice heard.
In order to know better the authors indexed in 1990, a survey of all the authors we knew at the time was initiated in 1991. With the exception of a dozen authors who could not be located, either by their editor or ourselves, all the others received a questionnaire with an explanatory letter. The respondents' answers (printed in italics in the left-hand column of the following pages) give an idea of the kind of questions posed. Overall, the requested information dealt with the writer's identity, her origins, her childhood, the schools she attended, her professional activities, her family, her hobbies, the origins of her interest in literature and her literary career.
A majority - nearly fifty - of the contacted authors answered our call with astonishing speed. The arrival of a steady flow of mail from Africa, but also from France, Germany, the United States, etc., where some of the authors lived, gave the whole project a universal, human and fascinating dimension. The bookworm was learning to breath fresh air that came from far away, but this exhilarating experience soon revealed a number of unforeseen problems in need of a solution : first of all, a re-definition of the words "novelists" and "African".
Suffice it to say that despite our best efforts, we have not been able to find a satisfactory definition of these terms and will leave it to the reader to decide exactly what they mean. By initially choosing to concentrate - somewhat arbitrarily - on the written prose, our investigation was primarily directed to authors who produced narratives, short stories, autobiographies and novels. However, it became increasingly clear that the limits imposed upon our investigation, in order to make it manageable, were not suitable to the classification of every author and every text at hand. Whereas many books fell easily within the parameters of mainstream literary genres and classifications, there was a large number of borderline cases, i.e., texts - some of them fascinating - that were challenging the conventions of the genre. Furthermore - and possibly even more importantly - we soon discovered in the answers provided by the "novelists" that many of them also wrote poetry and occasionally plays. Some were involved with literary criticism and non-fiction writing. Thus the necessity to consider the current book as a work in progress and to acknowledge that African women writing in French remains a vast and mostly unexplored literary field.
A systematic exploration and inventory of women's poetry is still wanting. A few of the names mentioned in this book would provide a starting point, but many other women we omitted, because they "only" wrote poetry, should be added and would occupy a prominent position. To cite just a few : Kiné Kirama Fall whose collection of poetry Chant de la rivière fraîche was published in 1976; Ndèye Coumba Mbengue Diakhaté, author of the collection Fille du soleil; Cécile-Ivelyse Diamoneka and her collection Voix de cascades. Lesser known writers such as Sandra Pierette Kanzé, Josette Lima, Amelia Néné, Céline Bikoumou, Ghislaine Henry, Marie Claire Dati, Bernadette Dao should also be included as well as the many authors whose poetry we have not had the opportunity to read so far.
Similarly, the contribution of women to the field of the theatre needs serious investigation and indexing. It goes back at least to the 1960s as shown by playwright Marie Charlotte Mbarga Kouma who wrote Les Insassiables twenty years ago - even so her play was only recently published in Yaoundé by Sopecam. The few names mentioned in the following pages - i.e., Werewere Liking, Rabiatou Njoya - only touch on an area bubbling over with activity.
Moreover, the number of African women brimming over in the Arts domain does not stop at literature; a number of other areas have also opened up, such as History with the work of Henriette Diabaté and Adam Konaré Bâ (Mrs), Sociology with Paulette Songué and Awa Thiam, and even Comics with the booklet Yao crack en maths by mathematician Joséphine Guidy Wandja. One will note that many of the authors interviewed went to university. Very few girls attended school beyond primary level during colonisation, but latterly things have changed quite considerably. Up to the 1960s, a female teacher's certificate would have been considered a "Big Diploma", whereas nowadays one can find women at every level of the education system : not only as students, but also - and increasingly so - as university lecturers and professors. It is therefore not surprising that contributions by African women to the written word is not only on the increase but also touches on all academic subjects.
Past and current disparities in African women's schooling opportunities is important. They explain, at least in part, the stylistic differences between authors in terms of form, content and literary sophistication. A woman agrégée in philosophy or holding a PhD will probably express herself differently from a woman who only attended school for a short few years; a young student will not tackle the blank page in the same way as a retired school teacher. Paradoxically however, it was not necessarily the most skilfully or brilliantly written texts that we found the most interesting to read. A number of paratextual factors conditioned our reading and occasionaly pushed our interest beyond purely literary considerations. Marie-Claire Matip's autobiography is a case in point. The interest of her contribution rests chiefly with the fact that her short life-story is one of the very first books written and published by an African teenager. It does mean however that the value of every texts depends on any particular reader's aim and taste. Some books are undeniably great works of art while others are rather shallow. But this said, we found it impossible to establish suitable criteria expressing the literary value of each text. Rather than applying a tentative formula that would have led to some arbitrary exclusion from the corpus, we have chosen to mention each and every book we read but to refrain, as far as possible, from value judgments.
The same line of thought leads us to include in this compilation women who did not fit comfortably with the stereotyped definition of an "African woman"; i.e., women writers born outside Africa or living outside this continent; those women of mixed marriage or parentage, living (or not) in Africa.... Rather then deciding arbitrarily who is, and who is not African, we provided the writers with the opportunity to explain their relationship with the African continent and we are happy to bestow on the reader the power to decide for themselves who is and who is not African.
This volume would not have been possible without the participation of all the women mentioned later in the book. Our gratitude goes to all those who took the time to answer our questions.
Published in French by Beverley Ormerod et Jean-Marie Volet Romancières africaines d'expression française : le sud du Sahara. Paris : l'Harmattan, 1994.