Lusophone literature : an introduction Lusophone African Women's Writing: A Brief Introduction

by Tony Simoes da Silva

In the context of a Website dedicated to writing in Portuguese by African women writers, it may seem odd to find that the vast majority of texts were in fact authored by women who, for the most part, lived in Africa only as a result of the colonial link between Portugal and its African possessions. These were women born in Portugal whose presence in Africa frequently lasted no more than a few years, the length of a 'commission' in the military or the Public Services their husbands came to serve in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde or Sao Tomé and Principe. Occasionally, some of these writers made Africa their home in the outposts of the Empire with little or no subsequent contact with the Motherland. Even less common were writers such as Antónia Gertrudes Pusich and Sara Pinto Coelho, whose contribution to a local literary culture is only now beginning to become evident. Pusich was responsible for the creation of a local publishing outlet in São Tomé and also for a newspaper she directed for many years. For her part, Sara Pinto Coelho's role at the helm of a programme series at Mozambique's chief radio station, the Rádio Clube de Moçambique, dedicated to broadcasting radio plays nationally, in many ways might be seen to have encouraged the development of a readership attuned to locally-produced material. Although primarily radio-focused, by its very existence"Teatro em Sua Casa" acted as a catalyst for the production of other cultural texts in pre-independence Mozambique.

But the latter group of writers was always in the minority and their work often bore little relation to African themes or concerns. Overwhelmingly, the texts which emerged from Portuguese Africa revealed an astonishing imperviousness to any incipient notions of an African Lusophone sensitivity. For a number of reasons, including the fact that the Portuguese themselves did not place a high value on education and literacy, combined with a rather repressive social system which prevented women from stepping out on their own in pursuit of adventure, there was in the Portuguese colonial setting no Isak Dinesen or Lady Montagu. Maria Archer's case comes closest to the picture of a woman adventurer, a traveller who moved energetically between the various outposts of the Portuguese Empire and beyond. A prolific writer, possessed of a curious and brilliant mind, Archer wrote anthropological and ethnographic tracts, novels, short stories, poetry, essays and journalism, publishing acounts of her journeys in order to finance further travel. But Archer was the exception rather than the rule and, although herself a truly committed campaigner for the rights of women, in her work on Africa and Africans she adopted a fairly Eurocentric perspective. This is perhaps not very surprising given the almost insurmountable nature of the challenge posed by the ideology of the period to any anyone writing about the Empire and, as such, caught in the machine of 'othering' intrinsic to colonial narrative practice. To this extent, Portuguese writing dealing with Africa always bore a strong male quality, an aesthetic of conquest and domination, which cared little for the poignant complexity of a text such as Out of Africa (1937). The nostalgia which imbues Dinesen's book, reflective also of a particularly complex relationship with the local Africans who lived on `her' lands, has no equivalent in the Portuguese context.[1]

Moreover, although it is possible to argue a similar case of neglect of women's writing in the context of both British and French colonies, the Portuguese situation merits closer investigation. Indeed, the fact is that to this day the number of African women writers working in Portuguese remains almost negligible, illustrating to great effect the unique condition of Portuguese colonialism.[2] If it seems that Aldónio Gomes and Fernanda Cavacas' Dicionàrio de Autores de Literaturas de Língua Portuguesa (1997) actually lists the names of a considerable number of women writers, especially poets, it is important to note that for the most part their production was merely incidental. Many wrote only the odd poem and little more. If it remains characteristic of Lusophone Africa that to have one's books published requires a great degree of luck and kow-towing to the right people, again the challenge is far greater for women than it is for men. Thus even such a well-known figure as Paulina Chiziane has had to resort to having her latest novel, Os Ventos do Apócalipse (1996), published privately. Indeed, it will surely strike the scholar who undertakes even the most cursory examination of the bio-bibliographical anthologies produced by Manuel Ferreira, Gerald Moser, Aldónio Gomes and Fernanda Cavacas, that an unusually high percentage of works were published by the authors themselves. That so many of these authors were already quite well-known, or have in time come to occupy relatively important places in Lusophone African writing, indicates the lack of commitment the Portuguese colonial authorities displayed towards the colonies.[3]

It reveals also the extent to which writing, in post-colonial Lusophone Africa continues to be relegated to a very minor place in society. In the context of the ongoing conflicts in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, and of the fairly recent date of the peace agreement in Mozambique, such a situation again should not surprise. Furthermore, and unlike Britain or France, Portugal made little or no effort to educate the Africans whom it claimed as its possession. As General Galvão de Mello, one of the strong-men of the old regime remarked in 1978, some time after the colonies had gained their independence: 'We benefited little from Africa and Africa benefited little from us. The Portuguese people and the African people remained unknown to each other: foreigners'.[4] It is well-known that at the time of its forced exit from East Timor, at the end of almost 400 years of colonisation, Portugal had built just a single school on the whole island, while in Mozambique, one of its largest colonies, the illiteracy rate bordered 97%. Indeed, at the time they gained independence, there were in Mozambique and Angola, with a combined population of more than 15 million people, only two universities. Moreover, these were largely the preserve of White people. Although a number of Angolan and Mozambican nationalist leaders obtained qualifications from Portuguese tertiary institutions, as was the case with Amílcal Cabral (Guinea-Bissau), Agostinho Neto (Angola) and Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique), they symbolised essentially the tokenistic nature of Portuguese educational policy towards Africans. It is symptomatic too that all these men attended university in Portugal proper, demonstrating the extent to which the universities in Angola and Mozambique were out of reach for the local African peoples.

By ensuring that a few individuals were able to attend university in Portugal, the regime also was able, firstly to remove them from the social and intellectual circles within which their activities might begin to cause unrest; and secondly, to put into practice one of its central colonising premises: the potential assimilation of all colonised people. In the context of Portuguese colonialism, the assimilado was the colonised individual whom the system deemed to have succeded in the process of stepping up the civilisational ladder. The assimilado was not a White individual, rather a Black or Mulatto person whose ability to demostrate a minimum of literacy skills allowed a shift upwards, closer to what Portuguese colonial authorities deemed 'civilised society'. Assimilation, in its Portuguese guise, and probably in the context of all colonial ideologies, implied a performative act of 'pretending to be White'. In the Lusophone context it had at its core the unshakeable belief that the African would never really reach the standards set by the Portuguese.[5] No expression summarises so succintly the crux of the Portuguese view of racial difference than the expression 'acting like White people' ('Gostam de se armar em Brancos'). More than two decades after Portugal left Africa, it retains as powerful a hold on the Portuguese psyche as ever. As growing numbers of Lusophone Africans continue to arrive in Portugal, the less than residual resentment against Black people has once again become the norm in public discourse. But more importantly, for the paradox is simply too glaring to overlook, Portuguese colonialism believed that the assimilado had a crucial role to play in the context of the mission civilisatrice. In this sense, the Portuguese master acted as the source of all knowledge, creating an intermediary class capable of taking over the task of teaching other Africans. In doing so, the Portuguese appeared at once enlightened and benevolent; the very emblem of what for so long they claimed to be the unique characteristic of Portuguese colonial paradigms - the 'trust' placed in the local Africans' ability to be 'like' the Portuguese themselves. In other words, the quality that, in the mid-Fifties, Gilberto Freyre called 'Luso-tropicalism', but which others writing much later could still not resist. A contemporary work by another Brazilian, the sociologist Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda (1954), together with more recent ones by the Austrian philosopher Urs Bitterli (1989) and the French historian, Marc Ferro (1994), revisit the notion of Portuguese colonialism as a fairly pleasant Benetton before Benetton. If only someone had remembered to inform the local Africans how good they had it. As James Ciment puts it, in his succint analisys of the ongoing crises in Lusophone Africa: "The Portuguese viewed their 'civilising mission' in Africa differently than did the British, French or Germans". Conceptualised later as Luso-tropicalism, it envisioned Portugal as a multi-continental, multi-racial nation where White settlers worked, lived and inter-married with local peoples. The thinking behind the agricultural colonies for instance, centred on the idea of colonial farmers imparting their expertise to Angolans, sharing the bounty of the land and extending Luso-tropical nationalism throughout the colony.'[6]. Ironically, this 'luso-tropical mythology' has in fact often been 'bought wholesale' even by anti-colonial critics. That is the point Amílcar Cabral, the Guinean nationalist leader, sought to make when he recalled the comments of another African delegate at the 1960 Tunis All-African Peoples' Conference: "it's different for you ... you're doing all right with the Portuguese"[7]

Moreover, given the limited role Portuguese society itself accorded women, it is not surprising that African women too were then relegated to the bottom of the scale. If the African male was deemed difficult to educate - to civilise - he at least was afforded access to the means of that process, however restricted the numbers of the elect might have been. But as the cases of Amílcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto and Joaquim Chissano make clear however, what the local Africans then opted to do with that knowledge was beyond the reach of the Portuguese authorities. Indeed, in Cabral we have one of the most successful examples of an African whom the Portuguese believed to have thoroughly indocrinated, only to discover that the Degrees he gained at the University of Lisbon played a crucial role in his development of a critique of Portuguese colonial policies. More importantly, it was precisely through such a critique that Cabral sowed the seeds for a movement of resistance that was light years ahead of anything developed elsewhere in Africa. In his recent study of Portuguese de-colonization, The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metropolitan Revolution and the Dissolution of the Empire (1997), Norrie MacQueen suggests that one of the reasons Guinea-Bissau has experienced a much lower level of political instability and violence than the other Portuguese colonies was the degree to which Amílcar Cabral had prepared the country for the demise of Portuguese colonialism.[8]

I have attempted, by way of providing a brief examination of the way Portuguese colonialism acted in Africa, and specifically of its educational policies towards Africans, to explain and justify the inclusion in the following bibliography of Lusophone women's writing of so much work bearing only the most tenuous of connections with Africa. In doing so I do not seek to suggest that such texts as those written by Portuguese women who lived in Africa for a few months, or even years, is in any way as African as the work of a Noémia de Sousa, a Paula Tavares, a Vera Duarte or a Lina Magaia. Neither do I attempt to compare their role in the creation or development of a Lusophone African sensitivity which in time came to be crucial to the anti-colonialist struggle against the Portuguese. In this context, again it is Cabral whose work most recalls the intrinsic role of literature and then of literacy in the development of culture as a weapon of nationalist resistance. For Cabral, the ability to be able to turn the tables on the coloniser, to 'write back' in the sense explored by Ashcroft et al in The Empire Writes Back (1989), was as important and as effective a way of fighting colonialism as the gun. In this sense, Cabral's views prefigure, or at least resemble, those articulated by two other great theorists of the colonial condition, the Martinican Frantz Fanon and the Barbadian George Lamming. Fanon's texts, The Wretched of the Earth (1961) especialy, but also Black Skin, White Masks (1952), are now firmly implanted in the body of anti-colonial writing. While in some ways a profoundly disturbing writer, for instance in the depictions of race and gender his works reveal, Lamming too deserves to be considered as one of the best analysts of colonial ideologies. In the Pleasures of Exile (1960), as in any of a number of his novels, most especially In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and Natives of My Person (1972), Lamming makes the point that the anti-colonialist struggle is essentially a psychological one. For Lamming, as for Cabral, de-colonisation acts then on a number of levels, and cultural de-colonisation is one of the most crucial sites of resistance.

Few Lusophone African women writers exemplify as clearly this notion as Noémia de Sousa. Although dismissed by some critics of Lusophone African writing as strong in anger but short on technique, de Sousa's poetry does more for the articulation of genuinely Mozambican identity than the writing of her more popular male colleagues.[9] And if it seems, in these days of globalisation, trans-nationalism and fluid identities, that to talk of an 'authentic' post-colonial identity is odd, it is important to take into account the historical conditions of writing such as de Sousa's. Race, which Toni Morrison has called an "academic construct" (1992) was, in the colonial context of Lusophone Africa , a crucial site of resistance to oppresive parameters for self-identity. Race, as the work of de Sousa makes perfectly clear, became in those conditions the one overriding marker in the struggle to reclaim a self beyond and from within the colonial frame of inscription. For Noémia de Sousa, cultural affirmation was impossible without a clearly defined sense of racial identity.

For all the above reasons, and perfectly conscious of the objections which might be raised against such a practice, and even more so of the implications any decision to include visitors to Africa who write about their impressions of it alongside African authors committed to the creation of a literature reflective of their own world and their own experience of Africa, I have opted for an all-inclusive practice. Hence in this list of Lusophone women authors there are authors whose sympathies were clearly on the side of colonialism as well as others who were imprisoned or exiled as a result of their opposition to it; there are writers whose 'Africanness' amounts to no more than exotic depictions of detail in the way that elsewhere is described as chinoiserie - works deeply embedded in a tradition of writing described by Edward Said as "orientalism" (1978). Some writers were born in Africa -- in Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde or São Tomé and Príncipe -- but lived there only briefly, while others moved there from Portugal , sometimes to die at the far flung bounds of the Empire.

However, I have restricted the attribution of individual entries only to those writers who count among their works at least one full-length collection of short stories or poetry, a novel or a play. Given the fraught nature of publishing in Lusophone Africa, both before and after independence from Portugal, such a decision means that on occasions I have left out some fairly representative names. In order to minimise the potential for silencing writers who, while often extremely prolific in their practice, remain published principally in local periodicals such as magazines and newspapers.

Finally, the credits. A few texts have been indispensable in the construction of this site. Among the most influential, and not even the most rudimentary piece of research work on Lusophone African writing can be undertaken without resorting to them, are the following bio-bibliographical anthologies and collections of essays: Alfredo Margarido's Estudos Sobre Literaturas das Nações Africanas de Língua Portuguesá; Gerald Moser and Manuel Ferreira's A New Bibliography of the Lusophone Literatures of Africa; Manuel Ferreira, ed., No Reino de Caliban, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 ; and Aldónio Gomes and Fernanda Cavacas'. Dicionário de Autores de Literaturas Africanas de Língua Portuguesa . The information on the authors, particularly as is found on individual pages devoted to some of the best-known old voices and the most influential new ones, has been compiled from a variety of sources; these include all of the above, those in the list of critical bibliography as well as those in Portuguese, Mozambican and Angolan newspapers, literary journals and magazines. Websites often proved useful sources of information on more recent events related to Lusophone literature in general. Similarly, on occasions the catalogues of individual publishers contained useful material. Needless to say, I am only too happy to be corrected, chided, or made recipient of new information on any of the writers, their texts and their backgrounds found in these pages.


[1] Although by no means an unproblematic text, Out of Arica must also be read as an important colonial text precisely for the way in which it acts as a site for conflicting ideologies and contested representations. However patronising Isak Dinesen's depiction of the Masai might be, clearly it needs to be juxtaposed against her portrayals of the English, often just as condescending. That Dinesen saw herself as a woman alone in the world, combined with her deeply felt romance with the land and the man of her dreams, ultimately endowed her perspective with a level of perspicuity not generally found in the tradition of 'othering' texts to which Out of Africa belongs. In particular, see the scene of her address to Lord Delamere on behalf of the Masai people whom she fears will be expelled from 'her' land.

[2] Ironically, some of the earlier texts published in Lusophone Africa, both writen by men and women, appeared well before the majority of works from Francophone and Anglophone colonies. Indeed, O. R. Dathorne remarks in African literature in the twentieth century (1976), that although fragmented in tone and nature, the tradition of writing in Portuguese in Africa goes back a long way. Yet, as Dathorne himself notes, one cannot but notice the paucity of its totality, especially when we consider that the Portuguese were the first European nation in Africa.

[3] For a recent, lucid and extremely insightful reading of Portuguese colonialism, see Norrie MacQueen, The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metropolitan Revolution and the Dissolution of the Empire. London and New York: Longman, 1997.

[4] In Gerald Bender, Angola Under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality, Berkeley, California, Uni. of Cal. Press, 1978, 224).

[5] In this context, it is worth recalling the words of Aimé Césaire, in his work, Discours sur le Colonialisme. Although referring specifically to the place and role of Christianity in the colonial project, his words speak also of a general status quo which was intrinsic to colonialism: "La candeur de Léon Blay s'indignait jadis que des escrocs, des parjures, des faussaires, des voleurs, des proxenettes fussent chargés de `porter aux Indes l'exemple des vertues chrétiennes" (1955: 24). The point Césaire makes is that Christianity, as it was experienced by the colonised, was largely a web of corruption, of lies, of theft.

[6] James Ciment. Angola and Mozambique: Postcolonial Wars in Southern Africa, New York, Facts on File, Inc., 1997: 29.

[7] In MacQueen, 1997: 13.

[8] Unfortunately history and politics have since conspired to ensure that MacQueen's book is already in need of serious revision, for the events at the end of 1998 in Guinea-Bissau have left it yet another wreck in a continent speckled with similar catastrophes. Ironically, in spite of the fact that so much misery in colonial and post-colonial Africa has been the direct result of capitalist intervention, a Website sponsored by the Mozambican government -- for an 'outsider Net-surfing business community' of potential investors -- recently celebrated the joys of Mozambique, the "Pearl of the Indian Ocean". If only someone could make the Net available to the populace at large, they too might begin to believe that the world is indeed a wonderful place. Alas, having to side-step mines on the way to and from one's most basic daily necessities somehow dims the lustre of any pearl.

[9] For some interesting discussions of Noé'mia de Sousa's place in Lusophone writing, see especially Russel Hamilton (1975); Alfredo Margarido (1980); Donald Burness (1981; 1983) and Ana Mafalda Leite (1996).


Archer, Maria. Ninhomde bá. Lisboa: Editora Cosmos, n/d. Coleçao Cadernos Coloniais, 15.

Archer, Maria. África sem Luz. São Paulo: Clube do Livro, 1962.

Ashcroft, Bill; Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: theory and practice in post-colonial literatures. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Bender, Gerald. Angola Under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality. Berkeley, California: Uni. of Cal. Press, 1978.

Bitterli, Urs.Cultures in conflict: encounters between European and non-European cultures, 1492-1800. Translated by Ritchie Robertson Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

Buarque de Hollanda, Sérgio. Raízes do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Companhia das Letras, 1954.

Burness, Donald. Critical Perspectives on Lusophone Literature from Africa. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1981.

Cabral, Am´┐Żlcar.Unity and struggle: speeches and writings. Translated from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers. London: Heinemann Educational, 1980

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism . (Discours sur le colonialisme). Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York : MR, [1972].

Chabal, Patrick et al (Moema Parente Augel, David Brookshaw, Ana Mafalda Leite, Caroline Shaw ). Postcolonial Lusophone Africa Literature. London: Hurst, 1996.

Chiziane, Paulina. Os Ventos do Apócalipse. Maputo: Published privately, (1996).

Ciment, James. Angola and Mozambique: Postcolonial Wars in Southern Africa. New York, Facts on File, Inc., 1997.

Dathorne, O.R.. African literature in the twentieth century. London : Heinemann Edicational, 1976. de Sousa, Noémia. Poemas. Lourenço Marques, Mozambique: Published privately, 1951.

Dinesen, Isak. Out of Africa. With an introd. by Bernardine Kielty. New York: The Modern Library, 1937, 1952.

Duarte, Vera. Amanhã Amadrugada. Lisboa: Vega, 1993.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth . Trans. Constance Farrington. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask . Paris: François Maspéro, 1952.

Ferreira, Manuel, ed.. No Reino de Caliban, Vol. 1: Cabo Verde e Guiné-Bissau . Lisboa: Seara Nova, 1975.

Ferreira, Manuel, ed.. No Reino de Caliban, Vol. 2: Angola e São Tomé e Príncipe . Lisboa: Seara Nova, 1976.

Ferro, Marc. Colonization : a global history. Translated from the French by K.D. Prithipaul. London ; New York : Routledge, 1997. Originally published as Histoire des colonisations: des conquétes aux indépendances, XIIIe-XXe siècle. Paris: Seuil, 1994.

Ferreira, Manuel, ed.. No Reino de Caliban, Vol. 3: Moçambique. Lisboa: Plàtano, 1985.

Freyre, Gilberto. Le Portugais et les tropiques : considérations sur les méthodes portugaises d'intégration de peuples autochtones et de cultures différentes de la culture européenne dans un nouveau complexe de civilisation luso-tropicale. Translated from Portuguese into French by J.Haupt. Lisbonne : Commission Executive des Commemorations du Ve Centenaire de la Mort du Prince Henri, 1961.

Gomes, Aldónio Gomes and Fernanda Cavacas . Dicionàrio de Autores de Literaturas Africanas de Língua Portuguesa. Lisboa: Editorial Caminho, 1997.

Hamilton, Russell G.. Voices from an Empire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

Hamilton, Russell G. Literatura Africana, Literatura Necessària, Vol. 1: Angola . Lisboa: Edições 70, 1981.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. London: Michael Joseph, 1960.

Lamming, George. In the Castle of My Skin . London: Michael Joseph, 1953.

Leite, Ana Mafalda. A Mobilização Epica nas Literaturas Africanas . Lisboa: Vega, 1996.

MacQueen, Norrie. The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metropolitan Revolution and the Dissolution of the Empire . London and New York: Longman, 1997.

Magaia, Lina. Dumba Nengue. Maputo: Cadernos Tempo, 1987. Translated into English by Michael Wolfers as Dumba Nengue: Run for your life. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1988.

Margarido, Alfredo. Estudos Sobre Literaturas das Nações Africanas de Languà Portuguesa. Lisboa: A Regra do Jogo, 1980.

Morrison, Toni.Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Moser, Gerald and Manuel Ferreira. A New Bibliography of the Lusophone Literatures of Africa. London: Hans Zell, 1993.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Routledge, 1978.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York : Knopf, distributed by Random House, 1993.

Tavares, Paula. Ritos de passagem. Luanda: UEA, 1985.

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Last updated: Thursday, 15 April 1999