International women's day anthology

Praxis Magazine Online is pleased to finally present to our readers the International Women’s Day Anthology 2017, with an introduction by Praxis fiction editor John ‘Lighthouse’ Oyewale, and outstanding contributions of fiction, nonfiction, photography, poetry, and art from contributors around the globe. Download the anthology here: International Women’s Day Anthology 2017.


WOMAN, HUMAN

Introduction by John ‘Lighthouse’ Oyewale

The Woman is a cosmic subject, and a subject of eternal scrutiny. People pick up this icosahedral subject, turn it this way and that, observe the light that falls on and bounces off its many facets. There is never anyone who does nothing with this gemstone of a subject. There are those who do nothing with this gemstone of a subject: except push it about, except tease it, except wrinkle the nose at it, except trample on it, except deny the existence of the technicolour of the reflected rays. These are the proverbial swine which do not recognise pearls; philistines who do not appreciate useful beauty, especially once it has a life per se, a life of its own, a life in some way beyond their control, a life which defies their simplistic definitions. And then there are those who, in their examination of the subject, are fair in, generous even with, their observations, and faithful in recording the same. They deserve first attention. They even notice that there is a light within, inherent in, original to, the subject. How they record what they see is a question of what facet from which the light radiated or was reflected, as the case may be, and what mode of artistic expression is natural to them. Leonardo da Vinci turned to the poplar panel, painted for us Mona Lisa—in itself a subject of unending scrutiny. Ludwig van Beethoven turned to the piano with his characteristic intensity, and teased out ‘Für Elise’. Àṣá (Bùkọ́lá Ẹlẹ́mìdé) turned to the microphone and belted out, ‘Ẹ bá mi kíra fún màmá mi / òrìsà bí ìyá ò / kò sí l’áíyé’, in the song ‘So Beautiful’. The twenty-seven writers who have contributed to this International Women’s Day 2017 Anthology have examined the same all-important subject, the Woman (and the inevitably related themes of femininity and feminism), through the diverse yet related means of poetry, prose, and visual art.
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An anthology of this sort, although not the first of its kind, is a necessary one. It remains necessary to write about the Woman because we cannot be overeducated about the subject. Its myriad facets still give off lights of varying wavelengths and intensities and subtleties, all of which deserve to be detected and recorded on whatever photographic plate of artistic expression that there is—not least of all an anthology, a kaleidoscope of art. We cannot be overeducated about the subject of the Woman, only undereducated—often by choice and out of the force of habit. And as long as such individuals as the wilfully undereducated and the intellectually lazy, the philistines, remain in the world, in the street as well as on the corridors of power, education facilitated by resilient minds will remain necessary. Writing back will remain necessary. Writing forward will remain necessary. Re-orientation will remain necessary. The issue cannot be flogged to death.

Few writers on the Nigerian artscape have persevered in educating us more than Ukamaka Olisakwe, this literary magazine’s inaugural fiction editor, whose stories (the remarkable shorts ‘Running’ and ‘Nkem’s Nightmare’, for instance, and her debut novel Eyes of a Goddess) are often about women and—to allude to the title of one of my earliest published short stories—the burden of conformity. In an October 2015 Facebook post, she reveals her concern about how social order foists burdens on women’s shoulders:

‘Living as a woman, especially in our cultural setting, is the most difficult job in the world. We struggle to walk straight because the piles of expectations heaped on our shoulders left us with hunchbacks, but when we complain that these weights are choking the life out of us, you see people creep out from their different comfortable holes to brand you “an angry feminist”, a “feminazi.”
‘[…]
‘Partriachy (sic) is a SYSTEM of oppression which can’t be erased without a total overhaul. And that looks like an impossible thing to do. Patriarchy has so sunk into our consciousness that we breathe it as air, and that’s why many people have a problem with feminism because they fear it is sucking the only air they know how to breathe.’

At bottom, therefore, there is fear. Fear is what makes the male scramble for control over the female. Fear is what drives the male into blaming the female for his own failings. Fear is what makes the female give conditioned responses ranging from suppressed frustration to resignation and even complicity in the perpetuation of lopsided conventional wisdom about femaleness, femininity, and feminism. And ‘fear has torment’. Few are the lights that confront, if not dispel outright, fear better than writing. Few are the writings that confront, if not dispel, the fear of feminism better than an anthology of art with the Woman as its very theme.

Download the anthology here: International Women’s Day Anthology 2017.

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This world demands the qualities of femininity—to tweak a phrase from Robert Kennedy’s stirring 1966 speech, ‘Day of Affirmation’. Emotion, passion, empathy, intuition, self-sacrifice, cunning, a remarkable capacity for multitasking: these are skills which males are forgiven, but which females are castigated, for not possessing or demonstrating. (Just as it is deemed normal, if you like, for males to be angry—even though anger is not a sensible emotion, frankly—but an anathema, almost, for females to be.) And still it was emotion, genuine emotion which powers reasonable action, that Nigeria’s Ẹ̀gbá women in the late 1940s (led by Fúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome-Kútì, the Lioness of Líṣàbi) and the Igbo and Calabar women in the Ogu Umunwanyi, the Women’s War of 1929, who protested against taxes imposed by British-remote-controlled native chiefs, so successfully stirred. It was passion, awakening passion, that the youngest Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, speaking at the United Nations Youth Takeover conference on ‘Malala Day’, 12th July, 2013, and in Oslo, Norway, on 10th December, 2014 as she received her Nobel Peace Prize, inspired. It was windowpane-clear, crystal-pure empathy that led to the first-ever utterance, in defence of a defenceless woman caught in flagrante in the ultraconservative Jewish society of about two millennia ago, of the ever-radical, ever-progressive, immortal idiom, First cast a stone. It was self-sacrifice inspired by insight and perspicacity that the beautiful Yorùbá queen Móremí, a 12th-century Queen Esther, displayed, for through surrendering herself to voluntary captivity to the Igbó (forest) people (no relation to the Igbos of south-eastern Nigeria) who terrorised the Yorùbá kingdom of Ilé-Ifè, and through surrendering herself to marriage to the ruler of the raiders, she learned the secret of their invincibility, and on the next raid on Ilé-Ifè, the Igbó people suffered a crushing defeat. It was the same trait that Jeanne d’Arc, La Pucelle d’Orléans, demonstrated, in gaining the Dauphin Charles VII’s confidence and , at just seventeen years of age, helping his beleaguered army to swift decisive victories at Orléans, Jargeau, the areas around the Loire, and Patay, inter alia, thus breaking the nearly one-hundred-year-long English domination and restoring French amour-propre. It was ‘a woman’s resolve’ that Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe of ancient Britain, evinced, as she led a revolt against the perfidious Roman colonial masters. It was cunning, shrewdness, that Jael displayed in giving Sisera milk rather than water, thus lulling the dreaded general to the sleep of death—for the woman drove a nail through the exhausted general’s sedated temple, and ultimately won the battle for her people. It was with strength and poise and presence of mind and precision that ‘a certain woman’, unnamed, one of those who had fled for refuge high up in a tower during the siege of Thebez, cast a millstone all the way down onto the head of the warrior-king who led the campaign against the city, thus becoming the unlikely hero who with one effort worked out both the abrupt end of the fighting and the deliverance of her city. (Fatally injured, this dying Galatian of a king still managed to express his ingrained chauvinist fear of the possibility of such an epitaph as ‘A woman killed him’, and so had to get his aide-de-camp to administer to him the coup-de-grâce.) More importantly, one quality which is traditionally regarded as masculine, that is, venturesomeness, daring, is the singular trait onto which the aforementioned traits are threaded. The world demands these qualities because in reality they are human qualities, not feminine qualities per se. There is, or there should be, femininity in masculinity and vice versa, a girl in a boy and vice versa, or we will not have the total human. ‘When the midwife says, “It’s a girl”, where does the boy go?’ asked Hilary Mantel, the twice MAN Booker Prizewinning British historical novelist, in her memoir, Giving up the Ghost. ‘Into fiction, in my case,’ she herself responds during a literary panel discussion, as she expatiates on her interest in male characters (Thomas Cromwell, Rafe Sadler, King Henry VIII). So we see it is both lazy and pointless to genderise and dichotomise qualities, especially qualities needed for the survival and the small victories of humanity in general. In this day and age in which the lightning of terror strikes from east to west, from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern, those qualities we lazily categorise as feminine are what sustain the world and give us a reason to live and to hope for the restoration and sustenance of relative peace.

Download the anthology here: International Women’s Day Anthology 2017.

‘Partriachy (sic) is a SYSTEM of oppression which can’t be erased without a total overhaul. And that looks like an impossible thing to do. Patriarchy has so sunk into our consciousness that we breathe it as air, and that’s why many people have a problem with feminism because they fear it is sucking the only air they know how to breathe.’

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This anthology is a necessary one. Its beauty is a composite one: it is a vast picture made up of the diverse pixels contributed by the writers: it is a montage, even. One unique fact about it is how the contributors give voice to the Woman, empowering her to define herself and to protest against the skewed definitions of herself perpetuated in this male-dominated world in which she lives: many of the entries are written in the first- and second-person voices, and arguably the most significant phrase is ‘I am’. In the poem ‘Identity’, Ejiro Edwards’s female poet-persona’s assertiveness and self-awareness are traits more of which we need to see in more girls and women. Abigail George’s vivid, picturesque poems reveal the Woman as fully aware of herself and her complexities; as the salt of the family and community, influential yet underappreciated. Ahmad Holderness’s female poet-persona in ‘A Sour Promise’ is protesting against the burden of male expectation and insisting that the roles of males and those of females in society are, like the two strands of the DNA helix, complementary. In his ‘Without Eyes’ are two kinds of women: one speaks; the other ‘hide[s] their voices behind their eyes’. In the poignant poem ‘Becoming’, which is redolent of a poem on a rite of passage, Daisy Odey reveals ‘how a girl becomes a woman’; in ‘Equality’, the briefest and yet possibly the most quotable of entries, how, in death, the great leveller, gender matters nothing. Sheikha A.’s ‘An-nur Al-Ain: the Gesture of Hair’ has a brilliant, quotable opening gambit you might love to memorise, and addresses—again—the burden of living in a society run by the rules set without sensitivity to the woman’s person. You could write an essay on Blaize Itodo’s inspirational photograph of the smiling, working woman, quite probably Fulani, as the head (the husband is non-existent in the photograph at least), as an example for the still-vulnerable generation she has brought forth and is now bringing up through patience and pain. (His other photograph tells us a story of alternative beauty, the kind against which you will brush shoulders in the street, the kind you will not find on the pages of Playboy or Vanity Fair.) Farah Ghuznavi’s short story, ‘Getting There’, with its far-reaching, prescient, positive ending, and set in Bangladesh, is a unique and beautiful story of the female adaptation to, or else struggle against, the burden of male expectation and entitlement within the family circle, which is where it can cause the greatest, most life-altering damage; and of the power of having the presence of mind to make sensible choices in a world where the rule is that the choice is instead to be made for you because you are female. It is only E. Alice Isak’s contribution, ‘Eurydice Descending a Staircase’, that draws, and that remarkably, from Greek mythology; and still it is rendered in intelligently playful English; and it exhumes for trial the hidden misogyny in enduring classical myths. OsyMizpah Unuevho’s ‘not for sale’, inspired by Tee Jay Dan’s (Daniel John Tukura’s) photograph of the same title, and ‘phalluses and pentacles’, are versified declamations concerning the female identity, with the latter ending with the powerful lines: ‘with phalluses came dominance / yet the woman is a powerful tarot.’ And now we arrive at Tee Jay Dan’s grave photograph itself, ‘not for sale’, with its display of the mind-bending coincidence of having a young girl reading a book with the terse notice ‘NOT FOR SALE’ on the house just behind her: we know, if we are alive to the keenness of the photographer’s power of observation of seemingly inconsequential things and the hidden metaphors in them, that there is more to that notice than its literal, immediate application. In Safia Khan’s ‘Petals’ we find that to love a woman is not to love her in isolation but to love her alongside all the experiences, good or bad, that have made and marked her as a woman. In the cabin of Olajide Salawu’s beatific ‘Being a Mother in Eastern Aleppo’, we travel to war-torn Syria and learn what it means to be a mother there, the true-grit that mothering in Eastern Aleppo requires. Ayoola Goodness’s ‘World Power’ depicts the Woman as the restorer and rebuilder in the wake of destruction wreaked by male lust. In ‘Reincarnation’, Nwodo Obiajulu focuses on the indestructibility of the Woman, creating an idiom better than one about the Woman as a crushed rose. In Imade Iyamu’s ingenious futuristic story, ‘The Definition of Love’, a robot gains self-awareness through poetry and interrogates the pigeonholing of her identity; she falls out with the computer engineering professor who designed her, plunges into a hard life as a commercial sex worker, meets a genuine lover who sees and accepts her as a woman, gains redemption through the pen, through writing books on feminist ideals, only to be outed to the world as a mere robot by the same professor and thus lose the only man who had genuinely loved her. In Adedayo Adeyemi Agarau’s ‘Definition: Love’, influenced by—yet again—Tee Jay Dan’s photograph, ‘not for sale’, the female identity and the right of the female over her body and the fact that the female can indeed bear the responsibility of finding healing and relevance are again at issue. Trust Tonji’s ‘I Am Not Even Eve’ speaks of the uniqueness of the female physiology and its accompanying pain. Shannon Hopkin’s pencil sketch, ‘nude: feminine’, and her poem, ‘I Am’, highlight the beauty and assertiveness and vulnerability and plain humanity of the sheet music that is the female person. Fatima Ijaz’s ‘Masculinity in the World of a Woman’ has the female persona considering with wonder what disruptive influence the presence of a man in a woman’s life could be. Thato Chuma’s ‘We Need to Rest’ is angst-ridden and trenchant: it could well have been the rallying cry of the Abeokuta Women’s Union or the women who waged the Ogu Umunwanyi. Otosirieze Obi-Young’s work of non-fiction, ‘Man, Feminist’, measured, even-toned, is written from the depth of a sensitive heart painfully aware of, and even fessing up to being tacitly complicit in, male domination and privilege, and optimistic that many of the current and future existential problems of the world could be solved or even precluded by solving gender issues. Through Chisom Okafor’s ‘A Woman’s Body is Poetry but Yours Disagrees’, the disillusionment and mortal despair that results from the lack of resolution between personal sexual identity and the socio-legal position on the same is portrayed in intense shades. Victor Ugwu’s ‘Time’ and ‘My Body, Mine’ speak of how the woman’s life is one breathless forced sprint refereed by the male presence, a sprint on the tracks of a backwater society towards premature motherhood which, to the referee’s mind, is the only significant marker of female relevance. Megan Ross’s ‘nobody but my own’ is in praise of that solitude, however brief, in which the Woman feels in possession of her entire self, feels free of being defined solely and always in terms of a man. The Woman, in Mary McCarthy’s ‘Family Dynamic’, protests against the familial abuse she suffers and speaks of the struggle to shield the kernel of her psyche from the abuse. The burden of male expectation in romantic relationships is clear in McCarthy’s ‘Boyfriend’. Zainab Haruna’s lyrical ‘Fluid’ depicts the Woman as multidimensional, possessing and demonstrating the right to resist a single-story definition. It is Ejiro Edwards’s ‘Lessons’ that tells us that the anthology is, if we will in one word define its form, an envelope, for the anthology ends where it starts: does it hurt that the Woman is human, that she exists—does even her name hurt? If yes, then, contrary to expectation, make no mistake: she’s never about to change it.

Download the anthology here: International Women’s Day Anthology 2017.

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There is a woman or a girl somewhere in this world who, as you read this, is asking the poignant question which Model X008, or Adiya, the robot in Iyamu’s ‘The Definition of Love’, asked Professor Dim: ‘Aren’t I human? A woman?’ It is a question that reminds you of the motto ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ engraved on the 18th-century Quaker Josiah Wedgewood’s famous Slave Medallion. It is an indictment of the world for its deeply entrenched inequalities enshrined in convention. It is a call to rethink conventions.

Convention is convenient. Ordinarily, convention should serve to make things convenient. For it is, by nature, an agreement, the conclusion of a deliberation, a consensus reached. But one trouble with convention is: who are those present at the deliberation? In history, mostly men: ‘princes, powers, and potentates’. Who create and/or enforce the acceptable standards? Mostly men. Do they take account of women all the time? No. Are they infallible, men? No. Also, the trouble with the convenience that results from convention is that often it slows things down to the point of complacency; and also it is partial towards a certain group, who thus enjoy the convenience (in what Olisakwe called their ‘comfortable holes’) at the expense of the other group. Thus it goes rancid rather quickly, convention, a bad sense accretes onto it over the years, inviting contraconventions, the—to borrow from Obi-Young’s ‘Man, Feminist’—knocking down of walls and making of ways. For the other group, the otherised group, groans and bites back, in a bit to gain small but key redemptions. And indeed there are, to quote from Olisakwe’s Facebook post again, this time from the peroration, ‘small redemptions, and that’s in knowing we can question certain things and ask that we stop practising certain silly cultures that make it difficult for women to live.’ This questioning, this asking, demanding, this rising and speaking up against ‘certain silly cultures that make it difficult for women to live’, this—if we could tinker a bit a sentence from Iyamu’s story—upholding of consciousness which, once created, cannot be destroyed, gives up hope that we are—to adapt the title of Farah Ghuznavi’s entry—getting there, and is precisely what the contributors to this necessary anthology have done:
Which leads me to invite you to read this work of questioning, this anthology about the Woman, in the hope that the diverse lights captured in and shed from it will light your seven-storey ascent to the truth about the all-important subject.

John ‘Lighthouse’ Oyewale,
August, 2017.

Download the anthology here: International Women’s Day Anthology 2017.

John ‘Lighthouse’ Oyewale’s works are in What’s On Africa, Short Story Day Africa, ITCH, Sankofa, the anthology Enter Naija: The Book of Places, among others. A short story of his is longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize. In February, 2017, he, alongside twenty-eight other African writers, was selected as a Writivism Creative Writing Programme mentee. An alumnus of the British Council, Ake Arts and Books Festival, and Goethe-Institut creative writing workshops, he now serves as fiction editor at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature.

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