Women in New Nigerian Writing: A Feast of Arrival by Remi Raji (November 2006)
In the beginning, the popularity and appreciation of Nigerian literature was assured in the shadows of a number of authors Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark acknowledged authors of the first generation of modern Nigerian writing who made their mark in the 1950s and 1960s. There were many others, both male and female writers, whose creative productions contributed to the character and significance of Nigerian literature as a measure of the rise of modern African literature. The unparalleled achievement of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a canonical novel, the legend of Okigbo’s poetic lyricism and activism, the contribution of Ekwensi to the nature of popular and urban fiction, and the epochal achievement of Soyinka as the first African winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature (in 1986)… all represent the usual signpost by which Nigerian writing has come to be appreciated. Now it is close to fifty years after the powerful narrative of Achebe, and at least two decades after new criticism of Nigerian (and African) writing started to challenge the portraiture of the woman, as well as the ascendancy of the female voice in the literary space.
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A lot of commentaries have been written by and about the female subject (character) in African writing. As it has been found in the interventive essays of such critics Lloyd Brown, Oladele Taiwo, Katherine Frank, Molara Ogundipe, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Chioma Opara and Akachi Ezeigbo and many others on Nigerian literature, the representation of the female author is necessary, desirable and crucial for a balanced view of the condition of human existence, real and imagined; it is as well useful for an understanding of the cultural images, aesthetics and perceptions of the (African) societies.
In the 1950s the first gestures of female literary productions was established in the writings of Mabel Segun whose autobiographical novel (My Father’s Daughter) later appeared in print in 1965. After Flora Nwapa’s novel, Efuru (acclaimed as a landmark work by a female author) was published in 1966, and arguably considered as a textual answer to Things Fall Apart in some particular respects; Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen (1974) was the next work of significance to be written by a Nigerian female author. With Zulu Sofola’s creative effort as a pioneering female playwright and the later achievement of others including Tess Onwueme and Stella Oyedepo, Nigerian literature has achieved a dynamism in which the voice of the female character, as well as the presence of the female author, becomes very significant to warrant sustained critical engagement and interrogation.
The revolution of gender representation, that is the emergence of the Female Authors in Nigeria, cannot be said to be a movement or an ordered development in itself. At least not until the 1990s, a decade which coincided with the presence of a new “generation” of writers in the country, many of whom were born around or after 1960 (Nigeria’s year of independence), and some of who reached bloom or were about developing identities for themselves at the time. This generation, qualified as the Third Generation of Nigerian writing, out of a descriptive convenience include Afam Akeh, Uche Nduka, Chiedu Ezeanah, Amatoritsero Ede, Ezenwa Ohaeto, Sesan Ajayi, Akin Adesokan, Nduka Otiono, Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Omowunmi Segun, Maik Nwosu, Ogaga Ifowodo, Angela Nwosu, Obi Nwakanma, Olu Oguibe, Chika Unigwe, Folasayo Dele-Ogunrinde, Unoma Azuah, Lola Shoneyin, Sanya Osha, Ike Oguine, Okey Ndibe, Sola Osofisan, Pius Adesanmi, Promise Ogochukwu Okekwe, Cecilia Kato, Maria Ajima, Anthonia Ekpa, Emman Usman Shehu, Remi Raji and a host of others. By sheer numerical interpretation, the Third Generation of Nigerian writing has a greater number of female authors compared to both previous generations combined. Different watchers of the unfolding literary history would provide various sociocultural reasons for this explosion of voices. The flexibility of the term “Third Generation” is such that the age mark is commonly extended to include those who are born in later years, even as early as 1970s and whose concerns are not distinguishable from the earlier group of writers who arrived on the Nigerian literary scene around the late 1980s.
It was in the 1990s that the first formal group of women writers was united under an association called WRITA (acronym for Women Writers of Nigeria) organised by Toyin Adewale and Omowunmi Segun. In 1997 both Adewale and Segun edited the first collection of short stories written by young women under the title “Breaking the Silence.” WRITA has become a national organisation which supports the development of writing by women, not necessarily parallel to ANA, the umbrella body of the Association of Nigerian Authors, but seemingly more compact and programmatic in outlook.
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In the past one decade, more and more women authors have emerged and more are gaining equal if not greater attention both inside and outside the country. To use the award of international (and national) prizes as a measure of achievement of new Nigerian writing, it would not be too far-fetched to say that the siren sisters have arrived: after the achievement of Helon Habila, a male (as winner of the Caine Prize in 2001), Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2004, and Sefi Atta, author of Everything Good Will Come, has achieved fame with the PEN International/David Wong Prize for fiction. Other female authors who have been recently celebrated for their writing include Chika Unigwe, Unoma Azuah, and Promise Ogochukwu, the last of whom I have referred to as serial winner of Nigeria literary prizes. Ogochukwu (whose works have appeared under two other names Onwudiwe, and Okekwe) is perhaps the most prolific of her contemporaries with over a dozen titles in the genres of poetry and prose fiction. The newest name in the list of emergent voices is also the youngest writer to achieve early acclaim, Helen Oyeyemi, with a debut novel in 2005, The Icarus Girl.
In a critical essay published in Phylon (“Changes in the Image of the African Woman: A Celebration”) Ebele Eko asserts the significance of self-representation by the womenfolk in culture and literature, noting that doing so is both an indication of self-awareness and identity: “women… must assert their collective voice or remain silent and frustrated. Of course it is a matter of choice and African women writers seem to have risen to that challenge”. A brief analysis of the works of these new writers bear the evidence of a relative shift in the focus of the general narrative mode and thematic content of the text even though it might be too far-fetched to argue that their works are entirely different from those of their male counterpart of the same generation. Such common themes of “culture clash”, socioeconomic and political crises , patriarchy and women’s oppression, as well as the general representation of post-colonial disillusionment which serves as the grounding tropes of much of the Nigerian novel tradition since the middle of the twentieth century have become the source of reinterpretation and retelling by the generality of the Third Generation novelists.
For the women writers particularly, the ‘feminine angle’ of both narrative and poetic modes seems self-evident. It is perhaps in the women’s work that a major difference, in comparison to the previous generations of male authors, can be processed. The feminine angle of the predictable subject matter of the Nigerian novel provides a refreshing mirror of appreciating the literary tradition. A thematic aesthetic is about developing. In Adiche’s Purple Hibiscus (2003), Atta’s Everything Good Will Come (2005), Azuah’s Sky-High Flames (2005), and Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl (2005), the narrative is as important as the gender of the narrator who is decidedly female and young. The dominant presence of the female protagonist in these acclaimed novels may be interpreted as the fact of a conscious choice, or an unconscious, reflexive, imaginative act on the part of the author. Invariably, the notable authorial choice is by extension a clear expression of gender representation.
Purple Hibiscus revolves around the live of a high middle class Nigerian family with a stoutly dogmatic Catholic patriarch as the father of the house; his domestic life which intertwines with the politics and the economy of the country in turbulence is told from the viewpoint of his 15 year old daughter, Kambili Achike, a highly sensitive, introverted, and brilliant child who has an equally gifted but rebellious brother in Jaja. The plot development of the novel, shot through the sharp and descriptive mind of Kambili, is a careful expose of the force and consequences of a new privileged faith and code (Christianity; Catholicism) against religious traditionalism and perceived spiritual and social immorality. In a different cadence, Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come develops around the influence of political crises, and much less religious faith, on domestic lives. It is a powerful retrospective retelling of the Nigerian story immediately after the Biafran war (1967-1970); set in cosmopolitan Lagos and narrated by a young Enitan Idowu, 11 year old daughter of an upwardly rich family, the novel is invested with auto-realism disguised only by the narrative intelligence of the author. Particularly the coup story, as described in Everything Good Will Come, like the story of press repression in Purple Hibiscus, is a memorable novelistic Nigerian motif, but delivered from the viewpoint of a girl-child. But the novel is not only about the progression of Enitan’s life, it is also a parallel account of a second girl from another family, Sheri Bakare, who is an extrovert, wayward character, and foil to the protagonist.
Like Everything Good Will Come, Unoma Azuah’s Sky-High Flames is the story of a woman’s becoming; it focuses squarely on the growth and transformation of a timid village girl from innocence to tribulations and to points of maturity with all its social burdens and acts of self-survival. It is through Ofunne Ofili, the protagonist, that the author presents the various forms of traditionalisms and stereotypes about the female-child, the question of survival against the odds of patriarchy, dictated by the conservatism of the male and compromised by the obsequiousness of the woman. Ofunne is the example of the typical teenager in a polygamous home with its intrigues and superstition, butt she is also the rare exception of the decisive woman who must choose a path out of the several thorns laid before her by society. In a very calculated impressionist manner, Ofunne’s life is recounted from schooling, her friendship with another childhood girl (Awele), her removal from the village, her difficult and disappointing marriage to her postmaster husband, Oko Okolo, and her eventual return from Kaduna to her mother, her relative self-fulfillment in her pregnancy, and to her frantic relations as woman/wife with her in-laws…
Indeed Sky-High Flames pays tribute to the irrepressible spirit of a woman in several stages of metaphoric labour. In the sense that Azuah and others re-write the common Nigerian woman story, I will say that they find common inheritance in the novels of the early generation authors like Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta.
Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl is a narrative of physical as well as spiritual return of a young child to her Nigerian (Yoruba) roots; it is a story of ghostly encounters with an alter-ego, of nightmares and fantasies told equally in a dreamlike perspective mode. The Icarus Girl is about the experience of 8 year old Jessamy Oyegbebi, a bi-racial child of a British father and Nigerian mother who must return to her mother’s indigenous home to meet her grandfather and the hordes of extended family members of her mother; it is also about Jessy secretive relations with her dream partner, the girl TillyTilly.
It is instructive that these characters, Kambili, Enitan, Ofunne, and Jessamy are all young, female and undergoing both formal and non-formal training in a society presented as highly patriarchal, and in most cases, in societies marked by sexist, racist and tribalist inclinations. All characters are representative of different but related kinds of reactions against the codes of traditionalism in postcolonial Nigerian society. Indeed new criticisms of Nigerian writing cannot do without attempts at examining women’s way of “seeing”, “telling” and “narrating”; as symbolic act, the feminine angle is a crucial instance of writing and rewriting but such attempt at reading works by Nigerian women writers as “autobiographical” at every turn do more disservice than justice to the literary imagination.
Beyond the auditioning of the female voice in the novel, I want to note that it is in the province of poetry that the women writers’ achievement of presence is more graphically noticeable at least within (the) Nigerian national literary cycles. The significance of the steady increase in works recently produced by Nigerian women authors in the genre of poetry should be remarked upon, especially if one notes the fact that only six single-authored collections of poetry were produced by women in the first three decades of Nigerian writing (up till 1988). Between 1993 and present time, there have been over fifty collections of poetry by Nigerian women over ninety percent of who belong to the Third Generation of Nigerian writing. Some of the collections include Chika Unigwe’s Teardrops (1993), Promise Okekwe’s Jigida: songs in the folk tradition (1993), My Mother’s eyes speak in volumes (1999), and Invisible Loveliness (2006) among others, Toyin Adewale’s Naked Testimonies (1995) and Explorer of Aromas (1998), Maria Ajima’s Cycles (1996) and Poems of Sanity (2000), Anthonia Ekpa’s Rhythm from womanity (1997), Chinwe Okechukwu’s The Augean Stable (1999), Lola Shoneyin’s So All the Time I was sitting on an egg (1998) and Song of a Riverbird (2000), Hannatu Abdullahi’s He Talks, she talks (1998), Lynn Chukura’s Archtyping (1999), Cecilia Kato’s Desires (1999), Binta Mohammed’s Contours of Life (1999), Folasayo Dele-Ogunride’s Conversation with the soul at 3.00am (2000), Unoma Azuah’s Night Songs (2001), Paulina Mabayoje’s The Colour of Sunset (2004) and Sophia Obi’s Tears in a Basket (2006). Each one of these writers, with some of them also writing novels (as with examples of Okekwe, Unigwe and Shoneyin) arrives into the Nigerian literary space with the burden or awareness of the need to re-write aspects of the female representation, and each has attempted to do so in particular and varying ways that their representations can be subjected to further critical analysis. I once noted that in no other ‘generation’ as the so-called Third Generation of Nigerian writing, and in no other literary genre as the medium of poetry is the female presence more pronounced and desiring primary critical attention.
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One of the ambivalent areas of defining the rising of the female voice in Nigerian writing is the question of naming. There is something ambiguous, both assertive and tentative, in the way that the term “woman” or “female” is used to qualify the entire body of works by writers who happen to be women. There are those among the womenfolk who insist that they are simply writers and therefore should not be marked off as different from mainstream literary tradition. A justification of this may be in the fact that marking off a text as ‘female’ may be another way of closing it off as ‘secondary’ and therefore as another symbolic token to the general tradition. But the reception of Nigerian women’s writing has not been open-handed, open-minded and celebratory as it is being witnessed at the moment. There is a greater enthusiasm first among more and more women writers to write themselves into reckoning, and there is also an equally inspiring willingness on the part of the readership to embrace the arrival of new voices.
Another arrivant on the scene is Araceli Aipoh who has just published No Sense of Limits, a novel set in Lagos, and a moving chronicle in the lives of four working women who have to negotiate their relationships with their family members, and their lovers, in a fast-paced and precarious city of intrigues. Aipoh is originally from Phillipines; she is Nigerian by marital status and she has written a purplish striking blend of the romance and the thriller forms which has the lyricism of Nigerian English, and which expresses the energies of the city which it portrays so vividly. Aipoh’s ‘biographical’ example and place in Nigerian writing is related to other writers like Karen King-Aribisala, Lynn Chukura, Kanchana Ugbade, and Paulina Mabayoje who are affiliated to the national literary culture through naturalization or marriage, and whose works demand adequate interpretative reflection.
The stories and poems which follow in this special issue of Karavan are representative of the different ways of seeing, a different or other view, different but related imagination, which incidentally serve as the other side of African consciousness probably unknown, untold as before. The opening sentence of Sefi Atta’s contribution is quite intriguing: “On the day I die I will rise up, arms outstretched, magnificent as the mother of the Holy Prophet, then my executioners will be forced to admit, ‘we were wrong, we should have revered you more.’’” That is the voice of the unnamed senior wife of a polygamous home who has been accused of adultery by her husband, tried by Sharia law, and who is in custody, waiting to be stoned to death. In its simple but overarching sarcastic tone, “Hailstones” draws on aspects of patriarchy and marital trauma to deal with the pertinent questions of justice, morality and religious fundamentalism. There is something topically and decidedly Nigerian about the site and the subject of the narrative. The reader will find related, albeit more or less metaphorical cultural location in the other pieces by Unoma Azuah, Toyin Adewale and Promise Okekwe. Above all, the contributions are indicative of the individual’s capacity for creative reflection, but taken together they celebrate the arrival of the female voice in the ever productive field of contemporary Nigerian writing. I want to believe that each of these writers qualify to be read and assessed not because they represent a gendered part of a national literary tradition. But also because they dare to be inheritors and inventive chroniclers of a literary age, each in her own way.
• Remi Raji would later become the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors but as at when this essay was originally published, he was cited as “a foremost poet and literary scholar currently on a fellowship outside Nigeria.” Raji is the immediate past President of ANA (2011-2015) and Dean, department of English, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
Women in New Nigerian Writing: A Feast of Arrival was first published in ANA Review and is published here in partnership with the Association of Nigerian Authors.