Zaynab Alkali ’s fictional world – up close by Emman Shehu
A quarter of a century ago, a manuscript was making the rounds amongst some students and lectures in the Department of English at Bayero University, Kano. The consensus was that the story had potential given its subject matter. Simultaneously the maiden edition of the departmental journal, Kakaki, was being put together under the guidance of one Stewart Brown. A poet and critic, the then recently arrived Dr. Brown had previously taught in his native Britain and the West Indies and had been involved in the birthing of one or two journals. He did not hesitate to include the aforementioned manuscript in his new publishing project, the departmental journal. Brown sent out copies of Kakaki to his colleagues abroad and one of the copies fortuitously found its way to the British Broadcasting Corporation where it enjoyed a favourable review, with the excerpt from the aforesaid manuscript singled out for being a significant story about Northern Nigeria. That complimentary remark about the story caught the attention of Longman London, who were determined to emulate the success their rival Heinemann had in Africa. Longman contacted the writer of the story and two years later a fuller manuscript was on their desk. The rest, to borrow a cliché, is history. For, in 1984, The Stillborn made its auspicious appearance and another landmark was recorded in the annals of Nigerian literature.
Hitherto, there was a palpable void in Nigerian literature written in English, because the northern storytellers, poets and dramatists were conspicuously absent by their seeming silence. A few offerings had been made like Tafawa Balewa’s play Shaihu Umar and Ibrahim Tahir’s novel The Last Imam. Both however did not garner much popular or critical attention. Tahir’s novel, which was published abroad, was largely unavailable within the country. But the emergence of The Stillborn became a turning point, especially coming from the pen of a northern Nigerian woman.
Fortunately Zaynab Alkali has stuck to her pen despite her active involvement in other spheres as housewife, mother, grandmother, academic and administrator. She has also been weather the vagaries that have assaulted the publishing industry in Nigeria because the favourable conditions that her maiden effort appeared on bookshelves twenty-one years ago no longer exist. First, there is an acute paucity of literary and critical journals within and outside the universities. Second, publishers are no longer as enterprising as they were up to the early eighties. The combined effect is that Nigerian literature has become progressively impoverished. But for the typical Nigerian doggedness and resilience, our literature would have already become endangered specie.
Those two attributes have ensured that Alkali now has a corpus of creative writing that can be analysed. This is what makes The Writing of Zaynab Alkali a groundbreaking effort. The scholars, Umelo Ojinma and Emman Sule Egya, have by this initiative produced the first major book-length critical appreciation of a contemporary Northern Nigerian writer. Indeed, what makes this work even more appealing and unique is that it has a chapter on The Descendants, Alkali’s latest work after almost a decade-long hiatus, which has just come off the press. Ojinma and Egya were able to achieve this feat not only through their proximity to Alkali as professional colleagues at the Nassarawa State University, but also from Alakali’s willingness to allow the scholars access to the novel in its manuscript form.
This 163 page study of Alkali’s creative writing is structured into seven chapters including a section that gives interesting details on Alkali’s early life, family life, her professional and writing career, as well as those things that influenced her writing right from childhood. One of the strength of this critical study is that it focuses on a major thematic element that runs through Alkali’s novels and short stories. The authors make their intentions clear by stating that their work, “aims at chronologically exploring the thematic prominence of the female principle as (the) central message in her works.”
The adopted road map enables them to conduct an exhaustive exploration which reveals not only the development of Alkali’s creative writing skills, but also the evolution of her concern with the “female principle” particularly in Northern Nigeria which provides the setting for most of her stories. For instance they observe that in Stillborn, Alkali’s stance is that “the quest for self-fulfillment and self-realisation is not an advocacy for ‘a world without men’, but a world in which equity is assured for each individual, male or female.” The feminist message then becomes a “quest for virtuous womanhood” in Virtuous Woman. In Cobwebs and other stories the feminist concern attains a richness that surpasses that of the proceeding novels. And in the latest novel, The Descendants, Ojinma and Egya argue that there is a radical shift symbolized through the character Seytu who is more concerned with her professional career and gives no heed to marriage.
While in her (Alkali’s) earlier works there is a discernible conviction that in spite of the glaring shortcomings occasioned by overt patriarchal dominance, that there are values and attributes to the institution of marriage which could be cherished and which Alkali defends, in The Descendants however, the educated women are so engrossed with their careers and couldn’t care less about marriage (pp 149-150).
The authors note that this stance is bound to earn Alkali a lot of criticism, but concede that this new position as exemplified through the character of Seytu,… is not really a traducing of culture as much as it is a reversal of an inherited attitude that has become ingrained as a male preserve; that of walking out of a stifling marriage without a glance, rather than trash out the issues and work out the problems (p.159).
They then conclude that:
Alkali’s new advocacy is for marriages where the couple walk side by side, not the man in front and the woman straggling behind like an appendage. The emancipated woman in Alkali’s new fiction: educated, working and independent, is definitely not cut only for life behind the curtain (p.160). it is to the credit of this study that despites its close focus on the feminist underpinning of Alkali’s work, that the reader’s attention is also drawn to a few thematic concerns especially in the collection of short stories, Cobwebs. There is also an inference that the short stories could have prepared Alkali to produce a more accomplished work in The Descendants.
The authors’ enthusiasm for this new Alkali novel is very evident in chapter six, describing it as ambitious and incorporating “complex characterisations and multiple narrative techniques”. And the same gusto can be felt about the overall subject matter. In such a situation it is easy to become patronizing, but the scholars are able to avoid this pitfall by not shying away from showing some of Alkali’s artistic weaknesses in plotting and characterization.
But sometimes there is an inexplicable contradiction as in chapter four, which focuses on The Virtuous Woman. Ojinma and Egya start off by noting that a lot of critics regard the novel as less successful than The Still Born. They then proceed as though to disprove these critics by declaring their objective is to present the “plottal substance of the work.” But all through the chapter there is almost a refrain about the novel’s weaknesses, inadvertently calling more attention to the observation of the critics rather than disproving them. Even at the end of the chapter the authors admit the novel is weak but the same time they try to come up with something in Alkali’s favour.
The tone of the novel apologizes and sermonize. Her use of the journey motif, the realization of Dogo’s story and her subtle flow of prose a significant improvement on the language of her first book show that Alkali is mature in the crafting of fiction, except that in some instances as already discussed, she trivializes some of her thematic portrayals.
The reader is left befuddled. So do the authors agree or disagree with those critics who say the novel is weak?
The authors too have a way of making sweeping statements while failing to provide definite examples. In chapter four they do not cite specific statements by those critics who are said to be dismissive of Virtuous Woman, so the reader has to rely on the generalized comment by the authors. This may have risen as a fundamental problem with the study. Despite its focused use of the tried and tested thematic approach, there is no theoretical grounding to support the choice of feminism. Yet in the introduction the authors state that “real issues of women struggles” in most of Alkali’s works remain unexplored especially by feminist critics. They even point out that Stillborn has a different type of feminism from that seen in the novels of Flora Nwapa and Buchi Ememcheta. All through the study too there is a consistent reference to Alkali as a feminist writer. The authors are at liberty to choose a theme to work with, but their critical exploration must be guided by a specific theoretical framework. Here they give emphasis to feminism as a dominant theme worth analyzing in Alkali’s fictional works but say nothing about feminism as a literary theory.
An explanation of feminism would have made it possible to understand their claim in the introduction that the decision of Alkali’s principal character in Stillborn to return to her husband “seems to redirect the course of Nigerian feminism”. So what is Nigerian feminism especially in literature? What are the variousstrands? How does Alkali’s intervention align or depart from the mainstream feminism? It is a known fact that some African female writers and scholars have distanced themselves from what they brand western feminism. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo states in “African people: Learning from the Past, Living in the Present and shaping the Future through Ideas”, that such writers created what they call “womanism” which is concerned with concerns related to the African woman.
Among the theorists and writers whose ideas represent these concerns are Nigerians Ifi Amadiume, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Chioma Nnameka, Helen Chukwuma, Mary Modupe Kolawole, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and Zaynab Alkali (Adimora-Ezeigbo p.5).
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The evidence of scholarship is underpinned by academic research and theoretical application. An hour’s browsing of the internet showed up a number of important secondary sources that the authors did not incorporate in this study. These include among others, Ugochukwu Ejikoye’s, ”Eternal Victims: Literature, Society and the Feminist Onslaught”; Anthonia Yakubu’s, “The Woman as Icomplete: Appraisal of Zaynab Alkali’s The Stillborn”; Adetayo Alabi’s, “Gender Issues in Zaynab Alkali’s novels”; Lee Erwin’s, “Genre and Authority in some popular Nigerian Women’s Novels”; and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi’s three hundred and fifty-three page book published in 1996, African Wo/Man Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women.
The reader is left to ponder the difference this would have made to this pioneering study, which is also affected by other flaws like loose editing so that there are several errors and Americanisms, and on one occasion the authors forget that this is a collective study and the first person pronoun annoyingly sticks out, and a couple of references in the text are omitted in the works cited section. It is also obvious that apart from the interview the authors conducted with Alkali, they did not look out for her interviews in the popular press or journals. Alkali’s attitude to feminism is reflected in some of the interviews. In one of such interviews granted to Hallmark Newspaper, she is quoted as saying: I have always said if you want to know whether or not I am a feminist, you have to first give me a definition of feminism, and I will tell you. Assertiveness, I would agree with that, but rebelliousness, I wouldn’t. I have always tried my best to be balanced as regards gender issues. Feminism has along the way earned a lot of associations, which are not really nice. As I always say, where I come from, when you say a woman is a feminist, it is a derogatory term and I don’t want to be associated with that (Hallmark, p.2).
This study should have shown the extent to which Alkali is able to sustain or deviate from this stance in her novels and short stories.
However, Ojinma and Egya need to be commended for this groundbreaking contribution to literature and academic. No doubt an updated version, which scrupulously takes care of the present lapses, would make it the magnum opus that it deserves to be because all the potential currently exists.
Zainab Alkali Fictional World – Up Close by Emman Shehu was originally published in the 2005 edition of ANA review. It is published here in partnership with the Association of Nigerian Authors.