Globalization, Isolation and the Construction of Gender: A Literary Revolution.
Who’s your favourite author?
What kind of literature speaks to you?
Is it Hemingway, for his mastery of dialogue? Or are you wistful for Shakespearean Victorian era?
For centuries, especially for those in the West, choice of literature did not often include those written by Africans. As the likes of Achebe, Soyinka, Senghor, wa Thiong’o grew to develop styles known as cultural relativism and negritude in the 19th century, modern African literature began to gain international acclaim.
In the 1960s, as several African nations claimed their independence from Europeans, the euphoria of the new found ‘freedom’ died down quickly as the skewed narratives, often depicted by Europeans, began to represent Africa. The works of several academics indicate that the purported liberation was only one of novelty rather than actuality. A cohort of African academics began a revolution, writing ground-breaking literature that were boundless in their effective liberation.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a text that is recognized by many as a memorable piece of literary liberation. However, many feel that Things Fall Apart, like many others fail to address the female condition. Contemporary African literature works to reclaim the African identity in a light often denied to Africans. Over the past decade, many notable females from Africa have worked to redefine the narratives of what it is to be an African woman in a globalized world.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a British-Nigerian feminist activist, writer and policy advocate. She co-founded the African Women’s Development Fund, the first pan-African grant-making organisation. In her essay “Images of Women in Popular Culture”, Adeleye-Fayemi critiques the ways in which theatre and television genres in Nigeria have been shaped by ill-defined values, thereby excluding women’s voices. She asserts that “because most of the complex issues around gender construction and stratification in Africa have not been fully addressed by African women themselves, having been denied the analytical tools to question assumptions made in critical circles about such areas as popular culture.” While this conclusion was made regarding travelling theatre performance in Nigeria, through the lens of feminist critique, Adeleye-Fayemi posits that “these institutions and the likes of them make it extremely difficult to criticize systems or institutions that are prejudicial to African women, on the grounds that this will amount to ‘thinking and behaving like Western women’ .”
On this account, one cannot help but wonder what it means to act like a “western woman”. Who is considered a Western woman? What does she look like? What makes her different from an African woman? Can a Western woman be African? Can she be both? Which is her identity? Must she choose one adjective to encapsulate her entire being?
With advancements in technology, the past few decades have experienced a wave of globalization more acute than ever. Globalization is a factor that cannot be ignored when discussing female African literature and their role is re-telling the stories of what it means to be an African woman. Advancements in technology have led to an increase in travel to and from distances that never could have been imagined.
As a result of rapid globalization, many of us have several places which we consider home. Home is no longer limited to your grandmother’s village, or where you are born, not even the country where you hold a citizenship. We ascribe homes to places we feel have played a role in who are, and by this definition, we sometimes find ourselves with several places to call home.
This concept of home for an African woman then, is more complex than the geographical region where they are able to place the origins of their mother-tongue. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names are examples of female African literature that allow African women to criticize systems that are prejudicial to them.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Born in Nigeria in 1977, she spent most of her life around people who were Nigerian as well. When she was nineteen, she moved to the United States to pursue her master’s degree. She spends her time between the U.S and Nigeria. She is Like many other African women living in a globalized world, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel Americanah is a powerful story about love, race, and immigration.
Although some of the stories partly cover African immigrants in America the stories are mainly limited to African versus African relationships unlike in Americanah which provides a comprehensive description of Africans, African-Americans and White Americans interaction therefore bringing out a broad experience.
Throughout her novel Americanah, the protagonist Ifemelu personifies the complex identity often described as Afropolitanism. Adichie uses the novel as an avenue to represent her reality of the lifestyle of an African woman, she does not necessarily deny the African woman’s identity but rather offers a more complex perspective into her life.
One of the biggest themes in Americanah is Americanization. Living in the developing world, in Ifemelu’s case, America represented a symbol of hope, wealth, social and economic mobility, and, ultimately, disappointment, as Ifemelu learns that the American Dream is a lie and that the advantages she enjoys there often come at a great price.
For several years, Ifemelu writes a popular blog about her experiences as a non-American black. Her views on gender and race change as she adapts to her surroundings. She shuts this blog down, however, when she decides to move back to Nigeria. Ifemelu chooses to shut down the blog before returning to Nigeria in an attempt to hide who she has become, an African woman who has developed the tools to address the issues around gender construction. Having picked up a blunt, American way of speaking and of addressing problems. She resists this label, but it’s obvious to the reader that Ifemelu’s years in America have changed her.
Born in Zimbabwe in 1981, Bulawayo spent her childhood up until secondary school in Zimbabwe. She completed her college education in the US. She published We Need New Names in 2013. In the novel, the main character Darling, represents of the facet of a female African that is not often explored by Western, and sometimes Male African Writers. The perspectives offered by Darling and her friends defies the poplar representation of African females as docile. Throughout the novel, she explores discourses of gender and politics, through the lenses of Zimbabwean tradition as well as her coming of age in the U.S.
Mugabe’s paramilitary forces raze darling’s family’s home, and they, along with many others, establish a new village called Paradise. Despite the stark poverty that faces them, those living in Paradise are not too fond of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The children grow angry as the NGOs tell them to pose for photos knowing they are wearing torn clothes and look unkept, photos that they will later showcase as a means to gratify their own egos. This is a medium where an African female writer, in this case Bulawayo, expresses her disdain for single-sided misrepresentation of Africans.
By giving agency to children, allowing the audience to explore the social constructs as set out by Darling and her friends, Bulawayo gives agency to females, one that is often denied. After her move to the United States, Darling becomes more critical of the world around her. When she discovers her American-born cousin has an eating disorder and starves herself, she is appalled by the fact that someone would choose to starve when they have a fridge full of food while people across the world, like in Paradise scavenge to survive.
Leaving home for a long period of time has become the norm for many who have to travel to further their education or career. For Adichie and Bulawayo, leaving home for their education, then becoming alienated in their new environment, whiles the fond memories of their old homes fade. While being faced with the challenge of being black, a woman and an African in the West, African women are also marginalized simply for being women in their respective homes. Americanah and We Need New Names serve as a reminder that through literature, female Africans have the ability to rewrite the misrepresentation of an African woman.
How do you reconstruct an image so often misrepresented?