At the 2012 Garden City Literary Festival, Veronique Tadjo presented a keynote paper on the theme, African Women and Literature. The event, which held at the Cinema Hall, Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt was robustly discussed by a panel of discussant that comprised; Prof. Onyemachi Udumukwu, Ms Doren Baingana and Miss Chibundu Onuzo and was moderated by Chioma Opara. Today, Vanguard’s arts presents a rapporteur’s report on the Symposium as recorded by Dr. Obari Gomba and Mr. Ene Igbifa.
CHIOMA OPARA: Your Excellency, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Amaechi; Distinguished writers, Elechi Amadi, Gabriel Okara, Emeritus Prof. E. J. Alagoa, Prof. Molara Ogundipe; Fellow panelists; The lady who has made it possible today, Mrs Kalango; Distinguished ladies and gentlemen. We have listened to our keynote speaker and we are going to start this discussion by looking at the questions which her paper has raised.
Let’s look at those questions: there are about seven seminal questions. The first one is, is there such a thing as female writing? The second one is, what is the role of African writers in this continent? And this other question: who is an African writer?
Is it the person living in Africa? Do we call Joyce Carey who wrote Mr. Johnson an African writer? Do we call Chimamanda Adichie, because she is living in the United States, an American writer or an African writer? So what makes an African writer?
There is also the issue of commitment to woman and to society.
Let me begin with you, Onuzo. You belong to the third generation of our female writers. What do you think of commitment in African women’s writing?
CHIBUNDU ONUZO: A writer cannot run away from commitment. But art comes first. I have to pay attention to art.
CHIOMA OPARA: Are you in for Art for Art’s Sake?
CHIBUNDU ONUZO: It is not selfish to think of art first. The message emerges from the art.
CHIOMA OPARA: Now, to you Baingana. What is commitment to a female writer?
DOREEN BAINGANA: I remember a South African writer who had said “I am not a female writer; I am a writer.” I was going to respond to her. The fact of womanhood matters to every female writer.
CHIOMA OPARA: Let us hear from Professor Udumukwu whom I consider a gynandrist. What has informed the gynandrism in your works?
ONYEMAECHI UDUMUKWU: I am not a gynandrist. I am a teacher. I love literature, no matter who writes it, even a child. I study literature as one who has to impact the right knowledge. Now, to the issue of commitment. Commitment is that to which the writer is answerable. Every writer tends to be answerable to something. To be so, the writer must know her craft. But craft is not enough. Commitment is important.
My interest in women’s writing stems from this. When I wrote Signature of Women, I took my bearing from the context of the bank. Anyone who goes to the bank is required to present a signature, and that becomes an announcement of identity and presence. The same issues of identity are evident in the writings of women. There are artistic challenges; there is point of view, the manipulation of issues via craft. All these amount to the peculiar flair of women.
CHIOMA OPARA: It has been said that women use a lot of interjections and the first person.
ONYEMAECHI UDUMUKWU: Yes. Most women write from the first person because of the burden of experience.
INTERLUDE: THE GOVERNOR’S ADDRESS
[The summary of the Governor’s address is that literature cannot be divorced from the society. The issues of class and gender are central to the writer. He cites the example of Buchi Emecheta who writes like one who is at war with men. Most women write from experience, and most female writers are those who have been hurt by men.]
CHIOMA OPARA: We have heard His Excellency and there is something else we want to add to that. We want to find out, when you are writing, you know, he said many things are still the same. When you are writing and your objective is to have this change.
Change, that’s what commitment is all about and you want a new society. But there are restrictions. What are those things that restrict you when you are writing? Yeah, you talked about it a little bit. Can you, please, our keynote speaker [Dr] Veronique [Tadjo], can you please tell us, what are those things – those restrictions – you have as a writer, especially as a female writer?
VERONIQUE TADJO: Okay, thanks, I just want to go back a little on the issue of committed literature – litterateur engagee. It’s just that when you look at African literature – the whole, from the first generation to the ( I don’t even know if there is a first generation) – to the fourth generation, you can see that we have a legacy.
And I’m just asking a question. If you take the Negritude writers, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, et cetera, how did they do it? If you take Elechi Amadi, if you take Gabriel Okara, how did they do it? I think – I might be mistaken – they had a sense of commitment.
Sure, the times were different, but they created literature. And it’s from that literature that we have grown to be what we are today. So, the simple question [is] how did they do it? And that’s what I’m looking at, because I want to write literature, and I know that our men were answerable to writing good literature. But I also know that we need something more O when we live in the type of societies we live in.
When we are on this continent, unfortunately, we can’t just write about… I mean we can write about all sorts of things, but there’s that little more that we need to have at the back of our mind. If not, for example, on the issue of readership no one wants to have that on their shoulder…I mean, why can’t we just write.
But unfortunately we have been put in this position that we also have to be aware that we will never become [own] countries. Okay, for me, these are the limitations. And the biggest limitation, I would say, as a woman is self-censorship. Of course, the obvious censorship is the political censorship of, you know, being imprisoned for your writing or being in trouble.
But, we tend to naturally self-censor ourselves, especially if we write from [within] the continent, because we are very very aware of the society we live in and the way women should be behaving and how they should look, and all that. For me, that’s the biggest thing – how do you find the space to write without self-censorship? Then the other one, of course – it’s even bigger – you have the freedom to write where you are, but for me at the moment, as a woman, it will be self-censorship.
CHIOMA OPARA: Yes. Thank you. I know that is the problem of many women. In fact, when you read [Charles] Nnolim’s “A House Divided” [you find that] it’s all about… he thinks women are not together when it comes to writing. Some are, you know… the same patriarchy they are trying to condemn eventually gets the better hold of them. And I think it’s all about this ambivalence occasioned by culture – cultural ambivalence.
It even happens with men. They have a problem: alienation. I’m sure our male writers here will agree with us that they have that alienation when they are writing, because you are writing as an African and you already have imbibed the Western culture.
So, there is a problem when you are writing and when you are a woman the problem is even weightier – you don’t even know what to do with it. I wish I had the time, I would have loved to hear from the male writers themselves on this matter. But before we get to that, I will like to talk about something which His Excellency mentioned.
Today, a lot of people – in fact, it started with Obi Wali who talked about writing in English. He [His Excellency] said something about… he asked you, what if you had to write in Ikwerre? How would you handle your style? So, I now want to ask you that question. How would you handle that style?
CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Well, in certain senses, I think that question is a little bit outdated, because the way Nigerians speak English, we don’t speak English like they speak English in London anymore. We created our own patois. We created our own lingo. And so, for me to write in English, I don’t feel the pressure of Ngugi wa Thiong’o to go back to my native language.
I feel the way we speak English has our own stamp, has our own culture. When I speak Pidgin in England, nobody understands me, so I do feel I’m speaking my own language. And so, yes I don’t have any problem creating a style that is Nigerian but is also Western, I suppose.
CHIOMA OPARA: I will like to get back to you because when I was reading your biography – that is Veronique – I understand your book was one of the hundred, yes listed… was it the one that happened in Zimbabwe in 2002?… Good, yes, in Zimbabwe in 2002.
That was an uplift. African women felt quite uplifted that eleven of their books in Zimbabwe were rated as [being among] the hundred best books in African literature. So, I will like to ask you this question… ah maybe I should ask her [Baingana]. How are canons of excellence established [in literature]?
DOREEN BAINGANA: That’s a broad question, but I’d like to say I am not sure who the judges were who chose the hundred books of excellence. But I think a lot of the criteria do not necessarily come from art. But I do believe that it is important, for me at least, to keep mentioning that just like you said, it is about having the right education first.
It is not so much a time as a writer now, but all that makes you a writer, right from the start – the right education and that literary support. And that’s why I’m very much involved in Femwrite, I just have to mention, the Ugandan Women Writers Organization and what we do to support women writers because these are the things that are important: workshops that are affordable or that are free, to learn your craft; events like this that we organize so that people are aware, people are living a literary life where they can discuss things with fellow people who find these things important; lobbying; creating readership by going to schools and doing the training.
All these things are important in terms of developing a writer. You are not alone in your ivory tower just producing and I find that really important that I also do my part to create other writers – female writers, male too (we also publish male writers) and it’s through the institution of Femwrite that we have many more Ugandan women writers coming out and being heard around the world.
CHIOMA OPARA: Still on the issue of canonization. Prof. Udumukwu, do you think that African women stand the chance to win the Nobel Prize for Literature this century?
ONYEMAECHI UDUMUKWU: That is a big question. Some politics is involved in the Nobel. When the politics swings in our favour, we will win. But the issues of craft count too. Professor Chidi Maduka has remarked that women tend pursue self first. I think they have to master their art first.
They cannot run from the features of art. Yes, a woman is a woman first of all. But once the woman becomes a writer, she cannot run from the finesse of writing. Look at Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. It is good writing. Adichie has not equalled the feat in A Half of a Yellow Sun. Purple Hibiscus really shows the importance of marrying craft and social context.
CHIOMA OPARA: Let us come to the issue of material condition. Onuzo, how does it affect you?
CHIBUNDU ONUZO: What do you mean by that?
CHIOMA OPARA: Like how society affects you?
CHIBUNDU ONUZO: Electricity is my biggest challenge in Nigeria, particularly at night. There are also the challenges of the publishing industry. But I also see a kind of renaissance in African fiction. Nigeria/ Africa are reading again. This is one of the continents to watch.
CHIOMA OPARA: To you, Dr. Tadjo.
VERONIQUE TADJO: Motherhood takes a lot of time. Work pressure too. People ask: how do you find time to write? My advice to upcoming female writers is: “Choose your husbands wisely”.
CHIOMA OPARA: You are right, Dr. Tadjo. Virginia Woolf speaks of A Room of One’s Own. Emecheta speaks for the African female writer who needs a room of her and her children. Culture counts here for the woman, and for her tie to her children.
DOREEN BAINGANA: It seems that only the woman has to bother about time. It is mainly the woman’s challenge. Next is how to make a living. I find that it is more difficult for me to make a living as a writer in Uganda than it would be in USA. This calls for literary support such as associations, workshops to improve the writer, lobbying, creating readership by visiting schools, creating other writers; mentorships, publishing.
CHIOMA OPARA: Thank you. You know Prof. Udumukwu had mentioned that a particular female was not up with it as far as plot is concerned. I must mention that the female writers today are getting more and more conscious of style. If you look at the works of Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa and then look at what we have today, you’ll see that a whole lot has been improved upon.
Who knows whether that will be asking for too much, if I go on to ask our veteran male writers to contribute to this discussion. I’d also like a veteran librarian, Dr Nwagha, to also talk about readership and distribution of books in Nigeria. So, please I’d like to start with Dr Gabriel Okara.
GABRIEL OKARA: I guess I was chosen because of my grey hairs. I’m very much impressed to hear about committed women writers. That’s to say I was listening. Can the female singer change her voice to a male voice and sing? Can a male singer change his voice to a female voice?
Is it possible? Will they be expecting the same thing? For example, if I say the political situation in your country, or the social situation…instability…in your country, I’m then trying to say the same thing, but the voice is different. So I think the same thing when I think of the male writer or the female writer.
So whether you are a male writer or a female writer, I always say, a female writer, be yourself; a male writer, be yourself. Give the readers all you have, and let the professors – the critics – talk about it, analyze it. They can tear it to pieces, and so on. That’s my thinking. When I’m writing, I don’t think about myself being a male writer, for instance. If I’m writing a poem, I don’t think I’m a male, therefore I must write as a male writer.
So I don’t think the female writer should be thinking that because she’s female, she’s going to write as a female writer. I don’t think there is a male style and a female style, a male singer or a female singer, a male visual artist or a female visual artist. Styles may differ, but they are all telling the same story. Thank you.
CHIOMA OPARA: No, to Captain Elechi Amadi
ELECHI AMADI: Half the human race is made up of women. And whether we like it or not, there is this crisis between men and women. In physical appearance, the way they think, and their worldview. So it’s a very good thing – it’s a great thing – that women eventually come up to the world and begin to write, because, in my view, there is no way to really get an insight into the psychology of a woman than to listen to her.
In other words, if we had only male writers, we will only have half the psychological knowledge of human beings. So it’s wonderful that women are writing. Again, I quickly emphasize, there is no other way of knowing a woman’s mind than to read her.
In fact no matter how much insight a man may have into a woman’s psychology, you can never really get into the inside of a woman, just as a woman can never get into the inside of a man. So there has to be differences between the way women write and the way men write. In my book Ethics in Nigerian Culture, I devoted a chapter to sexual discrimination.
Sexual discrimination is a reality, whether you like it or not, and I tried to give reasons why this is so, and what women do to compensate. So when you are in that situation, it is bound to further your writing. It’s an albatross on your neck. Like writers in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, there was no way you could write a novel in South Africa and escape [the] Apartheid trap.
You must…somehow Apartheid must show in your writing. In other words, it was something they couldn’t avoid, whether they liked it or not. So women cannot escape the discrimination they suffer in society when they write. There is no way they can escape it, because that discrimination is a reality.
I analyzed it in my book and it is a reality. Sometimes it’s a grim reality, as we see in some countries where women can’t vote, even now; women are not allowed to drive cars; where women are not allowed to do the normal things men take for granted. Now with that type of background, if she is writing a novel, she’s bound to exercise those points. There is no way she can escape from talking about the discrimination she is suffering. So if you say a woman should write like a man, it’s not possible.
Not possible, because the two — men and women — live in different situations. It’s a man’s world, let’s face it. Yes, you have to be a realist. It’s a man’s world in the sense that, even physically women come smaller and so if you come to physical combat, a man can easily overcome a woman.
That is why [in] most of the rape cases and so on you have men raping women, because they are physically stronger. So because of that reality —because of the situation of women in the world – there is no way a woman can write like a man. And so the business of critics is to examine the psychology of women from what they write and then begin to give us a more complete picture of the world.
As you have men writers, you have women writers, critics should analyze both and then give us a very complete picture of the world. It’s those two important components that make up the world. So I say thank God we have women writers.
CHIOMA OPARA: Thank you, so much. I told you he is a gynandrist, so you can see where he is coming from. I want to point out something. You know there are some combats where women…in some homes, it’s the women who beat up their husbands. I’d like to ask Professor Alagoa to please add a word to what we are saying – just one word.
E. J. ALAGOA: I’m glad that this young lady is a historian. I am a historian. I’m very proud of you. I’m a historian and I find that in our societies in the Niger Delta, the women are the creative voice. In the masquerades that [the] men play, when they talk of the origin, they say, “it was that woman who saw it in the bush, in the mangrove forest or whatever, then the men took it over”.
This is the reality and in studying the history of communities here, we do some archeology – dig up things — and we find that the things we are digging are refuse mounds…mounds created by refuse and kitchen things that were taken out. So, again, it’s women’s history we are actually reading.
But, of course, being men we tell it as the men’s story. So this thing has been a long thing, as it were. Men take over control in the political arena. The lady who did the speech [referring to Tadjo] , we are also… in fact, we have one, just one, queen.., a woman who became a ruler, Queen Kambasa of Bonny. So please remember that when you
are talking about these things, we have also a queen who was ruler of a community here in the Niger Delta. Thank you very much.
CHIOMA OPARA: Thank you so much. Thank you for that historical perspective. Please, although we have asked only men to talk because you can see that we have outnumbered them here, but we need to hear the female voice now with regard to readership, because she worked as a librarian and this is all about readership. So please, Dr Nwagha, can you tell us…
DR NWAGHA: Thank you, Prof. Opara the moderator. It has been a very interesting session –lots of new theories and isms we have heard. But I want to say here that there is a symbiotic relationship between the writers and the readers. If there are no readers, I’m sure writers will not be encouraged to write.
At the same time, if the readers do not see books coming out, their interest will wane. But we have a kind of difficult situation in most African countries, including this one whereby we all talk glibly about promoting the reading culture and encouraging readership, but what is on ground to promote that?
For you to promote the reading culture, you must make books available in libraries, in schools, especially in public libraries. When my children were young and we went abroad just for a two- or three-week holiday in England or the United States, the first thing they did was to go and identify the neighbourhood library and go there and be taking out books and be reading. And when we were younger, books were more easily available, in my opinion, than now.
In fact, if you go round our major cities you will see very few bookshops. So where will the young people get books to read? Our public libraries are almost non-existent. When the Executive Governor talked about The Palmwine Drinkard, I wonder how many young people here know about that people or who the author is.
Or if we talk about The Concubine, I wonder how many people here have read it and know who the author is, and so forth. And all the good books that have written by all the readers. So, I’m saying that – it’s a pity the Executive Governor has left –it’s not enough for us to just talk glibly about promoting readership.
This state has tried in building some modern schools and I hear libraries are integrated, but how well-equipped they are, I don’t know and how well-used they will be. But what strikes me is that in a big city such as Port Harcourt, we have only one public library that is almost gone into disuse. There should be public libraries in every neighbourhoood.
As they are developing any neighbourhood, a public library should be one of the integral parts and we don’t have it. I think that is something that those who are creating the Greater Port Harcourt and town planners should please have in mind. And also young people should be encouraged to read, not by just preaching to them, but by making the books available and having functional school libraries.
So I want to congratulate all our academics here and our writers. We congratulate you, especially our female writers. I was so transformed when I read Chimamanda Adichie. I read her, I was in the US – just go to your nearest Barnes and Noble, and you get all the books by African writers – and from the US I phoned somebody, I said, “we have gotten a female Achebe”.
I was so excited and I went and got all her books and read all of them, including Half of a Yellow Sun and all that. So I think you are encouraging us, especially the female writers, but it’s not enough for us to go abroad before… if I was in
Nigeria, I don’t know where I would have gotten those books.
That’s the irony of it –I don’t know where I would have gotten those books. And Chimamanda is from this country – where would I buy her books? But I can easily go to my neighbourhood Barnes and Noble and pick it up. So I think we need to make books available. Thank you very much.
[CONCLUSION: The panel was an exciting one. The audience was actively involved with questions and responses. It was one of the several high points of the festival this year.]
CHIOMA OPARA: We have had an exciting discussion. We thank our keynote speaker, Dr. Tadjo. We thank our panelist: Prof. Udumukwu, Ms Baingana and Miss Onuzo. We are grateful to the GCLF for this programme. Finally, to our audience, you have been wonderful.