By McPhilips Nwachukwu &Nwagbo Nneyelike
Professor Tess Onwueme is one of Africa’s foremost female playwrights and a Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, USA. The playwright, who has not only published severally, but is so globally studied was recently honoured with a new appointment as her university’s Professor of Global Letters.
An honour reserved for the most accomplished academics, the full-time tenured appointment was recently given to her in recognition of her “increasing prominence in the field of contemporary playwrights.”and comes with “a new contract and new duties” consistent with the high profile of the appointment.
In appointing Professor Tess Onwueme to this exalted platform, Dr. Patricia Kleine, Vice-Chancellor and Provost of the University of Wisconsin noted in a letter to the author of over a dozen award-winning plays: “You bring honor to the University of Wisconsin. It is only fitting that the university recognises your extraordinary talent.”
Onwueme has received many international awards, including the African Literature Association’s prestigious Fonlon-Nichols award in 2009. The award is given annually to a black writer whose works have demonstrated a commitment to democratic ideals, humanistic values and literary excellence in writing. She was also in 2007 , appointed to the US State Department Public Diplomacy Specialist/Speaker Program for North, West, and East India.
In this interview with Sunday Vanguard Arts, the Delta State-born and American- based playwright-cum-scholar drives the reader into the theatrical spirit of her art.
Perhaps it is this core thematic concept and ideology that I tried to imbue in the character of WAZOBIA embodied in my 1988 play, THE REIGN OF WAZOBIA. In that context, the young woman makes her proclamation as the visionary regent on a mission to transform her society for the better as she declares that:
We all, Man, Woman, Young, and Old
Are All Partners in Progress
With each one connected to the other…
Before we go on Professor Onwueme, would you explain to us the implication of your new position as University Professor of Global Letters by the University of Wisconsin?
This means a named Chair or an Endowed Position in the university. It is professorial position of Prestige and honor bigger than all academic professors in the academic field.
Only one professor—now bigger than all other professors— can occupy that position of Special Honor and prestige.
In other words, the occupant of the meritorious post is like a ‘Super Professor’ in the university. By that, the institution has declared him as their PRIMUS INTER PARIS, “first among Equals” .
It means that the appointee has become a ‘ bigger’ name and symbol in one’s field or department. It also means that other full Professors look upon the awardee with awe, dignity, and respect because he has become a PROFESSOR OF PROFESSORS among them.
In my own special case now, it means that I am now in a very special and in an exclusive class by myself. I’ve gone beyond a Professor in the University to becoming a distinguished Pride and mark of honor and excellence in the global community as the institution’s UNIVERSITY OF PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL LETTERS
It is a very uncommon postion. Only extremely distinguished African writers and Professors like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, occupy such special named positions/chairs in American universities. From now on, I will not teach like an ordinary professor. I will teach much less from now on. And the position is permanent.
In summary, therefore, being named a UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL LETTERS is like being declared an ‘NZE’ or KING, or OBA, or EMIR, or ‘MUALIMU’, etc in the academic field.
Thus in my work, Ideology is simply not an end in itself; but a means to an end: to benefit all, male and female.
In Tess Onwueme’s dramaturgy there is this creative interest in gender based issues as seen in some of your plays like Go Tell It to Women, Legacies, The Reign of Wazobia and The Broken Calabash. In these plays you were categorical about gender sensitivity and empowerment. Do you think women are not empowered at all?
Power/Empowerment is relative. In some sense women are…becoming empowered. It’s a process that’s still ongoing. In some ways in women have gained some…some form of power today–say in Nigeria now–where more women are stepping into the political arena to serve their nation and community. The process was much less tedious and unrealistic decades ago, especially in the colonial and immediate post-independent Nigeria. In those contrived choking contexts, the colonial dispensation had privileged and crowned men solely as the newly educated westernized leaders/leadership, with the result that women grossly relegated to the background, crippled and silenced by the new system.
The women lost even some of the powers that were originally vested in them in the traditional society––say the Umuada, the Omu, the Female Husband, and the Male Daughter in my part of the Niger-Delta community where the gender-role was much more complex in the sense that a female could act the gender role of male, like the Idegbe (Male Daughte
r-cum Female Husband), whose modern dilemma and crises of identity conditioned by the conflicts between tradition and modernity are dramatized in, The Broken Calabash, and The Reign of Wazobia, respectively. Thus one can say that women have both lost and gained power as well. But it is not a finished process. The (modern) Nigeria/African/black, indeed, the world woman is on the march today.
She’s evolving. A new “shero”, she is. And she should get there, uninhibited, to fulfill her dreams not simply of equality––for it shouldn’t be a competition––but one that enables her strive to reach her ultimate and full potential. And in WAZOBIA’S term as the woman re-invents a new self as a viable “she-man” being. So who can silence her drums? She’s Nigerian. And she’s new and determined to make the most of her new world by leaving her solid not mere footprint, but landmark on it: her (mother)land!
Do you dream of a feminist theatre in Nigeria that can be devoted completely pursuing and championing feminist agenda ?
No! It is not just unrealistic, but too exclusive, and limiting for reasons that I already adduced earlier.
Many scholars see feminism as one theory and an ideology that would soon go into extinction.
What is your view about feminism in the nearest future, will it die a natural death or has it come to stay?
Those prophets of doom must be ready to kill and slaughter all women first, to ensure that that malignant ideology and prophecy comes true. The world is peopled by men, and women. So long as women exist, and persist, one must be concerned about their hopes, their aspirations, their pain, their laughter, their love, their failure, their success, and indeed, all that matters in women’s lives.
To me, all these appear at the centre of the term “feminist/womanist” that the anti-woman proponents have so mis-tagged and stigmatized and demonized. Men have women, and daughters, and mothers, and sisters, and oh, wives and women lovers! Perhaps until all these configurations of “woman” are killed off or exterminated like the perceived pestilence imposed in that term, then, I’m afraid woman and her affairs in feminism or womanism will, and should persist.
It is believed that feminist theorists and critics are not in harmony with their views on feminism, especially in terms of nomenclature. Do you believe this?
Again, I’d reaffirm what I noted earlier about these contentious terminologies and demonized ideologies.
Many feminist critics accuse the first generation writers who are mainly males of promoting patriarchal tendencies, but they seemed to be presenting the society of that time as it assigned those domestic traditional roles to women.
To some extent, yes. One can say that they were being true to their world that was “colored” by the male in his male-centered and privileged ideologies. But it is only a matter of choice. And they chose—those writers, chose on the side of their male counterparts.
And yet, there are exceptions. Think of a writer like Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Or Sembane Ousmane. These are two male writers in that same generation with our older Nigerian male writers. But they chose differently. Yes! Ngugi and Semebane (socialists, yes!) took sides: they made their choice on the side of women and the massive poor. And these men chose to be in a way, some of our leading pioneer African Feminists. Their chosen (feminist) ideologies are reflected in such works as Ngugi’s River Between, Petals of Blood, and in even A Grain of Wheat, as well as in Sembane Ousmane’s God’ts Bits of Wood, “Her Three Days, Xala ,etc.
Women are said to be the worst enemies to their fellow women, and so it baffles many people when they see people like you who have devoted their career in defense of womanhood. What is the source of your strength in the pursuance of this ideal?
I am not, have never been, and will never be a blind promoter of womanhood in that way. No! I cannot be a blind crusader or jihadist for woman. And the evidence abounds in my work. Woman must not be idealized. She must be seen, heard, projected, and portrayed in all her ramifications: as (un)holy as SHAKARA, and Yemoja and Sherifat and Daisy and Ruth (in Tell it to Women), LIBERTY and FREEDOM (in No Vacancy). In fact, the central conflict in SHAKARA: DANCE-HALL QUEEN surrounds the growing socio-economic class inequality between the privileged women, like MODAM KOFO, the drug tycoon/’cocaine jet’ and OMESIETE, her exploited laborer who also doubles as a nanny to Madam Kofo’s daughter.
Madam Kofo is metaphorically the money miss-road in the drama. Her values are at variance with the impoverished, Omosiete. Similar intra-politics define the relationships between Daisy and Ruth on the one hand, against Yemoja, Sherifat, Adaku, Tolue, on the other. Yes, women exhibit those unhealthy rivalries, toxic competiti
ons, and demonic oppression of other women. And just imagine the oppressive mother-in-law against her stifled daughter-in-law? Over and over again in my plays, I exhume such contradictions in the ‘royal house of woman’ to show her, not as a saint or demon.
My emphasis lies in the fact that CLASS INEQUALITY (EVEN AMONG WOMEN) IS JUST AS DETRIMENTAL AND THREATENING TO WOMEN, AS that of GENDER INEQUALITY. It’s boldly coded in my creative work, including the socio-political allegory, WHY THE ELEPHANT HAS NO BUTT (2000).
To me, if as W.E. de Bois states that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line”, I’d say that the problem of our 21st century is the problem of (socio-economic) Class inequality.
And the Religious?
Ha! That is a boiling hot potato/matter for another day!
With the awareness female empowerment has assumed, there are so many areas of endeavours women are still disempowered, for instance, in politics, it was not long we had the first female president in Africa in Liberia. Who knows when that will work in Nigeria as you can see that in PDP primaries the only female candidate Sarah Jubril has only one vote which means she voted herself ?
It’s sad that Sarah didn’t get any other vote. But I applaud her courage. To lift up herself and take a stand, whether or not people pretend to see her. Believe me, it takes courage to be an African woman. To rise. To strive. To dream. And march forward with one’s eyes on the prize; to get somewhere. Sarah tried. And more women should. The Nigerian/African woman is in the making: a great product in the making. And she will get there.
But look at a place like America. After more than two hundred years of independence, America, the celebrated land of freedom and equality and liberty is yet to elect a female president. I’m not saying that it will happen in Nigeria first. But we’re not too far behind either.
In some of your plays you deploy the use of animals, especially the female breeds as characters. For instance in The Desert Encroaches, such characters like Fox, Sheep, Hyena and Cow while the only human character is Officer’s Lady. Yet the only powerful female character is Fox. However, the characters enact North and South politics. What are you implying in that play?
Please my earlier response to the question of “intra-gender politics” between women. The Desert Encroaches (1985) is an allegory just like Why the Elephant Has No Butt (2000), satirizes these social contradictions, hypocrisies, and the marginal existence of many, suppressed, silenced, imposed on and unjustly stifled by a few–the mighty Lions and Hyenas (both male and female powers) against the goats, the sheep, the ants, etc