Betty Abah, is a Nigerian writer, women and child rights activist, and Executive Director of CEE-HOPE, a child/girls’ rights and development NGO. Abah has authored five books including the award-wining Go Tell Our King (poetry), Sound of Broken Chains and Mother of Multitudes, the Biography of Ebele Eko. Speaking to Woman’s Own, she shares her ideas. Excerpt…
By Anino Aganbi
LOOKING at the era of the old school feminist writers, was it just their era or were they just writing about what they felt was important?
I don’t like tags so the term ‘feminist writers’ don’t really appeal to me, or let’s say, don’t really apply to me. I write on women’s issues. I push women’s issues, so I would put myself in the mould of ‘women writing about fellow women’ or women writers, to broadly put it.
At times, in this clime, the term ‘feminism’ comes with so much negative connotation especially from persons who are not well informed and sometimes, issues of substance get muddled up in a web of misinterpretation, misconception and sentiments, so most times, I leave out the tags, do or write what I have to write and move on.
Buchi Emechetta vehemently disapproved of being tagged a feminist yet she was one of the foremost African writers who really explored the issues that women go through and which interestingly, have remained burning issues that we still grapple with especially the trials and tribulations of women trying to find their feet, their bearings and their sanity in abusive marriages and relationships and of course, the power plays at work and various other spheres where women are still striving to be seen, to be heard and to excel.
Children of circumstances
Our pioneer writers were ‘children of circumstances’, women who found themselves writing at a point when African Literature was beginning to gain global attention and relevance, but typically, it was still very much imbued with patriarchy, meaning women’s voices were stifled in the early writings, just as in real life.
In the early works of Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi, for instance, women characters were usually relegated to playing roles such as those of hardworking house wives and pretty sex workers.
Women writers such as Buchi and Flora Nwapa therefore had to consciously redefine these roles, asserting the roles of women in society as much more than those minor characters, and portraying them in the robes of influencers, powerful women who call the shots and dictated circumstances, women who confidently claimed their spaces and refused to be repressed or suppressed.
And I think they really ran with that vision. They did very well. Many of us came into the consciousness of women having a can-do spirit merely by reading the literature of these women and we owe them that eternal load of gratitude.
So far, with the passing away of these writers, there has been no real replacement. How can we bridge the gap?
In my view, we have had replacements. The difference may be that the old women writers were pioneers and so their works generated a lot of publicity, seeing that they were delving into new areas of writing that really excited so many people and still excite.
Use of language in the book
I would say someone like Chimamanda Adichie who has won more awards and I dare say, more recognition than most, if not all, the pioneer women writers, is an icon in her own right and one can point at her and say she has represented those people well.
Only recently, I finished reading Americanah and I was absolutely enamoured with Chimamandah, especially her use of language in the book. She is just a genius. Reviewers have called the novel a feminist writing and I think it is. I may not agree with all points, but I absolutely agree that’s her magnus opus, her very best work. And of course, you are aware of her very famous book-length essay, We should all be Feminists which has been translated into several languages and even made mandatory reading for every 16-year-old high school student in Sweden a few years ago.
Are upcoming female writers feministic in their writings? If not what can be done to rebuild it.
Yes, as I tried to buttress in my point just now, many of the younger generations are feministic in their writings. That is because many of the issues that the earlier writers tried to reflect in their works are still very much with us. Issues that women grapple with including patriarchy, domestic violence, men trying to repress their spouses from giving vent to their creative spirits, as Emecheta personally experienced and portrayed in her novels.
Then you have infidelity, dealing with impossible in-laws and other daily realities. That is not to say men don’t also have their own issues. Women have had their issues and some have found expressions in their own writings, just like our women have tried to do over the years; drawing attentions to the issues and trying to upturn the jaundiced gender roles that society tries to define for us women or try to pin down us to. And to a large extent, our writers have been successful.
You would discover that people no longer read, could the passing away of this groupof writers be the reason?
NO! The increasingly low state of the reading culture in Nigeria has more to do with the intrusion of technology into our personal lives. The reality is that more and more spend hours watching the TV or lazing around the internet, particularly on social media, idling away their time every day rather than reading serious books, even if those are e-books.
Also, government and relevant institutions including schools haven’t done enough to promote reading with the wide-spread ‘expo’ and situations where grades can easily be bought and where mediocre characters become politicians who dictate our lives, is really depressing and do not encourage the spirit of scholarship.
What can be done to revive the reading culture in Nigeria?
I think that a number of incentives especially headed by the government and private institutions, especially targeted at young people can help revive the reading culture. If we are not reading then it means we are not ready to keep up with, let alone dominate the world, and we can’t continue to be the laughing stock of the world due to the lack of intellectual depth by our public officials. We must do something about the reading culture in Nigeria.
With great female writers like Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Catherine Acholonu among other staunch feminist writers passing, female writers have shifted their attention from feminist writings to other issues. Why is this so?
It is sad that we have lost some of the very best amongst us, the pioneers women writers who awakened so many great consciousness about the deserved place of a woman in the society, who through their writings, opened new waves of thinking and writing and very importantly, who upturned archaic and retrogressive structures and gave new exciting meanings to womanhood.
Again, we remain indebted to them. As it is with life, everyone must die one day and so they have answered the supreme calls albeit with their great works outliving them, and that is comforting. Again, as earlier pointed out, so many writers are still engaged in topics related to feminism or the status of women in contemporary time.
For instance, Lola Soneyin’s ward-winning book, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives,which depict how women in a polygamous marriage found a dubious but ingenious way around their husband’s infertility to ‘give him children’. Other writers, besides engaging with feminist or women’s rights issues, have also focused on other general issues affecting the society, defining a variety of other trends in African Literature, being in the scheme of things literary, so to say.