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Review of The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988


By Jane Plastow

The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988. Susan Z. Andrade. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011. Pp. 259 + ix. ISBN. 9 780 8223 4921 1 (pb) / 978 0 8223 4997 9 (hb) (pb). $24.95 /88.95.

This delightfully clear and scholarly book investigates the emergence of African women’s writing, with a focus on intersections between domesticity and nationalism. The Nation Writ Small admirably resists any temptation towards a literary survey, but rather, in four chapters framed by an extensive and most helpful Introduction and a short Conclusion, seeks to provide readings that enable us to see how and why women’s writing gradually emerges from an almost exclusively domestic focus, and how the domestic may often be read as allegorical commentary on nationalist politics.

The first two chapters utilise the strategy of reading early iconic male authored texts, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in Chapter 1 and Ousmane Sembene’s Xala in Chapter 2, alongside nearly contemporary women authored texts which have achieved much less critical attention: Flora Nwapa’s Efuru and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood in the first instance, and Mariama Ba’s Une si longue lettre and Aminata Sow Fall’s La Grève des bàttu in the second. At the most basic level Andrade asks why the men have received so much more attention than their female contemporaries, and comes up with the answer that it is because the men are seen as engaging with the social and political whereas the women’s focus is viewed as almost purely personal and domestic. Emerging from that conclusion are further questions: if early women writers are domestically focussed why is that? And can these domestic tales be read differently to cast a light on female analysis of nationalist concerns?

Here the depth of Andrade’s scholarship is very useful. She takes us back in history, demonstrating her thesis that while Things Fall Apart in particular is often inscribed as the foundational text for modern African literature, it had a significant number of precursors to build on, whereas Nwapa writing in 1966 had no female role models and therefore could scarcely do other than write out of the only recognised sphere of women’s authority – the domestic. The women who followed she sees as gradually expanding their commentary, while still privileging issues of marriage and family, because they now had voices to respond to and engage in dialogue with.

Chapters 3 and 4 look at the Bildungsroman, especially Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions and Assia Djebar’s two novels – which are read here as a pair - L’amour, la fanatasia and Ombre sultane. In these later texts of the 1980s Andrade sees women developing the confidence to move from plot led constructs to novels where women’s subjectivity is far more fully realised, and where women can become representative of middle class aspirations to autonomy and agency, even when frequently thwarted by the continuing power of patriarchy. She argues that even though the political world is still seen as a predominantly male affair, through readings that privilege women’s active struggle for agency and carefully noteing often passing references to a wider national context, we can see how female writers are increasingly using the domestic as an allegory for commentary on what is wrong with the nation. Andrade is also concerned to illustrate how even male authors sympathetic to feminist aspirations such as Ousmane Sembene and Ngugi wa Thiong’o continually reduce women to symbolic status, all too often penning their female characters into straightjackets as suffering mothers or whores representative of differing visions of Mother Africa. She argues that as women writers build on each other’s fictions and respond to their male peers they come to offer us much more nuanced and psychologically realised portrayals of complex female characters.

Finally Andrade is a welcome voice when African literature is often bifurcated along Anglophone/Francophone and Arab/black African lines. She is able to bring voices into conversation across linguistic and racial divides as she seeks to understand the evolution of African women’s writing and its increasing confidence in taking on the macroeconomic world while still writing out of reality dominated by the constraints of the domestic.

Reviewed by: Jane Plastow, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 88-89]

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