By Susan Nalugwa Kiguli (University of Leeds)
Talking Gender: Conversations with Kenyan Women Writers ed. Mike Kuria. PJ-Kenya, Nairobi, 2003. 177pp. ISBN 9966-803-06-x. £16.95 / $27.95
This book is a remarkable one in the gender and literary history of East Africa. Althought texts on gender and writing abound today, this book makes an outstanding complement to Adeola James’s : In their own voices: African Women writers talk.
Mike Kuria is the first scholar to my knowledge to compile interviews with Kenyan women writers in one volume. This is a welcome and major contribution to the gender debate in East Africa. This book becomes even more important given the challenging views on women and literature that are circulating throughout East Africa. I am compelled to state from the beginning that this text should just be the first in an logical series. Books in a similar vein should come out of Uganda and Tanzania.
In his introduction Kuria states that the interviews were an offshoot of his doctoral research at the University of Leeds, that made him realise the need to examine gender and literary issues ‘in the context of specific realities within specific communities’. Even though I do not necessarily agree with some of the views on gender expressed in his introduction, I highly commend Kuria’s decision to carry out in-depth interviews with women writers in a specific country. The book has brought together divergent views of women writers of different linguistic and cultural contexts from the same nation. A dialogue and a ready platform for debate are bound to ensue from comparisons of views for example of Wanjiku Kabira, Margaret Ogola and Pat Ngurukie.
Although I could not establish the criteria for the organisation of the interviews within the book, I was struck by the interdisciplinary nature of the topics surveyed: from politics, social issues such as circumcision and initiation rites to literary issues and ideologies.
Reading through each interview, I was faced at times with such brilliant insights on literary, culture and national specific materials. Take for example a moment when Wanjiku Kabira commenting on her story My Co-wife My Sister says:
”In writing it I was much more preoccupied with the idea of the joy that comes with having a child. I do not even think I was worried about how women are valued because of their productivity or fertility… I was only telling a human story where polygamy is not necessarily a hindrance….” [27-28]
or Grace Ogot’s comment on African women activists:
”Politically a Luo woman is liberated… she is accepted right from the days of Grace Onyango, Jael Mbogo, Phoebe Asiyo, Grace Ogot name them….The difference between my actions and what Western women are doing, even when I am an activist within my political life, is that I must remember that a husband exists.” [92-93]
We have an opportunity in books such as this one to create a dialogue with the positions of African and Western critics on issues such as polygamy and women oppression. The book also has, without undue mediation from the editor, foregrounded the similarities in concerns presented by the selected women writers, such as the need to explore the contradictions and ambiguities bred by community sanctions on rituals of circumcision, widow inheritance and marriage. At the same time, the power and vibrancy of the individual writers are clearly and concisely captured.
The interviews are immensely informative. Each interview provides pithy insights into the views of highly politicised women such as Wanjiku Kabira, Grace Ogot and others with different interests such as Margaret Ogola, Pat Ngurukie and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye. I sometimes thought that Kuria’s questions could have been more focused and more challenging but the less structured questions seem to have produced more comprehensive and definitive opinions from the women writers.
The interviews in this book have in my view provided an excellent introduction to some of the most important concepts relating to women’s development and women’s writing in Kenya. I do appreciate that one book cannot cover every topic but I would have wished for the inclusion of an interview with at least one woman oral performer.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 81-82]