Biography 27.3 (2004) 665-672
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Women Writing Africa is a landmark text that fills a considerable gap in the scholarly field of Southern African writing. The text overflows with copious primary and critical source material sufficient for many new analyses of gendered relations not only in South Africa but for the whole Southern region of the continent. It provides a comprehensive history of Southern African women's complex lives and experiences, and introduces readers to an array of contemporary critical perspectives that will be welcomed by feminist and [End Page 665] Africanist scholars, students, and general readers. The multiple voices of this rich compendium almost burst through its bold yellow and black hardback cover. A major editing achievement and invaluable teaching and research tool, the volume came about through the active encouragement and support of Florence Howe at the Feminist Press, at the instigation of Tuzyline Jita Allan, an associate professor of English at Barnard College, and the financial assistance of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. Coming on the heels of the groundbreaking volume Women Writing in India (1990), this work of international feminist scholarship was ten years in the making. One-hundred-twenty selections were chosen for the anthology, bearing witness to the voicesof over 150 women from the Southern African region. Organized by decades in an historical chronology from 1854 to 2001, the selections feature documentary sources including orature (i.e. transcriptions and translations of women's initiation, wedding, and funeral songs; traditional isiZulu and isiXhosa work songs and praise poetry; Setswana [Botswana], Nyemba [Nambia], and Xhosa [South African] initiation songs; interviews with resistance fighters; court testimony, and the like), political petitions and speeches, and letters to newspapers, as well as overtly literary poetry, prose, and novel excerpts, and edited selections from autobiographical memoirs.
The volume presents disparate voices from colonial, apartheid, and democratic South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland, as well as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. The seven editors, joined by a host of editorial assistants and headnote writers, foreground political texts arising from ancestral, communal, and modern political contexts. The editors note that they often made difficult and contentious choices, at times deliberately including selections from lesser known black and coloured women over more familiar texts by white authors, while also choosing lesser-known pieces by well-known writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, and Zoë Wicomb.
Coming out in 2003, the publication prompts the obvious question: Why an anthology of women's writing, and why now? To some readers it may seem dated, appearing after the halcyon days of feminist publishing, at a time when feminist scholars themselves have critiqued the homogeneous and essentializing notion of selecting texts solely by reason of the gender of their author. As Dorothy Driver notes, however, in an overview of the project prepared for Kunapipi (2001), although many Western nations produced historical anthologies devoted to women's writing in the 1980s and 1990s, only two appeared in South Africa, and none in the other countries represented here. In addition, as long as activists and scholars labored under the oppressive conditions of colonialism and apartheid, concerns with gender took a back seat to racial protests against imperial control by white national [End Page 666] governments.1 In South Africa throughout the apartheid period, stories of struggle against repressive white regimes privileged race relations. Although women wrote, their primary focus was on the politics of racial oppression, not on gender inequalities. In recent years, much of the scholarship documenting the culture, literature, politics, and history of the region has been male-centered, with little attention to women's involvement in public culture, or to gender as an analytical tool. Fiona Ross's Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (Pluto, 2003) and Tanya Lyon's Guns and Guerrilla Girls: Women in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle...