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On a continent whose countries are still attempting to negotiate between fragile democracies and despotic regimes in the aftermath of postcolonialism, any scholarship that tackles the thorny and divisive history of imperialism and works to move the reader to a greater political awareness has merit. Lewis Simon's White Women Writers and Their African Inventions is well worth the read and contributes substantially to this discussion.
Lewis divides his book into three sections whose titles are taken from Isak Dinesen's euphonious first line of Out of Africa (1883): "I," "Had a Farm," and "In Africa," to examine how identity is constructed and possession is understood in European and Euro-African texts written by white women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He draws on Raymond Williams's model of the city versus the country, transforming it into metropole versus colony, and addresses the pertinent question Nadine Gordimer raises in The Essential Gesture (1988), "Where do whites fit in?" to determine whether Euro-African authors subvert or support the imperialist claim to the continent—or manifest an uneasy ambivalence—and whether their texts have worked to enhance or hinder the political process toward self-rule. Much of his scholarship is dedicated to Olive Schreiner and Karen Blixen, and he begins his discussion by navigating the territory of their writings through several channels: the redefinition of self, the construction and use of masks, and the fascination with orphanhood. The first two chapters dedicated to the authors' definitions of "I" and their use of masks cover ground already explored in texts on Schreiner and Blixen by biographers and scholars such as Susan Hardy Aiken, Judith Thurman, and Susan Horton. Lewis mines that material a little deeper but uncovers no revolutionary new evidence as to how Blixen in particular and Schreiner to a lesser degree invented and reinvented versions of themselves: to justify their presence—for Blixen certainly—in an alien country, to transcend traditional female roles of the late Victorian and early-twentieth-century era, and to allow them space to write. However, the discussion of self and mask is an important one on a continent whose European colonials continually redefined its indigenous citizenry in damaging, malevolent ways. If Schreiner and Blixen's affinities often lay with the native peoples, their literary agenda was less to champion the cause of those citizens brutally subjugated on a continent that rightly belonged to them than to establish independent, speaking selves that were not subject to patriarchal mandates of silence and respectability. Those goals were important, and Schreiner and Blixen both attained [End Page 232] literary notoriety, putting "women's" writing on the map, which was a valuable achievement—but at whose expense? Blixen's lament in Out of Africa at the loss of her African Eden, her coffee farm in Kenya, and her expulsion back to Denmark, barely addresses the country's real history of land acquisition by white settlers (such as herself) through the forceful and often brutal removal or relocation of tribes like the Gikuyu to nearly uninhabitable areas. Blixen is acutely aware of the injustices inflicted upon the Gikuyu, many of whom she befriended and genuinely cared for, but they are present in her work only as servants or hired hands, as foils to her invented benevolent persona. She presents herself as their champion, placing them in an idealized pastoral, but turns them into literary myth to enhance her fantasy of Africa, a textual appropriation that casts the indigenous populations as secondary and diminishes the historical traumas to which they were subjected.
Schreiner fares better, and deservedly so, although Lewis reserves well-grounded criticism for her as well. Schreiner's depiction of indigenous Africans was often racist, and her representation of the spaces of South Africa as empty is problematic. As I read her, "empty space" for Schreiner, particularly the great Karoo, became territory that could not be commandeered by Europeans and thus was a way to resist imperialism. For Lewis, however, constructing any topography as "empty space", translated by colonialists as devoid of settled inhabitants, bestowed...