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Reviewed by:
  • Female Novelists of Modern Africa
  • Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan
Oladele Taiwo. Female Novelists of Modern Africa. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. 222 pp. $22.50.

The title may mislead: white writers such as Olive Schreiner, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer were excluded. Taiwo makes no reference to the large body of feminist books and commentary now readily available. (The work is equally innocent of contemporary literary theory and approaches.) There is no theoretical framework, no reference to the emancipationist movement, to the liberal tradition of Mill's The Subjection of Women, to Marxist readings such as Engel's The Origin of the Family; there is no mention of Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Showalter, Millet, and others. The novelists selected "have written under vastly different conditions," yet there is no attempt to situate them within their different historical, economic, social, and cultural contexts. "A female novelist in modern Africa is a rare personality"—but there is no attempt at relevant biography, no attempt to explain the factors and steps that led to achievement—except, briefly, in the case of Grace Ogot.

Wishing to be comprehensive, Taiwo often deals with the insignificant, including mediocre detective and mystery stories; that the authors all happen to be female is in itself insufficient to give the work unity. Male chauvinism is not successfully suppressed: women are not as tired after a day's work as men (something conveniently believed of Africans in the days of colonial exploitation); women, by implication, have "moral and psychological handicaps"; one of the positive aspects of Buganda culture is "the importance attached to [female] virginity"; a female character exemplifies "sterling qualities"—she is "well domesticated." The good woman is "obedient and respectful"; an unfaithful woman "suffers the fate of all women who betray their husbands." The male bias repeatedly surfaces in the use of masculine nouns, pronouns, and possessives.

The author is old-fashioned in his critical approach (the novelist offers "solutions"; he or she is a problem-solver) and given to patronizing women. It is by constructive achievements "rather than by empty sloganising, that women can prove their mettle"; they are mistaken thinking "they can live a full life without [End Page 363] men." The "penmanship" [sic] of women is an attempt "not to be left far behind''; like horses (or, despite being mere women?) they "perform creditably," even "admirably." Developing this image, Taiwo gives us Grace Ogot, who has "remained in the forefront" of the race; varying the image, female novelists "seek to display their artistic talents," as at a fashion parade. Concentrating on story freed from rigorous analysis, the author is unaware of implications. Many phrases are vacuous: "great artistic efficiency"; "the application of appropriate linguistic skills"; "proficient in the use of verbal art." He has the disconcerting habit of addressing questions—apparently in bafflement and despair—to the reader. His style teeters from the pedantic ("societal expectations") to the "dialectical" (a "country lass") and the casual. A female character has "internal strivings"; another "conceives of a situation"; meanwhile, a novelist "stands up for Africa and comes down heavily on the Western world." Joseph, who causes his wife serious "bodily harm," is but a "nuisance," and the fate of a murderer "burnt alive in public" shows that the novelist "disapproves" of him. All this is compounded by error: "devotes a lot of space of Amaka's degeneration"; "a new attitude of life"; "the gods . . . destroys"; "a gifted writer of the English prose"; "Moleka leave Maru free."

[Black] Female Novelists of Modern Africa is a tedious work, calling for dogged (but unrewarded) determination on the reader's part. It damages the reputation African literary scholarship has built up over the years.

Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan
University of Zambia


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pp. 363-364
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