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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 6.2 (2006) 93-116

Blurred Genres, Blended Memories
Engendering Dissidence in Nawal el Saadawi's Memoirs of a Woman Doctor and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions
Katwiwa Mule

Is it possible to read some African women's novels as instances of a complex amalgamation of the self, the social, and the political even when such novels do not on the first encounter confront us as autobiographical writing? Can some African women's novels be read as a challenge to the received critical notions of autobiographical writings in order to allow for diverse modalities of representations of the self, the social, and the political? (Boldrini and Davies 2004, v). My response to both questions is in the affirmative because, as African literatures become more and more institutionalized in the American and European curricula, we need to reexamine the conventional ways we read such texts, 1 especially whether we should use the same strategies to read African autobiographical fiction that we typically use for Western autobiographies. As Abiola Irele forcefully argues,

To engage upon a discussion of the question of an adequate approach to scholarly study and critical interpretation of African literature is to postulate at the outset a specific character of this literature which distinguishes it in some particular respects from other literatures and which for that reason requires such an approach. . . . There are certainly external factors and internal traits that, taken together in their attachment to our literature, [End Page 93] both traditional and modern, mark it off as a specific area of literary production and imaginative expression, and which make it imperative to undertake a kind of clearing of the ground in order to place it within a critical perspective appropriate to it.

([1981] 1990, 9) 2

I assert in the paragraphs that follow that in reading texts such as Nawal el Saadawi's Memoirs of a Woman Doctor and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (henceforth MoWD and NC, respectively), an ideology of the self that separates the self from the social cannot account for the political aspects, especially feminist politics, of these apparently autobiographical writings. Put another way, el Saadawi and Dangarembga mobilize the politics of identity in these two novels through the paradigm of self-referentiality in order to challenge and reject the strictures placed on all women in their societies.

This essay, excerpted from a longer project called "Representations of Childhood in African Literature," presents a revisionist reading of the juvenilia of these two well-known African women writers as instances of what Lucia Boldrini and Peter Davies refer to as "the use of fictionalized autobiography and autobiographised fiction" (2004, vii), that is to say, as novels in which the rhetorical strategies and the texts' generic structure enable the varying modalities of representation of lived experiences, in the words of Caren Kaplan, to "always [pressure] the boundaries of established genres" (1998, 209a) and thereby "propose alternative parameters for the definition and articulation of literary boundaries" (209a). As Simon Gikandi in a different context reminds us, "If a writer's early works are symptomatic of the anxieties that generate a literary career, then it is appropriate to see [el Saadawi's and Dangarembga's] juvenilia as containing the germs of the questions of displacement and the desire for radical social transformation" (2000, 41). My reading of the two novels is based on a straightforward argument: both MoWD and NC are overwhelmingly grounded on the writers' direct knowledge and life experience or what Fedwa Malti-Douglas calls the "female Bildungsroman that adopts the fiction of autobiography" (1995, 18, 22). By calling attention to the structural similarities and differences between the novels, and to the close affinities between the writers' direct knowledge and experience, I do not wish to reduce the texts to instances of narrations of the subjective lives of the two writers or to suggest that their lives are exactly the same as those of their fictional characters. Rather, I want to...


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