- Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region, and: Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel
Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region and Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel comprise the first two volumes of the Women Writing Africa Project. This prodigious collection, a remarkable accomplishment codirected by Tuzyline Jita Allan, Abena P.A. Busia, and Florence Howe, emerged from the collaborative efforts of writers, performers, research teams, national coordinators, editors, and translators across countries and continents. Rather than present the internationally celebrated works of established authors, the anthologies unearth lost voices, showcase the less accessible works of familiar writers, and introduce emerging African women’s cultural production. The result is a ground-breaking collection of African women’s communal songs, letters, depositions, petitions, affidavits, interviews, speeches, oral stories, poems, and short stories, among other genres. One major goal of the project is to provide “significant testimony to the literary presence and historical activity of African women,” and these volumes certainly succeed in that endeavor (p. xvii).
While one will find African women authors who are featured in other important anthologies such as Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present, edited by Margaret Busby (1992), Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa (1983) and The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Writing (1993), both edited by Charlotte H. Bruner, or The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry (1995), edited by Stella and Frank Chipasula, the volumes here address African women’s agency as historians, storytellers, participants in cultural production, and social [End Page 192] agents in even greater scope and depth. The editors interpret the act of writing broadly so that it “metonymically suggests a blend of verbal and written forms of expression embodying the experience of African women in envisioning their lives in relation to their societies” (p. xviii). The oral works are not depicted as precursors to writing, as oral narratives sometimes mistakenly are, but rather as cultural engagements that are at once ancient and very contemporary. The introductions provide informative orientations for readers who are just beginning to study African women’s creative work, as well as excellent resources for scholars in the field.
Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region features women’s cultural production in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. The goal of the volume is “to redress what is generally recognized as an imbalance in Southern African literary and historical anthologies and accounts, given that male writers and performers have been more widely published than women, and that historical agency is generally taken to be male” (p. 1). The introduction offers an overview of women’s mediations of history, society, and culture through songs, stories, essays, letters, and various forms of oral and written engagement. As the editors observe, women’s creative works have functioned to preserve certain practices but also to ridicule, subvert, and comment on everyday realities. Women’s writing, like women themselves, also participates in historic political movements that conventionally have been seen as the catalysts of history.
The editors’ reflections on the politics of recording, transcribing, and translating oral “texts” paint a complex portrait of the history of women’s orature, and the newly published oral works in this collection add substantially to the current scholarship. The question of how to read a history of women’s writing that has often been selected, collected, preserved, and mediated by missionaries and colonial officials is also taken up thoughtfully by the editors. In addition to earlier oral works, such as a performance of the story Unanana-Bosele by Lydia Umkasetemba in South Africa in...