Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 187-189
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African Women's Literature: Orature and Intertextuality
African Women's Literature: Orature and Intertextuality, by Susan Arndt. Trans. By Isabel Cole. Bayreuth African Studies Series 48. Bayreuth: Eckhard Breitinger, 1998. 410 pp. ISBN 3-927510-59-9 paper.
Much of African literature at the turn of the century, as Ernest Emenyonu stipulates in the poignant introduction to his recent anthropology, Goastkin Bag and Wisdom: New Critical Perspectives in African Literature (Trenton: Africa World, 2000), is getting away from undue emphasis on the postcolonial critique of this literature for a return to African oral traditions on which the written traditions are essentially based. Newer generations of African critics are coming up with original critiques of African literature that have less and less to do with Western yardsticks of literary appreciation, analysis, and interpretation of African literature. In the past, a lot of scholarship was devoted to the examination of the foreign roots of the African novel and the definitions of what could be termed African literature, without much reference to the peculiar nature of the African novel itself, giving the coming together of the Western and African oral traditions in the formation of African writers of African literature. Little attempt was made to understand the untenableness of the image of an "authentic" African writer, which was a myth and a misnomer. Recently, single studies or comparative studies of orality and literacy have gained in importance, seeing the future direction in the study of African literature to be from the inside rather than from the outside, and without undue validation of African literary creativity with reference to any other tradition than its own.
From this angle of vision, therefore, Susan Arndt's publication of African Women's Literature: Orature and Textuality confirms the recent turning point in the examination of the raison d'être of African literature. It represents a tour de force in studies in African literature, not only due to its devotion to writings uniquely by women and to their craft, but also its subsequent and thorough examination of the various and complex terms employed in the definition, study, and far-reaching import of orality and literacy in African literature. In this regard, Chikwenye Ogunyemi's Africa Wo/Man Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996) and Gay Wilentz's Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992) (see also Arndt, African Women's Literature 67), and Isidore Okpewho's African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992) are some of the relevant earlier literature that have grappled with the issues of definition, stylistics, continuity, and criticism by modern writers of oral traditions with their adaptations, translations, and exploitations of oral literature.
With impressive raw data, painstakingly collected on the definition, frequency, diversity of the ifo genre (read in English story), and the bilingualism of Igbo women writers as they seek to transfer their message from Igbo into English (73-76) in a kind of "Igbo English" often popularly referred to as "Englibo," Arndt narrows down an otherwise unwieldy variety of African oral and written literatures, both from the point of view of [End Page 187] their nature and their location, to an investigation of fifteen novels and short stories by Igbo women writers. The study is well-organized into four detailed chapters, with an insightful introduction that offers her readers much help in integrating the results of the study. Igbo women writers represent in this study the generality of African women writers, seen that the Igbo society is home to the ifo, a genre exclusive to women and which, more than any other genre, mirrors the traditions, mores, and thought of the Igbo. Second, multiethnic Nigeria, which includes the Igbo country, becomes the African continent in miniature, a laboratory, "a center of African women's literature" (10). The literary epoch of 1954-81 delimits the study, partly because of the nexus between orality and literacy in that era, and partly because the women...