- Domestic Disturbances: African Women’s Cultural Production in the Postcolonial Continuum
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To theorize the development of African women’s writing within the postcolonial continuum invites us to consider multihistories and intractable paradoxes, rather than a seamless unfolding. The urgency to produce works that articulate on-going gendered conflicts, that reconfigure gender identities, and that indict autocratic governments for their role in perpetuating economic and social inequities has surely never been more pronounced. Yet despite the increasing circulation of their plays and novels both at home and abroad, African women writers continue to endure reactions to their work ranging from polite tolerance to paternalistic scorn.
Political discourses within contemporary African postcolonial states are equally fraught with paradoxes: the gathering assent to sharia law in northern Nigeria threatens to erode social gains for women; public slogans trumpeting pathways to new prosperity are belied by private struggles to secure housing and basic services in South Africa; and the postindependence term uhuru wa bendera (flag independence) still applies to many countries across the continent. While it is true that there is a consciousness of political activism and self-determination in many regions, and women have more access to education and opportunities for self-development than ever before, their place in African societies frequently remains constrained by traditionalist discourses and the practical exigencies of daily life.
In the face of such incommensurable realities, African women writers, like their male counterparts, create works that decry the deteriorating material conditions of life in the postcolony, exposing their countries’ self-seeking oligarchical regimes, sorely underfunded educational and social service infrastructures, and limiting patriarchal social frameworks. The three works under discussion here—Susan Arndt and Katrin Berndt’s Words and Worlds: African Writing, Theatre and Society; Katwiwa Mule’s Women’s Spaces, Women’s Visions: Politics, Poetics, and Resistance in African Women’s Drama; and Eustace Palmer’s Of War and Women, Oppression and Optimism: New Essays on the African Novel—demonstrate that all African writers today still struggle for stature and autonymic representation in the domestic as well as international spheres.
African women writers reference and reconceptualize their societies’ complex histories in their works, exploring the roots of social problems to which they themselves have been subject in the production and reception of their art. Traditional patriarchal norms dictate that women serve as bearers of tradition, regulators of the moral compass, and providers for the family. However, African women have historically both fulfilled these roles and simultaneously demonstrated their concerted resistance to inequitable domestic arrangements and oppression in colonial and postcolonial contexts. As elsewhere in the world, African women have become their own best advocates, working to change sexual mores so that their societies are sensitized to concepts of bodily autonomy and to women’s self-development. In the public sphere, African women continue to initiate individual and collective resistance actions on a daily basis. African women’s gender norms have always accommodated fluidity and improvisation.
African women writers’ quest for social efficacy and literary standing is itself a synecdoche for tensions manifest in African cultural production in the global context: in particular, the vexed linguistic and ideological problem of writing one’s way out from underneath the cultural “logic” in which one has been placed and [End Page 137] defined. The struggle for legitimacy faced by African authors on the world literary stage and the attempts to discount their achievements are apparent in recent controversies ranging from allegations of plagiarism brought against Zakes Mda to deprecating judgments of a number of authors’ works. As we will see in Patrice Nganang’s essay “Writing without France” (Words and Worlds 233–39), African writers express lived realities of displacement and mobility, effectively reshaping the contours of postcolonial intellectual...