- Rising Anthills: African and African American Writing on Female Genital Excision 1960–2000
Rising Anthills is an important intervention on the subject of the controversial cultural tradition of female genital excision. Elisabeth Bekers borrows the image of the anthill from a Dogon creation story and Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah “to draw attention to the power of the literary works dealing with female genital excision” (4). In Dogon myth, the male god of creation attempts to penetrate the female Earth he has just created. When her clitoris rises in the shape of a termite hill to prevent this, he excises it, ensuring the submission of the Earth and of all women after her. Achebe uses the same image figuratively to reveal that the power of the anthill lies not only in its rebellious force, but in its remarkable memory. For Achebe, the anthill symbolizes the storyteller, appealing to generation after generation, and Bekers borrows this image to map the development of the debate on the practice in literature over the last four decades of the twentieth century. [End Page 190]
The scope of Rising Anthills is impressive, discussing as it does twenty-two texts published between 1963 and 1998, including sixteen novels, three short stories, two plays, and a poem. The analysis of both familiar texts and less well-known material results in a study that emphasizes the diversity of representations of female genital excision by authors of African descent writing in English, French, and Arabic, as Bekers highlights the multiple ways in which writers have explored changing understandings of this cultural tradition. Bekers combines close readings of literary works with a sophisticated theoretical framework, adopting an interdisciplinary approach that crosses linguistic, regional, and national divisions in African literatures. The study draws on insights from literary criticism and narratology, the study of discourse, postcolonial studies, feminist and gender criticism, as well as critical work on the body, to construct a theoretical framework within which to analyse representations of female genital excision.
Three substantial chapters trace an evolution in the depiction of the practice through three “generations” of writers. Chapter one reveals that writers in the 1960s, including Rebeka Njau, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Flora Nwapa, Charity Waciuma, and Muthoni Likimani, recognize the practice as a sensitive issue in the context of decolonization and therefore approach it with circumspection. Bekers finds more candid discussion of female genital excision in the less homogeneous writings of Ahmadou Kourouma, Nurrudin Farah, Nawal El Saadawi, Aminata Maïga Ka, Calixthe Beyala, and Alifa Rifaat in the 1970s and ’80s. These authors do not hesitate to critique the gender structures of their postindependent and more urbanized societies, elaborating the physical and psychological consequences of female genital excision to denounce the practice. Chapter three examines the globalization of the literary debate on female genital excision at the close of the twentieth century in the much broader, international context of the fight for women’s rights. Bekers selects six exclusively female-authored texts as representatives of their generation, including works by Aminata Maïga Keïta, Alice Walker, Evelyne Accad, Gloria Naylor, Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, Breena Clarke, and Glenda Dickerson to illustrate the complementarity between African American and African writing, and a shared condemnation of female genital excision.
Despite the grouping of writers together in this way, the quality of Bekers’s close readings preserves the richness and diversity of the chosen texts. The result is a volume that specialists in this field will find informative, but that interested general readers and undergraduates will also find accessible, since the prose is clearly expressed and free of extraneous detail. [End Page 191]