- The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988 by Susan Z. Andrade
In The Nation Writ Small, Susan Andrade challenges what she presents as the standard narrative of African literary history, specifically as it pertains to the generation of writers who rose to prominence in the years following independence. Male writers whose work focused on issues of decolonization and national consolidation dominate the history of the period—well-known names include Camara Laye, Chinua Achebe, Ferdinand Oyono, Ousmane Sembène, Kateb Yacine, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. While she does not entirely dismiss this narrative, Andrade's aim is to provide a more inclusive version that takes into account the contributions of African women writers, whose work tended to focus on domestic matters. Attending to the interpenetration of the public (political) and the private (domestic) spheres in these works, Andrade argues, makes possible a more nuanced understanding of both the historical period and the relationship between literature and large-scale political and national questions. The book is divided into chapters structured around clusters of texts and authors. Chapters 1 and 2 are geographically organized—the first centers on Nigeria, specifically Igboland; the second on Senegal—while the third stakes a comparison between the Somali Nurudin Farah and the Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, and the fourth focuses on the work of the Algerian writer Assia Djebar. As the variations in the structure of the chapters suggest, the aim of The Nation Writ Small is not to present a totalizing theory of women's writing but, rather, to offer a model of critical reading that takes into account the literariness of the texts under analysis, from which, in turn, literary history can be reconsidered.
The key rhetorical device Andrade engages for elucidating the political dimension of women writers' ostensibly domestic focus is that of allegory. Allegory here is not simply a term for cases in which the apparent subject (the family, for example) is subsumed to the "true" subject (the nation) to which the text ultimately refers. The family does serve as a metaphor for the nation in the work of both male and female writers—invoking Doris Sommer's work on national allegories in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Latin American literature in Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1993), Andrade points out the preponderance of nationalist novels that bear a woman's name as their title. But the focus of The Nation Writ Small is on what Andrade terms the tension between the two rather than their correspondence. "Allegorical reading" (or, "reading allegorically") therefore emerges as Andrade's term for the work of attending to the many valences that attach to a single represented subject. As such, the key interlocutor for The Nation Writ Small is not a specific historian of African literature—although Andrade does invoke Simon Gikandi's elevation of Achebe's Things Fall Apart as the "first African novel" in the introduction (8)—but Fredric Jameson.
The invocation of the term allegory in the discussion of what we now call the literature of the Global South almost invariably raises the specter of Jameson and his notorious essay "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" (1986), especially its infamous central claim that "the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society."1 In the nearly three decades since its publication, the essay has repeatedly surfaced as the kernel around and against which arguments about the nature of specific "third-world literatures" have been made. To her credit, although she recognizes the importance of critiques by authors such as Aijaz Ahmad, Andrade takes a gentler approach while still recognizing Jameson's tendency to romanticize his subject as well as the fundamental ahistoricism of his argument. Rather than present another argument against Jameson's claims, Andrade attempts to extract from his "national allegory" model a mode of allegorical reading more akin to the critical work Jameson himself performs in...