Biography 24.3 (2001) 625-633
[Access article in PDF]
In her book Selfish Gifts: Senegalese Women's Autobiographical Discourses, Lisa McNee addresses the essential and universal question of how human identity is formed by the interaction between individuals and the communities into which they are born. Her fieldwork among Senegalese women also allows her to consider a more specifically African problematic: is it possible for [End Page 625] Africans, who define themselves in terms of community rather than as individuals, to form and express an individual identity? In fact, the book seems to have been written in part to refute a "collectivist" definition of African identity, and to promote the inclusion of self-referential female-dominated Wolof oral poetry into the body of literature available to the larger world for literary analysis. This dominantly autobiographical poetic form acts as a proof that Senegalese women can and do have individual voices and forms of expression.
The focus of the first few chapters of Selfish Gifts is on the significance of taasu, or praise poetry, and its role as autobiography. McNee argues that the individual identities of Senegalese women are clearly recognizable in the praise poems recited at important, mostly female-centered events: naming ceremonies for babies, celebrations marking the bride's departure from her family home, women's dance parties, or social meetings of women's credit associations. Praise poetry is used to create connections between individual women and other women, and as part of gift exchanges and the building up of economic goodwill among female participants, who may be forced to turn to other women for credit or financial support in hard times. Since Wolof culture shuns direct forms of speech, taasu also give women the opportunity to express opinions about both their own family situations and those of others which would normally be repressed. For the most part, McNee presents the taasu performance as an oral means to give what westerners define as autobiographical information. However, unlike western autobiographies, written for a wide range of reasons, such as confession, self-justification, the sharing of anecdotal information, and in contemporary America for the purpose of receiving substantial book fees, taasu have the specific goal of linking the performer either to a patron family or to other women who may be called upon for financial assistance at that point or in the future.
In the first chapter of Selfish Gifts, McNee argues that autobiography provides a solution to the conflict between the generalizations or "typifications" of most anthropological studies, which reinforce collectivist stereotypes, and the typically western view of the individual as of primary importance, with culture as a mere background. Autobiography is concrete and particular, but written in the wider context of culture. It is precisely because autobiography represents the point at which the individual and her cultural framework connect that it can be considered such a significant genre. In autobiography, the individual "presents and actively creates a textual self" (15). The taasu, with its use of individual names and points of view, but always recited in the context of a communal gathering as part of an exchange of gifts, demonstrates how autobiography connects the individual to her [End Page 626] community. If it is the task of every culture to "negotiate the particular in relation to the general" (15), even where there are myriad combinations, these possibilities are cut off if we simply oppose "individualist" and "collective" societies. McNee thus argues that individuality exists in Africa as well as in the West, a fact that we have simply not previously recognized.
Taasu, then, "mark the subject positions of an individual agent, but also provide a discursive space for negotiating relationships between participants at these events during and through the exchange of gifts" (25). Years of verbal and material exchanges have preceded each taasu performance, providing the essential linkage between the taasukat (the woman performing the poem) and her audience. Teraanga, or gift-giving...