By Pierre Gomez and Isatou Ndow
Global Hands Publishing, Leicester, 2015
133pp. ISBN 9780957407350 paper.
The venerated critic of African literature Eldred Durosimi Jones has stated that the “criticism of modern African literature has developed side by side with the literature itself.” However, this cannot be said of Gambian literature because, [End Page 189] although dating to the 18th century with the writings of slave girl Phyllis Wheatley, its criticism is less than three decades old. Gambians were writing literature, but it was not being subjected to critical appraisal. It was Stewart Brown and Tijan Sallah’s pioneering review of the writings of Lenrie Peters, Phyllis Wheatley, and Ebou Dibba in Wasafiri in 1992 that kick started critical appreciation of Gambian literature. In the ensuing two decades since the field has developed with studies by Cherno Omar Barry on the portrayal of the child and Pierre Gomez’s surveys of nationhood in the writings of Gambian novelists like Baaba Silla, Ebou Dibba, and Nana Grey-Johnson. Most recently, Wumi Raji has edited magisterial criticism of Tijan Sallah’s literary works. Sallah, who recently published his poetry collection Harrow: London Poems of Convalescences with Global Hands, is therefore a perfect Gambian example of what Jones calls “its foremost creator and also its foremost critic.”
However, although Gambia has produced fine women writers such as Phyllis Wheatley, Lady Hannah Jawara (1924–81), who wrote under the pen name Kamatulie Kinteh, Janet Badjan Young, and Dayo Forster, critics have not tackled the interesting and always controversial issue of women characters in Gambian literature. This is why this new book is significant in its filling in a yawning gap in criticism because it tackles gender in contemporary Gambian writings. The authors, Pierre Gomez and Isatou Ndow, have illuminated “the distinctive perspectives and unique voices” (iii) that Gambian writers have placed on their female characters. The text examines a sampling of seven works by Gambian writers, almost all of them hardly read or known beyond the borders of the country, to assess how their female characters respond to the issues of motherhood, domestic violence, female circumcision, marriage, and sexuality.
The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter one provides contextual background of Gambian literature dating from the 1780s, when former slave girl Phyllis Wheatley, who was captured from around the River Gambia, penned her poems, which were popular in the American colonies and in the UK, through to the 1960s when Lenrie Peters (1932–2009) published in the prestigious African Writers Series (1, 2). I found the historical background to Gambian literature quite inadequate; for example, there is no mention of the 1970s literary journal Ndaanan published in Banjul by Peters, Gabriel Roberts, and Swaebou Conateh. Ndaanan was indeed more than a literary journal; it was a literary movement that started a whole new schema for Gambian writing. It honed the skills of future writers, like Ebou Dibba (1943–2000), who have gone on to have brilliant literary careers and worldwide readership.
Chapter two provides a synopsis of each of the seven works studied in the book in order to open a tiny window of appreciation to the reader who is uninitiated into the realm of Gambian literature. In chapter three, the authors give an overview of how Gambian literature in general has treated female characters. Here the authors suggest that “characters in literature are sometimes used as a vehicle to convey to readers the author’s worldview” (27). The authors’ conclusion, that Gambian “female writers tend to offer to their readers a concentration of their female experiences” (28), lends credence to the fact that sometimes the writer’s own persona and experiences are also mirrored in the characters they construct. [End Page 190]
In chapters four and five the authors discuss how various gender themes, such as access to education, motherhood, domestic violence, and early marriage, are addressed in the seven texts under examination. Here, it is apparent that for Gambian women writers, literature has the militancy needed to give women their rightful position in society. The authors interrogate the plight of women in society and also how women hold sway in certain instances, such...