- Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory by Cheryl Toman
In Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory, French studies scholar Cheryl Toman provides extensive tools to understand how Gabonese Afra writers (such as Angèle Rawiri, Justine Mintsa, Sylvie Ntsame, and Honorine Ngou) represent women’s embodied experiences at the juncture of gender, sexuality, Westernization, and oppressive aspects of African traditions.
By centering on the significance of symbolic drama and the ritualizing of experiences, the book pioneers scholarship that examines Gabonese women writers’ unique, and often overlooked, feminist use of Fang traditions. Toman analyzes ekphrasis representations to affirm that the Gabonese performatic repertoire reveals a tangible aesthetic that can easily be missed by readers unfamiliar with the language, oral traditions, myths, and rituals of Fang culture. Hence, this repertoire creates a complex level of reading and contributes, as the author expounds, to a literary decolonization of the African francophone novel. This approach brings to light the provoking critical feminist discussions these Gabonese Afra writers undertake by invading traditionally male-centered domains such as tribalism or Mvet oral literature. Their feminist rewriting of Fang practices encompasses bold themes—such as the refusal of polygamy, the repudiation of a husband, or what Béatrice Bikéné Békalé names the “falsification of traditions”—and gives emphasis to women-centered traditions such as the mengane (stories and dances performed exclusively by women), which provide these Afra writers and their female characters with exertions of self-agency and rebellion (p. 59).
Through this original framework, Toman establishes a new reading of Gabonese women’s writing, as the reader must rethink the ways in which she values and conceives intangible forms of knowledge making. Hence, [End Page 512] this scholarship continues the important contributions of scholars such as Diana Taylor, Shannon Sullivan, and Tanya L. Shields, whose critical works on the immaterial repertoire of the African diaspora have contributed to decolonizing the ways intangible traditions are ideated in the mainstream. By recognizing the existence of such immaterial practices, Toman exposes the means through which they embody identities and political and cultural agency. As a result, this work challenges the Western conventional perception of genres through an interweaving of oral traditions, esoteric practices, and literary writing. Similar to the body of work of Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida on performance, the Gabonese performatic repertoire helps to provoke new understanding of the political implications and mechanisms of socialization that form Gabonese identities across gender and class.
The exploration of aspects of African feminism found in these texts does not preclude the author from considering the extent to which one can perceive features of Western radical feminism in these literary productions. An interesting section of analysis underlines how these Afra writers create transregional feminist discussions on gender and sex through traditional performatic repertoires found outside the Gabonese region. In fact, Toman’s in-depth feminist reading of Nigeria’s Igbo and Nnobi societies, as seen in Ngou’s texts, challenges questions of homosexuality through an exploration of the blurry lines of same-sex desire, third gender, flexible gender construction, and new love configurations. Continuing the pioneering work of scholars such as Odile Cazenave and Irène Assiba D’Almeida on the literary works of francophone African women writers, Women Writers of Gabon raises issues related to the imprints of colonization and pernicious traditional practices, which continue to affect Gabonese women at the economic, sociocultural, and political levels. Toman explores the violent identity formations of Gabonese female characters, whose subversive representations, corporeal displeasure, and uncomfortable settings (as seen through prohibited desires, prostitution, rape, urbanization, or sorcery) also map and advocate for the infrastructure of survival and resistance of women of the African diaspora.
The book’s final chapter holds a rare literary analysis of Afra Gabonese youth literature, which promotes a creative segment of Gabonese women’s writing disregarded by mainstream literary critics. Toman’s examination of short stories by Merey-Apinda and Mintsa outlines a Gabonese children/young adult fiction that...