By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
From last edition
Only the truthful among them (like “the liberated” Nigerian actress who not long ago was screaming all over the place when her husband left her) would confess that their daily menu ever since have remained regrets and more regrets. This is the point late Professor Zulu Sofola most brilliantly underlined in her play, Sweet Trap. If Ikem was battering Elewa or sneaking her into his house only when his friends would not observe, then Ms. Amadiume would have had a point. But instead of praising Ikem, a nationally celebrated journalist and upper drawer writer and poet, for proposing to marry a barely literate girl like Elewa, Prof Amadiume, would rather ‘batter’ him, having found him guilty of an offence he did not even dream of committing. Men then do not hold the monopoly on battering, after all!
Now, let’s return to the issue of “giving women power”. I doubt if any novel, or indeed, any book, can boast of the capacity to just take hold of power — political, social or economic — and hand it over to women? That seems to be what female critics are asking for, but as would be seen later, their attempts to compel their own books to do this with indecent haste have unleashed on all of us grotesque creative works, with characters, settings and incidents that are so gratuitously padded with several outlandish details and extreme exaggerations, that their stories simply lose their abilities to be true. As a result, many of them have served us with excellent demonstrations of how fiction should not be written.
But a writer can choose to make some projections, depending on his thrust, and point the way forward. In Anthills of The Savannah, Beatrice was the only character who was able to look the dreaded His Excellency, the very maximum ruler before whom all the men cringed, in the face and tell him some home truth. While not in any way endorsing what she chose to do to get His Excellency to listen to her, but she has taken the first step forward and dared the tiger. Others can now improve on her effort and tactics.
So, whatever power women would acquire (assuming they lack any now) would largely be the outcome of their own conscious effort. And this would clearly be reflected in the literary works that would appear at that period. But care must be taken to ensure that art is not sacrificed on the altar of advocacy. Propaganda is important, but so also is art. And like Achebe has warned, virtually all art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.
In this vein, therefore, Ms. Katherine Frank has raised very important questions in her article, “Women without Men: Feminist Novel in Africa,” (African Literature Today No 15):
“How are we to judge a work which we find politically admirable and true but aesthetically simplistic, empty or boring? What do we make of characters whose credos and pronouncements we endorse but whose human reality we find negligible? … If the writing is inferior, the book becomes a tract and there are far more efficient and effective ways of spreading an ideology than by novels…”
As the first published female novelist from Nigeria, late Flora Nwapa’s objective was to hurriedly “empower” her female characters and place them above the male ones. But in doing this, as evident in her novel, Efuru and the others, she featured ‘liberated’, empowered and highly assertive female characters in a society peopled by mostly weak, grossly irresponsible, non-innovative, non-enterprising, in fact, emasculated men. Art and realism suffered so that ideology and advocacy may thrive.
Is Nwapa saying, in effect, that women are incapable of competing with men that are equally endowed and so can only excel and attain some prominence in an environment inhabited by mostly emasculated men or, in fact, outright imbeciles? How then can success be celebrated when the supposed winner was spared any form of competition? Or like, she demonstrated in One Is Enough, must women become morally irresponsible and hawk their bodies (to the same men they intend to demonstrate they are superior to) to make it in society? There is a huge irony here which neither Nwapa nor the majority of female writers that she inspired saw the need to resolve. Certainly, no decent person would embrace a “liberated” character like Amaka in Nwapa’s One Is Enough, who after a misunderstanding with her husband, abandons her home, and relocates to Lagos to “fully realise herself” by excelling as men’s plaything in the city of Lagos.
Maybe, Nwapa wanted to use the character of Amaka to give full expression to the overly pernicious doctrine so eloquently promoted by the Egyptian feminist writer, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, in her book, Woman At Point Zero. Said Saadawi:
“A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off…. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another… the lowest paid body is that of a wife…. A successful prostitute (is) better than a misled saint…. Marriage (is) the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.”
(Woman At Point Zero, London &New York: Zed Books, 1983, pp.114, 117,111)
Ironically, this same Saadawi married her third partner in 1964 and, for about forty years, they lived together.
Although some female scholars have made the case that feminism is not monolithic, I keep thinking that they have a responsibility to help us draw a clear boundary between female assertiveness and female extremism, because from what I can see out there, definitions of feminism are mostly situational, and most of the time solely dependent on the mood and peculiar cravings or experiences of the particular woman defining it at any given time. Indeed, today, whether as a struggle, ideology or movement, feminism appears to be an amorphous and an unnecessarily ambiguous phenomenon. The ever nagging, quarrelsome wife, for instance, announces herself as a feminist. The prostitute claims she is “making some kind of protest.” The never-married, unmarriageable single mother is “driving home some point.” The ever-wild nympho-maniac (who ought to have sought help) is “advancing the struggle.” The lady out there with revolting obsession for luring small boys to her nest and cruelly deflowering them does not see herself as a callous child abuser but would always claim she is merely using that to “get back at the oppressor — man.” The habitually unfaithful wife would announce she is “sending out some message” with her adulterous life. Now, in the midst of this cacophony of voices, how can we know who is sane? Must otherwise sane women continue to endorse all these ruinous absurdities just to get back at men?
Many critics are agreed that the societies created in Nwapa’s novels are unrecognisable. But because of her popularity with women liberation diehards, several other female writers that came after her were easily seduced into adopting her art-murdering style. In my article in The Guardian (Lagos), Sunday, June 1, 1997, p.B4, entitled, “Zainab Akali And Feminist Writers,” which provoked a year-long debate and even (needless) name-calling by some female contributors, I was frank about my observation that the works of several of those female writers “are united by their possession of the same maladies: they are blessed with all the features of fairy tales and myth; they unabashedly distort with indecency and uncanny bravado, sociology and gender images just to make some shallow feminist point; their heroines are spared healthy competitions as they only thrive in outlandish communities peopled by only weak, emasculated, lazy, foolish and insane men.” I appreciate, however, the fact that several among the younger generation of female writers have realised the mistakes of their pioneers and are trying to achieve some improvement, but more work still needs to be done.
We must emphasise, as we conclude this discussion that the “unliberated” Beatrice in Anthills of The Savannah, achieved all she had by dint of hard work in the midst of equally intelligent and hardworking men and not by “conquering” the men by sleeping around. Her only offence, maybe, would be that she was not anti-men, but favoured an environment that promoted equal opportunities for both the male and female to excel. Maybe, she also sinned because she did her best to ensure her proposed marriage to Chris worked.
All I am saying really is that when viewed within the particular environment and period in which they were set, Achebe’s female characters are very real. They are easily recognisable, and I would prefer them any day than the outlandish caricatures offered us as alternatives in many feminist novels.
*Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye is a Nigerian journalist and writer ([email protected]; twitter: @ugowrite)