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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy

The Limits of Postcolonial Criticism

I suggested earlier in this book that one of the flaws of late twentieth- century African feminism was its provenance in the anti-colonial intellectual movement. It was designed to respond to colonialist/Western narratives about Africa. Its weakness was indulgence of postcoloniality. I have shown elsewhere, with reference to Simon Gikandi,5 how Chinua Achebe set the African postcolonial discourse in the write-back trajectory that challenged the misrepresentation of the African image in Western narratives.6 His famous critique of Joseph Conrad is a permanent feature in most cultural studies and discussions of postcolonial literature.7 There is a peculiar twenty-first-century resurgence of this preoccupation with Western representation of Africa. When NoViolet Bulawayo’s short story, “Hitting Budapest” won the prestigious Caine Prize in 2011, most African bloggers responded with astonishment that her story, set in the slums of Zimbabwe, was chosen at all.8 Even as a shortlisted story, it attracted much negative reaction. Critics dismissed it and others like it as exercises in “Africa- poverty-pornography.”9 Bulawayo’s novel, We Need New Names, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, and which was built on the experiences of characters in “Hitting Budapest,” met with similar eviscera- tions by reviewers, most of whom were African. Writing in The Guardian, the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila asks whether the jury had not succeeded in imposing an aesthetic of violence on Africa. He laments what he calls “poverty-porn”: stories that dwell mainly on child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside. He asks whether:

[the] new writing is a fair representation of the existential realities of Africa,

or if it is just a “Caine-prize aesthetic” that has emerged in a vacuum created

by the judges and the publishers and agents over the years, and which has

begun to perpetuate itself.10

Habila argues that the award itself is infusing poverty porn into the African imagination because “writing is an incestuous business: style feeds on style, especially if that particular style has proven itself capable of winning prizes and book deals and celebrity.”11 This is a surprising review from Habila, given that he, too, is a product of the Caine Prize tradition, and that two years earlier he had praised the new generation of writers nurtured by the Caine Prize organization as “post-nationalist,” meaning that the writers look beyond the nation and national politics.12 Might one suspect that he was swayed by Dobrota Pucherova’s sarcastic assessment of the Caine Prize’s short stories, in which she suggests that African writers are now engaging in self-anthropologizing?13

Writing in NEXT, once an influential Nigerian newspaper, Ikhide Ikheloa laments that “the creation of a Prize for ‘African writing’ may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.”14 In what appears to be a page from Robert Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Zimbabwean critic Stanley Mushava takes Habila’s criticism further by alleging that Bulawayo is merely pandering to Western readers:

The Western media is in consensus that Africa is a dark continent and Zimbabwe is a troubled spot. Stories about local achievements and authentic African aspirations always get overlooked while Africa is only a synonym of war, poverty and civil unrest going by the lenses of Fox, CNN and BBC.15

Another Zimbabwean writer and academic, Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu, lamented in an interview with Stanley Mushava that African writing was “being produced more as a commodity than as a value” because those who control the institutions responsible for the production of African narratives “possess fixed ideas about what African literature should and should not be, and what authentic African characters can or cannot do”; their ideas about Africa are not different from the one represented in “Joseph Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ [sic].”16

The criticism leveled by Habila and others plays into the ideological premises of Binyavanga Wainana’s “How to Write About Africa,”17 and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.”18 These premises can be traced back to Chinua Achebe and other postcolonial theorists, who challenged the West’s representation of non-Westerners in order to contest the power relation between the West and colonized nations. This construct has become a staple of postcolonial theory. Resistance to the West was, and still is, a necessary act of survival in Africa. Sadly, one of the consequences of such an act has been an instinctive reaction to defend Africa as it is.19 The critics of Bulawayo, who operate from the perspective of postcoloniality, assume that the writer is merely promoting the cause of imperialism in Africa. As Lizzy Attree argues, such critics “presume the motives of African writers themselves, which is a dangerous critical tendency.”20

Okparanta’s writing shows similar characteristics to that of Bulawayo with regard to the alleged creation of a pornography of poverty. However, most reviews of Happiness, Like Water have been written by Westerners in Western media outlets, and are overwhelmingly positive. Of course, that would not surprise critics such as Habila and Mushava because Westerners, in their minds, have merely discovered stories that confirm their yearning for African poverty narratives. Is it really true that these writers merely write to please the Western audience? How about the human rights of the individuals represented in the story? Is it accidental that most of the critics are male?

The writers in question have not let the criticism of their works go unanswered. Bulawayo has argued that her interest is in “the real stories on the ground.”21 What does she mean by that? My concern in this chapter is not to judge the merits or failures of African narratives, nor to judge the merits of Bulawayo’s aesthetics based on her stated goals. I am interested in examining the grammar of motives in her narrative and that of her contemporary, Okparanta. What do their narratives reveal about women’s rights in the societies they write about? When I speak of a grammar of motives, I am not suggesting a knowledge of the intentions of the authors. Rather, I return to the second element in Adam Zachary Newton’s triadic structure of narrative ethics, that is, “the costs incurred in fictionalizing oneself or others by exchanging ‘person’ for ‘character.’”22 What are the ethical implications of their project? By examining the world of the characters, I intend to discuss the ethical burdens that the authors have accepted and the demands that their narratives place on readers. “Grammar of motives” is a term introduced by Kenneth Burke, and one of its assumptions is that the only way we can understand why people do what they do is to impute motives arrived at by interpreting their actions. Burke identifies act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose as keys to the understanding of motives in literary works.23 In this regard, it is important to consider Lizzy Attree’s intervention in the debates about the authentic representation of African reality in contemporary African writing. She argues that:

It is so much more interesting to look at a writer’s work outside and beyond the limits of postcolony as modern subject and agent, which is where they should be, rather than as objects to be critiqued using postcolonial theories, such as those espoused by Said, Spivak, and Bhabha... Moving beyond the limits of the postcolony opens up the realm of possibilities and lays bare the plethora of subjects about which African writers can choose to write.24

I agree with Attree, and submit that Bulawayo and Okparanta write about the suffering of women in African societies not because African men are worse than the men in other parts of the world, but because the patriarchal systems in African societies subject women to needless suffering and hinder their facets of selfhood. As Ricoeur argues, the representation of such suffering in literary works must be understood in the Aristotelian sense of mimesis, of “imitation of action.”25 Storytelling is not a neutral act; it always comes packaged with the storyteller’s assumptions. Nor are interpretations without bias. Yet there is a common ground between telling and listening. At some point, the listener feels that she has understood something in the story; the story touches her. As Newton argues, listening is also an ethical act; it calls for “response as responsibility. ”26 To understand what Okparanta and Bulawayo are doing, in hearing their stories, we need to understand their characters (agents) by imaginatively reconstructing the world the authors create and by feeling, to the extent we can, what the characters feel.

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