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

Of Pain and the Demand for Empathy

Contemporary Western ethical theories have been largely influenced and dominated by utilitarianism and the Kantian deontological approaches. What they have in common is their positivistic ideal of scientific knowledge. They assume that human nature can be understood only by reason. The human person is conceived rationally, and therefore the rules that guide people’s interrelationships are grounded in reason. But the Neo-Aristotelians or virtue ethicists argue that rule-oriented ethicists ignore a very important aspect of our moral lives; they ignore the fact that the human person does not live in conditions of pure reason as Descartes had believed, and that moral insights are not acquired through reason alone. Insight can also be gained through literature. In The Ethics of Cultural Studies, Joanna Zylinska suggests that the logical applications of ethical rules to specific individuals are ineffective. Ethics, she argues, “emerges from the lived experience of corporeal, sexual beings.”46 Richard Rorty has noted that the modern world has derived more moral progress from “descriptions of particular varieties of pain and humiliation (in, e.g., novels or ethnographies) rather than philosophical or religious treatises.”47 Stories therefore are agents of morality not only because of their impact on us, but also for what they reveal about others through portrayals of their struggle. The situations described in the narratives, Rorty argues, urge us to engage the individual (the literary character) not by way of abstract, cosmic terms, but on her own terms, or on the terms that the pain she experiences as a human being has dictated.48 Examining the relationship between life and literary fiction, Paul Ricoeur argues that “the plot serves to make one story out of the multiple incidents or, if you prefer, transforms the many incidents into one story.”49 Through emplotment, the disparate incidents in a particular life are organized into a distinct meaning-making narrative. The meaning of the story is arrived at when we follow the story from one incident to another. To become engaged in the narrated details of the human life is an ethical act. We bring our understanding to bear upon that life. Ricoeur identifies this as the narrative understanding of human life. By this he refers to the understanding that takes into account various aspects of the life of that individual as parts of a comprehensive whole. Narrative understanding is the knowledge resulting from fruitful engagements with narratives, or with a person’s life stories.50 Meaningful links between different and often contradictory events are made in ways that lead to insight. This is a special domain of the hermeneutic circle, where we move from part to whole and back again.51 Ricoeur argues that:

It is the function of poetry in its narrative and dramatic form, to propose to the imagination and to its mediation various figures that constitute so many thought experiments by which we learn to link together the ethical aspects of human conduct and happiness and misfortune. By means of poetry we learn how reversals and fortune result from this or that conduct, as this is constructed by the plot in the narrative.52

Narrative understanding is a necessity if ethical relationships are to exist. The ethical content of comprehension is manifested when we cease making judgments about individuals based on abstract rules or ideologies, and instead begin to judge them through the insight gained from their individual stories. Racist or patriarchal ideologies establish abstract modes of judging individuals. Narratives, to the degree that they explore individual lives, are opposed to these ideologies.53

Bulawayo and Okparanta advocate a narrative understanding of the African lives they write about. They are not fixated on the pain of their characters per se; rather they highlight that as a part of the individual’s stories and as an expression of the anomalies of a given system. Thus the different forms of women’s pain embody instances of the system that obstructs the exercise of women’s rights. This is where I locate the ethical imperative of their narratives. According to Ricoeur, when the full extent of the incidents of an individual person’s life are organized, a phronetic understanding emerges, one that allows us to relate to characters in realistic narratives as if they were real persons.54 In this case therefore what should occupy a morally conscious person is how to change the systems that necessitate the abuse of rights, rather than save Africa’s image.

In Okparanta’s story, “Fairness,” Uzoamaka’s light-skinned mother regularly reminds Uzoamaka of her dark skin. She reads American magazines and buys into the American notion of beauty, which she holds up to her daughter for emulation. The narrator uses the word, “fairness” as a double entendre: “Our skin is the colour not of ripe pawpaw peels, but of its seeds. We are thirsty for fairness.”55 Though the narrator speaks of the color of their skin, she makes a subtle reference to the condition of women in that world, one that cries for fairness. In a remarkably selfdestructive act that reminds us of Butler’s idea on subjection, Uzoamaka’s mother prods her daughter to bleach her skin by comparing her to one of the family’s maids, Ekaite, who has successfully bleached her own skin. She speaks glowingly of Ekaite as being beautiful in every way.56 At the same time she despises her other maid, Eno, who has not yet lightened her dark skin, waving her away as if she were a fly.57 After hearing of the success of lightening skin using bleach, Uzoamaka convinces Eno to dip her face in a bucket filled with laundry bleach. The consequences are obvious: Eno’s face is mutilated. She is literally disabled. The descriptive details give the story its narrative-ethical force. Eno screams as the bleach eats into her face:

Ekaite rushes towards us, sees that it is Eno who is in pain. She reaches her hands out to Eno, holds Eno’s face in her palms. Eno screams, twists her face. Her cheeks contort as if she is sucking in air. She screams and screams. I feel the pain in my own face. Ekaite looks as if she feels it too, and for a moment I think I see tears forming in her eyes.58

The description highlights three instances of pain, linked by the author’s yearning to bring together three human beings of inherent dignity: Eno, Ekaite, and the narrator. The narrative raises the question: Why must women literally disfigure themselves in order to please society (men)? Why does society subject them to such unnecessary pain? Dave Beech has argued that ideals of beauty have to be understood as part of “the Ideological State Apparatuses of art... Beauty is ideological because it is a cherished term for a specific interpellated subject within art’s apparatus. It is because beauty is related to being good that it must be controversial.”59

“Fairness” could be read as a story of how ideologies lead women to turn against one another in society, and incapacitate one another. These ideologies are woven into society’ s social and cultural institutions. Consistent with Ricoeur’s assertions regarding narrative, Okparanta provides us with incidents in the lives of her female characters that allow us to understand why they seek to destroy one another. We understand that Uzoamaka’s mother is not in control of her destiny; she has fallen victim to forces beyond her. She had become psychically attached to her subjection. Fairness towards women consists in first understanding the source oftheir pain. It is therefore not just a fair complexion that these women want in “Fairness”; they want to be treated with decency. With fairness. But so do the characters in We Need New Names. The chapter in the latter titled “Real Change” provides a sarcastic view of history and conditions in post-independence Zimbabwe.

The death of a child named Freedom is of central importance, and it is told in the form of a recollection inserted between narratives about national elections. Election is, of course, a ritual that captures the condition of the new country as a free state, one that is no longer ruled by a white minority. Freedom is exactly what their leader fought for, and won for them. The narrator is haunted by the remembrance of how she and her family were rendered homeless, and how Freedom, their freedom, was killed.60 When the bulldozers demolish their shanties, they also crush the child of Nomviyo, one of the residents of the slum. Nomviyo had gone shopping, and when she returns and sees that her shanty is no longer there, she screams: “I left my Freedom sleeping in there!... Nomviyo looks at the thing that is also her son and throws herself on the ground.”61 Freedom is therefore a real person and a trope. The display of pun and irony reveals Bulawayo’s grasp of the complex African postcolonial condition, and her intention to trouble the simplistic moral imagination of evil white people and good Africans implicit in much of conventional postcolonial thoughts. In ordering the shanties crushed, the leader, who fought against the white regime for independence, indirectly crushes his justification for being. The death of freedom is a signifier of the constraints that the slum dwellers experience, and this is crystallized in the detailed description of Nomviyo’ s experience of pain. Her suffering elicits empathy from readers, who are made to see the larger forces that conspire against the shanty dwellers. Martha Nussbaum’s succinct definition of empathy as the “imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer,”62 aids our understanding of the scene. The narrator draws our attention to the pain that these women should not be made to suffer.

“Wahala” in Okparanta’s Happiness, Like Water describes the troubles in the life ofa woman, Ezinne, who is thought to be barren. She is made to go to a medicine woman to remove a curse placed on her by the spirits. She then endures a painful sex act in order to provide her husband with a child that would earn him respect in the community. The Urban Dictionary defines wahala as “a pidgin English word used mostly by Nigerians, meaning trouble.” The story is a commentary on the fate of married women who cannot have children. The husband ofsuch a woman can, without being challenged, “cast her away” and take “another wife.”63 She cannot challenge her husband because she has no right to do so; she has no right because she is a woman.

The issue of childless women has been at the center of African women’s writing ever since the pioneer African author Flora Nwapa wrote about it in her novel, Efuru.64 Women writers have been unduly criticized, especially by male critics, for what seems to them to be an excessive focus on barrenness.65 Yet, the issue of female barrenness is central to the existence of women in a typical African patriarchal context, where women derive rights not only to own property, but also to be able to live in their husbands’ home, only through their male offspring. Given the cultural context in that world, few people ask if the imperfection could lie elsewhere; very few question the man’s fertility. The narrator confronts this paradigm: “And what if the imperfection was not really even in her? What if it was in him?” Of course, the question seeks to challenge the cultural assumptions that made Ezinne’s suffering possible. But Ezinne could not dare voice this thought because “it was generally understood that such things were the fault of the woman.”66 By remarking that imperfections such as infertility are generally understood to be the fault of women in the family, the narrator insinuates an association with the biblical narrative of the origin of imperfection in the world. Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, but more specifically through Eve. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s curiosity was responsible for spreading evil in the world. Given the assumption that women are the source of evil, society is disposed to believe that their pain is atonement for their crime. No one in Ezinne’s world is genuinely interested in the pain she suffers in intercourse. Each time her husband “made to enter her, she stiffened, and there was pain. Or rather, she said, it was hard to tell which one came first—the stiffening or the pain.”67 Like the pain that Ada’s mother experienced in “Runs Girl,” Ezinne’s pain has no specific source. How then can that pain be stopped? The first step is to listen to her. Her condition requires that she be allowed to tell her own story; it requires that her world ask her: “Who are you?” But no one in her world seems interested.

The failure to listen to Ezinne has obvious ethical implications: it blocks those around her from entering into an empathic relationship with her or to relate to her in any significant way. This failure leads her people to prescribe a generalized and abstract form of healing; they take her to the medicine woman, who comes up with a magical diagnosis of the wahala. Ezinne then learns that she had been cursed by the spirits, and for no specific reason. The medicine woman tells her: “They curse us sometimes for no reason at all. Or sometimes they curse us because something or someone has inadvertently angered them. Or sometimes simply because they are in a bad mood.”68 By locating the cause of Ezinne’s purported barrenness in the spiritual world, the medicine woman, who represents the traditional attitudes of that world, denies Ezinne a role in the resolution of her wahala; Ezinne therefore becomes a mere spectator in her own world. The medicine woman is the very tool with which society imprisons Ezinne, another woman, and thus becomes an agent of society’s ideological apparatus.69 True to her role as a patriarchal functionary, the medicine woman goes on to perform her ritualistic magical healing on Ezinne, who receives it all passively. The medicine woman performs the same function that Grandmama did in Adichie’s “Tomorrow is too Far.” At this point in the story, the reader has been sufficiently confronted with the absurdity of Ada’s condition. Why is she silent and passive? Her silence is designed to confront the reader. Thus her silence becomes a statement on how social structures rob women of their voice and reduce them to the status of slaves in their relations to men.

Having established the backdrop against which we can understand women’s concerns, the narrator focuses on a particular instance of Ezinne’s pain. When her husband wants to make love to her she allows him. But:

as he enters her, there is the pain, sharp and as wilful as ever before. She moans, but he enters her anyway. He thrusts himself into and out of her, and she continues to moan, louder and louder. “Please” she finally screams, but he doesn’t seem to hear. She tries again. “Chibuzo, please stop.”70

It is emblematic of society’s attitude to women that Chibuzo hears in Ezinne’s cry of pain only “gentle sounds of pleasure.”71 Given that Ezinne’s mother has also become part of the ideological apparatus, she too hears what Ezinne’s husband hears when she eavesdrops on the couple to learn whether they are doing what the medicine woman had prescribed.72 The narrator paints a picture of a sadistic society with regard to women’s wahalas, one that reveals the gulf between women and society within patriarchal systems. The system makes people act as if they were sadistic and thus women find no willing ear for their stories. They are therefore silent and silenced; they are further objectified. As Hillary Clinton says in the already cited speech: “human rights are women’s rights—and women’s rights are human rights. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to

speak freely-and the right to be heard.”73

Ezinne has been denied her human rights because the system of her society has no place for her to speak freely, and to tell her story. The system could be challenged. The chasm between women and society might be bridged when people begin to be attentive to women’s cries and their narratives or when society understands that a woman’s cry of pain is, in fact just that, a cry of pain. Indeed, Okparanta suggests that the cure of Ezinne’s problem would have begun with listening to her story. “Wahala” and the other stories in the collection could be read as the diary of the “intense pain” that women are forced to endure in patriarchal societies. They raise questions whose answers are in no way obvious in African contexts: Why do women experience pain that others interpret as pleasure? Is it possible for a woman not to enjoy sex with men? Could Ezinne have undergone female genital excision? Could it be that she has a different sexual orientation? None of these questions are likely to be examined closely in an environment in which wahalas are given abstract, generalized diagnoses. This is the ethical import of narrated life. We ask questions targeted specifically at the individual as an embodied being.

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