Narrative, Empathy, and Community
The question, “mother did you even truly survive it?” echoes disturbingly in the mind. I have argued that it is meant as an interrogation of the patriarch’s epistemological assumptions, that is, his claim to understand his wife and daughter and to know what is best for them. Thus the daughter forms a bond with her mother, a bond from which the patriarch is excluded. How much would he know about his wife and daughters, he who has never listened to their stories? Perhaps they never told their stories because they did not have a voice. There is no way the patriarch could know that his wife did not survive the pain visited on her as a child because he operates under an ideology that notoriously ignores the feelings of individuals. He thus denies participation in the life of community to his wife and daughters and even to himself. The poet, in line with the virtues of narrative, gives a voice to the mother and others like her.69 She narrates their stories. We, the community, also hear their stories on behalf of the ignorant father. We partake of the lives of these women; we suffer vicariously. But our vicarious suffering will have meaning only if we interrogate the system that enables such pains.
I suggested above that Nnedi Okorafor has the community in mind when her narrator tells how a man, Mwita, helped Onyesonwu regrow the piece of flesh responsible for pleasure. The presence of community in the narrative spheres of the African women writers under discussion is one of their outstanding traits. These writers are interested in human flourishing in African communities. Their ideal community is one that will not allow individuals to sacrifice their pleasure in the name of an abstract ideology. It could be argued that they seek to realize the ideals of ubuntu. Their conception of community is multicolored and political.70 It is also rooted in empathy, in compassion for the other, and this is what their narratives seek to achieve.
Discussing Aristotle’s concept of human flourishing, Alasdair MacIntyre examines the word misericordia, which is Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotelian sympathy, and states that it is precisely the virtue that communities require in order to thrive. “Misericordia has regard to urgent and extreme need without respect of persons. It is the kind and scale of the need that dictates what has to be done, not whose need it is.”71 For MacIntyre, virtue is necessary if human life is to flourish. We need a community in which those virtues thrive, one that encourages the common good, based not on prescribed rules but on the recognition of mutual empathy and dependence and on one another’s freedom. MacIntyre argues:
It is most often to others that we owe our survival, let alone our flourishing, as we encounter bodily illness and injury, inadequate nutrition, mental defect and disturbance, and human aggression and neglect. This dependence on particular others for protection and sustenance is most obvious in early childhood and old age.72
Between childhood and old age we go through many forms of dependence. The requisite virtue is that of acknowledged dependence on others, rather than the facade of exclusionary, misguided individualism. Stories bring us closer to our fellow humans by allowing us to encounter their vulnerabilities. For MacIntyre, the virtue of misericordia has political implications. “To treat someone else as someone for whom we have a regard” because of possible dependence on them, or theirs on us, “is to accord them political recognition.”73 This political recognition is especially welcome because it stems not from authority figures but from “everyday practical reasoning”; it is born in the “everyday activity of every adult capable of engaging in it.”74 Relating to others, having them within the reach of our imagination situates them within the axis of our feeling and consideration. They are no longer abstract entities; they are human beings who might depend on me and on whom I might depend.
The narratives of contemporary African women writers, as I have already argued, help us bridge the gap between others and us, and between genders. They make others real in our moral imaginations also by allowing us to put ourselves in their positions. The women in our lives are therefore no longer persons about whom society can make abstract laws, but rather persons whom men can relate to as fellow humans, as the moral beings that they are.