Women in Search of Lost Dignity

In Chapter 4, I discussed Elaine Scarry’s idea of physical pain as destroying language, how it reduces us to the prelinguistic stage of human development, the stage in which tears are forms of communication.24 Scarry’s reading of physical pain as destroying language equally applies to Unigwe’s narrative in the sense that the characters’ silence and tears challenge people to respond. In On Black Sisters’ Street, the pain of the characters we have thus far encountered seeks to make not only political but also moral demands. From the moment Sisi has her first client, the moment she has sexual intercourse with a stranger for money against her will, she realizes she has lost what is most valuable to her: her dignity. She is clueless as to what to do with the first client: “She [sits] still, her second glass of beer untouched, her heart heavy with a sadness that was close to a rage.” She tells herself: “This is not me. I am not here. I am at home, sleeping in my bed. This is not me. This is not me. This is somebody else. Another body.”25 When her first client forces himself on her, “she baptize[s] herself into it with tears... feeling intense pain wherever he touche[s], like he [i]s searing her with a razor blade.”26 Sisi’s pains are not transient, and they are especially relevant because they are her efforts to salvage her dignity; they are her cry for help, and they appeal to people’s empathic faculties. In her desperate search for dignity, she seeks to connect with other people. It is in light of Scarry’s understanding of pain as having political consequences that we can interpret Unigwe’s feminist sensibility as a political statement. It is political to the degree that it raises fundamental questions about the organization of society. I employ the understanding of politics as used by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, which suggests that it is a fundamental organization in human community.27

In Chapter 5, I argued that contemporary African women writers are interested in human flourishing in African communities. Their notion of community is, as Martha Nussbaum put it, a “community of human beings.”28 The same can be said of Unigwe’s vision. These communities are to be understood as diverse rather than homogenous, multicolored rather than monochromatic, empathic rather than inconsiderate of the pain of others. It is a community in which the ideals of the UDHR are realized. Sisi’s story alone stands as a homage to such a community ideal, in the sense that it tells of her yearning for a world in which people treat one another with dignity. While standing in line to register as an asylum seeker, she wonders what story each person standing in line has to tell, what fate brought them there. She wishes she could ask a man next to her what his story is: “What’s your story? You want to hear mine? Would you like to trade stories? Mine for yours?”29 Her question “what’syourstory?” is another way of framing the Cavarero/Butler question, “who are you?” We get a glimpse of Sisi’s inner life as one who is aware that she has a story, that her story is a means to connect to others. Her story is her only possession; it is also what she has in common with the rest of humanity. It occupies the same position in her life as does her dream: both are intangible possessions, her rights. The larger, more embracing morality that Eagleton talked about urges us to see and respond to the life conditions of this individual who tells a story that mirrors some aspects of our lives.

As Margaret Atwood argues, one of the reasons we tell our stories and listen to those of others is to invite people to partake of our lives, and for us to partake of theirs. For her, stories have anthropological and ethical relevance.30 Granted, there could be many other reasons we might be interested in other people’s stories, one of which could be to compare ourselves with those people. But in most cases, we are moved by other people’s pain. Literature does not prescribe how people should live. Rather it exposes the “texture and quality” of characters as figurative of the way we live. Literature is a conscious reaching out to the world in a text. Literary texts are worlds packaged in accessible forms; they speak to us through figures that we, by generous acts of suspension of disbelief, take to be real. Stories are already mediated since what we experience in the text is a reflected experience of the other (the narrator) and the author. As I have pointed out in the introduction, Martha Nussbaum draws attention to the important connection between form and content, and points out that in narratives, “a view of life is told.”31 We respond to this view of life and its characters as if they existed in (our) reality.32 Seizing on what Lawrence Buell has called “the turn to ethics” in literary discourse, Amanda Anderson explores the importance of character as a “more elaborate, individualized way of life,” that evokes “settled dispositions, habits, and temperament.”33 She explains that any discussion of character:

should include a recognition of the historical conditions out of which beliefs and values emerge, as well as the possibility for the ongoing recognition of the many forces (psychological, social, and political) that can thwart, undermine, or delay the achievement of such virtues and goods.34

Anderson’s discussion of character is consistent with what Terry Eagleton identified as feminism’s contribution to literary and cultural theories. Eagleton argues that feminism explores “the texture and quality of human behavior as richly and sensitively as [it] can.”35 Anderson’s and Eagleton’s ideas agree with what Boyce Davies’s statement about the standard for critiquing African women’s writings. Anderson’s thinking also points to the understanding of characters in a novel as a way to explore people’s dignities and their human rights. It is in light of the power of literature to bring the pains and joys of our fellow humans to our attention that I understand not only Unigwe’s writing but also other African women’s writings, which center heavily on Africa without reference to the West as an imperial agent. I have argued elsewhere, citing Richard Priebe’s essay, that violence in African literature is not portrayed merely for pornographic ends. Rather, contemporary African writers call attention to the African body in pain. I echoed Priebe’s argument that “we need a rhetoric of motives, and perhaps a grammar of motives,” for their representations.36 Unigwe’s motive is ethical given her attention to people’s pain.

It is the handwriting of pain on Sisi’s body that attracts Luc, a white man, to her. Luc responds to Sisi’s call for empathy, to her humanity. He even falls in love with her. Luc recognizes Sisi’s dignity and rights as a human being. He is ready to help her. At this point, when she finally makes the decision to escape the control of Dele’s company, Sisi meets her death at the hands of Segun, who is the brothel’s handyman as well as being an important member of the company.37 It is ironic that it is a white man who recognizes Sisi’s humanity at the same time that her fellow African sees her as an object. There is, of course, nothing essentialist in this gesture. That irony suggests that love and human dignity are universal, and their recognition is not bound to color or ethnic origin; it is also Unigwe’s way of suggesting that human rights are universal.

Sisi’s death, the ultimate marker of her humanity, brings her former colleagues to reflect on their own humanity and their dignity. Her death becomes cathartic as well as catalytic, especially with regard to stories and recognition of our humanity and that of others.38 The narrator takes us through the backstories of the other women: Ama and Efe. Shortly after Ama turned eight, her stepfather began to molest her sexually. During the night of her eighth birthday he stole into her room and “fumbled under her nightdress.”39 As time went on, he began to have sex with her.40 Since then, Ama’s dream had been to flee her environment and to escape to London.41 Perhaps more painful than the actual sex abuse was the fact that her mother did not believe Ama when she eventually told her of her experience. We understand that Ama’s mother suppressed the knowledge or belief that her husband was abusing her daughter. She depended on her husband for sustenance. Thus while we are left with the impression that women fail to show solidarity with their fellow victims of patriarchal violence, the undercurrent narrative describes how an oppressive system turns them against one another: mothers against daughters. The idea of a mother turning against her daughter and of lack of solidarity among women recalls the situations in Chinelo Okparanta’s stories, “Fairness” and “Wahala. ” The patriarchal system that exploits women sets them against one another in the manner of divide and conquer.

At the age of 16, Efe begins trading her body for cash with Titus, 45 years old. When Efe’s mother dies, Efe’s father starts drinking, and the responsibility of holding the family together falls back on the 16-year old, who has to quit school. Titus promises Efe money in return for sex. After this initial painful experience, sex with Titus becomes a routine, and she eventually becomes pregnant. Titus abandons her; she has to do menial work in order to support her child and her siblings. As a teenager with a child, Efe sees herself as damaged goods.42 As these women are linked by their dreams, so are they bound by their resolve to reclaim their dignity in a world whose structure has none for them.

As is already evident, what all these women have in common is the fact that their world sees them as means to its ends rather than as ends in themselves. Simon Baron-Cohen has argued that evil is no more than “empathy erosion.” It is the situation in which people begin to treat other people as objects. Those people who treat others as objects have “Zero Degrees of Empathy,” and this is for Baron-Cohen the force behind what has always been identified as evil.43 People inflict pain on other people because they are unable to imagine themselves in the position of those on whom pain is inflicted. Stories help us bridge the gap between us and others; they enhance empathy and connection between peoples. These stories allow us to understand feminism as taking an interest in the dignity of individual women, rather than adopting an ideology that seeks to deliver a group. As Efe, Ama, and Joyce tell their stories to one another, they realize the degree to which they have been humiliated, and they ask questions of moral and existential significance. Most importantly, they offer one another recognition just by listening to one another’s accounts. To listen to a person’s stories is to recognize the person; it is to complete the storyteller’s circle of subjectivization. Having listened to each other’s life histories and therefore having affirmed one another’s humanity, they realize how offensive it was that Madam showed no feelings of loss at the death of Sisi. She merely shrugs it off and promptly demanded that they go about their business as usual. But Joyce can no longer take it. She shouts:

We’re human beings! Why should we take it? Sisi is dead and all Madam can think of is business. Doesn’t Sisi deserve respect from her? What are we doing? Why should she treat us any how and we just take it like dogs?44

Joyce’s bluster is a cry for help. It is also an acknowledgement of her own dignity, and an attempt to reclaim her human rights. Yet she and her fellows are well aware that they are trapped in a world marked with vicious profiteering. While acknowledging the truth of Joyce’s words, Ama tries to let her understand that there is little they can do. Madam works with the police. Yet Joyce does not want to accept the situation. She harbors the belief that the police would come to the slaves’ rescue if only they could summon the courage to report Madam. The only support for that belief is her instinctive trust in the inviolability of her rights as a human being and in her trust that humanity has the means to conquer evil. She makes her own personal declaration of human rights: “Madam treats us like animals. Why are we doing this?... Madam has no right to our bodies, and neither does Dele. ”45 Her words sound as if she were reading from the official UN document, especially article 4, which states that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”46 Joyce’s words sum up the moral core of the narrative world of On Black Sisters’ Street. In spite of everything she has experienced, she still clings to the universal truth that all persons are created equal, that they are endowed with rights, and that no one should be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

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