Historical Consciousness and Human Rights
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues for the relevance of literary tradition to the individual talent. She, of course, gives this modernist idea, shared also by T.S. Eliot, a characteristic feminist bent:
For we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure ... The weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully... Perhaps the first thing she would find, setting pen to paper, was that there was no common sentence ready for her use.47
As well as the relevance of tradition, Woolf suggests solidarity among women. To understand the need for resistance and struggle for human rights, one only needs to look back to how people like oneself had been treated. The awareness of how women have been treated in history would invariably nourish the consciousness of solidarity among them. No one can articulate the pains and joys of being a woman more than women. The only person an adolescent female can turn to for confirmation of the changes taking place in her body is her mother or elder sisters. Men have no experience of such, and when they narrate about the world, they do so from the wealth of their own experiences. Woolf argues that male writers construct sentences “out of their own needs for their own uses,” and their uses have largely flourished at the expense of women.48 It is therefore the task of women to rediscover their images and themselves from the spoils of history.
In the introductory part of this chapter, I mentioned Unigwe’s doctoral dissertation about her literary foremothers. I interpret her project in light of Virginia Woolf’s injunction that women think through their mothers. In that dissertation Unigwe examined Igbo women’s writing as “counter-discourses to oral traditions,” the latter of which she identifies as a trove of patriarchal epistemology that hinder women’s rights. She also examines how women’s writing challenges “the dominant (written) male tradition” and their characterizations of women. These women writers, Unigwe argues, “transgress the boundary set for them by an earlier male-dominated tradition.” Equally important is the fact that “female authors have been creating their own traditions.”49
Unigwe’s discussion of Flora Nwapa as a writer is emblematic of her understanding of her foremothers as champions of women’s rights.
Nwapa, for Unigwe, “commits herself to first righting the fallacy about women in her society. Efuru is also principally important because it signifies women as the text. Efuru is its protagonist. The text is both her and of her.”50 Unigwe observes how Nwapa creates two women characters as contrasts in order to enhance her argument about the representation of women in society. Efuru’s mother is largely absent; all we know about her comes from what other characters, mainly men, say about her. So they define her, shape her identity: “The impression we get of Efuru’s mother is that she is a female contained within the patriarchal order. She is beautiful and in life has never annoyed her husband. Her absence can be read as a lack of substance.”51 It is therefore no surprise that Nwapa creates Efuru as an opposite of her mother. Where her mother was seen only as an absence, she is a presence. Efuru’s presence therefore more than makes up for her mother’s absence. For Unigwe, “it is obvious that Nwapa’s reason for writing this book is to create a character like Efuru, a character who challenges the truth of Igbo women as submissive (as pronounced in folktales and encouraged in proverbs).”52
The critical observations Unigwe makes about Flora Nwapa apply to most other pioneer women writers: they seek to establish women as a presence rather than an absence; where women have been presented as submissive and voiceless in oral narratives, or works by men, they are presented as assertive and as having agency in women’s narratives. In On Black Sisters’ Street, Unigwe extends Nwapa’s task of making women present. This she does by exposing the system that conspires to make them an absence. Making women present, or bringing those characters to our axis of empathy is understood as her effort to highlight their human rights. Furthermore, making women present means drawing attention to the supremacy of the body in regards to rights.