Twenty years after Mariama Bâ, a new generation of women writers

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The specificity of women’s writing? In the face of modernity, the male/female distinction is being replaced by a less reductive vision which attempts to articulate belonging and the universal.

2001, twenty years after Mariama Bâ passed away. Her very brief work, constituted by two novels alone, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter, 1979) and Un chant écarlate (Scarlet Song, 1981), nonetheless marks a turning point in African literature. Although she was not the first French-speaking African female novelist to be published – Thérèse Kouoh-Moukouri (Cameroon), Aoua Keïta (Mali), and above all Aminata Sow Fall (Senegal) had already emerged as pioneers in the Seventies – Mariama Bâ nonetheless marked the real beginning of the visibility of French-speaking African women writers. Une si longue lettre‘s obtaining of the Japanese Noma prize in 1980, thrust this text onto the international literary scene. The text, which contains the seeds of all the component elements of African novels by women in the Eighties, gives voice to women in the intimacy of the diary/letter, the confidentiality of first-person narration, but also in the dialogue and the conversation with the privileged female speaker it creates. It is essentially about speaking out, a testimony and portrait seen from within. It evokes the trials and sufferings of the African woman in the couple, faced with the polygamous structure, the questions confronting her in her triple role of daughter, wife and mother (and, can be added, mother-in-law).
In 1996 in Femmes rebelles: naissance d’un nouveau romain africain au féminin (Rebellious Women: the new Generation of African Female Novelists, Lynne Rinner/Three Continent Press, 1999), I demonstrated that these first texts substituted a new phase with a novel that was more openly critical of Africa’s post-colonial societies. The transition from one stage to the other took place through a systematic provocation operating on two fronts. The first was the initial choice of female characters situated on the margins of society (the foreigner, prostitute, mad woman) who, as a result of their marginalization, were somehow given permission, if not actually justified in having a much greater freedom of speech. This in turn meant that these protagonists could broach wider questions concerning the post-colonial African situation. Secondly, by exploring zones until then considered taboo or trivial – writing the body, desire, sexuality, relations between women, between mother and daughter, introspection and the expression of man in his intimacy – the new generation of female novelists challenged the norms of the novel. In their exploration of the forbidden and the trivial, they notably appropriated new zones of language and discourse, whether it be in the order of the violent, the abject, the horrible, the sexual, but also the vulgar or the political. All the domains that were until then considered to be man’s own bastion. In their visionary view of what tomorrow’s Africa might hold, they developed a new political novel from the mid-Eighties on, which broke away from the immobility of their male colleagues’ works.
In the space I have here, I would like to develop the two following points. Firstly, I would like to examine the work produced over the last five years by writers who already featured in my corpus – whether it be Animata Sow Fall, Ken Bugul, Tanella Boni, Véronique Tadjo, or Calixthe Beyala. Secondly, I would like to explore new work by women writers who have emerged in the mid-Nineties, notably Fatou Keïta, Mariama Barry, Nathalie Etoké, and Bessora. In the light of these texts, I will ask the following question: twenty years after Mariama Bâ, should we, can we, still talk about women’s writing?
Generally speaking, the question of male/female writing or of the male/female narrative discourse has been the object of much and virulent debate in the United States. Starting out from this point, I recalled in Femmes rebelles what had notably been concluded at a round table on the question in 1987. That is, that difference – if difference there is – did not stem from specific themes (polygamy, sexual operations, sterility), nor from a narrative structure such as the autobiographical or letter form, any more than it did from the immediacy of communication or the presence of elements of orality. The « sexing of space » possibly appeared to be the only element worth noting. The question was pertinent twenty years ago, however, because the time had come for women to break the silence. Speaking out and a female perspective on women were a necessary stage in developing a better self-understanding. This in itself was a premise for a wider-reaching writing that recognized women’s place in society, in the world, in their century. Today, we have proof of both the visibility of African women on the literary scene, and of the vigour and innovative nature of their writing. Through their self-created mechanism of rebellion, they have indeed carved themselves out a central place in African literature. In so doing, they have broken out of what could have become a ghetto that could have restricted them to producing women’s writing for women readers.
The paths of three writers: Aminata Sow Fall, Ken Bugul, Calixthe Beyala
Right from the very start, Aminata Sow Fall’s writing has had a socio-political impact beyond the realm of the female world. Her vision concerns society as a whole. La grève des Battu (The Beggars’ Strike) already gave an indication of this in the Seventies, L’Ex-père de la nation (The Nation’s former Father-figure) in the Eighties. Douceurs du bercail (Home Sweet home, 1998) continues in this same vein.1
The novel starts out with the charter flights forcefully repatriating deportees, the repeated administrative harassments endured by passing Africans and immigrants, whether legal or not. It demonstrates that novels from the continent are also beginning to turn their gaze this way, and that the author is innovative in this respect.2
Whilst indirectly depicting the false image of France as a land of welcome and easy success for young Africans, the novel primarily shows the protagonist, Asta’s determination to make a fresh start, as she better appreciates things at home, i.e. the richness and gentleness of the fold. The way in which the author goes beyond the scope of Senegalese society alone to address the question of the future of today’s Africa is innovative. Innovative too is the choice of the female protagonist. But there is a continuity in Aminata Sow Fall’s desire to speak as a Senegalese citizen, being a woman simply appearing as a component.
Unlike Aminata Sow Fall, Calixthe Beyala has positioned women’s perspectives and their status in society at the fore right from her first novel.3 With Le petit prince de Belleville (The Little Prince of Belleville, 1992) and its sequel Maman a un amant (Mother has a lover, 1993), however, Beyala inaugurated a cycle of « Parisian » novels at the beginning of the Nineties. Here the focus was no longer on one character as an individual, nor predominantly on a woman, but on the Malian immigrant community in Belleville. In addition to the spatial displacement, the author broke off from her preceding texts in her focus on the family and the community. New too was her initiation of a dialogue between men and women and a new sexual ethic there where her female characters had been fighting a war of the sexes up until then. However, since Assèze l’Africaine (Assèze The African Woman, 1994), the onus has once again been placed on the woman. In this context, Beyala considers the immigration phenomenon in terms of the possibility it offers women to change. In her representation of the immigration experience, the male/female question intervenes predominantly. Weakened by their immigrant status, her male characters display a marked sense of nostalgia for the past and their bygone native land, whereas, on the contrary, their women partners look to the future and see immigration as a dynamic undercurrent and a potential for change. Through this, the author demonstrates a double transformation: both of the power structures within the family unit, and of the single, unmarried woman who tries to imagine life independent of a man.
We can also point to the work of Ken Bugul who, after a cycle of three autobiographical texts, has taken us deeper into the female world with Riwan ou le chemin de sable (1998). Aux antipodes du Baobab fou (The Mad Baobab Tree, 1983), the third text, on the contrary depicts the return to the village as a spiritual and traditional rooting. Its boldness is no longer to be found in the evocation of the hybridization undergone by the female narrator-protagonist in her experience of Belgium, prostitution, and the drug world. Quite on the contrary, it is found in her evocation of life under the polygamous structure, as the twenty-eighth wife of the serigne. Its boldness lies in the unveiling of pleasure, in the expression of the feeling of jealousy, and the intimacy of the African woman. By giving us to access a world taken to be exclusively female, Ken Bugul makes us realize that the notion of daring, of taboo, has also evolved in twenty years. She makes us realize that readers and critics are going to react in relation to these evolutions and that consequently, the notion of reception clearly needs to be taken into consideration in the male/female question.
Generally, the trends highlighted in Femmes rebelles, and in particular the visionary view of society and the Africa of tomorrow, have been confirmed over the last five years. Women’s writing has confirmed its authority and visibility. But new challenges have also emerged. In a conference on the subject – « The challenges for the African woman on the eve of the twenty-first century »4 – Véronique Tadjo identified the greatest challenge for women as that of « finding the words », of facing « the challenge of honesty, of sincerity », and of showing women as they are, and not as super-extraordinary beings, and thus of remaining critical and lucid as a writer. And, above all, before an Africa that is struggling, of « staying hopeful », of « avoiding Afro-pessimism, reconciling the cultures, of refusing exclusion. » « Women writers have to keep their pens alert to the world’s rifts « , said Tadjo.
New voices have come to join the already known voices to take up these new challenges.
New female voices
In the new voices to have emerged since 1995, certain subjects are tackled more systematically, notably the question of excision, whether it be in Rebelle (1998) by Fatou Keïta or La petite peule (The Young Peul Girl, 2000) by Mariama Barry. Through a highly sophisticated narrative construction, in which the female narrator-protagonist evokes her experience of (failed) excision via several places, times, and capacities (village child, young student-social worker in Paris, president of an anti-excision organization on return to the country), Fatou Keïta manages to raise the question, but also goes beyond it to evoke the condition of women in modern society more generally, whether in Paris or in the country of origin. Mariama Barry for her part vigorously explores the mother-daughter relationship in terms of the mother’s rejection and harshness. The novel also tries to understand the mother’s gesture, as a mother who cuts herself off from her children, as a woman who takes the initiative to divorce with all the consequences this has in her family and cultural milieu.5
New writing, notably that of Nathalie Etoké and Bessora, is also emerging around the question of migration and the quest for identity.6 Both situate their protagonists, both male and female, in the context of immigration and the procedure to get papers. Both stand out from their men and women colleagues in that they give voice and depth to both male and female characters, without their perspective necessarily prioritizing one sex or the other.
Etoké poses the question of what future lies in store for young Africans, what dreams when the dream of France as a land of welcome has been denounced. Bessora injects a good dose of at times ferocious humour. Gaulologue, la protagoniste de 53cm (1999) offers a vision of French society which is in turn mocking, derisive, ferocious and funny. Following on from Beyala, she proves that women writers also know how to handle humour, and that they do so with brio. The nature and range of Bessora’s gaze recalls Blaise N’Djehoya’s approach in the early Eighties in Regard Noir (1984). Here again, although the protagonist’s (and writer behind the pen’s) humour is most clearly communicated from a woman’s point of view, the text, like N’Djehoya’s, works primarily from the angle of the anthropologist in reverse.7 This same irony-tinged humorous tone is found again in Les taches d’encre (2000) and its incisive portrayal of hidden forms of racism.
These two writers are also distinguished by their young age – around twenty at the time of their first novel. The orientation of their vision and the quality of their writing marks a rupture in that it forces us to reconsider post-colonial literature, which can no longer be seen as a monolithic block created by a single generation. They indeed demonstrate that the age parameter intervenes predominantly, and that the issues they face – just like Isabelle Boni-Claverie in La Dévoreuse (The Great Devouring City, 1999) or Abibiatou Traoré in Sidagamie (1999) – evoke a different context. For those born at the end of the Seventies/beginning of the Eighties, being twenty today has a different, more bitter, more uncertain taste in the light of a new context. Gone is the enthusiasm of the first generation of women armed with degrees, who dreamed of rebuilding a new Africa at the time of independence. In its place is the context of Aids, of rising unemployment, in Europe too. The dream of a nation, or of success through migrating to France or Europe thus soon fades, giving way to disillusion, even if the question of a way out for young people on the continent is all the more pressing.
Before being women writers, they are first and foremost young writers who belong to a generation, just like their male colleagues Jean-Luc Raharimanana, or Kossi Efoui, or Abdourahman Waberi. Side by side, they force us to take new parameters into account, whether they be the parameters of age or the place of writing and living. Beyond redefining the boundaries between male and female, they also urge us to think again about writing’s commitment.
Confronting social and political questions, going beyond the habitual male/female demarcation is not exclusive to the new voices. We have mentioned Aminata Sow Fall’s work. Tanella Boni’s texts fall into this same vein. One can find parallels between a text such as Les baigneurs du lac rose (The Bathers of the Pink Lake, 1995) by Tanella Boni and Le Cavalier et son ombre (1998) by Boubacar Boris Diop, or Cinema (1998) by Tierno Monénembo in their attempt to confront the past, to retrace History, to work on memory, for example. All of these authors confront the notion of the past in its moments of glory, but also in its failings, and think about the meaning of the hero, of who Africa’s heroes are.
The publication of Véronique Tadjo’s L’Ombre d’Imana (2000) and Monique Ilboudou’s Murekatete along with texts by eight other male colleagues, in the framework of the « Rwanda: writing in duty to memory » project also corroborates this. It is not a question of male writing/female writing. Each author has approached the question with his or her own sensibility, from his or her own angle. And, in fact, if you look closely at these different texts, beyond the question of the sex of the author is an ensemble of images which have struck, if not haunted, their imaginations. We can thus identify a common reflection on the question of the genocidal sites and the bodies of the victims of the genocide which have stayed exposed, without graves, of the suffering of mutilated and repeatedly raped women. A reflection too on the lot of the Rwandan youth, which lost the innocence of its childhood, and finally a reflection on love and what tomorrow may hold when all (men and women) have looked death in the face and experienced suffering, grief and horror. In this project it seems to me that all possible boundaries between female writings/male writings have been erased, merging in the testimony of the duty and the process of memory of each and everyone before the horror of genocide.
We might well ask whether Mariama Bâ would still write today as she did twenty years ago. And if not, does that mean that the condition of women has changed to the extent that there is not longer any need for a specific vision of the female experience, that, inversely, women writers no longer anchor their gaze in the female world? Beyond all inevitably gratuitous speculation, texts such as those by Fatou Keïta or Mariama Barry, but also by Ken Bugul, testify to the continuity: the juxtaposition of the unveiling of women’s painful experiences and the celebration of what constitutes pleasure.
The context of this writing and speaking out, however, has changed. Women come to writing earlier, and the range and outlook are obviously affected. Moreover, the notion of the reception of the texts intervenes and means that people no longer necessarily deduce the reductive equation, woman writer = feminine/ist novel = destined for a woman reader. The authority of the woman’s word is also accepted. Whilst in 1980, many women’s texts were decried for their choice of first-person narrative, which was associated with an inability to master literary form – also demonstrating in this respect a male/female distinction in that man was thought to speak in the name of his community, his people, whereas the woman’s word remained in the order of the personal, the individual – autobiography or personal fiction have ended up winning acclaim. At the same time, women writers have succeeded in affirming the authority of a discourse, offering us richer outlooks that are open to the future, but which are strengthened too by the wisdom of the past and the experience of the present. It is as writers, artists that they now express themselves on an equal footing with men, and speak Africa, youth, love, death, suffering, life. It is, to cite Véronique Tadjo, about understanding « the incompatibility of the belonging to a given country, a given sex, and the universal » and knowing « to go beyond oneself, beyond one’s body ».

Odile Cazenave teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
1. In the same vein as Jujubier du patriarche (The Patriarch’s Jujubier, 1993), Douceurs du bercail shows the importance of being rooted in traditional values, in what is positive and certain in them, in a modern world that devours or rejects you.
2. With the exception of a handful of texts – Le froid et le piment (The Cold and the Spicy, 1983) by Mame Sek Mbacke comes to mind in particular – it is predominantly the new African writers in Paris who depict France’s African immigrants.
3. See C’est le soleil qui m’a brûlée (It is the Sun which has burnt me, 1987), and also, Tu t’appelleras Tanga (You will be called Tanga, 1988) and Seul le diable le savait (Only the Devil knew, 1990).
4. Conference with Véronique Tadjo at Wellesley College, 8 December 1999.
5. Conversely, Barry gives more space to the image of the father, the tender father, the consoling father, even if it is not always responsibly so. One finds this same trait – the evocation of the loving father – and here the nurturing and responsible father, in Pour que ton ombre mumure encore (For Your Memory to Stay Alive, 1999) by Angèle Kingué, who, by depicting the father, also revisits the Cameroon of the independence era.
6. We can also cite Sylvie Kandé, who, in Lagon lagunes (1999) deals with the question of the quest for identity from the angle of cultural blending, and also explores forms and genres.
7. This brings to mind a similar undertaking in film, namely Manthia Diawara’s documentary Rouch in Reverse (1998).
///Article N° : 5480


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