The Politics of Everyday Life
The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988
By Susan Z. Andrade
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, 259 pp., $24.95, paperback
News From Home: Stories
By Sefi Atta
Northampton, MA: Interlink, 2010, 293 pp., $15.00, paperback
By Sefi Atta
Northampton, MA: Interlink, 2010, 288 pp., $15.00, paperback
Reviewed by Heather Hewett
In her essay “Explanation and Culture: Marginalia,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes, “[A] certain program at least implicit in all feminist activity [is] the deconstruction of the opposition between the private and the public.” Spivak’s insight provides a touchstone for the literary scholar Susan Z. Andrade, who argues, in her recently published book The Nation Writ Small, that the split between public and private has long bedeviled the reception of African fiction written in European languages—particularly when it comes to the work of women writers. Andrade proposes that we reexamine the fiction of African women writers with feminist reading strategies and tools in order to understand their work as much more than “merely” private and domestic, with an eye towards addressing past omissions and oversights.
In her discussion of postindependence fiction (which includes texts published in both English and French), Andrade complicates a dominant story that still widely informs understandings of the development of African fiction. It goes like this: Europhonic African fiction emerged during the period of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, as African novelists appropriated the “language and narrative form” of the colonizers in order to “write back” to their oppressors; as a result, across the continent, novels participated in the projects of decolonization and nationalism, helping to “consolidate disparate religious, ethnic, racial, and class differences into a single national identity.”
Andrade argues that this narrative has obscured the reception of African literature in several ways. For one thing, she says, critics have tended to place more importance on novels that “were read as, and thus performed the function of, national narratives.” Writers who did not address explicitly nationalist themes tended to be left out of African literary canons—an exclusion that extended to most women as well as some men. (Consider, for example, the early twentieth-century Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, whose “indigenous West African magical realism,” Andrade says, was initially viewed by many critics as less influential than the anticolonial work of his countryman Chinua Achebe, the “father” of African literature. This interpretation has been revised as scholars have reevaluated Tutuola’s fiction.) In the case of women, Andrade observes that
African women’s fiction has encountered a “political invisibility” only partially redressed by feminist literary criticism, says Andrade. She argues that it also stems from the fact that readers haven’t appreciated the full complexity of women’s novels: in particular, the ways that public and private are often intertwined, so that “domestic life functions both literally and allegorically in relation to nationalism.” In other words, just because politics aren’t visible right on the surface doesn’t mean they’re not there. We must read differently, attuning ourselves to the ways that women writers have explored politics in subtle and indirect ways. We need to “devise new forms of literacy” in order to “understand how these texts represent politics,” Andrade advises.
These “new forms of literacy” emerge from Andrade’s careful attention to both literary form and politics. Consider her interpretation of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, a coming-of-age story about a young black girl, Tambu, and her cousin Nyasha, both living in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Literary scholars have long remarked on the absence in this novel of the Zimbabwean anticolonial struggle during the 1960s and 1970s, the time period in which the novel is set. Andrade argues that although this novel has not been “read as a national parable,” it becomes one when we reread the family as nation. Andrade suggests that we understand the two main characters as “two aspects of Zimbabwean subjectivity as the new nation emerges from and against Rhodesia”—allegories for the “struggle between the position of a ‘national’ subject [Tambu] and a ‘native’ one [Nyasha].” Andrade’s attention to form (most of all, the novel as bildungsroman) enables her to interpret these characters as both psychologically real and allegorical, and to make a powerful argument for the novel as a commentary on the roles prescribed for women in the new nation.
Andrade hopes to change our reception of African women writers—much in the way that prominent feminists have recently voiced public critiques about how the work of women writers in the U.S. is published, marketed, and read (They’ve had the statistics to back them up thanks in part to the organization VIDA, which in 2010 began publishing “counts” on its website, www.vidaweb.org, of the disparities between the numbers of female and male authors published and reviewed in high-profile venues). As the novelist Meg Wolitzer observed in the April 1, 2012 issue of The New York Times Book Review, “the top tier of literary fiction—where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation — tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” Andrade’s scholarship reminds us that this top tier seems to reproduce itself in many different settings and with lasting consequences, wherever you look.
The Nation Writ Small ends with novels published in the late 1980s. Andrade suggests that contemporary fiction by women during the last two decades has increasingly taken on macropolitics directly, citing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel Half of a Yellow Sun as an example. I am inclined to agree with the general spirit of her assessment—that contemporary women in continental Africa and its diasporas may find themselves freer to write about any subject they choose—although these artistic freedoms also vary widely with the geographical location of the writer, who may be circumscribed by state repression and censorship, human rights violations, and so on. (Of course, access to artistic freedom doesn’t equal publication—as any writer who has navigated the increasingly challenging literary marketplace in the US knows.) But even if more African-born women are writing about the nation (one might substitute “writing about globalization,” or “writing about multinational corporations”), I can’t imagine a literary universe where all fiction foregrounded the political and the public. Nor would I wish to live in such a universe. The novel has always excelled as a form that enables the exploration of interior life and interpersonal relationships within particular historical, social, and political contexts. Many authors write about both.
Nigerian-born Sefi Atta falls into this category. Slightly older than Adichie, Atta first attracted notice in 2004 with her award-winning novel Everything Good Will Come. Atta’s more recent fiction includes the richly evocative short story collection News From Home (originally published in Nigeria as Lawless) and the gripping novel Swallow. Both books explore lawlessness, suggesting that the disorder and violence of postcolonial Nigerian politics have manifested themselves in individual transgressions and private traumas. The interconnections remain elliptical in her short stories and emerge as more causal in her novel; but in each, they provide both text and subtext with layered and powerful resonances.
Atta’s best stories rivet the reader with taut, tension-filled narrative. No story explores the chaos that can result from defying accepted codes of conduct more powerfully than the short story “Lawless.” The narrator, Ogun (named for his role in a play), is a university student in Lagos. During the summer of 1994, when Sani Abacha’s military regime cracks down on unions and their political opponents, he and four friends form a theater group to work on a play, “Lawless,” about the “breakdown of society.” They set up shop in Ogun’s family home, a “dilapidated mansion” whose increasing disorder dates to his family’s murder by armed robbers. Soon the group takes in Toyosi, an out-of-work actress and single mother who needs a place to live after being disowned by her family. When Toyosi’s baby girl becomes sick, the theater group agrees to rob her sister, a banker, to procure money for a doctor. As the boys transform themselves into armed robbers, they engage in a dangerous performance that not only puts their own lives in danger but also crosses over into real violence that threatens a young woman. Atta masterfully ratchets up the tension as we watch, horrified, at what happens when youthful actors take on roles that sanction aggression and anarchy.
Subsequent stories explore other kinds of lawbreaking, such as migrating illegally across national borders. “Twilight Trek” follows the journey of a Nigerian boy who travels to the Malian border town of Gao and then across the Sahara to Morocco in an attempt to reach Spain. Part of the power of this story, like “Lawless,” emerges from the youth of its narrator, who crosses the border from childhood to adulthood as he navigates his perilous external journey. Well over half of the stories in News From Home are narrated by adolescents or young adults, and Atta’s willingness to enter the hormone-driven mind of adolescent boys in particular reveals her confidence as a writer. Take, for example, the story “Yahoo Yahoo,” named for a term referring to email scammers. Thirteen-year-old Idowu Salami’s obsession with women’s “bobbies” never lets up as he finds himself lured into Internet scamming by an older boy. Idowu’s struggle with the question of “why…people break laws” is voiced in Atta’s pitch-perfect narration, as she captures the complex mix of naïveté, ambiguity, and self-deception underlying Idowu’s adolescent moral judgment.
Not all of Atta’s stories are told from a youthful point of view. The narrator of “Last Trip,” for example, is an unnamed single mother who works as a “drug mule,” smuggling heroin from Lagos to London in her body. The work is riddled with dangers: she may be caught; the latex-encased drug pellets may explode in her stomach. Even more stressful, on this particular trip she must bring along her learning-disabled son, Dara, because neither his grandmother nor his father will look after him during her absence. Dara requires constant attention, which heightens our understanding of what is at stake: not just her own life but also the wellbeing of her son. The narrator perfectly understands the moral ambiguities of her situation, having measured her own illegal activities against those of the men who send her (who make far more money than she) and those who consume drugs at the other end:
In this moment, self-awareness, free will, and the language of addiction come together to create an unforgettable and complex portrait.
Atta dives even deeper into the psychology of drug couriers in Swallow, which follows the downward trajectory of two young professional women, Tolani and her friend Rose, both of whom work at a Lagos bank. The novel asks us to consider what divides middle-class respectability from impoverished desperation—a division made all the more precarious in the chaotic fight for survival in urban Nigeria, where frequent scams, a nonexistent social safety net, and sexist cultural norms conspire to tug women out of the middle class.
Narrated by Tolani, the story begins with a romance—or rather a thwarted romance, as Tolani worries that her longed-for marriage has been put off indefinitely by her boyfriend, Sanwo. Tolani decides on a sexual “strike” until Sanwo meets her demands, but her beau’s problem is simple: he cannot afford the cost of a church ceremony. Money also provides a constant source of tension for Rose, who is fired early in the novel and afterward spends all day on the couch, eating Tolani’s food and drinking beer. One bad thing after another happens to Rose, and then to Tolani, as the two struggle to keep afloat.
Swallow showcases Atta’s skill at rendering psychologically complex female characters whose psyches reflect the precariousness of existence as single, working women in Nigeria. Tolani shares some characteristics with her urban middle-class counterparts in New York City—for example, a passion for shoes. Early in the story, she says proudly that
Yet Tolani’s painstaking care of her shoes ironically shows the reader that she doesn’t have money to spare. Her professed materialism reveals her middle-class identity, but the economic realities of her daily life suggest a more precarious position. Her gender and class position pull her toward considering the unthinkable: swallowing drugs.
Tolani and Rose are simply two women who find their backs against the wall; their story disconcerts precisely for this reason. “[M]ost smugglers were women like Rose and me,” she comments. Not evil, not criminal—just ordinary women forced into lawlessness because of everything around them. In other words, politics.
Heather Hewett is associate professor of English and Women’s Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she teaches classes in postcolonial literature, nonfiction writing, and women's studies. Her essays and reviews have appeared in a range of scholarly and mainstream venues, including Women’s Studies Quarterly; the Washington Post; Brain, Child magazine, and CNN.com.