Monday, April 18, 2011

The Solution

            Like the issue of colonialism itself, the issue of the noticeable lag of Francophone African women writers is without any clear solution. In fact, resolution is not a real option. This is because the situation demands attention on two sides rather than merely one: the side of the author and the side of the reader.
            The core of the issue is, of course, the access to education and the actual literary proliferation of African women. In order to reach the world, they must first acquire a language that is world known… they must become Francophones. Luckily, through the course of the last few decades, access to education has dramatically improved. However, the quality and availability of education continues to be dependent on region (urban vs. rural) and wealth. The majority of truly successful Francophone African authors, such as Assia Djeba and Mariama Bâ, have had comparatively more affluent upbringings than the general female population. However, it is not an easy thing to try to change an entire system and expose every woman to education and the French language. We have yet to conquer such education disparities even here, in the United States.
            Even once exposed to the language, many women may become discouraged and disillusioned once faced with the difficulties of reaching an audience. For one, the act of publication presents an obstacle. Irѐne Assiba D’Almeida points out in Francophone African Women Writers: Destroying the Emptiness of Silence that the lack of, or presence of, publication houses in Africa have a significant impact on the literary initiatives of women writers. In areas with more publication houses, more literary works are produced, obviously enough. However, if access to them is limited, there exists a far greater struggle for publication. Perhaps this is one of the easier remedies for the woman writer- provide greater access to publication.
            Yet even after the education is gained and the work is published, one final challenges arises: will anyone read it? Except in specific literature courses in institutions of higher learning, the audience for such works is limited, and leads to the dying out of the voice which was so strongly fought for. Bâ’s So Long A Letter actually went out of print for a time in France due to lack of readership. With a recently renewed wave of interest in Francophone African literature, this phase of reader disinterest may be over. The real struggle now is to keep the interest alive. For that, a distinct solution is unclear. At the moment, the best option, in my opinion, is to allow the present wave of education, publication, and interest to grow and spread.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Terms of a Relationship

The situation of the Francophone African woman writer is one of ultimate colonization, and as such, encompasses nearly every term we have discussed regarding colonialism. For what was a woman but a person conquered by man, and what was francophone Africa but an area conquered by France? As her nation has had to fight for its independence of rule, she herself has had to fight for her independence of voice.
Beyond the obvious and aforementioned radical bilingualism of the subaltern women who used their apprenticeship of the colonizers language to free themselves from the bondages of conquered silence, othering, dehumanization, and hegemony also apply to the situation.
An inherent aspect of woman’s subaltern status is her alterity. Alterity, or “othering,” is the implied separation of groups, marking some people as different, incomprehensible… “Other”. The African woman (and even here, I other them), is separated, in nearly every way, from the African man, and in many ways, from the women of the colonizing power. With a domestic domain that hardly ever crosses the path of the man’s exterior domain, and social norms that deny her the freedom of access of the women of the colonizer, she is naturally separated, and naturally othered. This is the first step in dehumanization, the denial of humanity to a group of people. In this case, that group, the “Other’s Others” (according to Odile Cazenave), is the colonized African woman. Seen by young men as either love interests or vehicles for pleasure, like in Ben Jelloun’s The Last Friend, and by older men as keepers of the household who can be easily replaced by younger women, like in Bâ’s So Long A Letter, she has been denied time and again as an equal to her male counterparts, who themselves have been denied as equals to their colonizers.
An integral and defining part of colonialism is hegemony. The political, cultural, economic, and social domination of one group by another, it is one of the most insidious aspects of the colonial relationship. Yet, it could also be one of the woman’s saviors. Only through France’s domination and implementation of its language through the education system did the woman gain a means of spreading her voice to the world. Through hegemony, she found her society smothered, and her veil lifted.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A History of a Void

                Understanding the plight of the Francophone African woman writer goes beyond colonization and the degradation accompanying it… it is a universal plight that has burdened women throughout history, and has especially burdened the women of Africa. Before we can look at the colonized woman, we must look at the woman herself.
                One of the transcendent universalities of human relations has been gender roles. Men are the heads of the household and women are the subservient wives and mothers. Comparatively, the questioning of these gender roles is a new thing, and if it is a relatively new thing for Western societies, it is exceptionally new for African societies, in which the domains of gender have historically rarely been crossed. It is one of the few concurrent themes of African women writing, known as the “sexualization of space”, as noted in the 1987 roundtable discussion of “Male vs. Female Narrative Theory” at the African Literature Association Conference at Cornell University.
                However, the separation of domains (women’s being domestic, and men’s being outside of the house) did not keep women silent historically; their roles as orators, as griottes, were notable in the keeping of oral history. Yet even there, the hierarchy of patriarchy (a system under the control of men) prevailed: women were only allowed to be taught certain forms of poetry and satire, in order to keep them from being distracted from their more important roles as mothers and wives.
                This mindset carried on through the years of colonial occupation, and, in my opinion, could be a reason women transitioned from being vocal (though restricted) in orature to being almost completely silenced in literature. It is one thing to share even a limited spoken word with a community… it is something entirely more challenging to share a written word with the world. Female access to the French colonial education system, one already devoted to a male colonial agenda, was restricted and denied by African society for generations, and once resentfully allowed, was directed more to molding better wives and mothers than citizens and intellectuals.
                Even after the planets aligned and a woman gained both a valid education in the French language (and the key word here is valid), her struggle has yet to have begun. If she wishes to be heard, she must now bear the yoke of the colonized writer. After generations upon generations of fighting to find a voice, she has only reached the starting line, as her male counterparts have already halfway completed the race. She must slip into the skin of her linguistic illegitimacy and learn to speak in the words of the colonizer, long after her initial conquerors have been heard. The prisoner has found her key, but the question remains: who was the jailer?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Discovering the Silence

In Awa Thain’s 1978 book, La Parole aux négresses, she calls the women of francophone Africa to action. “Is it not high time they discovered their own voice, that… they now take the floor, if only to say that they exist, that they are human beings… and that, as such, they have a right to liberty, respect, and dignity?”
Through their shaking off of the French colonizer’s wing in the mid twentieth century, francophone Africa asserted itself as independent entities with independent voices. Through the powers of the pen and bilingualism, male authors of francophone Africa appointed and asserted themselves as translators of the African struggle to the Western World. However, one group’s struggle is still predominantly hazy, and only in the past three decades become audible, and only then to those with ears to listen.
The situation I propose to analyze is the situation of the francophone African woman writer. A minority among the minorities, she has been historically bypassed for the writings of her male counterparts, as well as her female contemporaries of other Francophone regions- namely Quebec, the Caribbean, Belgium, and Switzerland. Why is it that only recently the women of francophone Africa have chosen to speak out, and fight to be heard?
Ironically, it seems that the two-edged nature of the colonial French tongue and education presents a third twist in the situation. The colonizer overcame the colonized, while giving them a hidden backdoor to the Western World through their language, which would serve to be the woman’s emancipation if the French and the colonized African society would allow her to have open access to it.  However, the complexities of the woman’s silence did not start with the colonizer. What is especially perplexing is how the woman, historically a medium for oral tradition, a griotte, a voice to be heard, has become silenced in the written word, and thus, become silenced to the rest of the world.
The inherent unfairness and disparities of the, until very recently, unheard women of francophone Africa provoke my quest for answers. For what defines a human more than her ability to speak, and if she doesn’t speak or isn’t heard… What is she?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Radical Emancipation of the Subaltern

A cloistered woman has no voice, but a cloistered people provide the key to the jailed woman’s cell. And what better veil than colonialism?
                Colonialism, and especially French colonialism, is a system undoubtedly made for oppression. From mass murder, to the degradation of the colonized people’s race to a status akin to children or animals (known as dehumanization), to the usurpation of resources, rights, and privileges of the colonized by the colonizer, colonization is one of the most psychologically convoluted and atrocious outcomes of an empire. However, through its silencing of a nation’s heritage, it allows for the voices of the silenced to be heard across the world. And more than just the immediately silenced are heard… the subaltern silenced, the women of the colonized people, are given a venue for crying out, for rejoicing, for sharing their stories which previously would not, could not, be shared.
                Though conquered, the colonized have the chance to take on a radical bilingualism. When their native tongue is deemed crude and barbaric by the colonizer, they may choose to take on the tongue of their conquerors. Awkward, foreign, and above all ironic, this tongue presents its speakers with a difficult dilemma, and a rare opportunity… hide among their thoughts, or fight their oppressors with a colonizer’s mouth and a colonized’s mind. The radicals chose the latter. The pen may not always be mightier than the sword, but it is far more lasting.
                A social group that is dominated by another is known to be a subaltern group, and a colonized woman is doubly subaltern. Dominated first by the colonizer, she is further subdued by her own people. A prisoner among the imprisoned, she is afforded no way out by the system… except through one small, off-handed gift from the colonizer- his words. Sent by fathers to learn the language of the oppressor at schools made by the oppressor, the woman gains the tools for her escape. She is given a bilingualism that will serve as her radical emancipation.