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?