It’s funny how, even in this day and age; a woman writer is still a woman before she is a writer. Take the legendary Grace Ogot who passed on a couple of weeks back for example. Going through the scores of tribute articles in the Saturday Nation, all written by her male contemporaries, I couldn’t help but notice an interesting angle,her personality, which the columnists took while remembering Ogot.
First came Professor Austin Bukenya who claimed that having interacted with the graceful gem Grace, he finds it impossible to restrict his comments to just her creative works which he, terms heart–warming. Next came Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’os rants about his beautiful literary sister, how her Christian name Grace, fitted her personality perfectly and her unforgettable mellifluous voice. Thirdly came good old doctor Tom Odhiambo’s Lets Celebrate Ogot’s Extraordinary Life which starts off with him saying he prefers not to speak of Mama Grace only in terms of, you guessed it, her writing. Odhiambo then cites Mama’s famous smile and I am left wondering if the same physical attributes matter when a male writer is being spoken of.
Of course it follows that I went digging out my old newspapers of tributes to Achebe when he passed on a couple of years back about the same time as Grace. Your guess is as good as mine. No one spoke of how handsome Achebe was in his youth (though a particular picture of youthful him holding a pen betrays this fact.) No one spoke of his deep baritone or how his christian name Albert, fitted his personality perfectly albeit his decision to drop it. Those who wrote remembered him as a great mind and unforgettable novelist.His themes, his sentences and humor formed titles were mentioned and we saw nothing close to Ciao Charming Achebe, Jewel of Nigeria. Does this mean that Achebe had not a graceful personality to write of? or was his work just much more important than his personality because he was, say, a male writer?
The other category of tributes were more vexing than disappointing . One such was the article ‘Grace Ogot-The Reluctant Politician’ by Emman Omari. He says ‘She appeared too polite and motherly to be a politician’. Who, I ask, wrote the book that said politeness or motherliness and politics are mutually exclusive. Can’t a woman be polite and political at the same time? Could this be the reason, maybe, that drives us to faithfully line up every five years to vote for people who’ve been named and renamed in corruption scandals? Is motherly politician an oxymoron in Kenya?
Omari then goes on to wonder why a scholar, writer and thinker with a professor husband of world repute would have dared venture into politics. And I dare ask, could the same be asked of a man getting into politics? Do we ask men why they choose to be politicians when they have CEO’s and successful lecturers for wives? Is a woman, just because she is married to a professor of world repute, supposed be so contented that she lets her ambitions, political or otherwise, crumble to dust?
This prejudices and repressive thoughts on women in general and female writers specifically didn’t begin yesterday. They started way back with the mother of English fiction Miss Burney. Her earliest manuscripts were burned and needlework inflicted on her as penance for daring to write. The subjugation then moved through to the times of Jane Austen of Pride and Prejudice who was so ashamed of her writing she slipped it beneath a book if anyone came into the room. Even as late as the Victorian age, women were forced to take up male pseudonyms like George Eliot so that firstly, their work could receive impartial criticism and secondly, they would free their consciousness as they wrote, from the tyranny of what was expected from their sex-which for women was a certain moral purity that fit feminine character.
In an article on 14th March titled, ‘Ghanaian writer broke the glass ceiling for female authors’, Professor Egara Kabaji wrote quite insightfully on the matter here in Africa. Kabaji points out that Ama Ata Aidoo emerged as a writer at a time when there were very few female voices in African literature. He then surprises us by saying that up until now, the study of African literature still takes a masculine approach. This, he says is evidenced by the university course outlines.
Could this mean that we, just like the Victorian age thinkers, are uncomfortable with the defiant nature of the issues Aidoo, Ogot, Micere and other liberal women tackle in their literature? Might it be true, as the good professor points out, that we as a society aren’t ready to accommodate a liberal woman who is free to make choices and to even accept the consequences of those choices?
Even as we ponder on the above, let us not forget that this question is not merely a question of literature but a much larger one that encapsulates social history. Let us then, consciously rewrite this history by giving literature by women, regardless of the writer’s poise, grace or beauty, as much critical attention as we do the writings by males. Let us, even as we discourse Achebe and Ngugi and Soyinka and Okigbo the grandfather of literature, also remember Nwapa and Aidoo and Ogot and Kola, the grandmothers of literature who broke many a glass ceilings.
Curriculum developers, columnists and writers like Mr. Omari , Odhiambo and Bukenya, need to consider carefully what message they pass across to readers. The developers should revise the curriculum to ensure a balance of sexes in the works of art studied at university. Columnists and writers need to double-check their works for subliminal nuances which when out in the public eye scream of prejudices or double standards. This will save us readers from the danger of wrecking ourselves upon that obsolete stereotypical rock over and over.
As you read this, you may be getting quite flustered and upset. If so, worry not. It could simply be case of deep seated prejudice like that which plagued some character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre who believed a lady ought not to possess such excesses of passion over matters. How about you get rid of that niggling stereotype first then read this article again?