One of the most baffling and at the same time the most confusing experiences since I became aware of my earthly existence and the human condition, is the question of women and womanhood!
As Igbo born in Nigeria, I prefer answering this question with questions as my people are wont to do: Is there any reason for excluding women from the literary world? Why should anyone, for instance, as in the question of the place of women in the literary world, pose such a question at all, for heaven’s sake? Are all such questions asked for the heck of it? What is the motive of the people that ask those questions? For whatever kick the questioners get out of it, I feel like such people who ask such questions are playing into the stereotypical broad arms and twisted minds of those who feel so strongly about oppressing women and womanhood! Don’t these interrogators have families? Don’t they have female relatives? Why shouldn’t women be included in the narratives of life which they help create and nurture? What is there in this world that does not have the full DNA imprint of women and womanhood?
Nevertheless, I would like to address this issue with reference to one of the world famous literary personalities, Chinua Achebe, who has in many ways dealt with the issue of the role of women in his world renowned novels, one of which I will be referencing for this piece. Looking back at Achebe’s novels beginning with Things Fall Apart (1958), women were presented according to the roles they fulfill in the society, either as daughters, wives, mothers, priestesses, or lovers, singers, story-tellers, or homemakers, and later on his recent writings as students, educators, civil servants, or peacemakers and sometimes victims of male chauvinism, or as widows who hold together their homes or assist other widows in forging ahead in life despite the excruciating circumstances of life.
All things considered, there cannot be literature, history, religion, or other fields of endeavor in homes, societies or the world without women. So, a piece of literature without a woman is not a work of literature at all. Without a woman, the work of literature produced by men, is nothing, because such a work of art must have been produced in a galaxy uninhabited by women. Literature is like a family (made up of male and female) where everyone plays a role, good or bad, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, joyful or mournful!
Nwanyibuife, also called Beatrice, is the name of the female principal character in Chinua Achebe’s highly acclaimed fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Her Igbo name is intentionally presented in bold underlined italics. The iconic Chinua Achebe has always included women in all his novels but Nwabuife is the first woman in all of Achebe’s works to be so elevated and given the opportunity to start off as a highly educated feminine, beloved and in love with a male, fighting off a female foreign national who ‘bewitched’ the president of her fictitious African country, Kangan, with her white American charm, with her own personal charm and primordial priestly beauty, albeit unsuccessfully, since it seemed the President and Dictator-in-charge, was willing to be doled the dishonor none in his land would attempt to do by a foreign woman! Nwabuife was honored by another male protagonist in the novel with a poem about womanhood, in which he peeled off layers of stereotype against the feminine in religion etc. and apologizing for such horrible acts! She was also portrayed as the incarnation of a powerful feminine deity which role she splendidly played and displayed. She was also the voice of wisdom, correction, harmony, peace and continuity. Furthermore she was honored with the opportunity to name a female child contrary to ancient cultural norms of her people! Toward the end of the novel she was honored as the last person in the novel, seen, dealing with her human condition after the death of Chris, her fiancé. Nwanyibuife was fully human and fully divine permitting the manifestation of her divinity whenever necessary!
Among the Igbo nation of Nigeria, posterity is defined by the male. A man looks forward to a male child who will take over the leadership of the ancestral homestead. The female child is considered a gift to another man’s homestead. But in certain situations a man can give the name Nwanyibuife to his daughter to make a point, namely, a female is also “something!” This is to say that a female child is as valuable as a male child! In choosing this name for the female protagonist in the novel, Chinua Achebe, shines a bright light on the equal preeminence of the feminine in his Igbo and world cultures and at the same time responded to literary critiques with regard to the role of women in the literary world! Achebe does not denigrate the woman knowing that only a foolish man will disregard his wife and eat lumps of cocoyam instead of lumps of meat! In naming the newborn daughter of Ikem, the most radical of the protagonists, who did not live to name his child, his widow, Elewa, asked Nwabuife, to name the child and she called her – Amaechina – May-the-path-never-close! Achebe turns his ancient culture upside down. Women play roles reserved for the menfolk. Men in the novel acknowledged and respected the position and actions of the womenfolk! Achebe is actively dismantling and deconstructing stereotypes and redundancies in his culture that suppress the value and validity of the feminine.
I have freely used highlights of the novel from one of the world’s literary giants to provide insights to the need for the recognition, elevation and proclamation of the dignity, integrity and humanity of the feminine in literature and society! The new novel Avenging Ada: Legend of sister sold into slavery (2018) deals with womanhood in a specific manner that tackles the oppression of the female on the one hand. But on the other hand displays the majesty of the feminine. The feminine can act freely in their community while maintaining and honoring the thing that binds it eternally in oneness with integrity and grace. The feminine can even marry a wife to sire children in honor of her deceased husband. Of course one of the men in her husband’s family will be responsible for providing the seed for posterity! She is not forced to practice levirate marriage as is the case for widows in that particular culture. The feminine also teaches the community valuable life lessons and provides them with guidance and vision in times of crises, and above all, they act as sages and also take titles as men do!
Finally, women and womanhood, will be treated by each literary artist as their cultural background, personal experiences, and inclinations and or choices compel them to do. The #MeToo movement and other such assertive and defining activity of the feminine have already given voice to the status quo of women and womanhood in all spheres of life from the family to the government and workplaces! Anyone stone deaf enough to refuse to listen and consciously end the sexual assault and abuse against the feminine, will be better served a cold meal in one of the jail pits around the country! I hear the feminine say that gone are the days when the very existence and humanity of the feminine will be questioned or subjected to the tyranny and cruelty of irresponsible male humanity! In my view, any work, of art, culture, history, religion or science, let alone literature that is brewed right in the family cauldron, whether critical or creative that leaves out the feminine / the woman, irrespective of reasons, will provide fodder for further literary Rolenfragen! And the conversation will continue but this time it will all be about reassessment and deconstruction of the status quo!