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aidoo and emecheta

literary theory
reading women's writing
the novel
modern american literature
decoding advertisements

Emecheta's Joys of Motherhood

& Aidoo's Changes: A Love Story

Feminist and postcolonial discourses, as Ashcroft, Tiffin and Griffith have noted “both seek to reinstate the marginalised in the face of domination.” The intersection of these two often convergent discourses can be seen in the writings of third world women who address their ‘double colonization’ in postcolonial societies. While Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes is set in contemporary Accra and Joys Of Motherhood is set in colonial Nigeria, both writers deal with the dilemma facing African women whose representations of society and patriarchal oppression are seen to conflict with the struggle against decolonisation and cultural restitution, arguing that African women must in Aidoo’s words “resist any attempt at being persuaded to think the woman question has been superseded by the struggle against imperialism.”

This is problematised by the locating of feminism as a foreign influence, where on the one hand, this is seen as a threat to cultural stability, as Liyong puts it “feminism may destroy that which…has enabled Africa to withstand all the buffeting from other cultures” and on the other hand, as Kishwar notes, third world women are often “expected to be the echo of what are assumed to be more advanced women’s movements in the west”, foregrounding the way, the battle over third world women is often staged as a battle between first world feminists and third world men.

Writers such as Aidoo have argued for an anteriority of an African feminism that doesn’t owe its allegiance to western feminism, pointing out that the women who rioted against the colonial regime in Nigeria “didn’t ask permission from Woolf” As Carole Boyce Davies points out, the term feminist often has to be qualified when used by most African women. Buchi Emecheta for example, calls herself “a feminist with a small f.” At the same time however, her reservations about situating herself as an African feminist have contributed to criticism of her writing for its supposed focus on the ‘little happenings’ of women’s lives.

The fact that JOM is set 5 years after the Igbo Women’s War while making no mention of this event is one choice which leaves the novel vulnerable to the charge of being what Nnameka calls ‘motherhood literature.’ However while critics such as Ogundipe-Leslie have argued that the “theme of childlessness” has been over-explored in African women’s literature, JOM, as Nfah-Abbenyi says is “about childlessness but even more about childness”, as “a radical questioning of the myth of motherhood as it has crystalisd in African society” in Sougou’s words.

Similarly while Changes seems to be the love-story Aidoo said she would never write, McWilliams notes that this love-story is in fact “a discourse on the complexities conscripting West African women’s lives.” Both novels, as Wilentz says of Changes, ‘treat politics on the bedrock of human relationships.”, It has often been noted that the first wave of male African novelists often conscripted women’s issues in the service of dignifying the past, in the mother Africa trope which as Stratton has argued leaves women only metaphorically implicated. Both Aidoo and Emecheta’s novels in reintroducing women as subjects underscore the fact that the postcolonial woman writer is not only involved in making herself heard or discovering new forms to express her experience, but in Nasta’s words, must also “subvert and demythologise indigenous male writing which seeks to label her.”

As McWilliams argues, in Changes stereotypical images of Westernized/Africanised womanhood no longer compete for prominence.

While Esi makes the decision to become an agent for change her life proves to be beset with the same kinds of multiple contradictions that plagued Nnu Ego’s. Both Esi, who recognises the value of her “bone-blood-flesh self”, and Nnu Ego who feels “a prisoner in [her] own flesh and blood,” are oppressed either by their ability or inability to make choices about the issue of childbearing, Esi’s choice resulting in her mother-in-law seeing her as semi-barren witch, while Nnu Ego’s suffers first from her inability to have children and then from the idea that in Emecheta’s words, “the only good woman is the woman who slaves for her children.”

Both novels contest this idea. In Changes, Esi’s representation as absentee mother shows that for her definitions of womanhood fall outside biological constructs, while in JOM, as Davies argue, Emecheta’s purpouse is perhaps to show the tragedy of women’s lives when it is circumscribed by motherhood alone. In this sense JOM’s treatment of maternity can be seen as, in Desiree Lewis’s words constituting “a sobering response to the idealised view of a pre-colonial society popularised by Achebe.”

JOM’s articulation of the idea that in Bazin’s words, “learning freedom” must begin with “rejecting the patriarchal glorification of motherhood,” reveals the irony in the title of the novel, while Changes is revealed to be as much about stasis as change, with Esi’s ‘mothers’ shocked at “how little had changed for their daughters” and Oko receiving a “breathing parcel” as a replacement for Esi. Similalry in JOM the parallel between Agbadi’s inheriting wives and Nnaife’s inheriting his older brother’s wives seems to suggest the continuation of a tradition of seeing women as objects of exchange.

JM has been read as “a study of the victimization and enslavement of traditional Igbo women” in Marie Umeh’s words, however as Cynthia Ward points out, while it is possible to read Esi’s texts as a “narrative of women’s oppression” it is equally possible to hear in them “a multiplicity of often contradictory stories.” Similarly as McWilliams points out Changes is not Esi’s story alone but a multi-voiced narrative.

In both texts, what Stratton has described as “the convention of paired women” can be seen in the juxtaposition of co-wives Nnu Ego and Adaku in JOM, and Esi and Fusena in Changes. However while the paired woman convention offers a way of addressing the contradictions of women’s lives by showing that their situation is, in Mugambi’s words, one of “conformity and marginality,” this situation is often more complex than occupying one position or the other.

In JOM as Nnaemeka notes, Adaku is written out of the text as soon as she leaves the house, in a way wh can be compared to the way Fusena is detextualised in Changes. However, while Adaku leaves to set up a “lucrative business”, Fusena leaves to “complain and weep” and in this sense Nnameka’s criticism of Emecheta’s relegating strong characters to the margins seems to be inverted in Aidoo who Allan argues has no room for “the drama of victimization”. However Emecheta’s focus on Nnu Ego can be seen as part of Emecheta’s criticism “of women enslaving themselves”, and her concern to “give women access to power in society as it exists” as Peterson puts it. Similarly Aidoo’s concentration on Esi can be seen as part of her concern with showing women’s willingness to struggle and in this sense as Olaussen says, Changes constitutes “both a continuation and a challenge to the wellknown theme of women writing of women’s suffering.”

What both novels make clear is that paternalistic readings of African women as victims are as dehumanizing as seeing women as symbols for nationalist consciousness, with feminist discourses which see Third World women as an “always-already constituted group… labelled powerless” in Mohanty’s words, often stemming from unexamined assumptions of African women’s passivity rooted in colonial discourse, perpetuating a “failure to acknowledge capacity of colonized to act as subjects rather than objects of action” in Noromele’s words.

Criticising readings of Ngu Ego as the quintessential African woman Naemeka argues that “such a concept as universal African woman doesn’t exist”. She points out that the lives of other women counterpoint the debilitating life of Ngu, in the community of women who offer her assistance as “sisters on a pilgrimage”. This argument is illustrated by the fact that if the novel is read from the perspective of Adaku’s’s survival not Ngu’s demise, it becomes an argument for agency and against victimhood.

Adaku’s decision to leave the “choked room” can be seen to parallel Esi’s escape from “stifling monogamy” which undermines both the idea that western models are superior and that the right to choose and the capability of transcending immediate circumstances are “prerogatives available solely to women in the western world” as Noromele says.

As Esi decides that this “fashion of living had proven quite inadequate to her” Adaku decides she will not live up to impossible standards but set her own. In Changes as Nfah-Abbenyi argues Esi, Opukuya and Fusena, are “constantly aware of and try to question those situations that potentially construct them as victims.”

That these situations are not always the result of the patriarchal oppression is central to both texts, and to their argument that African women face what Aidoo calls a double quarrel “colonized first by the colonizer” and later by “men with their new power”.

Similarly, Emecheta has noted that one of her main themes is to show “that the African male is oppressed and he too oppresses the African woman.” Both texts can be read in terms of Cheryl Johnson- Odim’s argument that “while it is clear sexual egalitarianism is a goal on which all feminist agree gender discrimination is neither the sole nor the primary locus of oppression for third world women”. As Nnaemeka argues when she notes that she has “yet to read a feminist analysis that presents JOM as a critique of imperialism,” this aspect of African women’s writing is often ignored, the focus on the victimization of women by patriarchal traditional culture eliding the fact that these texts unfold in a world where victimisation is often also of an imperialistic nature.

Nada Eli points out the way this silences women’s voices can be seen in the response of those who saw Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy as good for “all these women’s programs” rather than as a national statement on postcolonial Ghana. As Nfah-Abbenyi argues African women writers “are creating a space for themselves by questioning a combination of oppressive conditions that are both traditional and specific to their colonial heritage and postcolonial context.”

In Changes, Ali’s depiction as a traveller who has “conquered” many African countries locate him as colonizer and, in reinforcing the definition of womanhood as identified with place and masculinity with travelling/conquering the place, this depiction also connects Ali to his father, whose wives are kept each in her own geographical location.

In this sense Ali encapsulates Aidoo’s double indictment of the patriarchal/ colonial mentality which constructs women’s bodies/foreign countries as territory to be conquered.

Similarly as Robolin notes Ngu’s chi (the spirit of a slave girl) supplies Emecheta with a store of symbolic irony which conjoins the condition of slavery and the condition of women, an indirect link which spells out women’s lack of freedom in colonial soc. Significantly, the trope of enclosure and entrapment which repeats throughout the novel is represented most obviously in the cramped living quarters which are another significant legacy of colonial administration.

While Yongue has argued that “women in colonial Africa were assisted at the basic level of literacy and education” to discover themselves and their bodies, both Aidoo and Emecheta’s novels show that colonial society was fundamentally structured on the marginalisation of women, something which is dramatised in the way Ngu is refused direct colonial interaction, with her husband performing even conventional female chores, washing the white woman’s clothes.

Ironically, when Nnu Ego realises “she had been trying to be traditional in a modern setting” it is her working outside the home which is “traditional”. as in Sister Killjoy where what are assumed to be traditional African values are revealed to be “hashed up Victorian notions”.

JOM can be read in the context of sociological works such as Amadiume’s which while not glorifying pre-colonial gender roles argues that these roles were rigidifies during colonial rule as it failed to assimilate earlier power structures in which women played major roles.

As Noromele puts it imperialism’s attempts to westernize African culture took away the rights African women had in precolonial society. JOM’s rewriting of the rural/urban opposition in this context challenges the idea of village women as unchanging and passive as can be seen in the representation of Ngu Ego’s mother Ona, whose idea of womanhood runs counter to the general perception as women equate womanhood with motherhood, wanting Ngu to have “a life of her own.”

Similarly in Changes Nana embodies traditional womanhood’s subversive rendition of the myth of male supremacy as she links the economies of male and colonial domination, arguing that life “needn’t always be some humans being gods and others sacrificial animals…that can be changed”. However like Ngu Ego who wishes she had the “type of pride” her mother had, Esi’s western education and her roaming strange and foreign land alienates her from Nana and her mothers world. In a way which Nfah-Abbenyi argues “continues to bear witness to the violence of the colonial encounter”, Esi coming to see her education as “too high a price” for the “dangerous confusion” she and the country is now in.

This dangerous confusion is not resolved in either novel, in Changes as Wilentz notes, the end focuses on Esi’s dream, ending with her seeing her home as a ‘cemetery’, becoming occupied territory while Ali moves on to new conquests.

Similarly in JOM, Adaku’s escape from the choked room of her marriage earns her a degree of social ostracism, and in her relinquishing of social esteem for sake of her daughters reproduces the dynamic of female self-sacrifice which she essentially rejects.

While Ngu Ego’s resistance takes on a spectral dimension which leaves little hope for the living. Both novels can be seen not as offering solutions to dilemmas but “a vision of something wished for but still unattainable” as Olaussen puts it, and in this sense as Lloyd Brown says of Aidoo the “insistence on portraying women’s experience without transcendental resolution,” is an indication of the complexity of the issues involved.

However as Uwakweh argues, to see the freedom Esi sought as being potentially unattainable ignores the “revolutionary import of her choices”, what she sees as the militant core of the novel, as Esi ironically chooses a traditional institution (polygamy) as an “alternative lifestyle” to achieve full devotion to her career, a choice which in seeming to reverse Adaku’s escape from polygamy foregrounds that as Nana says it isn’t a question of “being the only wife or one of many” but a choice between oppressive arrangements and life affirming decisions as Olaussen argues.

Similarly, as Nada Eli points out, while Fusena’s voice is silenced she like Ngu Ego locates the object of her anger in patriarchy not its victims. Significantly Changed ends with a “culminating depiction of female friendship as a site of resistance” in Allan’s words, a scene which is replicated in JOM, where Nnu Ego’s feels “she would have been better off had she had time to cultivate those women who had offered her hands of friendship.”

What Nnaemeka describes as the open-endedness of this conclusion is both “full of foreboding and hints of a new dawn” in Nnu Ego’s realisation that “until we change all this, it is still a man’s world” a locating of women as agents of change which is similar to Changes where as Nfah-Abbenyi says, Esi is “the agent of her own self-destruction, self reconstruction and self-determination,” her ability to make choices for herself even though they are not always the right ones presented as her consistent strength.

Ultimately, in their interposing of gender in the pivotal project of cultural recovery both Aidoo and Emecheta dissolve the false dichotomy between female and national liberation, underlining the fact that as Aidoo says “the revolutionising of the continent hinges on the woman question.”

written: 2008
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