Introduction: The Ethical Turn in African Literature
Since the late 1980s, African literature has been moving away from the need to confront the West. Bill Ashcroft, Helen Tiffin, and Gareth Griffith suggested the term, “write back” to designate the obsession of the literatures of the former colonized cultures with addressing themselves to the imperial canon.1 That obsession no longer dominates African writing; African writers increasingly engage the African world per se. Evan Mwangi captures this development in the aptly titled Africa Writes Back to Self, in which he discusses the issue of self-reflexivity in contemporary African writing and by women writers in particular.2 Recent scholarly works on African literature suggest that African literature has not always focused exclusively on meeting the gaze of the West; it has also been concerned with the self. For instance, in examining the phenomenon ofpain in African literature, Zoe Norridge suggests that African literature is also a literature of the self.3 Brenda Cooper’s A New Generation of African Writers4 investigates the concept of multiple belonging in a globalized world. Ranka Primorac’s The Place of Tears: The Novel and Politics in Modern Zimbabwe considers the degree to which Zimbabwean novels address the Zimbabwean condition.5 Also of importance is Ken Harrow’s Less than One and Double: A Feminist Reading of African Women’s Writing6
The move away from the “write back” ideology asserted itself most vigorously in the new millennium, especially among a group of women writers who secured their positions in African letters between 2000 and
© The Author(s) 2016 1
C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,
2013 and who have been designated as third-generation writers, that is those who were born in the 1960s and 1970s, and who rose to prominence in the new millennium. Among them are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Atta, Doreen Baingana, Chika Unigwe, Lola Shoneyin, Petina Gappah, Chinelo Okparanta, NoViolet Bulawayo, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Nnedi Okorafor, and Warsan Shire.7 These writers are more interested in exploring the human condition in their local spheres than in addressing the world from the perspective of the colonized and oppressed. Whereas earlier generations of African writers presented Africa to the world by countering colonial Manichean allegories, these contemporary African writers raise questions of immediate ethical relevance: Who and what are Africans to one another? What exactly does one African body mean to another African body?
Since these women write back to self, it is appropriate that they begin with their bodies. They do so in the belief that to be is to be a body. They confront African gender politics and the appalling human rights condition of women, but they do so without the radicalism of certain factions within the feminist movement in the West or of late twentieth-century African alternatives. Rather, having learned from the missteps of both, they make a simple demand from their societies in regard to the relations between men and women; they demand fairness and recognition.
Zoe Norridge states that there is “hesitancy among academics to address questions of pain in African literature” because of the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about Africa.8 She also argues that “ the literary aestheticisation of stories transforms pain into more than a ‘memory,’ a ‘wound’ or a ‘theory,’ instead lending to hurt the immediacy and poignancy of the present.” I agree with her idea that “ pain is often either a result or a cause of the denial of another person’s voice,” and I interpret her assertions in ethical terms: (needless) pain is an instance of human rights abuse.9 I argue that African women writers tell stories of bodies of women in pain primarily to establish their subjectivities in a world that is predominantly controlled by people’s uses of abstractions such as heritage, culture, tradition, and religion as justifications for their actions and relations to others.10 Through a close reading of selected texts, I examine how these writers seek to answer the question of who or what women are, and I invite a reassessment of the conditions of gender relations and human rights in Africa.