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African Women’s Narratives and Feminist Empathy

James Dawes raises an important issue about “the paradox of representing suffering, namely that speaking for others is both a way of rescuing and usurping the other’s voice.”157 I admit that there can be some form of epistemic violence in claiming to represent other people’s stories. However, not representing stories at all might be a worse option.158 Chantal Zabus argues that the idea of looking at women’s experiential narratives “has the merit of breaking down the insider/outsider debate and dwarfing the clash of Titans such as ‘universalism’ and ‘relativism’ by forcing us to address the ethics of conflict.”159 I agree with her and read “ethics of conflict” as focusing on the parties involved in any encounter rather than judging them abstractly. Indeed, treating people’s narratives as abstract formulations, or as lifeless visions of humans, to paraphrase Elizabeth S. Anker, underwrites “liberal articulations of human rights.160 Zabus rightly claims that “African women writers are indeed keen to wrest their flesh and bodies back from various nexuses of power and to partake of the contemporary feminocentric urge to perceive the lived body as a source of experiential narrative.”161 Of course, what Zabus says about African women’s biographical narratives applies to works of fiction and poetry.162 Indeed, in Zabus’s understanding, the contemporary African women writers take the words of Helene Cixous seriously; they write, and in writing take back what rightly belongs to them: their bodies.163 When African women writers reclaim their bodies from society’s (male) narratives, when they write about their bodies that had been misrepresented, abused, or objectified by their cultures, they invite the readers to consider their pain not from an abstract, impersonal perspective, but rather to pay close attention to what that says about them and about their culture. They invite us to switch perspectives with them. They ask us to engage in feminist empathy.

By feminist empathy, I do not suggest that there are modes of empathy that are exclusively feminine. Empathy does not assume that people should suddenly, automatically begin to like one another or that readers will like the characters in a book. Literature, of course, is not about whether a particular character is likable or not; rather, it is the means through which authors interrogate the human condition. I thus restate my definition of feminist empathy as the ability to feel oneself enter into, or imagine, the experience of a woman in pain caused by society’s construction of femininity. It is realized when we switch perspectives with a woman suffering oppression or privation because of her gender. Suzanne Keen’s definition of narrative empathy is relevant to my idea of feminist empathy with regard to the selected works of contemporary African women writers. For her, it is “the sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition.”164 In my engagement with the narratives that explore the condition of African women in African societies, I do not seek to provoke sympathy or pity for women as victims. Rather, I imagine a male African reader putting himself in the position of a woman and then realizing that her pain was caused by a system that is inherently unfair. Thus, I argue that contemporary African women writers produce stories that challenge us to share the pain that African women are forced to endure in African worlds, and that they do so by creating the like situations that these women experienced.

The bulk of my analysis will rest on how characters relate to themselves and to others, and on what those relationships imply for our understanding of ethics and human rights in Africa. Do the characters see themselves and others as ends or means to ends? How are the characters’ facets of selfhood narrated?

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