Diary of Intense Pain: The Postcolonial Trap and Women’s Rights
Chinelo Okparanta and NoViolet Bulawayo
In the introductory chapter, I discussed Pinkie Mekgwe’s notion of the colonial trap, which is the need to talk or write back to the West, especially in the same binary language adopted by the West while othering Africa. To what degree, if ever, does the obsession with the gaze of the West affect women’s rights in Africa? How does Africa’s ideological need to talk back to the West affect people’s awareness of, and sensibility towards, fairness?
The Caine Prize for African writing, established in 2001, brought many talented African writers to the attention of the Western publishing world; it gave them exposure and publicity they would not have readily found in Africa because of problems unique to Africa’s book publishing industry. However, critics of the prize point out that most of the new writers appear to be obsessed with the underbelly of African existence. They allege that these writers are merely replicating the colonial image of Africa by indulging in pornographic portrayals of violence and misery. Is there truth in the criticism, or is it that the fixation with the gaze of the West is making a comeback in the twenty-first century, and to the detriment of women? In this chapter, I return to the issue I raised in the introduction: the “writeback” ideology of the Achebe era ignores the pain that some sectors of the African populace are subjected to. Based on analyses of NoViolet
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C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,
Bulawayo’s We Need New Names1 and Chinelo Okparanta’s Happiness, Like Water,2 I argue that while many of the new narratives focus on violence and misery in Africa, the writers do not engage such instances of misery for their own sake. Quite to the contrary, they bring to our moral awareness the pain that the victims of Africa’s patriarchal and sexist structures suffer, and they do so in view of initiating a reappraisal of the moral foundations of Africa’s gender relations. They thus enhance the core thesis posited in Chapter 2, which is that feminism is about fairness in dealing with women’s bodies. I see the preliminary ethical import of these works in light of Zachary Adam Newton’s observation about stories. For him, “the story is its own lesson.”3 Newton proposes a triadic structure of narrative ethics that enables this. His structure involves:
(1) a narrational ethics (in this case, signifying the exigent conditions and consequences of the narrative act itself); (2) a representational ethics (the costs incurred in fictionalizing oneself or others by exchanging “person” for “character”); and (3) a hermeneutic ethics (the ethico-critical accountability that acts of reading hold their readers to).4
With regard to the authors I discuss here, and given the suffering in Africa, much of which is structural, it is fair to claim that storytelling itself is an ethical act. The representation of people’s suffering is not a neutral act. On the contrary, it requires a serious engagement and responsibility on the part of writers and readers. I understand a part of the writers’ responsibility as exposing the structures that hinder human flourishing in Africa. In so doing the writer performs human rights.