#100AfricanWomenWriters: Reflecting on the First Twenty

by - 16:53

This took me way longer than anticipated - two years to be exact, but I have now featured the first twenty women in the series. Yay! 

When I first thought about this series, all I knew was that I wanted to learn about African women writers, explore women writing in different medium and genres, and (as much as possible) look beyond Anglophone writers. Beyond that, I had no grand plans. I certainly had no strict methodology or selection criteria - other than writing about women. As a result, each entry has happened because I came across a writer and was excited about what I was reading. 

I'll be honest, in majority of the cases, I started researching and writing about one writer, stumbled across another one, started researching them, and ended up posting about the latter writer. Still, I have learned a lot more about African women writers than I ever imagined I would. 

These writers - spanning from the eighteenth century to present day - and from different parts of the African continent (Gabon, Egypt, Cape Verde, Senegal, Angola, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe), all have one common thread - they are dynamic. 

Yes, they are writers, novelists, poets, playwrights and essayists but they are more than that. Nigerian Nana Asma'u was a nineteenth century poet, scholar, community leader and political commentator; Ghana-born and Sierra Leonean-raised Gladys Casely-Hayford - a poet, musician, dramatist, painter and storyteller; Kenya's Grace Ogot was a nurse by training, but was also a member of Parliament, government minister and UN representative; and Senegal's Aminata Sow Fall's many accolades includes: being a member of the Commission for Educational Reform responsible for the introduction of African literature into the French syllabus in Senegal, before becoming director of La Propriété littéraire (The Literary Property) in Dakar (1979-1988). She was appointed the first woman president of Senegal's Writer's Association in 1985. In 1990 she founded the publishing house Éditions Khoudia, was also Director of the Centre Africain d'Animation et d'Echanges Culturels in Dakar and head of the Centre International d'Etudes, de Recherches et de Réactivation sur la Littérature, les Arts et la Culture that organised regular national and international Conferences in Saint-Louis. 

Some of these writers were also significant figures in the fight for their country's independence. Alda do Espírito Santo of São Tomé and Príncipe was a member of the Political Bureau of the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (part of the transitional government that led São Tomé and Príncipe to independence), a former Minister of Culture and Education, Social Affairs and Culture Minister, and the first woman to become Deputy Head of State and the founder of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Sao Tome. Then there was Lina Magaia from Mozambique who was not only a journalist, agricultural development specialist, but also an activist and member of the FRELIMO liberation army, and a significant figure in post-independent Mozambique. 

A lot of these women were also firsts: Miriam Tlali (the first black woman to publish a novel in South Africa when Muriel at Metropolitan was published in 1975), Aminata Sow Fall (the first published woman novelist from Francophone Black Africa), Grace Ogot (one of the first African women to have fiction published in English with two short stories published in 1963 and 1964 in Black Orpheus and Transition respectively), Filomena Embaló (the first woman in Guinea-Bissau to have written a novel with Tiara, published in 1999), Orlanda Amarílis (the first woman Cape Verdean writer to publish a book-length work of fiction), Angèle Rawiri (said to be Gabon’s first novelist), and Namibian Neshani Andreas (the first and only Namibian writer to be included in Heinemann African Writers Series with her debut novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu that was published in 2001).

These are also prolific writers, and their accolades alone would be too immense for one blog post: 
Aminata Sow Fall has also published more than eight novels and a number of essays, including Un grain de vie et d'espérance (Food for thought and tomorrow's life) in 2002 on her reflection on the significance of food in Senegal, followed by some twenty recipes proposed by Senegalese Chef Margo Harley.  In June 2015, Fall received the Grand Prix de la Francophonie for her literary work in French.  In 1997, Aminata Sow Fall was awarded an Honorary Degree at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Egyptian writer, activist and professor of American and English literature Radwa Ashourhas written seven novels, an autobiography, two collections of short stories and five criticism books, as well as a major 4-volume work on Arab women writers, she co-edited in 2004 and works that Ashour co-translated from English to Arabic. Ashour also won numerous awards including the 2007 Constantine Cavafy Prize for Literature and the 2011 Owais Prize. 

Highly acclaimed, Algerian writer, filmmaker and women’s rights activist, Assia Djebar became the first Algerian woman to be elected to France’s most prestigious cultural institution - the Academia Francaise - in 2005. Djebar's other numerous awards - in 1996 winning the Neustadt International Prize for Literature for contributions to world literature, in 1997 taking home the Yournecar Prize and in 2000 becoming the first female Arab writer to be awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Assia Djebar was also the first Algerian woman to make a film within a national cinema that only began after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. Djebar’s achievements as a director were also recognised: in 1979 she received the International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival for her movie La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua (The Party of the Women of Mount Chenoua), which told the story of an Algerian expatriate who returns to her country  sixteen years after the end of the independence war. Her second film, La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli (Zerda and the songs of forgetting), a documentary juxtaposing French newsreels of World War I and II and Algerian women singing traditional songs, won the prize for the best historical film at the Berlinale in 1982. 

A lot of the writers featured also encountered obstacles in becoming writers. Neshani Andreas 'always wanted to write', but it 'was not recognised' or 'encouraged as a serious activity' in her community; Egyptian Alifa Rifaat from an early age was strongly reprimanded by her older sister for writing, prevented from writing by her husband and had to write under the pseudonym of Fatimah Rifaat; and Grace Ogot also initially struggled to get her stories published as 'the Manager of East African Literature Bureau ... really couldn't understand how a Christian woman could write such stories, involved with sacrifices, traditional medicines and all, instead of writing about Salvation and Christianity.'

Those writers that were away from their home also wrote about feelings of alienation or exile. Born in Benin (formerly known as Dahomey), Harlem-based poet, writer and playwright Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr' emigrated to New York in 1956/7, and writes essays of her experiences as an African woman in 1960s America, as can be seen in her essay, West African Women in Exile: City, University and Dislocated Village. As a Cape Verdean writer in Lisbon, a lot of Orlanda Amarílis' stories are noted for their depiction of the life of migrants from Cape Verde in Portugal, with a particular focus on Cape Verdean women. While Angèle Rawiri - who had lived in Gabon, France and the UK - considered herself a ‘deracinee’ (uprooted woman), had a feeling of 'perpetual exile' and 'never felt at home on African soil and at the same time, I didn’t feel at home in Europe either’.

Interestingly, while writers such as Radwa Ashour and Assia Djebar (who also wrote under a pen name) were open about being feminists. Indeed, Ashour's writing reflected her own gendered experience and national identity: 'As a woman and as a person in Egypt, in a third world country ... this is what I know most: thwarted aspirations'; but was also written in 'self-defence and in defence of countless others with whom I identify or who are like me'. Other writers did not openly embrace a feminist label.

Alifa Rifaat did not identify as a feminist in the Western-sense - even though Rifaat argued that 'Women ... have a right to be fulfilled in their sexual and emotional lives', and for more sexual education for women, 'if only through books'. Similarly, Senegalese writer Mariama was also known to be active in women’s associations and a defender of women’s rights. emphasised women’s right to education, recognised the importance of women’s education, and fought for it – among other rights – through speeches and articles published in local newspapers. However, Bâ refused the label of feminism so as to reject notions widely associated with white feminism, such as the belief that women were better or more important than men. The same is observed with Botswana's Bessie Headwhose works explored the effects of racial and social oppression, as well as exile – drawing a lot from her own experiences of discrimination both in her birthplace of South Africa and in her adopted land of Botswana. While Head's novels and short stories emphasised a lot of these experiences from a female perspective, Head always emphasised that her outlook was a universal one – refusing to be seen as a feminist, as she abhorred all oppression - racial, sexual, and political, but also refusing to be called an African writer, a black writer, or a revolutionary writer.  

As prolific and dynamic as these writers all are, sadly, some lived very short lives. Neshani Andreas was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2010 and passed away in 2011 (in her later 40s). Still, they accomplished a lot in their time here. Zimbabwean writer, women’s rights activist and Arts Director, Yvonne Vera passed away in 2005, at the young age of 40, but in her lifetime she published: a short story collection, Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?(1992), and five novels - Nehanda (1993), Without A Name (1994), Under The Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998) and The Stone Virgins(2002). Vera also edited Opening Spaces – an anthology of contemporary writing by African women. She also won numerous national and international awards, including the Zimbabwean Publisher’s Literary Award for best novel in 1996 and 1997, the 1997 Commonwealth writer's prize for best novel, Africa region, for Under The Tongue, the Macmillan writer's prize for Africa, for The Stone Virgins in 2002 and the Tucholski prize awarded by Swedish PEN in 2004. Angola's Deolinda Rodríguez de Almeida lived an extremely short, but rich life - being executed in prison around the age of 29. Known as the ‘Mother of the Revolution’- Angola’s Revolution – Deolinda was a writer, a poet, and an Angolan nationalist, heroine, militant and translator. de Almeida's writings can be found in two books - her diary, Diário de um e xílio sem regress published in 2003; and her letters and correspondence - Cartas de Langidila e outs documents, published in 2004. They are both published in Portuguese. Finally, Angolan poet, essayist, doctor and political activist Alda Ferreira Pires Bareto de Lara Albuquerque (Alda Lara) passed away at the age of 32 - but was also a prolific writer, who 'wrote extensively about freedom and justice, as well as the place of motherhood in a more equitable society.'

This is a brief reflection of what I have learned about the first twenty writers in this series, and there is a lot more I haven't touched on here. More than that, I am excited to see what I am going to learn about the next 80 writers in the series. And, yes, I am aware that based on my current track record it will probably take me another two years to get to 40. But if there's one thing I have taken from this process is that this will most definitely take me a long time to complete, but it will also probably morph into something I am yet to anticipate, and I am completely fine with that. 

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