Thomas Fink and Cassandra Callaghan
Cassandra Callaghan: I see that a big part of your first book, Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review (Ohio University Press, 1995) is to develop the womanist view and to identify areas of alignment and difference between black and white feminist projects of liberation. Black women writers have been in a position of DuBois’ double consciousness. Does a womanist aesthetic induce double consciousness in white feminist authors and scholars in a way that could be empowering for African-American and African feminists and feminism in general? And today, 22 years after the publication of this book, is a womanist critique equally necessary, more important, or less relevant?
Tuzyline Jita Allan: Cassandra, thanks for turning to black feminist thought to help shape your own thinking about the unifying elements of gender as well as gender’s fearsome lineage among racially different women. Your question accurately identifies the double theoretical gesture (“double consciousness”) invoked by DuBois to clarify the much-misunderstood question of race at another turning point in the nation’s history. As suggested in your statement, the tension in womanism between “black” and “feminist,” delineated by Alice Walker in 1984, is a palpable reminder of the racial marker of difference DuBois noted between “black” and “American” in 1903.
Fortunately, for many women around the world today, the spread of race-conscious discourses such as womanism and Third World feminism, lay the path for a decades-long shift towards a feminist pluralism divorced from the rigid stereotypes and moralistic shaming that dominated female representation in the past. More women on the contemporary scene are empowered by a personal understanding of what it means to be a feminist with (or without) the requisite regard for the divisions of race, class, or sexuality. The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. It is a crossroads that has served as a clearing for wisdom. (The pre-dialogues, womanism ied, have been fierce but not unyielding. The crossroads is a clearing for wisdom.) omit
Thomas Fink: You were Series Co-Editor and project manager for various volumes of the ground-breaking Women Writing Africa, published by the Feminist Press. How were you instrumental in getting that project going, and what was the process of development like?
Allan: At the MLA conference held in Chicago in 1990, I walked up to the Feminist Press booth to speak with the Director, Florence Howe, about publishing a sequel to the Press’ newly published Women Writing in India. Having recently read a strong review of the first volume of Indian women’s writings, I made the case for a similar intervention in Africa. That moment grew into nearly two decades of what turned out to be an intense collaborative scholarly project aimed at collecting, translating (as necessary), editing, and anthologizing a variety of historical and contemporary writings by women in Africa. A robust organizational work model consisting of project and regional directors was set up to attend to the details, with the latter group recruited from small pools of experts from the regions under study while Florence Howe, Abena Busia, and I served as co-directors and co-series editors. The four groundbreaking volumes (Southern, Eastern, Northern Africa, West Africa and the Sahel) were the result of extensive travel to libraries and archives in Africa and Europe, with summers devoted to editorial work at the Rockefeller Research Center in Bellagio.
Callaghan: In your research to uncover lost voices, was there anything that surprised you or something you were particularly excited about finding?
Allan: Great question. Actually, given my familiarity with modern African literature which, until the breakthrough of women’s voices, was predominantly male, I began work on the WWA project wanting to know about the unique elements of women’s writing in each region and how the writing reflects the history of gender relations in the indigenous cultures and during various colonial periods. The fact that, for example, the Southern and Western volumes are dominated by literary art while their Eastern and Northern counterparts show a penchant for autobiographical and sociological narratives points to interesting clues about the historical and linguistic influences on the regions. A similar line of inquiry involves finding texts across regions and time periods that are in conversation with each other. This intertextual exercise gives primacy to the volumes’ woman-centered themes and (their shifting focus) the shift from myth to modern writing.
Callaghan: In your “Afterword” to Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes (Feminist P, 1993), you write that the ending “offers female friendship as a site of resistance against the erotics of control” (184). Without giving too much of the ending away, what do you think the conclusion of this book shows about feminist resistance to patriarchy and colonialism in Africa?
Allan: Broadly speaking, one could read the ending of this romance novel as life-affirming, unlike the death-of-the-heroine ending feminist critics have identified as characteristic of the romance genre in the west. With few exceptions (notably, The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta,1979), novels by African women tend to reinforce themes of survival in a world hostile to female self-realization.
Fink: In your Introduction to To Stir the Heart (Feminist P, 2007), which brings under one cover two stories each by Bessie Head and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, you acknowledge how different both authors are in their stylistic modes, life experiences, and sociopolitical emphases, and then you articulate fundamental commonalities as African writers:
… [T]heir shared aversion to the abuses of power points to deep affinities between them. Both, for example, recognize the need for a resolute affirmation of ordinary people in the face of crushing systems of oppression. And, in particular, the short stories in this volume reveal their heightened awareness of the unequal relationships between women and men in matters of the heart. (3)
This is extremely significant, of course, but I want to ask you about the differences. Whereas Head characteristically develops “idealistic and demonic representations of masculinity” (14), and she “de-romanticizes the idea of an idyllic and stable tribal world” by foregrounding how tribal rules severely limit “individual expression” (15), Ngugi demonstrates how “true love is often hidden from the corrupting influences of society under neocolonial regimes in Africa” (14) but also stifled by them, and you show who Ngugi, as though something of a feminist, represents female agency in positive, though not idealized ways.
Why does Head not quite emphasize, as Ngugi does, the ravages of colonialism and neocolonialism in the stories? And why does Ngugi refrain from performing a critique of the constraints that tribal culture places on the individual? Is this reflective of their divergent subject-positions, and if so, how?
Allan: The first generation of African women writers (Aidoo, Emecheta, Head, Nwapa, Gordimer, to name a few) drew their inspiration primarily from the colonial context—like their male counterparts. What is distinctive about Bessie Head is her penchant for closer scrutiny of “tribal” life, perhaps in an effort to illuminate the lives of the neglected segment of her society. As a result, she is most comfortable in this group. In the case of Ngugi, one could argue that the strength of his anti-colonial critique—tracking the conqueror’s rampage—tends to detract from his focus on local African culture.
Fink: In Masculinities in African Literary and Cultural Texts, which you edited with Helen Nabasuta Mugambi (Ayebia Clarke, 2010), you and the contributors take on the task of accounting for the social construction of masculinity on the African continent. Why was this a crucial intervention for your overall project as a feminist scholar?
Allan: As noted in the editors’ Introduction to Masculinities in African Literary and Cultural Texts, African masculinity as a subject of critical inquiry was still in its
Infancy at the time the book was published, so there was an inclination on our part to contribute to an emerging scholarship. A deeper consideration, however, had to do with the need to provide a broader theoretical framework for understanding and interpreting the growing body of women’s literature on the African continent. It’s analogous to the way theories of masculinity in the West helped to move feminist criticism from the initial focus on images of women in western literature to re-conceptualizing gendered differences that throw light on female singularity. The book brings both oral and literary narratives together for a revealing look at the production of gender in African societies, a process that ultimately aids our understanding and critique of the literature.
Callaghan: In your time teaching African literature in New York City, have you found that students find African writers relatable to their lives?
Allan: I like the question, Cassandra, mainly because it captures the primary challenge facing teachers of literature in our time, which is getting students to understand and appreciate literature’s unique ability to communicate the human experience. Recently, the ideological space created by globalism has stimulated the desire to read across cultures (See, for example, Allan and Fink, Literature Around the Globe, Kendall/Hunt, 1994). Hence, whether it’s New York, London, or any of the metropolitan centers in the world, shifting currents in the economies, migration patterns, and demographics of the post-Second World War world have resulted in lucrative markets for cultivating readers of a burgeoning world literature. Generally, students stand to benefit from classroom arguments stemming from this sea change.
Early in my academic career, I published a special edition of Women’s Studies Quarterly titled, somewhat presciently, “Teaching African Literatures in a Global Economy,” establishing the parameters for engaging with the challenges and pleasures of African literary texts. Later, my experience with teaching several courses on the subject at the CUNY Graduate Center and Stony Brook University was enriched by the attention given to cultural studies in the academy at the time.
Fink: What territory within the study of African literature and culture have you not yet explored that you wish to make a future project?
Allan: One area in particular beckons: historical novels about African cultural hybridity, a subject Bessie Head began to explore in two novels, Maru (1971) and A Question of Power (1974). Today, it is a recurrent topic in the new wave of writing by African-born writers living abroad, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi.