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Where are the women in African non-fiction?

How African women are discouraged from writing creative non-fiction and why it matters.

Last updated: 21 Jul 2014 16:15
Minna Salami

Minna Salami writes, speaks and advocates on a broad range of Africa, diaspora and feminist issues. She writes the award-winning blog, MsAfropolitan, and is a member of the Duke University's Global Educator Network as well as the Guardian's Africa Network.
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Dambisa Moyo is an important voice in African non-fiction writing [Getty Images]

For a continent of its size and history, Africa does offer plenty of interesting topics for popular creative non-fiction. The majority of creative non-fiction books about African society that have enjoyed international success are by non-Africans or by white Africans. There are clear reasons for the Eurocentric bias. Producing a culture of vibrant public intellectual thought is a challenge in societies dealing with socio-economic struggles and historical burdens. African writers - women and men - lack the support systems and publishing opportunities available in the West. 

Furthermore, men seem to be much more active in shaping ideas about Africa than women are. Unlike fiction writing, where women writers are doing well, gender inequality in the African non-fiction literary scene remains an unambiguous and crippling problem. Sure, writers like Dambisa Moyo, Noo Saro-Wiwa, Pumla Dineo-Gqola and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are contributing with compelling and heated investigations of African matters, but the non-fiction genre generally suffers from a lack of writing by African women.

This is because, like women everywhere, African women are systematically discouraged from probing intellectual matters. Let me give you some examples. At a recent workshop in Gambia where I led sessions about communication as a tool for feminist activism with a dynamic group of women, our discussions centred on how challenging, if not dangerous, it can be for African women to write about social, political and cultural situations. One of the participants was imprisoned for writing about how the regime oppresses women; another young woman's family and husband cut ties with her because she spoke out about - and against - experiencing female genital cutting.

Indeed, due to deeply ingrained patriarchal beliefs about women's self-expression, women who write about society may become subject to persecution, ostracism and imprisonment. In addition, female creative non-fiction writers are habitually underrepresented in critical discussions: They are largely excluded from awards, power lists, references and so on.

Furthermore, the public sphere of creative non-fiction generally favours "masculine" topics. Books by women writers, especially those that include gendered analyses, are dismissed as tackling "women's issues" even if it is also a book about, say, conflict in a nation. As this type of reasoning goes: If gender is emphasised in a text, then it is feminist and lacks gravitas.

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As a result, when it comes to creative non-fiction writing about African society, many important works do not become the references for social analysis that they should be. Books like Leymah Gbowee's Mighty Be Our Powers, Wangaari Maathai's Unbowed or The Devil That Danced on Water by Aminatta Forna are not simply books written from a woman's point of view about women's lives, but they are important books about African political and social life.

I don't mean to suggest that every woman who writes creative non-fiction about African society is an African feminist. My point is that there is no such thing as a "feminine" or a "masculine" topic when discussing society. Rather most social affairs - when addressed thoroughly - are gendered.

The critical issues of the day: be they development, globalisation, citizenship etc., affect men and women in different ways. Therefore, it is those books (mostly written by men), which fail to consider the impact of their subject on half of the populace, that miss the mark. Great literature has no gender, (nor race, class or sexual preference), but men's centrality in African creative non-fiction writing is an expression of how male dominance is systemically and culturally reinforced and how women are made to feel that their ideas do not matter.

Toni Morrison wrote in her brilliant treatment on race in American writing that a key role of the writer is to "transform aspects of their social grounding into aspects of language". This is a suitable way to put the task of the twenty-first century African writer.

Africa finds itself at a paradoxical moment. On the one hand, a progressive wave of socio-political, economic and cultural change is sweeping the continent. Yet on the other hand, for every step forward there is a concurrent concern. For example, while the Nigerian economy became Africa's largest and one of the fastest growing in the world, the country is struggling to counter steadily multiplying acts of terror.

Culturally too, African films like Half of a Yellow Sun are performing well internationally but in Nigeria, the film, which tackles the country's civil war, has been subject to an unfounded censorship

In Uganda, strong economic growth in the past decade has enabled substantial poverty reduction in the country and there has been rapid progress in infrastructure development within agriculture, transport and energy sectors. Yet the recently established regressive anti-gay policies cast a shadow over the otherwise encouraging development.

In such times of instability and dynamic change, non-fiction writers can help by providing stabilising narratives which could give direction to African societies. Moreover, it is important that African writers lead the way in this drive for progressive transformation in Africa.

This is not to suggest that writers of all ethnicities should, can, or do not write informed and analytical material about African society: they should, can, and do. However, writers whose identities are vested in Africa are prone to approach issues with all the nuance, balance and attentiveness needed.

It is equally crucial that black African women shape the discourse. To make sense of Africa today - of its complex socio-economic politics, cultural trends, ongoing conflicts, educational prospects, increasing religiosity, post-colonial discourses and so on - women must be encouraged to step forward as thought leaders and authors of creative non-fiction. To enable that, it is key that we understand that it is not because women have not had something to say or because their writing about society is less popular than men's, but rather because they have been written out of the "malestream" literary sphere. It's high time to write them back in.

Minna Salami writes, speaks and advocates on a broad range of Africa, diaspora and  feminist issues. She writes the award-winning blog, MsAfropolitan, and is a member  of the Duke University's Global Educator Network as well as the Guardian's (UK) Africa Network.

Follow her on Twitter @MsAfropolitan.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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