Flora Nwapa and the African woman’s struggle to identify as feminist

After rejecting the label, the mother of modern African literature finally saw that feminism is about choices and possibilities – and this should be a lesson to us all

29 April 2017 // Yovanka Paquete Perdigao

When Nigerian writer Flora Nwapa published her debut novel Efuru in 1966, it marked the beginning of a women’s literary revolution in Africa.  She was part of a wave of female African writers whose novels defied the traditional depiction of African women as passive. Botswana’s Bessie Head explored her experience of female mental disintegration brought on by a patriarchal society in her groundbreaking work A Question of Power; Kenyan Grace Ogot’s stories highlighted traditional Luo folklore, mythologies, and oral traditions, while in Ghana, Ama Ataa Aido’s play The Dilemma of a Ghost was already delving into diaspora identity politics.

Nwapa’s Efuru – the first novel by an African woman to be published in English – explores the agency of African women in reclaiming their bodies and identities. The protagonist, Efuru, is twice married but both marriages fail despite her love and loyalty. Her first husband is a poor farmer, Adizua, with whom Efru struggles to conceive, bearing “only” a daughter and no male heir. Their marriage ends after Adizua grows impatient and runs away with another woman. Efru is also unable to have children with her second husband, Gilbert, which leads to tensions.  In the end she decides to take control of her own destiny by divorcing Gilbert and becoming a worshipper of the goddess of the lake, Uhamiri.

Throughout the novel, Nwapa reflects on how society links a woman’s ability to conceive to her womanhood.  Efuru, an independent and financially-savvy woman, supports and loves both of her husbands, but she is met with contempt by society; her inability to have children renders her a ‘failure’ despite her many other achievements.

Upon publication, the novel was harshly rejected by critics; many considered Nwapa’s writing weak and the story unauthentic (perhaps an indication of the sexism in literary circles). However as conversations on the African woman’s experience expanded, Nwapa’s stories became a source of inspiration to a younger African generation of female writers.  Some 50 years later, though Nwapa’s work is still overshadowed by her male contemporaries, Efuru is part of the African literary canon.

“I am a feminist because feminism is about possibilities. Let us not be afraid to say that we are feminists. Globally, we need one another.” Flora Nwapa

Flora-Nwapa

Flora Nwapa. Photoraph: Ejine Olga Nzeribe/Ebere Okereke/dangerouswomenproject.org

Despite the pioneering, clearly gendered nature of her work, Nwapa vehemently rejected the label of ‘feminist’ in early interviews because she considered it to be inherently anti-men and at odds with her tradition and culture.

In a 1980 interview at Frankfurt Book Fair, she said of her motivations to start a publishing company, Tana Press, that she wanted “to inform and educate women all over the world, especially feminists (both with capital F and small f) about the role of women in Nigeria, their economic independence, their relationship with their husbands and children, their traditional beliefs and their status in the community as a whole.”

Nwapa would later retract her earlier objections to being called a feminist. Speaking at a conference in Nigeria before her death in 1993, she said: “Years back, when I go on my tours to America and Europe, I’m usually asked, Are you a feminist?’ I deny that I am a feminist…. But they say, all your works, everything is about feminism. And I say, No, I am not a feminist. ‘ Having heard Ama [Ata Aidoo] today, I think that I will go out and say that I am a feminist with a big f because … feminism is about possibilities; there are possibilities, there are choices. Let us not be afraid to say that we are feminists … Globally, we need one another.”

As a writer and a publisher, Nwapa was a trailblazer. At a time when no one had seen the value in African women as a book-buying demographic, Nwapa identified a gap in the market and had considerable success.

Today, the label ‘feminist’ remains as contentious as it had done when Nwapa wrote and published books. Though she may have been a reluctant feminist, she is undoubtedly the mother of modern African feminist literature – with sisterhood and  women’s independence recurring as central themes in her novels – and a mentor to many writers.

For these reasons we must continue to honour her feminist legacy and, in so doing, reclaim the term for African women.  Re-affirming both the novel and writer as feminist is a necessary reminder that feminism is not only for western women but can also legitimise other women’s experiences.

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