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Feminism, Womanism and Motherism in

African Literary Discourse

Chidi T. Maduka
Comparative Literature Programme
niversity of Port !arcourt
Feminism, Womanism and Motherism in
African Literary Discourse
The African female author/intellectual has doggedly fought against the
dehumanizing treatment meted out to her by men in various African societies and,
in doing so, she fervently struggles to Africanize the term feminism as generally
used in the West by the marginalized Western female author/intellectual engaged in
a similar fight in the West. The first perspective stresses the point that men use the
ideology of patriarchy hich emphasizes male importance, dominance and
superiority !"#o$u 1%&' to enslave omen and ma$e them second(class citizens)
and, the second, that African omen do not share a common identity ith their
Western counterparts even though, as *avies and +raves assert, , both identify
gender(specifying issues and recognize omen-s position internationally as one of
second class status and .otherness- and see$ to connect ith that !/td by 0para &'.
The second point is rooted in the marginal position occupied by Africa in the
global village. This marginalization dates bac$ to the 1erlin 2onference of
1334/133& here the 5uropean imperial poers met and partitioned Africa
according to their economic, political and cultural interests. 6uch orld bodies as
The 7nternational 8onetary 9und !789', the World 1an$, the :aris 2lub and even
the ;nited "ations 0rganization are agents of globalization buttressing those
interests. Accordingly, Africa is virtually a cultural satellite of 5urope. 6usantha
+oonatila$e-s observations illuminate the point<
The 5uropean e>pansion of the last five hundred years ith its
different economic thrusts corresponding roughly to
mercantilist, industrial and present neo(colonial ones, resulted
in the throing of a near complete cultural blan$et almost all
over the orld. This cultural blan$et has suppressed local
culture, local arts, local systems of valid and relevant science
and has resulted in a virtual cultural genetic ipeout.
*iversity and originality, arts and ideas hich are not of
5uropean origin are vanishing and culture is getting pac$aged,
served in a plastic form, as the hegemonic machine of 5uropean
culture moves on !v'.
9eminism is an offshoot of this intellectual phenomenon. As an ideology it
has a long history hich, for the purposes of this short essay, can be summarized
ithin the bounds of the ideas developed by such provocative female thin$ers as
6imone de 1eauvoir, ?ate 8illett, @irginia Woolf, 8ary 5llmann, 5laine
6hoalter and 8ichAle 1arrett. They all, each in her on ay, repudiate the
phallo(centric notion that a oman is but an appendage to man, a notion capturing
the spirit of the biblical story of a oman having been created from a man-s rib.
6uch established male thin$ers as Aristotle and 6t. Thomas A/uinas share in the
pre#udice. 7t is not surprising that the erudite female scholars ferociously challenge
the belief system hich has provided a solid foundation for the social structures
erected on the patriarchal ideas of men. 6oon their /uest for social identity
metamorphoses into the search for the total autonomy of the female, a phenomenon
that has led to the virtual separation of the 8ale from the 9emale !no graphically
described as the 0ther'. This independence B economic, political, psychological
and intellectual B poses grave dangers to the stability of social institutions,
especially marriage hich many of the radical critics perceive as a tool of male
oppression in society. 2onse/uently, divorce and such modes of social behaviour
as lesbianism and same(se> marriage emerge as respectable life(styles.
7n literature, te>ts are reinterpreted to reveal the centrality of female
presence in understanding them. 8ale critics are accused of imposing male values
on literary conventions and specific te>ts. ?ate 8illett and 5laine 6hoalter, in
particular, revel in providing female sensibility to the 5nglish critical discourse<
8illett by e>cavating male pre#udices hidden beneath the narratives ritten by men
and 6hoalter by ma$ing an intriguing re(interpretation of the tradition of the
5nglish novel.
"e discoveries in post(structuralism open ne vistas for the female critics
to eventually reclaim their lost glory. Dac/ues *errida-s form of post(structuralism,
better $non as deconstruction shatters the Western belief in the certainty of truth
by erecting in its place a ne system of perceiving reality. 7n De la
Grammatologie, translated into 5nglish as On Grammatology ith a very thought(
provo$ing introduction by +ayatri 6piva$, a renoned literary comparatist and a
prominent voice in post(colonial aesthetics, he argues that the sign no longer
re/uires the presence of a centre of meaning in delineating thought processes, since
signifiers shift endlessly from position to position in the apprehending sub#ect-s
e>ercise of articulating thought. This means that truth/meaning cannot be
established ith certitude, thus leading to the re#ection of the idea of stability of
meaning in Western thought. All phallocentric ideas about man-s superiority to
oman, for instance, can be deconstructed infinitely through aporia to reveal
contradictions in the affirmations. Aporia is a form of irony used by the advocates
in tearing to shreds the solidity of propositions.
9emale activists find the formulation very persuasive because it enables
them to create space for themselves in the social orld dominated by patriarchy.
1ut many African omen associating themselves ith feminism use the
term deconstruction ithout espousing the full gamut of its methodology
because of the nature of the historical canvas from here they are putting up their
fight as omen. The ideology of feminism itself is eaned of its 5uropean
attributes. This is largely so because, as 6usan E. Andrada rightly asserts<
8uch contemporary hite criticism typically represents itself
as the outermost frame for understanding the place of omen as
they function ithin cultural systems. 1y representing itself as
color(blind and universal, hoever, such feminist theory
neglects to e>amine its on inscription ithin a 5uropean
system of thought hich is saturated by imperialism !%='.
The hite feminist fails to recognize the importance of cultural diversities in the
orld, an attitude of mind that e>poses her to the charge of arrogance.
The African female intellectual basically asserts her humanity ithin the
compass of her historical e>periences in Africa. 2hi$enye 0$on#o 0gunyemi, for
instance, tells us point blan$ that "igeria is male, a fact that is daily thrust in
myriad ays on the "igerian oman !Women and "igerian Fiterature GH'. 6he
then forcefully asserts that<
The literature is phallic, dominated as it is by male riters and
male critics ho deal almost e>clusively ith male characters
and male concerns, naturally aimed at a predominantly male
audience. The male camaraderie has been insufferable for the
fe educated "igerian omen !G&'.
6he goes on to give a litany of her grievances against the "igerian men, an attitude
of mind revealed in the or$s of ?ate 8illett and 5laine 6hoalter ho e/ually
castigate 5uropean men in their te>ts.
1ut 0gunyemi recoils from being associated ith the ideology of feminism
as developed in 5urope. Ier observation is pertinent<
The term feminism ith its opprobrious, 5uro(American
connections and its radical connotations is a ord "igerian
omen shy aay from. 5mecheta does not see herself as a
feminist in the radical American sense as she revealed in an
autobiographical essay. "apa-s ideological position is typical)
at the Fondon 1oo$ 9air in 1%34, she denied the fact that she
as a feminist and opted to be called a .omanist- li$e her
blac$ American counterparts !G4(G&'.
0ne of the challenges facing African female authors and critics is developing
an appropriate alternative term to feminism and or$ing out a methodology for
handling the issues related to the rights of omen and studying literary te>ts
focusing on them. Anglophone authors !e.g. Aidoo, Al$ali, 5mecheta, 5zeigbo,
"apa, 0got, 0nueme, Iead' and their 9rancophone counterparts !e.g. 1J, 6o
9all, Fopes' have in their different or$s/intervies/essays voiced out their
hostility to the term and disclaimed any association ith it even hen their or$s
point to the contrary. And the critics !e.g. 0gundipe(Feslie, 0gunyemi, Adebayo,
0para, 2hu$uma, Acholonu, Agbasiere' have developed a plethora of terms for
it< African feminism, "egative 9eminism, :ositive 9eminism, 9emalism,
Womanism, 6tianism, +ynism,
African Feminism
African feminism as a term serves as the domesticated version of the
ideology of feminism. 7t ta$es into account the African philosophy of life hich
stresses marriage as a social institution. Ioever, it condemns all forms of
patriarchy hich dehumanizes oman and portrays her as a second(class citizen.
Kooted in African historical and cultural e>periences it advances the vie of the
complementarity beteen man and oman by stressing the 8ale(9emale principle
in the creative order. 7t is from this perspective that Adu$e Adebayo asserts that<
The term .feminism- hen shorn of its variegated cultural
attachments and e>cesses still possesses a core(programme that
ade/uately synthesizes omen-s e>periences orldide in the
same ay that 8ar>ism has a core ideology hich has been
domesticated universally !C'.
7t is difficult to re#ect the vie that most definitions of feminism in African literary
discourse are formulations of this persuasion even hen they do not specifically
state so. A case in point is Ielen 2hu$uma-s vie that<
9eminism means , a re#ection of inferiority and a striving for
recognition. 7t see$s to give the oman a sense of self as a
orthy, effectual and contributing human being M,N Women
conditioning in Africa is the greatest barrier toard a fulfilment
of self !The 7dentity of 6elf i>'.
While discussing 1uchi 5mecheta-s Second Class Citizen, 8ariama 1J-s So Long
a Letter, "uriddin 9arah-s From a Crooked Rib and 9lora "apa-s One is Enough,
she boldly asserts that African feminism unli$e estern feminism does not negate
men, rather it accommodates them. 8en are central to their lives and so their
continuous presence is assured !@oices and 2hoices, ==4'.
6imilar vies characterize studies of 9rancophone fiction by various critics.
Dulie Agbasiere, for e>ample, tells us that Aminata 6o 9all belongs to the school
of thought hich opines that radicalilsm in feminist assertions is un(African, that
Africa has dignified and poerful omen ho do not oe their empoerment to
feminist ideologies , !%4'.
"egative Feminism and Positive Feminism
The above terms are not ne concepts but clarifications hich reinforce the
concept of African feminism. 7n them Kose Acholonu more or less affirms her faith
in the complementarity beteen the roles of men and omen in society. "egative
feminism stands for radical and militant transformation of the patriarchal
institutions in society, an attitude to social change hich hardly ma$es for sanity,
stability, peace and progress in the human society !3') and positive feminism is
the reverse, since it fosters the philosophy of gender complementarity and
accommodation in human relationships !3'.
7n discussing family love in "igerian fiction, therefore, she logically comes
to the conclusion that !,' the struggle for gender e/uality should be
accompanied by a serious and determined struggle to maintain love and peace
beteen the partners at home. !=LG'. +loria 2hu$u$ere embraces the same
philosophy of life in her or$ studying the condition of omen in contemporary
African fiction.
Fema#ism and $ynism
9emalism adds nothing ne to the concept of African feminism since it calls
for love and collaboration beteen the to se>es for the proper running of society.
As 0para asserts<
9emalism re#ects radical feminist-s nihilism of the institution of
marriage and attendant motherhood , hich smac$s of
1eauvoirism. 9emalism is contiguous but not identical to
2atherine Acholonu-s motherism, !4'
As for gynism, it stresses the e/uality of man and oman from the divine
perspective of gender complementarity of the to se>es. 7t therefore attempts in a
ay to redress the imbalance beteen the to se>es suggested in the biblical
creation myth of 5ve being created from Adam-s rib. 5boh, ho is in :hilosophy,
has used it in her or$ Aetiology of 9eminist, Womanist, 9emalist and +ynist
:hilosophy. The term adds nothing ne to the concept of African
This concept of feminism emanates from 8olara 0gundipe(Feslie ho
basically approaches literature from a 8ar>ist standpoint. 7t denotes a orldvie
in hich omen are given the opportunity to play an active part in its
transformation. As e are told in an intervie ith the author,
6tia means .6ocial Transformation- including Women of
AfricaO 7 anted to stress the fact that hat e ant in Africa is
social transformation. 7t-s not about arring ith the men, the
reversal of role, or doing to men hatever omen thin$ that
men have been doing for centuries, but it is trying to build a
harmonious society. The transformation of African society is
the responsibility of both men and omen and it is also in their
interest !Ptd by Adebayo 1'.
0gundipe(Feslie perceives the female struggle from the perspective of African
feminism hich has earlier been discussed.
7n a ay, she seems to have modified her stance of a radical feminist
revealed in her essay ritten nine years earlier in Arican Literature !oday.
5ntitled The 9emale Writer and Ier 2ommitment, the article repudiates the
strategies used by men to stereotype omen as beings ithout identity and urges
omen to rise up and vigorously change these images ith the poer of their pen.
Then in the spirit of the 8ar>ist stance from hich the article is ritten, 0gundipe(
Feslie calls on omen riters to e>tend the struggle to the liberation of the Third
World from the clutches of the imperialistic poers and onders hy many of the
African female riters li$e to declare that they are not feminists, as if it ere a
crime to be a feminist !11'. 6he finds it difficult to understand hy These denials
come from unli$ely riters such as 1essie Iead, 1uchi 5mecheta, even 8ariama
1J !11'. Ier misreading of p-1ite$-s Song o La"ino as a te>t hich falsely
represents the image of Faino as a passive and a(historical character stems from
her bias against "egritude traits in the representation of African reality, for Faino
!#ust li$e 6enghor-s femme noire B blac$ oman' serves as a useful agency for
proclaiming the rich potentials of African civilization for productivity and fertile
imagination. 7t appears that Feslie(0gundipe-s conversion to 6itanism may have
led to the moderation of some of her vies on feminism as it affects the African
All the discussions of the African version of feminism !or indeed African
feminism' can be subsumed under the concept of omanism, for it succeeds in
encoding the essential points raised by the advocates of other varieties of the
concept. 0gunyemi-s definition of the term is apt<
Womanism is blac$ centred) it is accommodationist. 7t believes
in the freedom and independence of omen li$e feminism)
unli$e radical feminism, it ants meaningful union beteen
blac$ omen and blac$ men and blac$ children and ill see to
it that men begin to change from their se>ist stand !G&'.
To her, it is a viepoint serving as the rallying(point of the omen of African
ancestry in their struggle to effectively assert their humanity in the face of the
malevolent attitude of the menfol$ toards their self(fulfilment in life. Ioever, it
does not emasculate the self(pride of men) rather it lures them into accepting to
live harmoniously ith them by abandoning their self(perception as superior
partners in the collective struggle of the race for a better society. 6he, hoever, errs
in her #udgement that the adoption of this mode of agitation by omen is due to the
oman-s fear of being accused by the MAfricanN male of allying ith the hite
outsider, !G&'. 7t is rather because of the historical necessity of the African
female intellectual safeguarding her cultural identity against the menacing threat
from the imperialistic est.
This point comes out very clearly in the ritings of such African(American
female riters as Alice Wal$er, 1ell Ioo$s and "ancy 8orQ#on. 1ell Ioo$s-
position is typical<
Kacism abounds in the ritings of hite feminists, reinforcing
hite supremacy and negating the possibility that omen ill
bond politically across ethnic and racial boundaries. :ast
feminist refusal to dra attention to and attac$ racial
hierarchies suppressed the lin$ beteen race and class , 2lass
struggle is e>tricably bound to the struggle to end racism !Ptd
by Adele$e =4'.
The African female thin$er is doubly suppressed by hostile forces B first, by her
male counterparts and second, by the 5uropean neo(colonialists. This
manifestation of the consciousness of the to(tier levels of oppression is necessary
for her survival as an intellectual.
7t is logical to e>pect that many African female intellectuals should thin$
seriously about developing this concept of omanism much more rigorously in
order to ma$e it serve as the cornerstone of their scholarship. All the other forms of
African feminism li$e femalism, positive feminism, negative feminism and gynism
could then be dropped in the interest of rigorous scholarship in this area of African
literary research.
7t is still necessary to e>amine 2atherine Acholonu-s motherism hich is
ambitiously conceived to serve as the alternative term to 9eminism, as the sub(
title of the boo$ suggests. The boo$ is basically rooted in social anthropology and
aims at bringing out a concept that ill derive its force from the core values
informing the African ay of life.
Acholonu dismisses the terms patriarchy and matriarchy hich she
considers 5urocentric and opts for patriocality and matriocality because, to her,
men and omen are complementary opposites in traditional African society, such
that no gender dominates the totality of the social life of the people. 8en are
dominant in socio(political spheres of life hile omen have the upper hand in
spiritual and metaphysical segments. As economic poer is the source of social
influence in society any person ielding it can command a lot of respect) and this
person is not restricted to any gender. As Acholonu articulates the point,
:atriarchy, the system that places men on top of the social and
political ladder seems to be an inappropriate term for describing
the organization of the social systems of the African peoples.
This is because several African societies reflect systems ith
ranging degrees of dual(se> hierarchies in hich men and
omen e>ist in parallel and complementary positions and roles
ithin the society !=CC'.
Acholonu launches attac$s on various advocates of feminism. The 5uropean
radical feminist is over(individualistic< This e>cessive individualism, among
radical feminists, she asserts, has in some cases given rise to an e>tremist
radical lesbian eminism bordering on masochism !3&'. 1uchi 5mecheta, 8olara
0gundipe(Feslie and Ama Ata Aidoo have misunderstood feminism to be
synonymous ith violent confrontation, militancy and aggression. !%='. And Alice
Wal$er-s brand of omanism is unsatisfactory because her omanist is first and
foremost a lesbian !3%'.
All in all, Acholonu perceives a motherist as a model of human love, peace
and fruitful interaction ith the environment. And a motherist author is an
embodiment of values necessary for co(e>istence beteen men and omen.
The theory is enthusiastically handled by Acholonu but it is still diffuse and
needs some refinements.
Chin&ei'u and (arna)e (i#ongo
6ince gynandrism !man-s empathy for the cause of female poer' is also in
vogue in female scholarship it is necessary to mention to male authors ho have
ritten boo$(length studies on feminism. 2hineizu is ell($non for his tirades
against slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. 7n Anatomy o Female #o"er
ith the sub(title A 8asculinist *issection of 8atriarchy, he e>ercises his poer
as a poet to deride the oman-s current struggle to brea$ don the chains of the
oppression crushing her life. Ie strongly argues that men are victims of female
poer hich omen ield behind the scenes((through motherpoer,
bridepoer and ifepoer. 7t is difficult not to see the study as a se>ist piece.
0n the contrary, 1ilongo, a 2ameroonian author, is a true gynandrist ho
uses his boo$let La Femme noire aricaine en situation !!he $lack Arican %oman
in Action' to decry the dehumanization of omen in se>ist societies. Ie
meticulously tabulates the strategies used by men to oppress omen in patriarchal
societies and ends in a sad note<
5n Afri/ue "oire, il faut encore des dQcennies pour /ue d-une
part la masse des femmes non(instruites et rurales soit capable
de rQaliser ses droits, et pour /ue l-homme d-autre part, mRme
QvoluQ, renonce S frustrer la femme de ses droits les plus
QlQmentaires !4C'.
!7n 1lac$ Africa, it ill still ta$e decades for the numerous
uneducated rural omen to be in a position to get their rights
and for men, even if educated, to stop preventing omen from
getting their most elementary rights'.
7n general, African female intellectuals elcome comments from men stri$ing the
chord of female emancipation in Africa and deplore those from others perpetuating
the status /uo. They ould prefer 1ilongo to 2hineizu.
Practica# Criticism and Theories of Literature
7t is no opportune to ma$e some comments !hoever cursory' on the
development/use of critical theories in the area of omanist scholarship in Africa.
The observation of Teresa 1rennan in the preface of the boo$ edited by 0bioma
"naeme$a is illuminating. According to her,
*isciplinary specialization might also be held accountable for a
third groing division ithin feminism, beteen theoretical
s$ills on the one hand, and literary analysis and socio(economic
empirical research on the other. :oststructuralist or postmodern
feminism is identified ith the theoretical avant(garde, hile
historical, cultural feminism is associated ith the study of ho
omen are culturally represented, or hat omen are meant to
have really done. !>iii'.
The points raised in the commentary emphasize the importance of rigorous
scholarship in the area of feminist scholarship in Africa. The commentary is made
in the conte>t of hat obtains in contemporary literary and cultural scholarship in
5urope and touches on the sophistication of certain forms of theories associated
ith poststructuralism, postmodernism and postcolonial aesthetics. 8any African
scholars find these theories somehat outlandish in handling certain forms of
scholarship on feminism, especially in contemporary Africa riddled ith serious
economic, political and cultural problems. They accordingly confine themselves to
conventional sociological modes of literary and cultural studies. Those living in the
*iaspora find it obligatory to ad#ust to contemporary modes of scholarship
prevalent in 5urope because of the nature of their audience.
This observation comes out clearly in studying the te>ts in 0bioma
"naeme$a-s !he #olitics o &'( Othering) %omanhood* +dentity and Resistance in
Arican Literature. 8any of them are grounded in contemporary 5uropean cultural
and literacy theories, often incapable of illuminating the understanding of
contemporary social issues in Africa.
The scholars resident in Africa have yet to fully grapple ith the theoretical
problems necessary for handling the omanist scholarship on African culture and
literature. Allusions are made to the catchords associated ith *erridean
poststructuralist approach to studying te>ts, or even to +ayatri-s mode of
discussing and resolving postcolonial problems rooted in the concept of the
subaltern. A cursory vie of the titles of essays or the formulation of ideas used in
some publications may suffice<
!1' 7n commenting on an aspect of Women-s 6tudies, 2hioma 0para asserts<
*econstruction, thus becomes an essential critical tool as e
anthropologically, historically, psychologically, linguistically,
philosophically, biologically, attempt the resolution of gender
issues in a meta(disciplinary mode !1'.
The reader does not /uite understand ho this ord deconstruction is used in the
te>t because 0para does not even use the methodology in her studies.
!=' Theodora A 5zeigbo, a famous novelist, ma$es the folloing
commentary hile discussing her article entitled 8yth, Iistory, 2ulture
and 7gbo in 9lora "apa-s "ovels hich is contained in the boo$ edited
by ;meh on "apa<
the myth of ;hamiri is deconstructed by "apa and reinvented
and used to criticize the ;guta cultural tradition that values
the oman primarily as an individual ith aspirations to attain
self(fulfilment and independence !G%'.
The term is merely ornamental in the study because 5zeigbo does not use the
methodology of *errida-s deconstruction in the analysis.
!C' 8ary 5. 8odupe ?olaole entitles her essay on 9lora "apa as follos<
6pace for the 6ubaltern< 9lora "apa-s Kepresentation and
the Ke(presentation of Ieroinism. !7t is found in the boo$
edited by ;meh on "apa'.
7t is clear that she is using the concept developed by +ayatry 6piva$ in her famous
article entitled 2an the 6ubaltern 6pea$T The term as originally used by the
7talian 8ar>ist scholar, +ramsci, to refer to those groups in society ho are
sub#ect to the hegemony of the ruling classes !Ashcroft, +riffiths and Tiffin =1&'.
6piva$ adapted it to the study of the case of an 7ndian oman marginalized by
male oppression. 1ut ?olaole in no ay uses the comple> concept in her study.
7n contrast, one can refer to 6usan E. Andraide-s study of "apa-s Euru and
5mecheta-s ,oys o 'otherhood in hich Andraide uses 8i$hail 1a$htin-s concept
of dialogism, a form of poststructuralism, to reveal the tensions ithin the te>ts
and the bridges connecting them ithin the discursive chasms !%&' rooted in the
history of the 1%=% 7gbo Women-s War derogatorily called Aba Kiots by the
1ritish. The study is adroitly handled but the reading is turgid, thereby revealing
the limitations of using such a comple> and dense theoretical model to study
African te>ts dealing ith the topical issue of female oppression. The critical
methodology dampens the enthusiasm generated in the reader by the primary te>ts.
The African female intellectual faces challenges in developing appropriate
theoretical models for studying omanist te>ts. 6he has to build on hat
0gundipe(Feslie and 2hi$enye 0$on#o 0gunyemi have done in their or$s Re-
creating Oursel.es , and Arican %o/'an #ala.a , 7t is necessary for the critic
attracted to 5uropean theories to remember that Africa, as "iyi 0sundare and
8adu$a have argued, is still in the grip of intimidating social, economic, political
and intellectual problems that need to be ade/uately handled.
7n conclusion, the competing definitions of feminism, omanism and
motherism in African literary discourse have to be scrupulously e>amined by the
African female author/intellectual and appropriate theories developed ithin the
conte>t of African historical e>periences to cope ith the challenges facing the
critic. Womanism seems to be the favoured concept for the studies but it is yet to
be succinctly studied and developed.
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