The Many Urgent Voices Of Women Writers From Africa

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Image: AP via The Sydney Morning Herald

New Daughters Of Africa
Ed. Margaret Busby
Myriad Editions, $37.99

Both books are anthologies containing writings by women of African descent from more than 50 countries as diverse as Antigua, Zimbabwe, Angola, Britain, the US and Australia. As such, they are testimony to the talent and creativity of women belonging to Africa and the African diaspora. Diversity also characterises the genres to be found among the book’s pages – they include extracts from novels as well as short stories, memoir, essays, journalism, columns, blogs, poetry, speeches, plays, film scripts, and other experimental forms.

The second volume differs from the first in not doubling up on the 210 African women writers whose works appeared in the first volume, and by presenting works by a small number of important 19th-century African women writers. As Busby herself declares, ‘‘these few names serve as a reminder of the indisputable fact that later generations stand tall because of those who have gone before’’. In publishing the two anthologies, Busby’s primary aim, as she herself states it, is to underscore the links between African women writers of different generations and to help create an ‘‘inspiring legacy for years to come’’.

The links she refers to are traced in multiple ways; sometimes through styles of writing and genres, at other times through themes such as immigration, at other times still through highlighting genealogical or family ties. An unforgettable example of the first is the poignant account of arriving in England from Jamaica as a child that is given by Yvonne Bailey-Smith, the mother who raised and empowered the award-winning British novelist Zadie Smith.

‘‘The Room where I waited for the immigration lady to complete the pages of different-coloured forms for my entry into the UK was dank and cold. My blue and white cotton dress offered little protection against the bitter winter chill. My knees shook and my teeth chattered as my skinny body struggled to cope with the cold that invaded every inch of it. I tilted my head back as far as I could in a determined effort to stem further tears, but came they did, accompanied by loud uncontrollable sobbing. I felt as though I had fallen off my island with no way of ever getting back.’’

That legacy of empowerment is evident in the speech on identity that Zadie Smith delivered upon receiving the Langston Hughes medal for writing in 2017: ‘‘Receiving this prize makes me want to laugh-cry with pride and amazement. I don’t know what I am doing on a list of names that includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott and Octavia Butler, but I am so grateful to find myself in their company.

‘‘Growing up in England, in the '80s, these were some of the writers my mother gave me, to remind me that no country has the power to decide whether or not it will tolerate a black child or decide on her true identity, for the black child’s inheritance is borderless and enormous and needs no such external authentication.’’

An equally large number of writings deal with the mother-daughter relationship, and a particularly fine example of this is the poem Mama by Akosua Busia from Ghana, the first verse of which reads:

‘‘She is the centre of my earth/ The fire from which I warm my soul/ The spark that kindles my heart./ The Sustenance I feed my daughter/ Is the nourishment I sucked from her once-succulent flesh/ Turned brittle-boned, held together by will power/ Mama feeds me still –/ She lives –/ For us –/ She lives.’’

The legacy that Busby celebrates and aims to foster is evident from the sheer numbers of women writers of African descent that she has collected. These are women whose works literary history has largely ignored. As she observes, in bringing together all these women writers her goal has been to ‘‘shine a light on as many as possible of the deserving, whether or not they are acknowledged or lauded by the gatekeepers, who traditionally single out a privileged few, seemingly never too many to rock the boat’’.

Rocking the boat is of course an allusion to yet another powerful theme running through the anthology – that of feminism both explicit and implicit. This is evident from the large number of writings that deal with African women’s experiences of violence and trauma, whether at the hands of white people or others, and whether committed by men or women.

One of the most astute voices in this respect is that of the Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who writes, ‘‘My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes there is a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better’. All of us, women and men, must do better.’’

One of the strengths of this second anthology is that it has introduced me to an enormously compelling body of works and writers that I had never heard of but are all worth reading. The arrangement is chronological. Starting with only seven writers prior to 1900, the book extends through each decade of the 20th century up to the end of the 1990s, each time gathering more and more women’s works, with the largest number coming in the 1960s – proof that it was a truly a golden age for African women’s writing.

I have never really thought of literature anthologies as encouraging the immersive kind of reading that is done for escape or pleasure, so I was surprised when picking up New Daughters of Africathat I found myself immediately engrossed in each woman’s ‘‘story’’, as Busby calls each of the extracts. This is because they each have something profound to say and many pieces, albeit fragments of a larger piece, are also immensely moving.

The fact that there are 212 voices in the book did not prove to make the works less interesting. Rather, each extract serves as an enticement to look further into many of the writers’ lives and works. One can ask for little more from an anthology so spilling over with such a wealth of history, hope, wisdom and talent.

Anne Maxwell teaches postcolonial and global literature at the University of Melbourne.