Misandry: Remaking feminist aesthetics in recent Nigerian fiction
The agency of feminist ideology in the reconfiguration of paths towards a definition of the female body resonates across the corpus of African literary imagination.
In the context of aesthetic representations, the inclinations of respective writers are teased out through thematic and stylistic explorations.
To a large extent, the dichotomy between the radical/western notions and non-African theorizing of feminism has paved way for new conceptualizations especially towards the female body.
As such, the projections of the female body as commodities encounter ideological resistance and re-definitions in literary canvass. Against this backdrop, the texts and contexts of representations evolve new paradigms of aesthetic interpretation.
Therefore, this essay engages notions of misandry as emblematic of new aesthetic/ideological representations of the female body in recent Nigerian fiction as exemplified by Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come.
The paper interrogates the tendency to foreground female characters and the implications.
The question that this discourse confronts centers on the raison-detre for this strategy and the implications for the reconstruction of gender identities in recent Nigerian fiction.
The choice of form of literary expression by a writer largely depends on his/her inclinations. Beyond this, a writer may find a particular form of expression apt for passing across his/her message if a particular tradition is already established to which the writer subscribes.
While it may be argued that, irrespective the form chosen by the writer, the message still gets delivered as long as the craft of literature is not compromised.
Notwithstanding the fact that, as a tradition, the African novel is relatively new when compared to poetry and drama, it is indubitable that, other forms of prose narratives such as folktales, fables and the like have also been on hand as pre-cursor forms for the novelistic tradition.
Hence, any discussion of such a form as Bildungsroman is hardly expected to embark on a critical taxonomy since there have been a large exploration of the form following the dawn of the novel in African creative imagination.
The point is, the Bildungsroman as a form of the novel is deeply entrenched in African literary geography.
Arising from the above, what confronts the present endeavour is a re/consideration of the deployment of the Bildungsroman as it applies to a particular socio-historic juncture; and as it attempts to navigate the plethora of critical and theoretical dissipations.
In this respect, the concern of this paper is essentially one which seeks to explicate the connection between theory and form.
This implies that, one seeks to (dis)entangle the seeming conscious deployment of a critical approach in underscoring a theoretical construct.
Simply put, the engagement of the Nigerian variant of the Postcolonial African Bildungsroman with the question of assignment of gender roles is the raison detre of this discourse.
The Postcolonial Bildungsroman
It appears from the onset that the Bildungsroman tradition is gradually becoming synonymous with novelistic expression in recent Nigerian fiction.
One immediate impression from this is that, owing to the nature of artistic engagement and the peculiarities of the postcolonial condition, the Bildungsroman is gradually becoming an ally in portraying the thematic sensibilities prevalent in the enabling milieu.
To put it mildly, one may infer that, the fact that the Bildungsroman emphasizes the coming of age of characters clearly positions it as a form that captures succinctly the angst of development of characters.
Hence, character depictions would now directly relate the vicissitudes which confront them as they “come of age”.
Okuyade (2009) while acknowledging the Western origin of the Bildungsroman tradition explores its relevance to postcolonial contexts, and makes a convincing case for its seamless adoption.
This suggests that the Bildungsroman has become a ready tool in the hands of feminist inclined writers within the recent generation of Nigerian fiction writing.
The reality therefore, is such that the Bildungsroman is enjoying the patronage of recent Nigerian writers because it appears as a strong form that could be associated with female empowerment or feminist utopia.
It is indubitable that Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come underscores the realities of post-independence disillusionment.
In setting the novel in urban Lagos, the intention of the novel to portray the prevailing decadence is not in doubt.
From breakdown of values through domestic violence and religious fanaticism, Sefi Atta’s thematic venom in lampooning the post-independence Nigerian society is apparent.
However, in depicting characters and assigning roles to them to pursue her thematic agenda, Sefi Atta seems to single out the male folk, demonizing them all the way.
In fact, the male characters, both young and old, fall under her hammer as irresponsible, fleshly, vain and insensitive.
The characters include adolescents who rape Sheri (p.65); Mike whom she dated and Niyi whom she eventually marries.
What one notes is that, Enitan is an unrepentant radical feminist, who hardly sees anything good in men and what they represent; including the institution of marriage. She confesses:
In my 29 years no man ever told me to show respect. No man ever needed to. I had seen how women respected men and ended up shouldering burdens like one of those people who carried firewood on their head, with their necks as high as church spires and foreheads crushed.
Too many women, I thought, ended up treating domestic frustrations like mild cases of indigestion…(Atta,184)
In other words, Enitan’s disenchantment with marriage, men and society naturally would not assure a marital union.
For someone who vows never to “defer to a man whose naked buttocks I’d seen and touched” (p.184), sustaining a marriage is illusory.
Therefore, Enitan, rather than Niyi, laid the foundation for the crises that eventually enveloped the union and this represents a clear case of misplaced aggression or misdirected venom.
For example, a man like Enitan’s father, despite his level of exposure is shown to lack the capacity for self-control. He violates his marital oath and commits adultery leading to an illegitimate child, Debayo, (p.151).
He also does not end well in the novel as a result of acts of omission or commission. This is a worrisome depiction as cases of broken homes hardly happen without complicity by either party.
In her case, resort to extreme religiosity and fanaticism by her mother, which clearly represent strong causative factors in the collapse of the home, are simply glossed over.
Despite the fact that Arin, Enitan’s mother also displays clear skepticism in her marriage, Enitan still would rather totally blame the father. In other words, Atta seems to misdirect her venom at the male folk in this case.
Arin’s position clearly suggests this: “Never make sacrifices for a man. By the time you say, ‘look what I’ve done for you’, it’s too late. They never remember. And the day you begin to retaliate, they never forget. (p.173)
The same applies to the depiction of Alhaji and his ilk of men in power. Atta does not show enough evidence to prove that these men lured the likes of Sheri with their perverted minds.
Rather, the novelist simply glorifies the involvement of Sheri as a form of survival strategy while the venom of moral decadence falls on the male characters.
Other examples include the way Enitan suffers in her marriage to Niyi as a result of complexities surrounding the union and frequent altercations between the couple.
Actually, Enitan’s eventual emergence as a campaigner for women and civil rights hardly recognizes any major contribution by men.
Her comrade in the struggle is no other than Grace Ameh, a female character. In other words, maleness is clearly at the receiving end of her portrayal of her society in shambles.
Notwithstanding the fact that the enabling society is obviously male-centred in all spheres, there is no sense of balance in Atta’s representation of anguish along the lines of perpetrators and victims.
The foregoing goes to show the travails of the male body in recent Nigerian fiction, especially in the twenty-first century.
What is partly responsible for this is not entirely the gender of the novelist, but her convictions and ideological orientation of feminism.
While her location as a Diaspora writer may have influenced her thematic colourations, she nonetheless hardly comes across as a radical feminist.
What this indicates is probably her tendency for “over-romanticisation” of ideology.
Atta, just like others of her ilk may be unmindful of Kolawole’ s (2002, 92) observation that “in addressing gender in Africa, historical and cultural contexts are fundamental”.
What comes across from the foregoing should be contextualized within Atta novelistic universe. In one’s view, Atta does not hide her feminist identity.
She pursues her misogynous agenda fiercely and she is not ambiguous in her position: “Was I? If a woman sneezed in my country, someone would call her a feminist…I wanted to tell everyone, “I! Am! Not! Satisfied with these options!” I was ready to tear every notion they had about women” (p.197).
It is however a kind of biting reality the novelist seems to paint hence forcefully driving home her message, since, according to Dosekun (2007,41) “feminist politics cannot be separated from the problems of poverty, disease, under-education, militarism, violence and conflict”
One can therefore assert that the depiction of the female characters is lopsided.
With most of the male characters being the villain and their female counterparts, the victims, the novelist has extended the frontiers of her narrative beyond the realities of her immediate context of artistic production.
In fact, her characters do not conform to Eysturoy’s (1996, 6) well-considered view that: ‘‘The protagonist (in a Bildungsroman) has to measure his or her emerging self against the values and spirit of a particular social context, representative of an age and a culture’’ .
Female Solidarity as Trope of Engagement
The representation of the self in the postcolonial African Bildungsroman is marked by a uniqueness which seeks to redefine the relationship between the self and the society.
Given the fact that there is an inherent dynamism in the way characters are presented to anchor specific ideologies, it then means that there is a stereotypic dimension to the projection of characters.
In the case of Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come the author clearly foreground the tendency for promoting female solidarity.
It is clear that, in charting a cause a redefining gender, there is a deliberate attempt at ensuring that the female characters see co-operation and solidarity as necessary ingredients of feminist agitations.
It is not surprising that, throughout the novel, Enitan in Everything Good Will Come finds internal peace and consolation in Sheri, her childhood friend.
Notwithstanding the differences in their backgrounds and the dichotomy of class and religion, the characters get along and support each other.
In fact, while at school, Sheri’s regular correspondences keep Enitan afloat, psychologically.
This emotional connection gradually develops into a worthy balm necessary for negotiating a distinct gender identity by Enitan.
The problematic construct of national identity thus paves way for a shared philosophy which promotes the quest for redressing gender imbalances.
The same also extends to Grace Armeh, who in no time becomes a reliable ally in the struggle for Enitan. For Enitan, the option is daring and somewhat confounding.
The decision to walk away from her marriage and home to become an advocate of women prisoners is a bold move.
Enitan damns the consequences: When people speak of turning points in their lives, it makes me wonder… Before this, I had opportunities to take action, only to end up behaving in ways I was accustomed ,courting the same old frustrations because I was sure I would feel: wronged, helpless…(Atta,323).
This moment of liberation in Everything Good Will Come marks a turning-point for Enitan. One shares her pain and approves of the need for her to make a bold move to halt the anomaly.
With her mother dead and father incarcerated, she decides to assert her will baring all odds: Here it is: changes came after I made them, each one small. I walked up a stair. Easy. I took off a headtie. Very easy. I packed a suitcase, carried it downstairs, put it in my car…My husband asked why I was leaving him. I have to, I replied. (Atta, 323).
What one suggests is that, all the female characters are interdependent and jointly contribute to the emergence of a strong thematic construct in the novel.
This clearly supports Nadaswaran’s (2011, 20) view that , the characters “embody Alice Walker and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi’s definition of womanist characteristics that enable them to work towards asserting their independence in their various experiences and family relationships…and create new spaces for young Nigerian women to inhabit”
This paper has interrogated misandry as a construct of maleness in recent Nigerian fiction.
It has been shown that, rather than working towards an inclusive feminist agenda, the female postcolonial Bildungsroman seems to, using the words of Ayeleru (2013:229), “suggests an act of vengeance and a “do me and I do you syndrome”.
The implication of this is grave on either gender and for our purpose here, the male gender most importantly. The cloak of invisibility on the male figure is becoming a social concern more than ever before.
To assume that only the female child deserves patronage from feminist writing is to dangerously tilt to an abyss of socio-cultural upheaval. The reality of gender imbalance is such that, both sexes suffer from one form of oppression or another.
Hence, redressing gender imbalance requires an inclusive approach, which acknowledges the socio-historical and historical processes at play.
Arising from the foregoing, one notes that the whole idea of villainy of the male character does not equate to eradication of female empowerment.
The social structures being painted in misogynous terms are, interestingly matriarchal-inclined, serving the cause of feminity all the way, in several respects. As Chinweizu ( 1990, 11) has noted:
The power they wield is neither illusory nor a joke.
Furthermore, in human society, it is not male power but
female power which is supreme. Or rather, to change
the imagery, however great male power may be, it is to
female power what that one-seventh of an iceberg
which is visible above water is to the six-sevenths
which lies below the water line.
It is clear that the text discussed in this essay exemplifies a deliberate attempt at demonizing the male-folk.
What comes out of this is that the novelist attempts to locate the fervour of radical feminism which could be seen in the ideological and thematic directions in their respective character portraitures.
One posits that, even though the gender question is a recurring decimal in African critical discourse, the fact that several scholars have tactically denounced the allegations of bias against women remains indubitable.
In fact, such critics as Uwasomba (2007) contend that, even in the Achebe generation, the male chauvinist charges seem unfounded.
Ideology thus encumbers aesthetic configurations and ultimately results in a new ontology. Feministic re-interpretation thus negotiates new meanings for the male and female bodies.
• Dr. Oluwole Coker is a Senior Lecturer in Literature-in-English at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, where he teaches African fiction and oral literature.
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