Sunday, November 6, 2016

African and Asian Women in Autobiographical Literature and the Western Take

Adeola James in her introduction to In Their Own Voices says, "Our problem is that we have listened so rarely to women's voices, the noises of men having drowned us out in every sphere of life, including the arts”(2).
As in response, recently there has been a veritable flurry of books written by African and Asian female writers that have caught the attention of the publishing houses, the media as well as several ivory tower awards panels in the West. Following are few of the semi/autobiographical works by African and Asian female writers that had drawn the Western limelight in the last two decades: Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood: A Memoir of Growing Up Female in a Muslim World and Lajja by Taslima Nasrin, Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy, Singing Away the Hunger: The Autobiography of an African Woman by Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya and Socialite Evenings by Shobha De. Looking at these titles and the gender of their creators, one would assume that at last after centuries of their priggish, amblyopic behaviour towards the female writers of their own countries, the boards of directors and the judges of the above mentioned Western institutions are finally working up enough courage to acknowledge the necessity of equality and fair-play with regard to the issue of the gender of the writer. However, a closer examination of the books themselves and the quality of the responses these books have evoked in their target readership in the West throw an ominous light on the motives of the above self-appointed guardians of literature. For me, the following quotation taken from the web site of the UCLA on Meyebela by Taslima Nasrin more or less sums up the general Western attitude towards the criterion by which the quality of the works of African and Asian female writers should be judged: “If her countrymen want her dead, you know her writings must be exceptionally good, must be enormously powerful, and must be terribly threatening to the existing institution of male domination and patriarchy.”

     Let us look at some of the common features of most of the books written by female African and Asian writers that have found places in the Western Halls of Fame for Literature:
  1. Writers touch supposedly African/Asian topics such as honour killing, cult practices, polygamy, female circumcision, sati, ritualistic murder, gang rape, etc.
  2. The protagonist is invariably a woman exploited by the traditions of her society
  3. The writer finds salvation in the West
  4. She is threatened by fanatics linked to her former homeland  
     It is not that I accuse the writers of being intentionally insincere or deliberately misleading in order to make a quick buck, as they say, or to make a name for themselves. Moreover, I do not question their right to express their views against what they feel to be criminal, unjust, and inhuman. Arguably, it is mainly through literature that societies learn their weaknesses which left unaddressed would threaten their very foundation in the long run. Female writers of Africa and Asia such as Nasrin, Roy, Nthunya, and De may surely have written their stories with the intention of bringing about a positive change in their societies. They may have chosen to write in English and agreed to get their stories printed by Western publishing houses with the honourable intention of reaching a greater and more influential audience that would help them in their individual causes. They may have accepted the controversial awards conferred on them by the West with the understanding that these awards may give their voices a greater authenticity in their efforts to alleviate the suffering of women like themselves. Yet, in the end how many of the fellow sufferers of these writers would actually be empowered by these Künstlerroman which are linguistically as well as financially out of their reach? 

     Lines like these particular ones from Desert Flower by Waris Dirie: “My blindfold was off and I saw the Killer Woman had piled next to her a stack of thorns from an acacia tree. She used these to puncture holes in” had no doubt titillated many strident activists in the West no ends (42). Many a Western reader would have denounced such primitive practices stridently while shuddering delicately and thanking his/her own good-fortune for being born so far away from sites of such barbarity. But how many of such readers and activists would really follow the writer into the uncharted territory of the Somali Desert in order to express her/his honest indignation against female circumcision by doing something concrete and constructive? How many of them would donate the same amount they spent on a paperback version of Desert Flower ($10.08) to strengthen the untiring efforts of this brave woman who wants to make a difference in the lives of so many young women like herself? So to go back to the original issue, why does the West publish African and Asian female writers eagerly, write about them with relish, and award them with such high zest?  

“Meyebela.” home page. UCLA. 11 Oct. 2009    < mayebela.html>. 
De, Shobha. Socialite Evenings. New Delhi: Penguin, 1989.
Dirie, Waris. Desert Flower. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
James, Adeola. In Their Own Voices. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1990.
Nasrin, Taslim. Lajja. New Delhi: Penguin, 1994.
Nasrin, Taslima. Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood: A Memoir of Growing Up Female in a Muslim World. London: Barns and Noble, 1998.
Nthunya, Mpho 'M'atsepo. Singing Away the Hunger: The Autobiography of an African Woman. Ed. Kendall, Limakatso. Indiana: Indiana UP, 1997.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. London: Harper Perennial, 1998.


  1. i am for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly helpful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to present something back and help others such as you helped me.