Q&A: Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike with Prof. Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi

AiW Guest: Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike.

Screenshot_20200909-154004.pngJuliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature in the Department of English at North Carolina State University. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in African literature, postcolonial literary and cultural studies, world literature, women’s and gender studies, as well as seminars on African War Narratives, Feminist Theory, Third World Feminisms, and Postcolonial Theory. Nfah-Abbenyi is the author of Gender in African Women’s Writing: Identity, Sexuality, and Difference (1997), Your Madness, Not Mine: Stories of Cameroon (1999), The Sacred Door and Other Stories: Cameroon Folktales of the Beba (2008), Reflections: An Anthology of New Works by African Women Poets, edited with Anthonia Kalu and Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka (2013).

Umezurike: Thank you, Juliana, for giving me the opportunity to interview you. Gender in African Women’s Writing offers a broader conception of gender and sexuality than some of the works on African women published during the same period. What has changed in your view on gender and sexuality, if it has changed at all? How does the discourse on queerness challenge notions of what it means to be an African woman?

Nfah-Abbenyi: Uche, the pleasure is mine. Thank you for having this conversation. A lot has changed since the publication of Gender in African Women’s Writing. More scholarship has been published and one sees many paper presentations at conferences that continue to stimulate discussions on gender and sexuality in African writing and on other issues that affect African women’s lives.

There was a time when critics would not discuss, let alone, publish work on queer identities; when some were outright dismissive of any discourse on queerness in African literary circles. But that heteronormative way of thinking about gender and sexuality is changing and also thanks to the untiring work of activists; of published work (fiction, non-fiction, bio-narrative), of scholarship on queer theory and queer identities emanating from the continent itself. Furthermore, access to the internet, to many social media outlets (even those sometimes censored by repressive governments), including and especially, blogs, vlogs, and online publication magazines have further increased avenues of knowledge and expanded pathways for grassroots activism and public/scholarly discussions that do influence how we name and expound on issues of gender and sexuality.

Umezurike: One of the claims you make in Gender in African Women’s Writing is that we can read African women’s fiction as “fictionalized theory” or as “theorized fiction”. Can you explain that?

Nfah-Abbenyi: What I mean is fiction sometimes offers possibilities for rethinking or thinking beyond theory as we know it. For instance, when Tambu in Nervous Conditions says, “I was not sorry when my brother died,” the automatic reaction to her words is, “what?” and since this emphatic statement is proffered by a young African female child, the next reaction would be, “how could she say such a thing?” and then, “how dare she?” What is important here is not the “what?” but the “how?” In some feminist (cultural) contexts the “why” she said would be the adequate follow-up question, but to fully understand Tambu, one must situate her utterance, her body and (her)self in an African and specifically Shona context where gender discrimination and inequality between or among male and female children cannot be fully accounted for through a western feminist lens/reading. Similarly, when Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood gets pregnant and bears her first child, she proclaims Nnaife has made her into “a real woman” and Nnaife states that his ability to make a woman pregnant not only makes him a man but that Nnu Ego’s pregnancy is proof the gods have “legalized” their marriage. One must ask, what does it mean for this African and specifically, Igbo/Ibuza woman to declare that a man, her Igbo/Ibuza husband, has made her into a real woman? There are many issues imbricated in their statements about gender: the institution of marriage; how marriage and fertility confer and define gender; how gender identity is achieved through reproduction and procreative capacities and not in the resolution of the Oedipus complex; how pregnancy legitimizes marriage and not a certificate/piece of paper issued by an administrative authority; how pregnancy and reproduction make a woman, a woman and a man, a man, et cetera. Only by understanding the interconnected implications of such gender(ed) identification can one better understand why Nnu Ego is driven to suicide when this first child, a son at that (with the connotations associated with bearing a son), dies. Another example would pertain to the stereotypical and hypersexualized representations of the erotic, of African female desire, of same-sex sexuality that are often reduced to the sex act or to the exotic cum pornographic. When the misovire in Elle sera de jaspe et de corail speaks of “a desire that will enrich you without impoverishing me/ Of a desire that could fill me up without emptying you out,” she is challenging such reductive representations by speaking of the female body/desire, of the erotic as that which can encompass and embrace every aspect of a woman’s life—the physical, the spiritual, the sensual, the historical, the political. 71cwhx-Y1mL.jpgShe offers a complex exploration of the erotic wherein the power of the erotic is a fusion of a totality of desires, mind, body, creative energies; a force that enriches without impoverishing or depersonalizing; one that is also challenging because it continually questions the separation of thought and body, of mind and knowledge. The misovire and Liking are in fiction providing another avenue within feminist sexuality debates, within discourses on queerness that challenge predetermined notions of gender and women’s sexuality in Africa. Some instances, like the ones highlighted earlier, in Dangarembga’s and Emecheta’s fiction can force us to situationally excavate and thus expand our theoretical lenses and in those moments act as fictionalized theory. The theory is in turn imbricated in the utterances of the characters: Tambu and Nnu Ego and as such can be labelled as theorized fiction. I imagine Liking’s misovire and Emecheta’s Nnu Ego having quite interesting and very different conversations about their bodies, about gender identity, about African women’s sexuality given they both teach us different ways of thinking about gender and the (African) female body.

Umezurike: Have you found any continuities or discontinuities in terms of feminist vision between the older generation of African women writers such as Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Calixthe Beyala, Miriam Thali, and Bessie Head and the younger generation comprising Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Taiye Selasie, Maaza Mengiste, Imbolo Mbue, and Yaa Gaasi? What “spaces” are the younger generation of women writers (re)creating for the community of women?

Nfah-Abbenyi: These writers, no matter their generation, have in their writing sought and continue to seek ways of exposing gender inequality in African societies but each grounded in specific cultural, political, and historical contexts. They are all trying to address the question of what it means to be an African woman; what it means to enjoy or be deprived of full womanhood, of full citizenship, et cetera. That said, the younger generation of African women writers are gifting their readers characters in line with their experiences of the last decade of the 20th century and their current/21st century circumstances. Many of their characters are (well) educated, middle class, cosmopolitan, adept at border crossings whether local, national, or international; characters that despite obstacles are always reaching for more for themselves and their societies; characters that make use of and flourish in a global marketplace facilitated by the rapid growth of technology and social media whether on the African continent or in the African diaspora. They are creating spaces and characters that were not commonly or readily available in African women’s writing through the 1980s. Furthermore, some writers of the older generation introduced new theoretical terms and concepts within feminist theorizing, for instance, Werewere Liking’s term/concept of “the misovire.” Similarly, some writers of the younger generation are also coining terms/concepts that serve either as a corrective and/or introduce us to new ways of thinking about African literature or the place of African literature within any literary canon, and here I’m thinking of Nnedi Okorafor’s term/concept of “Africanfuturism.”

Umezurike: Have you considered writing another short story after “Woman of the Lake,” which you wrote many years ago? In fact, do you still do any creative writing?

Nfah-Abbenyi: Indeed, I have spent the last couple of years guest-editing special issues of scholarly journals but I have also written and published some poems and “nonfiction” essays in which I blend auto-narrative with scholarly argument; for instance, my essays, “Home is Where you Mend the Roof” and “Am I Anglophone?: Identity Politics and Postcolonial Trauma in Cameroon at War.” Although my job as Assistant Dean also takes up much of my time, I am still doing some creative writing. I am working on a collection of short stories.

Umezurike: I enjoyed reading “Am I Anglophone?” but I felt sad about the Othering of other ethnic Cameroonians you portrayed in that article. Meanwhile, you have written extensively on Cameroonian literature. What is the state of literature in Cameroon at the moment? Could you recommend some contemporary writers whose works you find very exciting or “radical”?

Nfah-Abbenyi: Cameroon enjoys a vibrant literary scene both at home and abroad. However, I would to speak specifically here about Anglophone Cameroon literature. Critics have identified three stages in the evolution of Anglophone Cameroon literature. The first comprises writers, mostly novelists such as Sankie Maimo, Jedida Asheri, Kenjo Jumbam, whose works are seen as direct responses to colonialism and its immediate aftermath. The second comprises writers, mostly playwrights such as Bole Butake, Bate Besong, Victor Epie Ngome, Babila Mutia, whose works shed light on the postcolonial condition with scathing critiques of the failure of the Cameroonian state to deliver on the “promise” of a “federation” in the union between Anglophones and Francophones. 51AQTb342ZL.jpgThe third is one that has seen an explosion of Anglophone literary expression and in multiple forms/genres—short stories, poetry, novels, plays, non-fiction, blogs, etc. It comprises a broad spectrum of writers, including I must note, many women writers. This group of writers have picked up where their predecessors left off with poignant critiques of postcolonial Cameroonian identities and citizenship. Even more, these writers such as Makuchi (Juliana Nfah-Abbenyi), Joyce Ashuntantang, Eunice Ngomkum, Rosemary Ekosso, Imbolo Mbue, Nkemgong Nkengasong, Francis Nyamjoh, Dzekashu MacViban, Dibussi Tande, John Ngong Kum, to name a few, offer new ways of thinking about the traumatic experiences of the minority Anglophone population, and this more specifically, through the lens of what is referred to as the Cameroon Anglophone Problem. In lieu of recommending works by specific authors, I’d rather suggest readers consult the catalogs of publishers who, above all odds, continue to bring Anglophone Cameroon writing to our attention. These publishers introduce us to old and new Anglophone writers including Bakwa Magazine, an online magazine with multiple volumes; Langaa-RPCIG, whose titles are distributed by African Books Collective; Spears Books, which recently released Bearing Witness: Poems from a Land in Turmoil featuring 72 Anglophone poets/writers whose work collectively paints a vivid picture of the current war and turmoil in Cameroon.

Umezurike: I’ll check out Bearing Witness. I’m aware that you are coediting a book of essays titled “Representing African Americans in the African Imagination” with Dr. Cilas Kemedjio. What do you find challenging or rewarding about collaborative practices? What are you doing differently based on the insights you have gained in coediting Reflections: an Anthology of New Works by African Women Poets, with Anthonia Kalu and Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka? When do we expect to have the book in print? Could you speak a little about the thematic concerns in the book?

Nfah-Abbenyi: Collaborative work is rewarding in the sense that it pulls you out of your solitary academic bubble and thrusts you into an animated space where you get to brainstorm, to discuss ideas back and forth with colleagues and that back and forth brings clarity and enriches the direction and content of the project. There are however many challenges to collaborative work: you can set a time and the agenda and follow through with it on your own schedule when you are working solo but that’s not the case when you are working collaboratively, given that the editors have to rely on contributors meeting deadlines. Some contributors are good at meeting those deadlines while some are not. Sometimes, it is the editors themselves who are not meeting their own deadlines and that complicates everything and leads to delays. The book Cilas and I are co-editing grew out of a series of lectures on “Theorizing Black Studies” and a conference he organized at the University of Rochester. While African Americans have had a lot to say about Africans, this project does the reverse by looking at how Africans portray African Americans; examining African Americans in the African imagination—in literature, media, popular culture and the creative arts. We are at the last stage of finalizing the manuscript for submission to a publisher.

Umezurike: Oh great. I’m looking forward to reading the book in print. Is there another project that you have completed which you feel most proud of or you consider most valuable? 

Nfah-Abbenyi: At the moment, I am very proud of the just published special issue of JALA: Journal of the African Literature Association (14.2, 2020) that I guest-edited with Gilbert Doho on “Fragmented Nation or the Anglophone-Francophone Problem in Cameroon.” The most recent “Anglophone crisis” erupted in Cameroon in November 2016. It began with a strike of Anglophone lawyers from October 11 to October 14 and a peaceful demonstration on November 8 called for by the Anglophone Common Law Lawyers’ Associations. The Teachers’ Trade Unions of the English Sub-system of Education called for a strike of solidarity for the same day of November 8. The government responded to their peaceful demonstrations with military force and since November 2016, the violence has been raging in the North West and South West regions with spillover effects in other regions and neighboring countries. This special issue of JALA centers on the historical, cultural, political, and linguistic causes of further fragmentation of the nation known as Cameroon. The papers bring together thinking by humanities scholars—of literature, history, African Studies, and Women and Gender Studies—in an interdisciplinary attempt at addressing the past and the current malaise in Cameroon. 17085759-1.jpgThe essays examine how the Francophone majority flouted Foumban 1961 contract between the Southern Cameroons and La République du Cameroun, thus plunging the new nation into a state of continuing fragmented confrontations while fomenting a state of generalized numbness and despair of citizens vis-a-vis an authoritarian nation-state. The confrontations have subsequently led to the self-proclaimed state of Ambazonia and the ruinous war declared by President Paul Biya on 30 November 2017 against the Ambazonia separatist forces. The devastating human toll, the material damage, and the ever deteriorating impact of this war elicited the attention of humanists devoted to the subject of what has come to be reductively described as “the Anglophone-Francophone problem” in Cameroon. I must add that the contributors to this special issue are “Anglophones” and “Francophones” with the caveat that in Cameroon, the terms anglophone and francophone are endowed with complex meanings beyond being a speaker of English or a speaker of French.

Umezurike: What would be your advice to upcoming African scholars?

Nfah-Abbenyi: Write about what excites and holds you attention. Build community. The scholarly community is a fun, seductive, and transformative space but it can also be a ruthless arena. So, build relationships with mentors and never hesitate or shy away from seeking their counsel if/when you need a sympathetic ear.

Umezurike: Thanks very much, Juliana, for having this conversation with me. 

Nfah-Abbenyi: Thanks, Uche. It was nice talking about African literature with you.

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is a PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar in the English and Film Studies department of the University of Alberta, Canada. His critical writing has appeared in Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, Postcolonial Text, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Cultural Studies, Journal of African Literature Association, and African Literature Today. He is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems.

Umezurike has been a long-time generous contributor to AiW. For more of his AiW posts, including his Words on the Times – a Q&A set intended to connect our communities up during the challenges of the pandemic – please click through to his AiW Guest posts here.

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