The question that Susan Andrade ponders in her book The National Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms is why, at a time when novels written by men were understood to be deeply involved in the project of anti-colonial nationalism that novels written by women were only considered apolitical. She believes that this strict reading stems from the framework of analysis posed by Jameson in 1986 – that all African literature must be read as a national allegory. This, along with that fact that the political and private spheres were considered distinct, soon became the basis for most post-colonial theory and interpretation. In the book, she attempts “to juxtapose a form of feminine coming into the world against and within the national narrative.”
Andrade grounds her exploration with the following expectations: 1) that novels come about and exist to solve social problems and that exploring a literary text for its less evident meanings can offer the reader insight into a “historically specific social problematic” and 2) that by following the steps of Marxism and feminism which emphasize the continuities and interchanges between public and private life one may be able to read these nationalist allegories differently by “understand[ing] the necessary implication of the domestic in the public.”
What she discovers in the work of female writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America is that:
1) Political tensions between races and classes are often translated into a romantic plot and that competition on a national level is “displaced by eroticism.”
2) The physically and sexually abused characters articulate their suffering from a standpoint of collectivism – the grief they experience is not theirs but paints a larger story of national violence.
3) That character depth is dependent on social change in some small way – the psychological complexity of the characters directly correlating to the social conditions that the author is tackling or resolving through her narrative. However, the complexity of the character evolves when settling problems between individual characters than between the individual and the colonial state and/or larger institution.
How might we say this develops in The Secret Lives of the Four Wives? How can we read the conflict between Baba Segi and his wives, between Bolanle and the wives as a possible “mirroring” and representation of the struggle between those who benefit from wealth and Western education and those who can only afford traditional ways of living and learning? This is important for Andrade, who posits that, at times, the mirror can sometimes cast more light on a situation than the wide angle of a camera. Perhaps, the fraught relationships in The Secret Lives of the Four Wives can be read as more than soap opera but reflecting Nigeria’s negotiations with identity formation after de-colonization.