The opening to Susan Andrade’s The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms 1958 – 1988 works as a summation of Frederic Jameson’s notion of African novel as national allegory. She says, for instance, that her focus lies in “how collectivity is understood and how novels represent the individual’s relation to the collective.” That is, Andrade seeks to show the ways in which the domesticity which is purportedly obvious in African women’s novels can be read as national allegory in a similar way as men’s, but also that such a reading is less explicit in the text. She begins by placing the novel form at the vertex of her argument, namely that the novel became “African only as a part of colonial enterprise” and that works produced in Africa, following Fanon, evoke nationalism while embracing humanism. Yet, she says, and I think convincingly here at least, women’s work has been relegated to the apolitical, “concerned with domestic issues” and “certainly not part of the national narrative.” The question becomes why, if men’s novels were easily read as allegorical, “were novels written by women understood as apolitical.” Thus, her essay seeks to inscribe female narratives into the national narrative, recuperating the loss of female voice in postcolonial discourse. The point seems obvious: women writers were perceived as apolitical despite their political slants, only “they [these slants] are usually subtle and require an act of strong reading in order to discern them.”
She may be right, I think. But it remains problematic to suggest simply that the novels of male writers are obviously political, and do not require this kind of “strong reading.” Adrande makes the point herself: if male writers were already perceived as more political, then their works should invite a more obvious political reading, even if it is actually less apparent. Think, for example, of the difficulty we had in transcribing a Hausa fairytale onto a national narrative. I understand and appreciate Adrande’s intervention into the dismissal of African women writers, but in hindsight her claims are only applicable if one already thinks of women as apolitical. I, for one, did not have much difficulty in reading a national critique between the lines of The Secret Lives of the Four Wives, because the centrality of Baba Segi’s impotence (his inability to create children in his own image) can certainly be read as the impotence of the colonial mission to fill the colonized nation with its “progeny.” The individuality of the four wives and the differences between their stories may complicate this, if it were not for Iya Segi’s (and the wives who succeeded her) commitment to raising children for Baba Segi despite his impotence. The point here, I think, is that while Andrade is correct in her claims, her intervention is only an intervention if a reader is already disparaging African women writers, and it does her argument a disservice in its suggestion that women’s literature is inherently the more complex.