‘New Daughters of Africa’ is a must read for aspiring young women writers

Jennifer Makumbi is a Ugandan novelist and short story writer. She is one of the many women writers featured in New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent (2019). PHOTO| COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • These writers can be described as the matriarchs of African literature.
  • They pioneered ‘African’ writing, in which they were not simply writing stories about their families, communities and countries.
  • They were also writing themselves into the African literary history and African historiography.
  • They claimed space for women storytellers in the written form, and in some sense reclaimed the woman’s role as the creator and carrier of many African societies’ narratives

New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent (2019), edited by Margaret Busby, is an imposing 805-page tome of stories by ‘African’ women writers from across the world, born between the 1790s and 1990s. This collection contains writings by more than 200 women writers and builds on a previous anthology, Daughters of Africa (1992).

If one is a reader or follower of ‘African’ women writing — defined in the narrow sense of writing by women writers born and bred on the continent — there are several familiar names in Daughters of Africa, such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Ifi Amadiume, Mariama Ba, Abena Busia, Jane Tapsubei Creider (a Kenyan who is hardly read in this country), Tsitsi Dangarembga, Buchi Emecheta, Noni Jabavu, Mwana Kupona, Elen Kuzwayo, Zindzi Mandela, Lauretta Ngcobo, Rebeka Njau, Flora Nwapa, Grace Ogot, Molara Ogundipe Leslie, Efua Sutherland, Zulu Sofala, Veronique Tadjo, Miriam Tlali, and Charity Waciuma.

These, as you can guess, are very few writers indeed. But these are the more easily identified ones locally. For instance, I guess many Kenyans have never heard of or read Jane Tapsubei Creider, co-author of A Dictionary of the Nandi Language; author of the novel The Shrunken Dream, and an autobiography, Two Lives: My Spirit and I. Or, how many Kenyans remember or even know Charity Waciuma?

These writers can be described as the matriarchs of African literature. They pioneered ‘African’ writing, in which they were not simply writing stories about their families, communities and countries, but they were also writing themselves into the African literary history and African historiography. They claimed space for women storytellers in the written form, and in some sense reclaimed the woman’s role as the creator and carrier of many African societies’ narratives, considering that the traditional storytelling session was a women’s domain.

Yet, these writers seem to be slipping from public conversations, or even on reading lists in our schools and colleges. Which is why even by just listing them in New Daughters of Africa, Margaret Busby enlivens the literary archive of African women writing and reminds readers and critics of the significance of memory.

There are a number of East African writers included in the New Daughters of Africa: Leila Aboulela, Wangui wa Goro, Doreen Baingana, Susan Nalugwa Kiguli, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Juliane Okot Bitek, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Hilda Twongyeirwe, Monica Arac de Nyako, Mildred K. Barya, Beatrice Lamwaka, Wanjiku wa Ngugi, Maaza Mengiste, Ayeta Wangusa, Glaydah Namukasa, and Warsan Shire. It is important to list these names, again for the simple but disturbing reason that several of these writers are relatively known in the rest of the world but not in their own countries and region.

It is also important to note that this is not an encyclopedia of African writing by women. But it is a significant literary and cultural undertaking. It is the kind of literary compendium that many prospective African women writers need to have today. Why? Because despite an observable increase in writing from Africa, such writing is still more available to the non-African readers in Europe, America or Asia. The African reader still cannot just afford to buy books — be they novels, anthologies of poetry, collections of short stories or novellas — from or about Africa, by African women writers. Even New Daughters of Africa should generally be out of the reach of many readers in Africa who would wish to have a copy (it is retailing at more than Sh3,000). But the stories in it can be shared; they should also provoke interest in other works by the authors included in the volume; and they should stoke conversations about what experiences women share globally, and what experiences differentiate them as well.

Why, again? Because this kind of book is rare today. In a world that is short on time for reading anything beyond social media postings, a book that is nearly 1,000 pages long is a curiosity. It deliberately invites attention to itself. It demands to be noticed and read. And in this case, a prospective young African woman writer will find endless inspiration in the poems, short stories, plays, essays and conversation, among others.

Also the availability of such a big collection of writings by women of African descent, spread over several generations, from different parts of the world, in different professions (although connected by their writing), writing in different languages (but translated), writing in different styles, writing in different genres, speaking of and to different subjects, writing within different historical contexts etc, which collection has previously published and newly published works, is a provocation or challenge to whoever is interested in the story of women of African descent to work harder at creating, recording, disseminating, sharing, critiquing, and preserving such stories. 

For even though the struggle for gender equity tends to be overly political, it is cultural ideas and practices that really need to be interrogated and changed. And there is no better way to change attitudes and practices towards women, and acknowledge them as equal partners to men, than by way of (re-) creating and (re) telling stories about them, their world, feelings, views, contribution to humanity and belonging.

New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent is a collection that the expert on literature, women studies, gender studies, African history; the feminist reader/scholar; or even the general reader will find refreshing considering the scope of the writing, as well as helpful as a reference source.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke​