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Introducing Judith Shakespeare by Buchi Emecheta

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Kole Omotoso


This column began as an appreciation of what it takes to be female is such a terribly patriarchal society as exists in black Africa. It goes on to appreciate women writers, including my Daughters:o Opeyemi, Yewande, Katarina, Tembi, Tosin, Taiwo, Posi and grand-daughter Paidamoyo and my wife Bukola and all women in Africa. This column would want to write about technology and the easing of women’s burden. For example, the dishwasher. The stories goes that Josephine Garis Cochran “invented the first useful dishwasher and received a patent for it on December 28, 1886. Cochran, a wealthy woman who entertained often, wanted a machine that could wash dishes faster than her servants, without breaking them.” Some of her critics were men who blamed her for relieving women of their natural duty. Washing dishes is the natural duty of women? You ever heard of a baby girl born with a dirty dish and soapy sponge? Or a baby boy, for that matter? A tear for these men!

I had been working on a difficult essay on Mhudi published in 1930 by Sol Plaatje and Things Fall Apart published in 1958 by Chinua Achebe, in rather uneasy circumstances. Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) daughter of a knight of the realm stayed at home while her brothers were sent to school and university. She educated herself from the library in her father’s house. She raised the issue of women writers at a lecture she gave at the University of Cambridge. The two lectures led to the publication of A Room of One’s Own in which Virginia Woolf says western and perhaps even world literature eulogizes woman as a symbol of all that is noble and all that is good and all that is bad but in everyday life woman is enslaved and a thing of utter manipulation for any boy that comes along. Virginia Woolf then posits the need of a woman who wants to write to have 2 things: a room of her own and enough money to maintain herself.

The conversation went like this: my final English literature was made up of mostly females. We were dealing with modern African novels and not a single female writer on the programme. I wanted to know why they did not suggest a female writer. They said they were scared. Buchi Emecheta’s name came up and her Joys of Motherhood which tells you that there is hardly any joy in motherhood especially if you are having the child for the man!! How are we going to restore the confidence of the undergraduate in Nigerian universities?

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The story of Buchi Emecheta and how she became a writer shames Nigerian Men. That’s a tale for another day.Virginia Woolf invents a sister for Shakespeare. Her name is Judith Shakespeare. While her brother goes to school she remains illiterate. She’s forced into an early marriage and although she’s as talented as her brother she is shamed into an unnecessary pregnancy and dies while giving birth. And you wonder why you never heard of Shakespeare’s sister!

There are many critics of Virginia Woolf’s book but the most profound is Alice Walker (born 1944) best known for Colour Purple but here it is her book In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Women’s Prose. Alice Walker writes: “Virginia Woolf, in her book A Roomof One’s Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself.”(page 235). Alice Walker then wonders “what then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave who owned not even her self? Phyllis Wheatley ( c 1753 – 1784) was born in West Africa, was sold into slavery in North America where the Wheatley family bought her. They taught to read and write and when they saw her talent they encouraged her. “On a 1773 trip to London with her master’s son, seeking publication of her work, she was aided in meeting prominent people who became patrons. The publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral on September 1, 1773, brought her fame both in England and the American colonies.” This subject is so diverse we keep getting off-ramped onto its various rivulets.

All that Alice Walker need say is that Phyllis (was her name Ronke before enslavement?) had rich and sympathetic owners who stood for the two conditions that Virginia Woolf set down. For me, these two conditions are not for writing fiction alone. For a woman to live a decent existence in Africa she must own her own space as well as have resources to support herself.

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There was the case of a lady who made a first class in her year, went off into the wilderness of marriage and after three or four children and much pommelling at the hands of her husband she returned to employment in an English department at the university. Her classmate who did not score as high as she did was now professor and head of department over her. While she was away on maternity leave from academics, her male counterparts were acquiring academic laurels while academic positions and children were given unto them.

There was Adunni Oluwole who does not have any entry in Wikipedia. I mention her in Just Before Dawn and there are a few studies about her at the University of Ibadan and at Obafemi Awolowo University.There is the case of Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who gave birth to warriors being a warrior herself. Her sons – Olokoye, Beko and Fela held their own in medicine, music, and human rights.

How many shall will count with many buried out of sight? Nameless and unsung like Thomas Gray says:
“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear,
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
These lines can only speak of women who endure patriarchal life in Africa. What is worse many women have to hold unto the saying that “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.’ And in the state of marriage ignorance is blissful!!!

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