Lingering Issues In Achebe’s Female Characterisation

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

But despite the “emancipation and empowerment” Chinua Achebe’s later female characters were said to have achieved, some faint murmur of dissatisfaction could still be heard in some feminized critical circles. In a review of Anthills Of The Savannah in the journal, OKIKE (No 30: 1990), for instance , Prof Ifi Amadiume blames Achebe and his novel for failing or refusing to give “women power” insisting that the female characters in the book are still existing to “service” the men. But she appears to overstate her case when she alleges that Ikem, one of the principal characters in the novel, despite being a “great poet, great journalist and nationalist” could “at a personal level” still stoop so low to “sexually exploit a grassroots girl.”

Now, what my reading of the novel showed, however (that is, if we read the same book – Achebe’s Anthills Of The Savannah), is that Ikem was very proud of Elewa, taking her to social meetings with his highly placed and educated friends, including an expatriate administrator of the nation’s General Hospital and a visiting British Editor of a poetry journal. In fact, during a lecture he gave at the University of Bassa, Ikem proudly announced Elewa’s mother as his future mother-in-law. He also did not forget to inform his audience that his fiancée’s mother was a market woman, a petty trader at Gelegele Market.

Now, while not endorsing Ikem’s lifestyle (since I detest pre-marital sex), I fail to see a case of sexual exploitation here – Ikem was genuinely in a flourishing relationship with a lady he wanted to settle down with. How they eventually choose to spend the night — in the same room or in different rooms — should not be the concern of any nosey feminist. From all indications, Elewa and Ikem were happy in that relationship, and that was all that mattered. There is never ever a perfect union, but people have been able, by sacrifices, forbearance and accommodations of each other’s faults and weaknesses, where love is alive and well, to make the best of many relationships, and live happily ever after. So, the little matter of Ikem insisting that they would not spend the night together (which was the only point of conflict) is something that can be resolved in the life of the relationship, and I wonder why that should be the headache of any third party?

And, by the way, what is all this noise about “servicing the men” in actions that were purely consensual and mutually pleasurable to both parties who are also adults? Even if His Excellency was removed from office and replaced with a Beatrice (BB) as President of the Republic of Kangan, would that have automatically elevated her above whatever obligations she had discharged towards Chris (and vice-versa) before her status changed? Can it be said in all honesty that BB was subjugated in the novel? Is her character not real? Assuming the nation was not under military rule, which was an aberration, were there any impediments before BB, barring her from aspiring to very high political offices?

Again, wasn’t a strong point also made by the fact that Elewa, despite her poor background and almost no education had no complexes whatsoever socializing with the society’s elite, whether she was able to follow in the discussions or not? No doubt, Achebe could have just changed his story and made Elewa possess a doctorate degree, but can anyone say that the status the author gave her in the novel made her less than real? Certainly, the creative enterprise would yield only boring works if all novels and plays are stampeded into adopting one predictable, feminized pattern.

Now, it is all this insistence by feminists on prescribing strict codes of conducts to govern couples in the privacy of their homes that most people find very revolting. Many women who had uncritically swallowed those ‘great rules and regulations’, and had attempted to implement them in their homes, mainly to underline the fact that they have now been “liberated and empowered,” even when there were no situations in their homes that called for such brazen show of ‘girl-power,’ are today without even any stable homes from where to flaunt their wonderful empowerment. Their marriages have since crashed, leaving them out in the cold, sad and lonely. Only the truthful among them (like the ‘liberated’ Nigerian actress who has been screaming all over the place since her husband left her) would confess that their daily menu ever since have remained regrets and more regrets. This is the point late Professor Zulu Sofola most brilliantly underlined in her play, Sweet Trap. If Ikem was battering Elewa or sneaking her into his house only when his friends would not observe, then Ms. Amadiume would have had a point. But instead of praising Ikem, a nationally celebrated journalist and upper drawer writer and poet, for proposing to marry a barely literate girl like Elewa, Prof Amadiume, would rather ‘batter’ him, having found him guilty of an offence he did not even dream of committing. Men then do not hold the monopoly on battering, after all!

Now, we return to the issue of “giving women power”. I doubt if any novel, or indeed, any book, can boast of the capacity to just take hold of power — political, social or economic — and hand it over to women? That seems to be what female critics are asking for, but as would be seen later, their attempts to compel their own books to do this with indecent haste have unleashed on all of us disastrous and grotesque creative works, with characters, settings and incidents that are so gratuitously padded with several outlandish details and extreme exaggerations, that their stories simply lost their abilities to be true. As a result, many of them have served us with excellent demonstrations of how fiction should not be written.

But a writer can choose to make some projections, depending on his thrust, and point the way forward. In Anthills Of The Savannah, Beatrice was the only character who was able to look the dreaded His Excellency, the very maximum ruler to whom all the men cringed, in the face and tell him some home truth. We may not endorse what she did to get His Excellency to listen to her, but she has set an example by daring the tiger. Others can now improve on her effort and tactics.

So, whatever power women would acquire (assuming they lack any now) would largely be the outcome of their own conscious effort. And this would clearly be reflected in the literary works that would appear in that period. But care must be taken to ensure that art is not sacrificed on the altar of advocacy. Propaganda is important, but so also is art. And like Chinua Achebe has warned, virtually all art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.

In this vein, therefore, Ms. Katherine Frank has raised very important questions in her article, “Women Without Men: Feminist Novel in Africa,” published in the journal, African Literature Today No 15: “How are we to judge a work which we find politically admirable and true but aesthetically simplistic, empty or boring? What do we make of characters whose credos and pronouncements we endorse but whose human reality we find negligible? … If the writing is inferior, the book becomes a tract and there are far more efficient and effective ways of spreading an ideology than by novels…”

As the first published female novelist from Nigeria, late Flora Nwapa’s objective was to hurriedly “empower” her female characters and place them above the male ones. But in doing this, as evident in her novel, Efuru and the others, she featured ‘liberated’, empowered and highly assertive female characters in a society peopled by mostly weak, grossly irresponsible, non-innovative, non-enterprising, in fact, emasculated men. Art and realism suffered so that ideology and advocacy may thrive. Is Nwapa saying in effect that women are incapable of competing with men that are equally endowed and so can only excel and attain some prominence in an environment inhabited by mostly emasculated men or, in fact, outright imbeciles? How then can success be celebrated when the supposed winner was spared any form of competition? Or like, she demonstrated in One Is Enough, must women become morally irresponsible and hawk their bodies (to the same men they intend to demonstrate the are superior to) to make it in society? There is a huge irony here which neither Nwapa nor the majority of female writers that she inspired saw the need to resolve. Certainly, no decent person would embrace a “liberated” character like Amaka in Nwapa’s One Is Enough, who after a misunderstanding with her husband, abandoned her home, and relocated to Lagos to “fully realize herself” by excelling as a public piss pot in the city of Lagos.

Mybe, Nwapa wanted to use the character of Amaka to give full expression to the overly pernicious doctrine so eloquently promoted by the Egyptian feminist writer, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, in her book, Woman At Point Zero. Said Saadawi: “A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off…. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another… the lowest paid body is that of a wife…. A successful prostitute (is) better than a misled saint…. Marriage (is) the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.” (Woman At Point Zero, London &New York: Zed Books, 1983, pp.114, 117,111)

Although some female scholars have made the case that feminism is not monolithic, I keep thinking that they have a responsibility to help us draw a clear boundary between female assertiveness and female extremism, because from what I can see out there, definitions of feminism are mostly situational, and most of the time is solely dependent on the mood and peculiar cravings or experiences of the particular woman defining it at any given time. Indeed, today, whether as a struggle, ideology or movement, feminism is an amorphous and an unnecessarily ambiguous phenomenon. The lesbian, for instance, announces herself as a feminist. The prostitute claims she is “making some kind of protest.” The never-married, unmarriageable single mother is “driving home some point.” The ever-wild nympho-maniac (who ought to have sought help) is “advancing the struggle.” The lady out there with revolting obsession for luring small boys to her nest and cruelly deflowering them is “getting back at the oppressor—man.” The habitually unfaithful wife is “sending out some message.” Now, in the midst of this cacophony of voices, how can we know who is sane? Must otherwise sane women continue to endorse all these ruinous absurdities just to get back at men?

Many critics are agreed that the societies she created in Nwapa’s novels are unrecognizable. But because of her popularity with women empowerment diehards, most other female writers that came after her were easily seduced into adopting her art-murdering style. In my article in The Guardian (Lagos), Sunday, June 1, 1997, p.B4, entitled, “Zainab Akali And Feminist Writers,” which provoked a year-long debate and even name-calling by some female contributors, I was frank about my observation that the works of those female writers “are united by their possession of the same maladies: they are blessed with all the features of fairy tales and myth; they unabashedly distort with indecency and uncanny bravado, sociology and gender images just to make some shallow feminist point; their heroines are spared healthy competitions as they only thrive in outlandish communities peopled by only weak, emasculated, lazy, foolish and insane men.”

Indeed, the “unliberated” Beatrice in Anthills Of The Savannah, achieved all she had by dint of hard work in the midst of equally intelligent and hardworking men, not by “conquering” the men by sleeping around. Her only offence, may be, would be that she was not anti-men, but favoured an environment that promoted equal opportunities for both the male and female to excel. Maybe, she also sinned because she did her best to ensure her proposed marriage to Chris worked.

All I am saying really is that when viewed within the particular environment and period in which they were set, Achebe’s female characters are very real. They are easily recognizable, and I would prefer them any day than the outlandish caricatures offered us as alternatives in many feminist novels.

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