Writing The Wrongs In Publishing: Empowering Women Through Publishing

by Ronnie Uzoigwe

On the 24th of February 2002, in Maison de France, Lagos, Omolara Ogundipe Leslie told those present at the literary activity:

The Book’ is essential to any life worth living. I can’t imagine a happy life without books! Many young writers are talented but there are no publishers. Many people are publishing themselves but that is not the best….

Dick Abel once described the role of ‘the publisher’ as instrumental in the maintenance of the received cultural tradition. For him, book publishers have done much more than to maintain the standard texts of culture. They add intellectual and cultural value to the works they publish. Published works pass on culture: specific ways of life, beliefs and ideals of particular groups of people. In a broader sense, they also pass on ‘works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity.’1 In pinpointing what to publish, publishers have their varied and different sets of criteria, focus and interests and it is in these interests that women through the ages have felt very strongly that they have been silenced, ignored and marginalized. This is why we still have Conferences and Book Fairs with the theme: “Women Empowerment through Publishing.”2

Different publishers look out for different things. For Blackwell Publishing, Publishing is about making connections. They are convinced that Knowledge is not constrained by national or linguistic boundaries. They go farther to state on their web site the four corner stones of their commitment to develop books for students which take account of the latest research in addition to making their journals as accessible as possible:

* Setting the highest standards of intellectual rigour

* Promoting internationalism

* Building strong relationships

* Expanding readership

They are ready to do all of the above, so long as a prospective writer (of textbooks in this case) gives them the kind of books they want. Other publishers like Lee and Low Books, who publish Multicultural Literature for children, would advise that the first step to getting published – besides writing a story – is research. One must find out whether or not one’s story is right for a publisher or vice versa (i.e. whether or not a publisher is right for one’s story). Practically all publishers coincide in looking out for the ‘saleability’ of any book in question.

Empowerment, which simply means “to authorize, to allow, to sanction” or “to give (someone) the power or legal right to do something” 3 or “to give somebody the power or authority to act”4 is understood in different ways by different people. The Women’s University (Mumbai) and the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (Delhi) for instance, define empowerment as a word used to refer to:

an environment that enables women to take control over material assets, intellectual resources and ideological choices.

A lot of ground still needs to be covered in these different areas but some ground has been gained especially in reference to women owning assets. Tunde Okoli, on the other hand, sounds a bit exasperated with the words: ‘empowerment’, ‘liberation’ when he says in his article, “Empowering the Women Through Information” that it is only the oppressed that should ask for liberation and empowerment. For him, when one talks of liberation or empowerment, there must be a sense of slavery. He goes on to affirm:

All along in the history of mankind, what has been missing is determination on the part of the female folks…but the women shied away from the responsibility. While their male counterparts picked up nomination forms for as much as N5 million, the same forms were made available to women free. In their attempt at finding the much talked about economic/political empowerment, women don’t seem to recognize the potential in their number.5

One cannot dwell extensively on the issues raised by Mr. Okoli because our focus is on empowerment through publishing but it is interesting to see the different perceptions of empowerment and its use or misuse. I think the word “empowerment” – especially with reference to women’s writing – is a misnomer. Notice that all the definitions of empowerment given above, give the impression of some passivity on the part of the “subject”. If empowerment were lacking for women it would imply that women lacked the ‘power’, the ‘legal right’ to publish and this is not the case. We have come a long way since the Women’s Liberation Movements of the 60s and 70s and besides, many male writers in Nigeria – even if not as many – also face the same problems women face when it comes to getting publishers to set their works to print. The main point, to my mind, is to empower our cultural heritage even more by helping our publishers “see”; to open up new horizons for them to be able to perceive the wealth they are leaving out thereby impoverishing humanity when they narrow-mindedly relegate books written by women to their dust covered manuscript shelves.

With reference to “the book” and “publishers”, women have had a lot to complain about. There is the tendency to see a lack of women in publishing (I say a lack of women because the problem is not that women are not present!) precisely when the publisher as “gatekeeper” and disseminator of ideas was and remains p

art of an industry dominated by men. The consequence is what we still have: fewer women are published. I have never heard of “Men Empowerment through Publishing” precisely because millions of men have already been empowered through publishing! The question then is why is this so? Why did the organizers of the 2003 Nigerian Book Fair choose the theme: “Women Empowerment through Publishing”? It is because there is a problem. In the interview Dayo Alabi (who chaired the organizing of this Book Fair) granted the Vanguard on the 6th of February 2003 he said:

This year we are looking at what we believe is current. All over the world women believe that they are marginalized, rightly or wrongly, so we are saying how can publishing empower women, how can publishing enhance the visibility of women ….

There are so many barriers women come up against when they are serious about publishing their works, academic or creative. This essay will consider these barriers and see how women have tried to remove or get around them. It will then explore women’s words worth in order to consider and arrive at and ideas that would help make for the authentic empowerment of women and society through publishing.

Jane Rogers, a British writer who was in Nigeria in 2001 for the 3rd International Women Writers’ Forum in Abuja, mentioned some of these barriers. The very first is that Literature is still considered a preserve of men.6 She pointed out that in Britain, this discrimination or barrier rears its head in very subtle ways. The prestigious Booker Prize, for instance. Taking a look at the shortlist, one notices an almost fixed kind of pattern. Every year, there are more men than women on the shortlist of six. In 2001 two women made it to the short list; often there is only one. Secondly, from 1901 when the Nobel Prize for Literature was instituted till 1997, only nine (9) women have won the prestigious prize. Women publish more novels than men but men are taken more seriously. Another barrier is the fact that going through anthologies of new writing like GRANTA magazine, many more male contributors are published than the female. Bringing this nearer home, Mabel Segun, tells of how a contribution on her work was needed for the book “Perspectives on Nigerian Literature.” She asked a male writer to help out but he told her “…get one of the women to write it…” Then Mabel Segun wondered (in her address on the subject of “Pioneer Women Writers”): “since when had literary criticism been sexually polarized?” So the point is made in very subtle ways that women writers are a kind of second class citizens who should be kept together, – out of the mainstream – to read and make critical analyses of their own works. In addition, if one were to look at review space on the pages of books, novels by men get better coverage. Also in Britain, Jane went on to say, Buchi Emecheta is the only well known Nigerian Woman Writer; of the five pioneer women writers, only the book of one of them – Flora Nwapa – is available for sale off-the-shelf; some of the others have to be specially ordered and the majority are not available at all! She looked through different current anthologies of African writers and not one contained a story by a Nigerian woman. The only place a Nigerian woman is represented is in an anthology specifically dedicated to women’s writing (“Opening Spaces”, in the Heinemann African Writers Series, edited by Yvonne Vera). These barriers could very well be classified: ‘man-made’ barriers!

The fact of relegating women writers to the background has been so for centuries. There was a very successful woman playwright called Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689) who had lived and produced plays during Shakespeare’s time but we do not hear much about her. One of her plays is “The Lucky Chance” (1686) which was acted and made into a film in 1984 by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Behn’s plays often have a keen awareness of the ways in which women are treated as commodities: “When a Lady is proposed to you for a Wife, you never ask, how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune—which if but small, you cry—She will not do my business—and basely leave her, tho’ she languish for you.”7 Her novel “Oroonoko” or “The Royal Slave” (c. 1688), the story of an African prince sold into slavery in Suriname, influenced the development of the English novel and is important for several reasons: it introduced the figure of the noble savage, later developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; foreshadowed later novels on the anti-colonial theme and pioneered the effort to depict a realistic background in the novel. Some critics consider it the first English philosophical novel. “Oroonoko” even formed the basis of a tragedy of the same name written by the English dramatist Thomas Southerne, produced in 1695. As far as one can see, no one studies Aphra Behn’s works as part of the school curriculum as much as Shakespeare is. Even the simple task of flipping through the booklist of a Publishing house, re-affirms this unhealthy bias. In the David Campbell list of ‘Everyman’s Library’ there are a hundred and twenty five (125) titles of which; guess how many authors are women: Fifteen! (15!) including George Eliot!

Yet other reasons why women’s works have been excluded from “our published heritage” some say, is the ‘radical’ nature of women’s subject matter (we will get back to this point later) and that women write differently:

It is a belief, widely entertained, that there is a great difference in the mental constitution of the two sexes, just as there is in their physical conformation. The power and susceptibilities of women are as noble as those of men, but they are thought to be different and, in particular, it is considered that they have not the same power of intense labour as men are endowed with. 8

Given these biases especially that stated in the last phrase of the above quotation, is there any wonder why that group of society still feels silenced and marginalized? How then have women reacted?

Women have tried to get round these barriers in different ways and one of the ways is that ‘the empire wrote back’ and published. Those who set up presses like (Carmen Callil who set up the “Virago” Press) and other publishing houses like the “Women’s Press”, did so in order to actively promote women’s writing, whether or not it was feminist. For Sophie

Contento, it was for these presses to challenge the patriarchal ideology of the publishing industry:

“whereas formerly those who produced images that defined women through publishing were men, the raised awareness of the feminist ideology allowed for true representation.”

However, one wonders whether the feminist ideology really allowed for “true representation” because not all women agree that they were truly represented nor did all admit that they had the Women Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1960s and70s and feminism as their principal motivation. Katherine Frank, a feminist scholar, once considered Nwapa a ‘radical feminist’. What was Nwapa’s reaction? In December 1991, she clarified:

I don’t think I’m a radical feminist, I don’t even accept that I’m a feminist. I accept that I’m an ordinary woman who is writing about what she knows. 9

It is common to find that African female writers are not really interested in being called feminists and as Arndt rightly noted, it is mainly due to their perception of (Western) feminism, which they equate with radical feminism and therefore with:

hatred of men, … non-acceptance of African traditions, the fundamental rejection of marriage and motherhood, the favouring of lesbian love and the endeavour to transform the relationship of the genders into its opposite. (ibid)

These, for the African woman, do not improve but rather worsen matters. Mabel Segun’s position when compared with Nwapa’s, tends to be on the other extreme of the continuum. She wonders why men should always be painted black:

… as if there are no wicked women in the world: there are, there are! And I don’t see why if I write about good women, I can’t write about others who are wicked. 10

She argues that if women are to be ‘promoted’, they need to be told not to do “some of the bad things they are doing…”

Women just sit back and want you to hand them things on a silver platter. I don’t believe in that. If that is feminism, never for me… talk is not what is going to improve the society; it is example… (ibid)

African female writers are therefore more interested in integration, i.e. a working together of both genders, rather than the exclusivist stand, that Western feminism seems to advocate. In addition, they want the positive values of the African way of life to be maintained, as seen in Mabel Segun’s position. (Uzoigwe, V. 2001) However, one cannot but acknowledge the fact that these presses played an important role in a raising of awareness of these barriers.

Cadman, Chester & Pivot are others who hold fast to the belief that the role of ‘women only’ presses was instrumental in showing that what was being produced was good writing and not just ‘feminist writing’:

It has only been with the rise of publishers run by women committed to promoting the interests of women both culturally and politically that we have seen the enormous output of books concerned with women… 11

To a large extent, this is true but some have questioned the need for ‘women only’ presses when the industry does not see ‘men only’ presses. Why therefore, should their writing be given the definition of ‘women’s writing’ and not simply writing? They ask. Should writing not be genderless like Mabel Segun opined? This trying to relegate women’s writing to a ‘genre’ or a branch of its own may sound exciting but on the other hand, some make the point that then it is a group that should be studied separately because it is different and does not qualify to be part of humanity’s published heritage that flows along mainstream publishing.

This forms part of the controversy that was at its peak in 1996 when a very lucrative literary prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction, was set up in Britain. It is a prize that can be won by women

only. For the Booker prize set up in 1968, the overall winner goes away with Twenty- One Thousand Pounds but the amount is more for the Orange Prize for Fiction: Thirty Thousand Pounds! Why was this done? The same reason that the presses were founded: even after twenty-eight years, although published, women are still being excluded from recognition by the “male literary establishment” (Sarah Ridgard). Ridgard explains the argument for the launching of the Orange Prize:

The argument for the launch was that despite the majority of novels being written and read by women, a disproportionately small number get shortlisted or reach the literary review pages. Indeed

the 1991 Booker Prize was cited as the main reason why the prize was launched when no women reached the shortlist. There appeared to be a distinct bias, which if it had gone the other way – an all female shortlist for the Booker – there would have been an outcry. Therefore the prize aimed to redress the imbalance by raising the profile of these writers and their fiction. 12

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