To Have Seven Thousand Vaginas and None at All: Bessie Head’s Radical Visions of Sex and Gender

bessie_head_-_picture_credit_-_george_hallettThe next seminar in our African Feminisms series will be a paper entitled “To Have Seven Thousand Vaginas and None at All: Bessie Head’s Radical Visions of Sex and Gender” to be delivered by Elinor Rooks on 23 March 2017 at 5pm in the LHRI Seminar Room 1.

The seminar will be chaired by Prof Jane Plastow and it is both free and open to all.

Abstract

Bessie Head is the author of several texts which, for their interrogation of gender relations, might be taken as epitomes of African feminist writing. Head, however, repeatedly insisted that she was not a feminist and that hers were not feminist texts. “Writing is not a male/female occupation,” she explained. “I do not have to be a feminist. The world of the intellect is impersonal, sexless.” In this paper, I will explore this apparent contradiction, showing the ways in which Head’s work exposes the problems of African feminism, while anticipating later developments towards womanism and intersectional feminism.

Not only does Head move beyond the fundamentally white articulations of gender offered by feminism of the time, creating a concretely, particularly African perspective on sex and gender, she also goes much further, towards a fundamental questioning not only of gender but of sex.

In A Question of Power, Head takes the gender binary to its extremes, presenting monstrous exaggerations not only of masculinity and femininity, but also of sex: from the towering phallus to the seven thousand molten vaginas, she presents genitals as almost disembodied grotesques. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is said not to have a vagina at all. It is in this context, I will argue, that we can glimpse the truly radical and queer implications of Head’s “sexless” writing. Exploring both the homophobia and queer desire within this text, I will demonstrate the ways in which Head’s writing not only drives towards an African feminism, but also gestures towards a queer and genderqueer African feminism.

About Elinor Rooks

Photo on 25-09-2015 at 13.12 #3Elinor Rooks is an indepedent researcher in African literature, history and culture. She completed her PhD at the University of Leeds with her dissertation, “Vernacular Critique, Deleuzo-Guattarian Theory and Cultural Historicism in West African and Southern African Literatures,” focussing on the novels of Bessie Head and Amos Tutuola. She is currently researching responses to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and is authoring a book on Tutuola. She also serves as the reviews editor for Red Pepper Magazine and works as a freelance editor.

Mossane and Djanta: Intersections of Feminism with Ethnic Identity

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The next seminar in our African Feminisms series is entitled “Mossane (Safi Faye, 1997) and Djanta (Tahirou Tasséré Ouédraogo, 2006): Intersections of Feminism with Ethnic Identity” and will be presented by Monika Kukolova on 09 March 2017 at 5pm in LHRI Seminar Room 1. Entrance is free and all are welcome.

 

Abstract

In this paper, I would like to acknowledge why it is important to discuss intersections of ethnic identity and feminism in the films, Mossane (Safi Faye, 1997) and Djanta (Tahirou Tasséré Ouédraogo, 2006). Some films set within the ethnic groups of West Africa may show somewhat oppressive environments that rely on patriarchal values and female protagonists are often limited in their life choices by the community’s perception of marriage as a woman’s ultimate purpose. Even when they get married, the role of authority in women’s lives passes from their father to their husband. Although there is definitely a case to be made about the oppression of women among some ethnic groups, it would be unfair to summarise all ethnic identities as inherently patriarchal. More contextual analysis is needed to clarify the motivations behind what appears to be a system skewed towards the benefit of men rather than women. Furthermore, the generalisation of these ethnic groups as entirely patriarchal risks putting the women of the group into a position of resigned subservience. The female characters are, mostly, far from subservient but they also have respect for ethnic culture, their elders and the well-being of their community. This leads to inevitable clashes within the community but also within women themselves. I will offer a close analysis of the two films, in order to find out how these two films consolidate ethnic cultures with African feminisms and whether they succeed in doing so.

About Monika Kukolova

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Monika Kukolova is a third year PhD student at the University of Manchester. Her thesis focuses on representations of ethnic identity in contemporary West African cinema with special attention paid to the roles of kinship, religion and patriarchal attitudes in these representations. Other research interests include representations of race and ethnicity in mainstream cinema and cinematic adaptations of novels about race and ethnicity.

The Birth of ‘New’ Materialism? Abortion and Southern African Women’s Writing

UntitledThe next seminar in our African Feminisms series will be a paper by Caitlin Stobie entitled “The Birth of ‘New’ Materialism? Abortion and Southern African Women’s Writing”. The seminar will take place on 27 February 2017 in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (LHRI)  seminar room 1 at 5pm. Entrance is free and all are welcome.

Abstract

In her preface to Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing (1999), Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera recalls a scene from Haile Gerima’s Sankofa wherein a pregnant woman’s corpse mysteriously gives birth after she is whipped to death (1). At the conclusion of her commentary, she returns to the theme of fertility by proclaiming that the authors of the collected stories are “witnesses, in that seemingly impossible birth” of African feminist fiction (5). Yet throughout Opening Spaces, it is the fear of maternity which recurs for those living in rural and urban environments previously colonised by the British ‘motherland’. Tracing tropes of abortion through selected stories written during the ‘birth’ of postcolonial southern African nations in the late twentieth century, this paper considers feminist responses to the shifting relationship between corporeal embodiment and political agency. The writers in this study focus on environments not as essentialised settings, but rather as interconnected and organic systems; creative forms which manifest in these stories include human, animal, vegetal, elemental or textual participants in ecosystems. In this respect, the writers appear to anticipate new materialist theories – particularly the concept of trans-corporeality, which states that human and more-than-human bodies are all enmeshed actors that constitute the environment (Alaimo 2010: 2). Paradoxically, however, they also trouble such purportedly ‘new’ theories by complicating the long history of environmental health and reproductive rights in post/colonial contexts. Illustrating how natural symbolism interacts with the artifice of narrative form, such fictions create spaces for complex, ambivalent perspectives on women’s agency to emerge.

About Caitlin Stobie

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Caitlin Stobie is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, where she is co-director of the Leeds Animal Studies Network. Her research interests include postcolonial ecocriticism, posthumanism and critical animal studies. She has been published, or has work forthcoming, in Green Letters (2017), Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2017) and scrutiny2 (2016).

Jane Plastow: Stiwanism and Gendered Identities in Jinja (Uganda)

We are pleased to announce that Jane Plastow will open our next set of seminars on the theme of African Feminisms with a paper co-authored with Katie McQuaid, the abstract which may be found below.

The seminar will take place on Monday,  13 February 2017 at the Leeds Humanities Research (LHRI) Institute Seminar Room 1 at 5pm. All are welcome and entrance is free.

 

AbstractUntitled

This paper concerns the ethnographic and theatre-based work of Katie McQuaid and Jane Plastow in a working class district of Jinja, Uganda, over two years between 2014 and 2016. Working in the context of entrenched urban poverty alongside the community we sought to develop understanding of the shifting nature of gendered, intergenerational identities in an East African city and how men, women and youth navigate their daily realities and sustain their future aspirations. We are concerned here to explicate our changing understandings in relation to African and western feminisms, particularly Stiwanism, over the course of the work. 

We explore the relative silencing of women, culturally, educationally and structurally in this community, and how, combining ethnographic research and Frierean-inspired community theatre, we sought to open up spaces in which women felt confidence to participate, at first in single sex spaces,  and later in whole community debate, as equals with their men. The focus of the paper is on how we came to find an engagement with the concept of Stiwanism hugely useful in conceptualising our long term process of working alongside men and women in search of a ‘plentiude of praxis’: strengthening and promoting an urban community’s capacity to unite across social barriers in recognising systemic injustices and inequalities, and challenging these through community-led interventions in pursuit of common social justice outcomes. 

We conclude by raising our on-going issues with Stiwanism in relation to its capacity to envisage how men can be supported in challenging patriarchal practices, and how women can negotiate competing aspects of ethnic identity and modern aspiration, whilst simultaneously resisting essentialist narratives that confine their voices and activity.

About Katie McQuaid and Jane Plastow

Jane Plastow is primarily an Africanist with special interests in African theatre, African literature, education, development studies and politics. She is also concerned with women’s studies in Africa and worldwide with Theatre for Development. She has particularly strong links with East Africa and the Horn of Africa; especially Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, in all of which she has worked in recent years. Plastow also works as a theatre director, usually but not exclusively in the area of African theatre, and teach across a range of courses dealing with contemporary theatrical practice.

Katie McQuaid is an anthropologist currently working on the INTERSECTION project, researching intergenerational justice, environmental responsibility, climate change and sustainability in Uganda, combining social science and arts-based methods (fieldwork Jan-Nov 2015). Her wider work focuses upon violence, humanitarianism and human rights amongst refugees from violent conflict. She conducted two years’ ethnographic fieldwork in Uganda (2011-2012) with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, considering how violence and human rights are experienced and articulated amongst those living within humanitarian regimes. This research explores the practice of Congolese human rights defenders and the complex persecution and marginalisation of sexual minorities.

Achebe and Friends: The Making of a Literary Elite (2015)

by Terri Ochiagha (James Currey 2015)

WINNER OF THE ASAUK FAGE & OLIVER PRIZE 2016

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The first in-depth scholarly study of the literary awakening in the 1940s and ’50s of Nigeria’s “first-generation” writers Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Chike Momah, Christopher Okigbo and Chukwuemeka Ike in the context of their education at Government College, Umuahia, an elite colonial boarding school. The author provides fresh perspectives on Postcolonial and World literary processes, colonial education in British Africa, literary representations of colonialism, Chinua Achebe’s seminal position as a writer and the implications of this very particular education for African literature as a whole.

 

 Reviews

‘Focusing on the emergence of an African elite at Government College Umuahia and their turn to literature as a mode of self-expression, Terri Ochiagha’s Achebe and Friends answers one of the outstanding questions in African literary history: Why did the most important group of pioneer writers emerge from one institution in Eastern Nigeria in the last decades of colonial rule? Ochiagha combines the archival skills of a cultural historian with the sensibilities of a literary critic to produce perhaps one of the most important commentaries on African literature in recent years. This is a remarkable book on the origins of African literature and an unmatched model of how to do the literary history of the postcolonial world.’  –  SIMON GIKANDI, Robert Schirmer Professor of English (Princeton)

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Chinua Achebe

‘Offers compelling insights into the development of Nigeria’s most celebrated writers, and provides a much-needed account of how their education at Umuahia contributed to their success.’  – TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

‘A major study….this book is a new perspective on British colonial education in Nigeria and the development of Nigeria’s modern literature, especially in the way the writers’ visions were shaped to re-inscribe African literature.’ – AFRICA BOOK LINK

‘Groundbreaking on many fronts. Not only is it “the first in-depth scholarly study of the literary awakening of the young intellectuals who became known as Nigeria’s ‘first-generation’ writers in the post-colonial period”; it also, subtly, proposes a new framework for receiving and interrogating the works of said writers.’ – TORCH

About the Author

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Terri Ochiagha being awarded the ASAUK Fage & Oliver Prize 2016 by Prof Karin Barber.

 

Terri Ochiagha holds one of the prestigious British Academy Newton International Fellowships (2014-16) hosted by the School of English, University of Sussex. She was previously a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present (2016)

Edited by Janet Remmington, Brian Willan and Bhekizizwe Peterson
Foreword by Njabulo Ndebele

First published in 1916, Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa was written by one of the South Africa’s most talented early 20th-century black leaders and journalists. Plaatje’s pioneering book arose out of an early African National Congress campaign to protest against the discriminatory 1913 Natives Land Act. Native Life vividly narrates Plaatje’s investigative journeying into South Africa’s rural heartlands to report on the effects of the Act and his involvement in the deputation to the British imperial government. At the same time it tells the bigger story of the assault on black rights and opportunities in the newly consolidated Union of South Africa – and the resistance to it.

plaatjeOriginally published in war-time London, but about South Africa and its place in the world, Native Life travelled far and wide, being distributed in the United States under the auspices of prominent African-American WEB Du Bois. South African editions were to follow only in the late apartheid period and beyond.

The aim of this multi-authored volume is to shed new light on how and why Native Life came into being at a critical historical juncture, and to reflect on how it can be read in relation to South Africa’s heightened challenges today. Crucial areas that come under the spotlight in this collection include land, race, history, mobility, belonging, war, the press, law, literature, language, gender, politics, and the state.

 

“This superb collection of essays, photos, poems, and stories – some delightfully at odds with each other – focuses on a remarkable individual, but is about so much more than one man. It opens up conversations about the core issues of our times – a critical reclaiming of the value of liberalism, the politics of belonging, the meaning of democracy, the possibilities of land reform, control by hereditary elites over communal land, the complexities of gender and nationalism, the decolonisation of the curriculum, and what constitutes ‘real’ history, citizenship, personal mobility and press freedom.”

Prof Sandra Swart,  History (Stellenbosch University) 

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Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876-1932)

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