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Gender and narrative in the postcolonial nation
Author: Elleke Boehmer

Why is the nation in a post-colonial world so often seen as a motherland? This study explores the relationship between gender icons and foundational fictions of the nation in different post-colonial spaces. The author's work on the intersections between independence, nationalism and gender has already proved canonical in the field. This book combines her keynote essays on the mother figure and the post-colonial nation with new work on male autobiography, ‘daughter’ writers, the colonial body, the trauma of the post-colony and the nation in a transnational context. Focusing on Africa as well as South Asia, and sexuality as well as gender, the author offers close readings of writers ranging from Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri and Nelson Mandela to Arundhati Roy and Yvonne Vera, shaping these into a critical engagement with theorists of the nation such as Fredric Jameson and Partha Chatterjee. Moving beyond cynical deconstructions of the post-colony, the book mounts a reassessment of the post-colonial nation as a site of potential empowerment, as a ‘paradoxical refuge’ in a globalised world. It acts on its own impassioned argument that post-colonial and nation-state studies address substantively issues hitherto raised chiefly within international feminism.

Open Access (free)
Elleke Boehmer

This book argues that literary texts – here especially novels and autobiographies – are central vehicles in the imaginative construction of new nations, and that gender plays a central, formative role in that construction. Post-colonial nationalist identities, iconographies and traditions are refracted through gender-tagged concepts of power, leadership, lineage and filiation, including, for instance, maternal images of nurturing and service. Developing these ideas, the book considers how national father/son and mother figures were used in the independence era to imagine the nation into being. It also shows that gendered, predominantly familial (patriarchal), forms have been invoked, paradoxically, to imagine post-colonial nations into being, and that, reciprocally, constructions of the nation in fiction and other discourses are differentially marked by masculine and feminine systems of value. Finally, the book explores community, nationality, subjectivity, sexuality or the native body.

in Stories of women
Theorising the en-gendered nation
Elleke Boehmer

Nationalism, which has been so fundamental to the decolonisation process around the world, bears a clear mark for gender. This chapter examines why and how, overdetermined by colonial history, national structures in post-independent nations have conventionally been organised according to masculine patterns of authority, in particular the family drama, embodied in such images as ‘father of the nation’, ‘son of the soil’. Women, by contrast, are cast into the more passive roles/metaphors of motherland, Mother Africa, Bharat Mata. The chapter first looks at two novels, Peter Abrahams' A Wreath for Udomo (1956) and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), which have in common several paradigms of new nationality and the post-colonial nation founded on the imagery of national sons. To open the discussion with these two novels is in itself an anticipatory and symbolic gesture, in that Africa and India will comprise the two postcolonial ‘constituencies’ predominantly represented by this book.

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Revolutionary nationalism and women’s representation in Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Elleke Boehmer

In Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981), the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o points to the strong position that women characters have held in his work over the years. Beginning with the writing of the epic-length Petals of Blood (1977), Ngugi came unequivocally to identify with the plight of the neo-colonially betrayed Kenyan peasantry. His nationalism of the 1960s thus turned increasingly revolutionary and openly Marxist. With respect to his determination in the later novels to develop powerful women characters as counterparts to the strong hero figures he favours, in Ngugi's early work similar tendencies emerge in embryonic form. In particular, as the focus in the early novels is more on the remote past and the pristine origins of Gikuyu people, mother figures signify prominently. As if to make amends, Ngugi, in his more recent work, introduces heroines who have made a decisive break with a former life of mothering and/or whoring in their commitment to a revolutionary cause. To him, other interests give way before the ‘higher social system of democracy and socialism’ in a free Kenya.

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Gender and a new politics in Achebe
Elleke Boehmer

Although he published the autobiographical meditation Home and Exile in 2002, Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (1987) remains the culmination point of his achievement as a writer of fiction, as well as being an elaboration of his earlier novelistic interests. Dealing in coded terms with Nigeria's calcified power-elite, and the bankruptcy of its post-independence nepotistic politics, Anthills of the Savannah is in many respects a sequel to the penultimate novel A Man of the People (1966), which explored themes of political corruption and military takeover on the eve of Biafra. In the fifth and final novel, Achebe's view of that elite and its position in the wider African context has become more uncompromising and – at least in theory – more attuned to gender and populist ideas. Addressing Nigeria's elite as himself a self-conscious member of that group, Achebe is unambivalent in his view of leadership as the chief pivot of political and also of economic transformation. The novel clears a space for women to be themselves the prefiguring subjects of a new social and political vision.

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The male leader’s autobiography and the syntax of postcolonial nationalism
Elleke Boehmer

Narratives give form to and legitimate the process of post-colonial and national coming-into-being. In nationalist movements in India and Africa, leaders' tales operate as inaugural symbolic texts shaping and justifying configurations of status and power in the post-colonial nation(-to-be), including the interconnection of nationalist ideology and gender politics. Looked at more closely, the leader's autobiography effectively sets in motion a process of reciprocal, even circular, legitimation. This chapter looks at the independence autobiographies by national leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. Where the story of the growth to self-consciousness of the independence leader presents as a synonym for the rise of the nation, and where that leader has historically been male, it follows that national-son figures become the inheritors of the nation's future. Throughout his autobiography, Nehru is strongly aware of the symbol-making power of nationalism; of that way in which national movements are constituted out of compelling images. The chapter also mentions the self-representation of Sarojini Naidu as a political leader.

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Gender and nationalism in the early fiction of Flora Nwapa
Elleke Boehmer

Mother figures bulk large in nationalist imaginings. Although they perhaps hold different sentiments and ideals in this regard, the figure of the common national mother is, significantly, one to which post-independence women writing from Africa and India have also paid their respects. Women encounter the strong need to resist the compounded oppressions of colonialism, gender, race, class, sexuality, etc., and find at the same time that tactics of self-representation are often usefully adopted from the more established and yet compromising nationalist politics of their male counterparts. In theory, and rhetorically, anti-colonial, nationalist movements made provision for the self-representation of women. Nationalism, whether as ideology or as political movement, configures and consolidates itself through a variety of deeply embedded gender-specific structures. This chapter explores how an investment in a typically masculine nationalist imaginary impacts on women's politics of self-realisation and on their involvement in the modern nation-state. In a reading of Flora Nwapa's early fiction, it makes suggestions as to what an alternative symbolisation of women's identity and language might entail.

in Stories of women
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The adolescent girl and the nation
Elleke Boehmer

This chapter examines how three very different post-colonial women writers have written themselves into the national family script, or redrafted the daughter's relationship to the national father. The novels in question are: the expatriate Australian Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children (1940); the Nigerian-born London writer Buchi Emecheta's Destination Biafra (1982); and the American-born Canadian Carol Shields's Unless (2002). The chapter focuses on the daughter's position in the three novels relative to the family, tradition or community, where these structures are in each case figured as analogous to or integrated with the nation, thus approaching the narratives as gender and nationalist theories-in-text. Yet, despite their varying determinations, all three are distinguished by their preoccupation with daughterhood. Towards setting up the comparative frame, the gender roles inscribed within the national family drama can be further elaborated by drawing on Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883) as an interpretative paradigm.

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Colonial body into postcolonial narrative
Elleke Boehmer

The silenced and wounded body of the colonised is a pervasive figure in colonial and post-colonial discourses, although its valencies obviously shift with the transition from colonial into post-colonial history. In the post-colonial process of rewriting, certainly, the trope of the dumb, oppressed body undergoes significant translations or transfigurations. In Maru (1971), a novelistic indictment of intra-black racism, the South African writer Bessie Head stakes out a number of epigraphic moments with which to begin the discussion. This chapter explores post-colonial retrieval of the figure of the native body in colonial discourse and unpicks the complex interconnections between colonialism, nationalism, hysteria, gender and sexuality. It concentrates in particular on post-colonial attempts – by Nuruddin Farah, Bessie Head and Michelle Cliff, among others – to recuperate or transfigure the native/colonised body by way of the ‘talking cure’ of narrative.

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Ben Okri, Chenjerai Hove, Dambudzo Marechera
Elleke Boehmer

The first, post-1945 phase of anti-colonial nationalism in Africa, as in other colonised regions, was distinguished by literal belief structures: a strong, teleological faith in the actual existence of the nation as ‘people’, and the sense that history essentially unfolded as a process of that nation's coming-into-being. There was a belief, too, in Africa as in South Asia, as in the Caribbean, that the distinctive forms of modernity, in this case in particular the sovereign state, could be incorporated, indigenised, repatriated. These may seem at face value rather obvious statements to make about nationalism, which broadly demands some form of belief in the national entity and acts of loyalty expressed towards it. This chapter investigates the self-interpellation and self-inscription of second-generation male writers as indifferently national subjects. The Zimbabwean writers Chenjerai Hove and Dambudzo Marechera, and the British-resident Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri, experiment with metaphor, nightmare and fetish as the signifiers of a national reality, as opposed to viewing the nation as literal truth. The post-colony here becomes phantasmagoria and malaise.

in Stories of women