Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Imagining the End of Patriarchy

Since the global recession began in late 2008, I’ve heard a lot of reports about how much harder it is on men than on women. According to Foreign Policy magazine, more than 80 percent of the job losses in the United States and Europe have disproportionately fallen on men, adding up to about 7 million more unemployed men than before the recession. The losses have mostly come from traditionally macho industries such as construction and high finance.

Many have taken this to sound the death knell for patriarchy. One article said it was the death of Macho – a certain kind of masculinity that prized dominance, reckless risk-taking, and aggressiveness. Hannah Rosin’s article in the Atlantic last month went a step further and proclaimed the beginning of a new era of woman. However, writing in the midst of what is undoubtedly a very male-dominated society, I fear that reports of patriarchy’s death may be greatly exaggerated.

I do agree that as the world becomes more globalized, more and more societies are going to have to shift to accommodate the contributions of women in the public sphere. The agrarian societies that required a gender-based division of labour and in which physical prowess was a main arbiter of power are disappearing – and they are not coming back. However, the societal shifts that are helping to liberate women are not happening everywhere.

In the West, which was far more affected by the global recession, the rise of female power is only accelerating an ongoing trend. Women have been steadily moving into the public sphere in American and European societies for the last 30 years. In Nigeria, feminism has only barely started to take hold – and only among certain classes in certain parts of the country. We are still outraged by the story of an aging senator whose fourth wife was a 13-year-old girl and the revered traditional monarch who brought armed thugs with him when he went to beat his wife in her own home. And many Nigerian women still expect to marry men who will “take care” of them financially.

But whether we like it or not, the world is changing and in the new global system, patriarchy simply does not work. The idea of a single powerful male single-handedly providing for a passive and dependant spouse is impossible when few men earn enough even to care for themselves. Our clinging to a system which even our ancestors did not practice in a bid to maintain a false sense of tradition, is doing us a disservice. It is placing men under an increasingly unrealistic burden of responsibility while keeping women out of a system that increasingly needs their input.

Western feminism may not mesh with aspects of African culture. A tradition which holds that a person’s most important legacy is leaving behind children who will remember them, cannot agree with Simone De Beauvoir’s view of marriage as a soul-crushing prison. So, we have to find a version of feminism that works for us.

Before colonialism, many Nigerian societies had their own avenues for female power. Among the Igbo, for instance, there were ways for women to become chiefs and own land in their own right. But the richness and complexity of these traditions were stripped away and we have been left with concepts that are poor, denuded versions of what they were.

And this is where imagination comes in. I think too often we writers fail to adequately tackle the issue of female empowerment. And when we do, it tends to come across as moralistic and trite. Plus, the burden is left solely to women, as if they are the only ones who have a stake in changing the system. For instance, Richard Ali’s review of Ahmed Maiwada’s new novel “Musdoki,” celebrated it as a tribute to traditional masculinity. Mr. Ali speaks so glowingly about the novel’s themes of male dominance and the fear of female emasculation that one would have almost thought the book was set in the 16th century, not modern times. People, we can do better.

As patriarchy becomes increasingly untenable, our society will need to find a new system. No one is advocating all-out female domination. I am of the opinion that matriarchy could ultimately be as destructive to men as patriarchy is to women. Instead, I think our future lies in devising a true equitable partnership between men and women.

What is needed is a society in which men and women are free to choose their paths without preconceptions of gender to box them in. A world in which men can be caring and nurturing without being a called weak and women can be assertive and powerful without being called domineering.

Writers, especially writers of speculative fiction, have an important role to play in this discovery. It is up to us to imagine the new order that we want to see. We can inspire the world to change, but before it can be, someone has to dream it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stranger than fiction

Recently, the Nigerian National Assembly began agitating for a raise in their allowances, the money allocated to them - quite apart from their salaries – for cars, housing, and other expenses. The raise they want will amount to nearly 100 percent of their current allotment.

On Monday, Business Day newspaper ran as its front page story an analysis of the lawmakers’ current salaries – comparing what they earn to their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom. It turns out that Nigerian senators and representatives are some of the best paid lawmakers in the world, even though they do the least amount of work. In three years, the Nigerian National Assembly has only managed to pass 16 bills.

These men and women feel perfectly entitled to make such outrageous demands in a country where most of the population (70 percent) lives on less than $1 a day. Where malnutrition and preventable diseases still kill off the weak and most vulnerable. It boggles the mind.

I live in a country where a greedy, corrupt and incompetent ruling class with access to futuristic technologies lives like gods amid a deprived populace crammed into squalid cities or isolated in villages no better off than they were in the middle ages. Magic is everywhere. Here, healers have the power to cure, old women can turn into animals, young girls can trap a man’s soul by feeding him succulent dishes and a child’s curse can kill. It sounds like something out of a dystopian science-fiction plotline.

Yet, it is the reality of much of the African experience. So the question is: How do you craft fantasy, science fiction and horror stories when the truth can be so much richer than the most fantastic tale?

Perhaps this is why conventional science fiction does not appeal to many Africans. In a world where running water and constant electricity is a luxury, it is hard to frighten people with tales of out-of-control robots. Nnedi Okarafor’s essay about African science fiction talks about this. I agree with her conclusion that there is a need to redefine speculative fiction as a genre in order to make room for our unique worldview.

It isn’t enough to have a brown-skinned Conan the Barbarian, or a spaceship captained by Nwachukwu instead of Picard; or falling back on positive reimaginings of a country where streetlights work and government functions. I think there is a richer, deeper world out there for our speculative fiction.

I’m re-reading Ben Okri’s 1991 novel, “The Famished Road.” In it, he takes on a child’s wondering voice, describing the activities of spirit beings with the same matter-of-fact calm as he does the poverty of the main characters.

Though Okri’s work is considered literary fiction, I think such magical realism is a step towards the innovative, genre work I would like to see. I am eager to find and read more such examples.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The wound that will not heal

Months ago, I read a fascinating article by Ngugi Wa Thion’go on slavery and its effects on the African psyche. Wa Thion’go says that Africans and the West have buried the trauma of slavery in a collective “psychic tomb, acting as if it never happened.” The result is a sense that African lives, ideas and experiences don’t matter – or at least they don’t matter as much.

For instance, the genocide committed against European Jews under Nazi Germany is rightly invoked as a reminder of man’s monstrous inhumanity. Yet, slavery, which Wa Thion’go calls “genocide, holocaust [and] displacement of unprecedented historical and geographic magnitude,” is often dismissed as something we should get over. To invoke it as a possible reason for the economic dominance of the West and the dismal state of the continent and communities in Diaspora is considered in bad taste.

Mr. Wa Thion’go puts it best:

"The economic consequences are obvious: the most developed countries in the West are largely those whose modernity is rooted in the Transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery. The African body was a commodity; and manpower, a cheap resource. Note that this was continued in the colonial era where, once again, African human and natural resources were cheap for the colonialist European buyer who determined the price and worth of that which he was buying. Don't we see echoes of that today in the unequal trade practices where the West still determines the price and worth of what it gets from Africa while also determining the price and worth of what it sells to Africa?

"It is not a strange coincidence that the victims of slave trade and slavery on the African continent and abroad are collectively the ones experiencing underdevelopment."

We refuse to see what lies before us. We much prefer the story line that Africa’s leaders are primarily responsible for the continent’s problems with the benevolent West looking helplessly on. While it is true to a great extent, it is not the whole story.

Through slavery and its little sister colonialism, we were stripped of our memories – our history, our religion and our identities. The indigenous solutions that we built for ourselves over millennia of living were destroyed. Many African nations are constantly holding themselves in comparison against an illusionary ideal. Wondering why they cannot seem to enjoy the peace and prosperity of Western nations while forgetting that every aspect of their lives is dominated by an unequal relationship with those nations.

I believe one way to rebuild our identities is through imagination. We are surrounded by thoughtful, intelligent minds dreaming up new ways to be African and new solutions to African problems. Granted, many of them are stifled or driven into exile by corrupt systems built from rusty colonialist models, but those minds do exist. What we need to do is to stop limiting ourselves by drawing arbitrary lines in the sand about what it “Authentically African.”

I find such conversations distracting. They seem to come from a narrow, often Western, interpretation of what it means to be African. Sometimes, I fear that we are spending so much time worrying about whether a work is “African” enough, that we have ceased to write truly innovative fiction. It is not in our best interest to ape the West, scrabbling to create poor copies of technologies we do not understand and cannot effectively use. It is not in our best interest to tell stories circumscribed to fit some narrow definition of what is African – stories designed for the consumption of Western minds. Africa is a very big continent and I believe there is more than enough space in it for all kinds of stories.

We have to gain respect for our own voices, for our own solutions, for the power of our own imaginations. And we must start by acknowledging our past. If we can admit that we were wronged - and that it affects us still - we can see the exploitative web in which we are enmeshed and find ways of untangling ourselves.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Twist in the Tale

At this time last year, I was working as an editor in a prestigious newspaper in the United States. I lived in a nice apartment, I had a car and I enjoyed the company of a warm circle of friends. Then, I lost my job, I lost my work permit and I moved back home to live with my parents.

How had it come to this? I mean it had all seemed so much clearer when I was young.

My father was a diplomat with the Nigerian Foreign Service. Growing up, we lived in seven different countries. Books were my anchor in a sea of constant goodbyes. From my mother’s African Writers series to my father’s Great Books of Western Literature collection, I devoured them all.

Though the decision to study English language and literature in college seemed as natural as breathing, the hard part was figuring out what I wanted to do afterwards.

I had always tinkered with stories — I began working on my first novel when I was thirteen — but my writing never felt entirely legitimate. My parents worked their way from poverty to the middle class and they wanted to assurances that their dreamy daughter would not starve. When I entered college as an English major, it was with the implicit understanding that I would become a college professor. But I was not yet ready for academia.

I knew I wanted to be a writer and I figured the best way to make a living as a one was to become a journalist. I got an M.A. in journalism and I fell into the newspaper business in the U.S. working as a Web editor. It was a good living, but all the while I was plagued by a quiet feeling of stagnation.

Oddly enough, losing my job has returned me my clarity of vision. I realize now that while I enjoyed meeting people and telling their stories, I had been neglecting my own. I have a new job (still a newspaper editor), a new circle of wonderful friends, and most importantly, I recently rediscovered my interest in speculative fiction - science fiction, fantasy and horror - from Africa and the African Diaspora.

I think that many African writers are moving beyond the activist literature that chronicled our struggle for independence. Modern writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Helen Oyeyemi and Nalo Hopkinson are using issues of gender, migration, culture and religion to expand the perspectives of the genre.

So I’ve started this blog to explore these issues and how African and Diaspora writers of speculative fiction are doing some of the amazing things they’re doing. I’ll take some detours, but I know it’s going to be a fascinating journey and I’m finally ready to take it. I’d be glad if you joined me; I wouldn’t mind the company.