Women writers rule

Monday October 29 2007

By DAVID KAIZA

SHORTLY AFTER UGANDAN writer Monica Arac de Nyeko won the 2007 Caine African Writers Prize, an American journalist writing in The Monitor claimed that Arac’s pre-eminence meant that male Ugandan writers were “extinct.”

Glenna Gordon, who had spent only a few months in Uganda, had little knowledge of the reasons that kept male and female writers — divided by gender inequality — peaceful. Instead, she crash-landed into the topic.

Reaction to her article was swift on Internet blogs and e-mails, male writers were on the warpath. Even weeks later, the topic kept coming up in conversations among writers.

It might have stopped there, but this was also a sex war.

“Your article....started off sounding as if you either did not really know your material or, were willing to shoehorn facts into spaces they didn’t fit into just so that you could make your agenda,” a male blogger told Gordon. “After reading the article, I am still not sure which of the two it is. Are you ignorant or unscrupulous?”

“I’d like to think am neither,” Gordon replied. “And I am sorry my article made you so angry, but is name-calling really necessary?”

The spat was long coming. Having set themselves up as a writing bloc 11 years ago, under the stylish name Femrite, with membership being strictly female (something men dare not do), Uganda’s women writers were setting themselves up for accusations of trying to win via extra-literary means.

But the accusations stopped at whispers. At the most, there had been patronising bemusement from the men. And admittedly, as Femrite project co-ordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe says, the firm only published 16 titles in 10 years. But over and above that, the girls were getting noticed.

Over the past decade, anybody winning a prize, whether it was for newspaper children’s series or the Commonwealth, was a woman Doreen Baingana and Glaydah Namukasa won the Commonwealth African writer’s prize.

The writing was on the wall, but the handwriting was decidedly feminine. Eminent columnist and humorist, Austin Ejiet, a man, said the men were too busy chasing beer, money and politics instead of writing and have ended up, metaphorically speaking, chasing women, he might have added.

Yet this squabble was only part of a worsening global situation. Everywhere, questions are beginning to come up about why men aren’t writing. The situation has become so bad that last month, at the award of the British New Writing Ventures, only two men scraped through to a shortlist of 10. Then, when the prizes were doled out, all three winners were women.

A shocked Henry Sutton, chairman of the prize, also literary editor of The Daily Mirror challenged male writers to “wake up.”

This was days before the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the 2007 prize to Dorris Lessing, and a couple of weeks before the Man Booker Prize went to a woman.

What was once noted with condescending interest — that women wrote to massive audiences — has broken into real panic. At first, it did not worry men that the Daphne de Mauriers produced “unserious” heartthrobs, read by millions. Those millions, it was thought, counted for less than the thousands reading the James Joyces. Then something broke.

In the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution saw centuries of male dominance challenged successfully. The Germaine Greers and Susan Sontags reinterpreted art and literature, affording women a politically potent insight.

Four decades later, it is now accepted that women will outperform male writers. Essentially, it is about novels (drama and poetry remaining masculine fortresses).

“We are different,” says Twongyeirwe. “When you write, you cannot quite divorce yourself from your experiences.”

It’s these experiences that grip more readers. It is claimed that seven in 10 readers are female, who rarely identify with male writers.

Novelist and editor at Fountain Publishers, Julius Ocwinyo, says, “Girls tend to read more than boys. Boys are watching football. When you mention books, they think of school. They don’t see how books fit into their ambitions.”

AS FAR BACK AS 2001, BRI -tish writer, Ferdinand Mount, writing in the London Guardian, recounted his editor lamenting that only books by women seemed readable.

Why? Echoing the views of editors, critics and feminists, Mount, described the predicament eloquently: “The modern male novelist prizes formal ingenuity, trickiness, exuberance; flights of fancy and fireworks, that’s what his genius specialises in.”

Not bad, right? Wrong. “No doubt as he goes along he hopes to tell us something, whether obliquely or in your face.” In contrast, he argued, the female novel had a “moral liveliness” in it, invested more in exploring the impact of one human being upon another.

Ocwinyo says that under Femrite, women writers pushed their stuff more forcefully. Men, he says, are writing just as much as the women, maybe even more.

On the other hand, Twongyeirwe says, men are still overwhelmingly represented on school reading lists, and adds that Femrite set out to promote women’s writing because it was hard getting publishers to accept women’s work.

The fight obscured problems in Uganda , where factors from government indifference to poverty have not only stifled writing, but also defeated literacy. It is not just the careers of writers, but real problems of literacy, with its incalculable costs, that are at stake.

A century and a half since the Bronte sisters took on male names to get published, young male writers in Kampala say wryly that they ought to write under women’s names to get noticed.

Looking back now, the novel seems more suited to women than it does men. The strange thing is that men never took the novel from women.

The genre, in the form we have today, appears to have been invented by a Japanese writer — Shikibu Murasaki, a woman — writing in the 12th century.

Her book, Tale of Genji, was acknowledged by Unesco as the world’s first novel. Within the English tradition, it is Emily Bronte, who is often judged as perhaps the most original and gifted of English novelists.

But once it fell into men’s hands, the novel expanded in scope and possibility. And as it marched along, it thickened with grey matter, becoming War and Peace, Finnegan’s Wake (brilliant unreadable bricks). It became clear that male writers seemed to take perverse pride in being “hard” reads.

The main criticism is that when men write novels, they do not do it to tell gripping tales. Rather, they try to extend the limits of the genre.

Any identifiable story in a man’s novel is mere window-dressing. He only uses narrative as bait so the reader can admire his genius.

Hence, the blurb on major literary works by men read like descriptions of sports cars: the sleek linguistic lines, the incredible acceleration they give to the genre, the growling genius firing on all the valves of inventiveness, observation.

Men’s heroes do not rescue damsels in distress. Their best efforts read like PhD dissertations sexed up a bit. Think of a novel like The Age of Innocence (Sartre) and compare it to Being and Nothingness (Sartre philosophical treatise), and you see why such thinking got us to 2007.

Today, the novel, in men’s hands, appears to be dying from congestive intellectual disorder. Imagine the costs of publishing a brilliant male author or the headache of reading a dozen male writers if you are on a prize committee.

Beyond the quarrels, there are real problems afflicting literacy in Uganda.

FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE Ugandan Literary Bureau, Victor Byabamazima, writer and publisher (Baroque Publishers) says that over the decades, he watched successive governments cut off support to writing and reading.

Ernest Bazanye, Sunday Vision columnist, who recently published a collection of his work, says that it is less about men and women.

Uganda’s best selling international writer, Moses Issegawa, he notes, writes from the Netherlands.

Arac and Baingana both managed to capture international attention by moving outside the country.

“Whether men or women, there are just aren’t enough opportunities for getting published if you are living in Uganda,” Bazanye says. “These are just two prizes and they published on their own right as writers, not because they were women. Femrite is nothing.”

“Femrite has been attacked by people who say we write simple things,” says Twongyeirwe. “They say we should write stories that are more important. But who can say what is important?”

The fight appears won, but like the Iraq war, women writers may find themselves trapped. Even Dorris Lessing found she was ignored when she talked about non-woman issues.

Male writers, rarely, if ever, talk about Man, giving them the thematic range to still commandeer the outer world of ideas. It is not true of all men; neither is the other true of all women.

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