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Feminism, Womanism and Motherism in

African Literary Discourse

Chidi T. Maduka
Comparative Literature Programme
University of Port Harcourt

Feminism, Womanism and Motherism in

African Literary Discourse

The African female author/intellectual has doggedly

fought against the dehumanizing treatment meted out to her

by men in various African societies and, in doing so, she

fervently struggles to Africanize the term “feminism” as

generally used in the West by the marginalized Western female

author/intellectual engaged in a similar fight in the West. The

first perspective stresses the point that men use “the ideology

of patriarchy which emphasizes male importance, dominance

and superiority” (Njoku 195) to enslave women and make them

second-class citizens; and, the second, that African women do

not share a common identity with their Western counterparts

even though, as Davies and Graves assert, “… both identify

gender-specifying issues and recognize women’s position

internationally as one of second class status and ‘otherness’

and seek to connect with that” (qtd by Opara 5).

The second point is rooted in the marginal position

occupied by Africa in the global village. This marginalization

dates back to the Berlin Conference of 1884/1885 where the


European imperial powers met and partitioned Africa

according to their economic, political and cultural interests.

Such world bodies as The International Monetary Fund (IMF),

the World Bank, the Paris Club and even the United Nations

Organization are agents of globalization buttressing those

interests. Accordingly, Africa is virtually a cultural satellite of

Europe. Susantha Goonatilake’s observations illuminate the


The European expansion of the last five

hundred years with its different economic
thrusts corresponding roughly to mercantilist,
industrial and present neo-colonial ones,
resulted in the throwing of a near complete
cultural blanket almost all over the world. This
cultural blanket has suppressed local culture,
local arts, local systems of valid and relevant
science and has resulted in a virtual cultural
“genetic” wipeout. Diversity and originality,
arts and ideas which are not of European
origin are vanishing and culture is getting
packaged, served in a plastic form, as the
hegemonic machine of European culture
moves on (v).

Feminism is an offshoot of this intellectual phenomenon.

As an ideology it has a long history which, for the purposes of

this short essay, can be summarized within the bounds of the

ideas developed by such provocative female thinkers as


Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Virginia Woolf, Mary

Ellmann, Elaine Showalter and Michèle Barrett. They all, each

in her own way, repudiate the phallo-centric notion that a

woman is but an appendage to man, a notion capturing the

spirit of the biblical story of a woman having been created

from a man’s rib. Such established male thinkers as Aristotle

and St. Thomas Aquinas share in the prejudice. It is not

surprising that the erudite female scholars ferociously

challenge the belief system which has provided a solid

foundation for the social structures erected on the patriarchal

ideas of men. Soon their quest for social identity

metamorphoses into the search for the total autonomy of the

female, a phenomenon that has led to the virtual separation of

the Male from the Female (now graphically described as the

Other). This independence – economic, political, psychological

and intellectual – poses grave dangers to the stability of social

institutions, especially marriage which many of the radical

critics perceive as a tool of male oppression in society.

Consequently, divorce and such modes of social behaviour as


lesbianism and same-sex marriage emerge as respectable life-


In literature, texts are reinterpreted to reveal the

centrality of female presence in understanding them. Male

critics are accused of imposing male values on literary

conventions and specific texts. Kate Millett and Elaine

Showalter, in particular, revel in providing female sensibility to

the English critical discourse: Millett by excavating male

prejudices hidden beneath the narratives written by men and

Showalter by making an intriguing re-interpretation of the

tradition of the English novel.

New discoveries in post-structuralism open new vistas for

the female critics to eventually reclaim their lost glory.

Jacques Derrida’s form of post-structuralism, better known as

deconstruction shatters the Western belief in the certainty of

truth by erecting in its place a new system of perceiving

reality. In De la Grammatologie, translated into English as On

Grammatology with a very thought-provoking introduction by

Gayatri Spivak, a renowned literary comparatist and a

prominent voice in post-colonial aesthetics, he argues that the


sign no longer requires the presence of a centre of meaning in

delineating thought processes, since signifiers shift endlessly

from position to position in the apprehending subject’s

exercise of articulating thought. This means that

truth/meaning cannot be established with certitude, thus

leading to the rejection of the idea of stability of meaning in

Western thought. All phallocentric ideas about man’s

superiority to woman, for instance, can be “deconstructed”

infinitely through aporia to reveal contradictions in the

affirmations. Aporia is a form of irony used by the advocates in

tearing to shreds the solidity of propositions.

Female activists find the formulation very persuasive

because it enables them to create space for themselves in the

social world dominated by patriarchy.

But many African women associating themselves with

feminism use the term “deconstruction” without espousing the

full gamut of its methodology because of the nature of the

historical canvas from where they are putting up their fight as

women. The ideology of feminism itself is weaned of its


European attributes. This is largely so because, as Susan Z.

Andrada rightly asserts:

Much contemporary white criticism typically

represents itself as the outermost frame for
understanding the place of women as they
function within cultural systems. By
representing itself as color-blind and universal,
however, such feminist theory neglects to
examine its own inscription within a European
system of thought which is saturated by
imperialism (92).

The white feminist fails to recognize the importance of cultural

diversities in the world, an attitude of mind that exposes her

to the charge of arrogance.

The African female intellectual basically asserts her

humanity within the compass of her historical experiences in

Africa. Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, for instance, tells us

point blank that “Nigeria is male, a fact that is daily thrust in

myriad ways on the Nigerian woman” (“Women and Nigerian

Literature” 60). She then forcefully asserts that:

The literature is phallic, dominated as it is by

male writers and male critics who deal almost
exclusively with male characters and male
concerns, naturally aimed at a predominantly
male audience. The male camaraderie has
been insufferable for the few educated Nigerian
women (65).

She goes on to give a litany of her grievances against the

Nigerian men, an attitude of mind revealed in the works of

Kate Millett and Elaine Showalter who equally castigate

European men in their texts.

But Ogunyemi recoils from being associated with the

ideology of feminism as developed in Europe. Her observation

is pertinent:

The term feminism with its opprobrious, Euro-

American connections and its radical
connotations is a word Nigerian women shy
away from. Emecheta does not see herself as a
feminist in the radical American sense as she
revealed in an autobiographical essay. Nwapa’s
ideological position is typical; at the London
Book Fair in 1984, she denied the fact that she
was a feminist and opted to be called a
‘womanist’ like her black American
counterparts (64-65).

One of the challenges facing African female authors and

critics is developing an appropriate alternative term to

“feminism” and working out a methodology for handling the

issues related to the rights of women and studying literary

texts focusing on them. Anglophone authors (e.g. Aidoo, Alkali,

Emecheta, Ezeigbo, Nwapa, Ogot, Onwueme, Head) and their

Francophone counterparts (e.g. Bâ, Sow Fall, Lopes) have in


their different works/interviews/essays voiced out their

hostility to the term and disclaimed any association with it

even when their works point to the contrary. And the critics

(e.g. Ogundipe-Leslie, Ogunyemi, Adebayo, Opara,

Chukwuma, Acholonu, Agbasiere) have developed a plethora of

terms for it: African feminism, Negative Feminism, Positive

Feminism, Femalism, Womanism, Stiwanism, Gynism…

African Feminism

African feminism as a term serves as the domesticated

version of the ideology of feminism. It takes into account the

African philosophy of life which stresses marriage as a social

institution. However, it condemns all forms of patriarchy

which dehumanizes woman and portrays her as a second-

class citizen. Rooted in African historical and cultural

experiences it advances the view of the complementarity

between man and woman by stressing the Male-Female

principle in the creative order. It is from this perspective that

Aduke Adebayo asserts that:


The term ‘feminism’ when shorn of its

variegated cultural attachments and excesses
still possesses a core-programme that
adequately synthesizes women’s experiences
worldwide in the same way that Marxism has a
core ideology which has been domesticated
universally (3).

It is difficult to reject the view that most definitions of

feminism in African literary discourse are formulations of this

persuasion even when they do not specifically state so. A case

in point is Helen Chukwuma’s view that:

Feminism means … a rejection of inferiority

and a striving for recognition. It seeks to give
the woman a sense of self as a worthy,
effectual and contributing human being […]
Women conditioning in Africa is the greatest
barrier toward a fulfilment of self (“The Identity
of Self” ix).

While discussing Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen,

Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, Nuriddin Farah’s From a

Crooked Rib and Flora Nwapa’s One is Enough, she boldly

asserts that “African feminism unlike western feminism does

not negate men, rather it accommodates them. Men are

central to their lives and so their continuous presence is

assured” (Voices and Choices…” 224).


Similar views characterize studies of Francophone fiction

by various critics. Julie Agbasiere, for example, tells us that

Aminata Sow Fall “belongs to the school of thought which

opines that radicalilsm in feminist assertions is un-African,

that Africa has dignified and powerful women who do not owe

their empowerment to feminist ideologies …” (94).

Negative Feminism and Positive Feminism

The above terms are not new concepts but clarifications

which reinforce the concept of African feminism. In them Rose

Acholonu more or less affirms her faith in the complementarity

between the roles of men and women in society. Negative

feminism stands for radical and militant transformation of the

patriarchal institutions in society, an attitude to social change

“which hardly makes for sanity, stability, peace and progress

in the human society” (8); and positive feminism is the reverse,

since “it fosters the philosophy of gender complementarity and

accommodation in human relationships” (8).

In discussing family love in Nigerian fiction, therefore,

she logically comes to the conclusion that “(…) the struggle for

gender equality should be accompanied by a serious and

determined struggle to maintain love and peace between the

partners at home”. (276). Gloria Chukukere embraces the

same philosophy of life in her work studying the condition of

women “in contemporary African fiction”.

Femalism and Gynism

Femalism adds nothing new to the concept of African

feminism since it calls for love and collaboration between the

two sexes for the proper running of society. As Opara asserts:

Femalism rejects radical feminist’s nihilism of

the institution of marriage and attendant
motherhood … which smacks of Beauvoirism.
Femalism is contiguous but not identical to
Catherine Acholonu’s motherism… (4)

As for gynism, it stresses the equality of man and woman

from the divine perspective of gender complementarity of the

two sexes. It therefore attempts in a way to redress the

imbalance between the two sexes suggested in the biblical

creation myth of Eve being created from Adam’s rib. Eboh,

who is in Philosophy, has used it in her work “Aetiology of

Feminist, Womanist, Femalist and Gynist Philosophy”. The


term adds nothing new to the concept of African



This concept of feminism emanates from Molara

Ogundipe-Leslie who basically approaches literature from a

Marxist standpoint. It denotes a worldview in which women

are given the opportunity to play an active part in its

transformation. As we are told in an interview with the author,

“Stiwa” means ‘Social Transformation’

including Women of Africa! I wanted to stress
the fact that what we want in Africa is social
transformation. It’s not about warring with the
men, the reversal of role, or doing to men
whatever women think that men have been
doing for centuries, but it is trying to build a
harmonious society. The transformation of
African society is the responsibility of both
men and women and it is also in their interest
(Qtd by Adebayo 1).

Ogundipe-Leslie perceives the female struggle from the

perspective of African feminism which has earlier been


In a way, she seems to have modified her stance of a

radical feminist revealed in her essay written nine years earlier


in African Literature Today. Entitled “The Female Writer and

Her Commitment”, the article repudiates the strategies used

by men to stereotype women as beings without identity and

urges women to rise up and vigorously change these images

with the power of their pen. Then in the spirit of the Marxist

stance from which the article is written, Ogundipe-Leslie calls

on women writers to extend the struggle to the liberation of

the Third World from the clutches of the imperialistic powers

and wonders why “many of the African female writers like to

declare that they are not feminists, as if it were a crime to be a

feminist” (11). She finds it difficult to understand why “These

denials come from unlikely writers such as Bessie Head, Buchi

Emecheta, even Mariama Bâ” (11). Her misreading of p’Bitek’s

Song of Lawino as a text which falsely represents the image of

Lawino as a passive and a-historical character stems from her

bias against Negritude traits in the representation of African

reality, for Lawino (just like Senghor’s “femme noire” – “black

woman”) serves as a useful agency for proclaiming the rich

potentials of African civilization for productivity and fertile

imagination. It appears that Leslie-Ogundipe’s conversion to


Sitwanism may have led to the moderation of some of her

views on feminism as it affects the African woman.


All the discussions of the African version of feminism (or

indeed African feminism) can be subsumed under the concept

of womanism, for it succeeds in encoding the essential points

raised by the advocates of other varieties of the concept.

Ogunyemi’s definition of the term is apt:

Womanism is black centred; it is

accommodationist. It believes in the freedom
and independence of women like feminism;
unlike radical feminism, it wants meaningful
union between black women and black men
and black children and will see to it that men
begin to change from their sexist stand (65).

To her, it is a viewpoint serving as the rallying-point of the

women of African ancestry in their struggle to effectively assert

their humanity in the face of the malevolent attitude of the

menfolk towards their self-fulfilment in life. However, it does

not emasculate the self-pride of men; rather it lures them into

accepting to live harmoniously with them by abandoning their

self-perception as superior partners in the collective struggle


of the race for a better society. She, however, errs in her

judgement that the adoption of this mode of agitation by

women is due to the woman’s “fear of being accused by the

[African] male of allying with the white outsider…” (65). It is

rather because of the historical necessity of the African female

intellectual safeguarding her cultural identity against the

menacing threat from the imperialistic west.

This point comes out very clearly in the writings of such

African-American female writers as Alice Walker, Bell Hooks

and Nancy Moréjon. Bell Hooks’ position is typical:

Racism abounds in the writings of white

feminists, reinforcing white supremacy and
negating the possibility that women will bond
politically across ethnic and racial boundaries.
Past feminist refusal to draw attention to and
attack racial hierarchies suppressed the link
between race and class … Class struggle is
extricably bound to the struggle to end racism
(Qtd by Adeleke 24).

The African female thinker is doubly suppressed by hostile

forces – first, by her male counterparts and second, by the

European neo-colonialists. This manifestation of the

consciousness of the two-tier levels of oppression is necessary

for her survival as an intellectual.


It is logical to expect that many African female

intellectuals should think seriously about developing this

concept of womanism much more rigorously in order to make

it serve as the cornerstone of their scholarship. All the other

forms of African feminism like femalism, positive feminism,

negative feminism and gynism could then be dropped in the

interest of rigorous scholarship in this area of African literary



It is still necessary to examine Catherine Acholonu’s

“motherism” which is ambitiously conceived to serve as the

alternative term to “Feminism”, as the sub-title of the book

suggests. The book is basically rooted in social anthropology

and aims at bringing out a concept that will derive its force

from the core values informing the African way of life.

Acholonu dismisses the terms “patriarchy” and

“matriarchy” which she considers Eurocentric and opts for

patrifocality and matrifocality because, to her, men and women

are complementary opposites in traditional African society,


such that no gender dominates the totality of the social life of

the people. Men are dominant in socio-political spheres of life

while women have the upper hand in spiritual and

metaphysical segments. As economic power is the source of

social influence in society any person wielding it can command

a lot of respect; and this person is not restricted to any gender.

As Acholonu articulates the point,

Patriarchy, the system that places men on top

of the social and political ladder seems to be
an inappropriate term for describing the
organization of the social systems of the
African peoples. This is because several
African societies reflect systems with ranging
degrees of dual-sex hierarchies in which men
and women exist in parallel and
complementary positions and roles within the
society (233).

Acholonu launches attacks on various advocates of

feminism. The European radical feminist is over-

individualistic: “This excessive individualism, among radical

feminists”, she asserts, “has in some cases given rise to an

extremist radical lesbian feminism bordering on masochism”

(85). Buchi Emecheta, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Ama Ata

Aidoo “have misunderstood feminism to be synonymous with


violent confrontation, militancy and aggression”. (92). And

Alice Walker’s brand of womanism is unsatisfactory because

her womanist is first and foremost a lesbian” (89).

All in all, Acholonu perceives a motherist as a model of

human love, peace and fruitful interaction with the

environment. And a motherist author is an embodiment of

values necessary for co-existence between men and women.

The theory is enthusiastically handled by Acholonu but it

is still diffuse and needs some refinements.

Chinweizu and Barnabe Bilongo

Since gynandrism (man’s empathy for the cause of female

power) is also in vogue in female scholarship it is necessary to

mention two male authors who have written book-length

studies on feminism. Chinweizu is well-known for his tirades

against slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. In Anatomy of

Female Power with the sub-title “A Masculinist Dissection of

Matriarchy”, he exercises his power as a poet to deride the

woman’s current struggle to break down the chains of the

oppression crushing her life. He strongly argues that men are


victims of female power which women wield behind the

scenes--through “motherpower”, “bridepower” and “wifepower”.

It is difficult not to see the study as a sexist piece.

On the contrary, Bilongo, a Cameroonian author, is a

true gynandrist who uses his booklet La Femme noire africaine

en situation (The Black African Woman in Action) to decry the

dehumanization of women in sexist societies. He meticulously

tabulates the strategies used by men to oppress women in

patriarchal societies and ends in a sad note:

En Afrique Noire, il faut encore des décennies

pour que d’une part la masse des femmes non-
instruites et rurales soit capable de réaliser ses
droits, et pour que l’homme d’autre part,
même évolué, renonce à frustrer la femme de
ses droits les plus élémentaires (43).

(“In Black Africa, it will still take decades for

the numerous uneducated rural women to be
in a position to get their rights and for men,
even if educated, to stop preventing women
from getting their most elementary rights”).

In general, African female intellectuals welcome comments

from men striking the chord of female emancipation in Africa

and deplore those from others perpetuating the status quo.

They would prefer Bilongo to Chinweizu.


Practical Criticism and Theories of Literature

It is now opportune to make some comments (however

cursory) on the development/use of critical theories in the

area of womanist scholarship in Africa. The observation of

Teresa Brennan in the preface of the book edited by Obioma

Nnaemeka is illuminating. According to her,

Disciplinary specialization might also be held

accountable for a third growing division within
feminism, between theoretical skills on the one
hand, and literary analysis and socio-economic
empirical research on the other.
Poststructuralist or postmodern feminism is
identified with the theoretical avant-garde,
while historical, cultural feminism is
associated with the study of how women are
culturally represented, or what women are
meant to have really done. (xiii).

The points raised in the commentary emphasize the

importance of rigorous scholarship in the area of feminist

scholarship in Africa. The commentary is made in the context

of what obtains in contemporary literary and cultural

scholarship in Europe and touches on the sophistication of

certain forms of theories associated with poststructuralism,

postmodernism and postcolonial aesthetics. Many African

scholars find these theories somewhat outlandish in handling


certain forms of scholarship on feminism, especially in

contemporary Africa riddled with serious economic, political

and cultural problems. They accordingly confine themselves to

conventional sociological modes of literary and cultural

studies. Those living in the Diaspora find it obligatory to

adjust to contemporary modes of scholarship prevalent in

Europe because of the nature of their audience.

This observation comes out clearly in studying the texts

in Obioma Nnaemeka’s The Politics of (M) Othering:

Womanhood, Identity and Resistance in African Literature.

Many of them are grounded in contemporary European

cultural and literacy theories, often incapable of illuminating

the understanding of contemporary social issues in Africa.

The scholars resident in Africa have yet to fully grapple

with the theoretical problems necessary for handling the

womanist scholarship on African culture and literature.

Allusions are made to the catchwords associated with

Derridean poststructuralist approach to studying texts, or

even to Gayatri’s mode of discussing and resolving

postcolonial problems rooted in the concept of the subaltern. A


cursory view of the titles of essays or the formulation of ideas

used in some publications may suffice:

(1) In commenting on an aspect of Women’s Studies,

Chioma Opara asserts:

Deconstruction, thus becomes an essential

critical tool as we anthropologically,
historically, psychologically, linguistically,
philosophically, biologically, attempt the
resolution of gender issues in a meta-
disciplinary mode (1).

The reader does not quite understand how this word

“deconstruction” is used in the text because Opara does not

even use the methodology in her studies.

(2) Theodora A Ezeigbo, a famous novelist, makes the

following commentary while discussing her article

entitled “Myth, History, Culture and Igbo in Flora

Nwapa’s Novels” which is contained in the book edited

by Umeh on Nwapa:

the myth of Uhamiri is deconstructed by

Nwapa and reinvented and used to criticize the
Ugwuta cultural tradition that values the
woman primarily as an individual with
aspirations to attain self-fulfilment and
independence (69).

The term is merely ornamental in the study because Ezeigbo

does not use the methodology of Derrida’s deconstruction in

the analysis.

(3) Mary E. Modupe Kolawole entitles her essay on

Flora Nwapa as follows:

“Space for the Subaltern: Flora Nwapa’s

Representation and the Re-presentation of
Heroinism”. (It is found in the book edited by
Umeh on Nwapa).

It is clear that she is using the concept developed by Gayatry

Spivak in her famous article entitled “Can the Subaltern

Speak?” The term was originally used by the Italian Marxist

scholar, Gramsci, to refer “to those groups in society who are

subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes” (Ashcroft,

Griffiths and Tiffin 215). Spivak adapted it to the study of the

case of an Indian woman marginalized by male oppression.

But Kolawole in no way uses the complex concept in her


In contrast, one can refer to Susan Z. Andraide’s study of

Nwapa’s Efuru and Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood in which

Andraide uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism, a form


of poststructuralism, to reveal the tensions within the texts

and the bridges connecting them within the “discursive

chasms” (95) rooted in the history of the 1929 Igbo Women’s

War derogatorily called “Aba Riots” by the British. The study is

adroitly handled but the reading is turgid, thereby revealing

the limitations of using such a complex and dense theoretical

model to study African texts dealing with the topical issue of

female oppression. The critical methodology dampens the

enthusiasm generated in the reader by the primary texts.

The African female intellectual faces challenges in

developing appropriate theoretical models for studying

womanist texts. She has to build on what Ogundipe-Leslie and

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi have done in their works Re-

creating Ourselves … and African Wo/Man Palava … It is

necessary for the critic attracted to European theories to

remember that Africa, as Niyi Osundare and Maduka have

argued, is still in the grip of intimidating social, economic,

political and intellectual problems that need to be adequately


In conclusion, the competing definitions of feminism,

womanism and motherism in African literary discourse have to

be scrupulously examined by the African female

author/intellectual and appropriate theories developed within

the context of African historical experiences to cope with the

challenges facing the critic. Womanism seems to be the

favoured concept for the studies but it is yet to be succinctly

studied and developed.


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Feminism. Owerri: Afa Publications, 1995.

Acholonu, Rose. Family Love in Nigerian Fiction: Feminist

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Adebayo, Aduke. “Introduction” in Aduke Adebayo, ed.

Feminism and Black Women’s Creative Writing:
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Adeleke, Joseph Ajibola. “Feminism, Black Feminism and the

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