Developing an African Women’s Canon in French

In recent decades, women of the post-Négritude African poetic tradition have redefined the image of the woman in francophone poetry. Specifically, they have had to grapple with a tradition that casts them as the passive and voiceless objects of literature rather than the makers of it. Though this was already being done in the novels of Mariama Bâ, Aminata Sow Fall, and Calixthe Beyala, as well as in the films of Ousmane Sembène and Med Hondo, poetry until recently has continued to be characterized by the myth of “Mother Africa,” in which the woman is a symbol associated with a homeland or place of respite. The foundation for this comes from the poetry of Négritude, a movement whose archetypal poem is Léopold Sédar Senghor’s “Femme noire” (“Black Woman”):

Nude woman, black woman,
Clothed in your color which is life, in your form which is beauty!
I have grown in your shadow while the sweetness of your hands cradled my eyes.
And high on the fiery pass, I find you, Earth’s promise, in the heart of summer and the noon,
And your beauty blasts me full-heart like the flash of an eagle in the sun.
Nude mother, black mother,
Ripe fruit of firm flesh, deep rapture of dark wine, lips whose song is my song,
Savanna of pure horizons, savanna trembling at the East Wind’s eager kisses,
Carved tom-tom, tight tom-tom, groaning under the hands of the conqueror,
Your heavy contralto is the spirit-song of the loved.
Nude mother, black mother,
Oil of no ripple or flow, calm oil on the flanks of the athlete, on the flanks of the princes of Mali,
Gazelle of heavenly binding, pearls are stars on the night of your skin;
Delights of the playful mind, the red sun’s glint on your glistening skin
Under the shadow of your hair—my cares are brightened by the neighbouring sun of your eyes.
Nude woman, black woman,
I sing your passing beauty, your form I fix in the Ageless Night
Before old jealous Destiny brings you down in the fire and gathers your ashes for the suckling life.

Though the original consistently uses femme, or woman, in the refrain, the translation slides easily between “woman” and “mother,” intimating that one implies the other. Senghor goes beyond merely describing the female form to essentializing it: “your color which is life,” “your form which is beauty.” Also intertwined with the image of the woman’s body is imagery of the landscape—“Savanna of pure horizons,” “the neighbouring sun of your eyes”—scaling her to unreal proportions. But beyond her physical appearance and her connection to the speaker’s African homeland, who is this woman? Clearly, her individuality is beside the point. Rather, she serves as a symbol for the liberation of the African man from “the hands of the conqueror,” allowing him to grow “in [her] shadow.”

As in the phrases “mother land” and “mother tongue,” the feminization of a country leads to the simplification of both the feminine and the national. In the words of the Irish poet Eavan Boland, “Once the idea of a nation influences the perception of a woman, then that woman is suddenly and inevitably simplified. She can no longer have complex feelings and aspirations. She becomes the passive projection of a national idea.” The same is true of the association between the feminine and language. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s oft-cited comment that Arabic is his wife while French is his mistress is a good example: it tells us nothing real about the nature of either Arabic or French and constructs crude categories of women based solely on their relationships with men. Similarly, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko did not shed much light on the realities of translation or of womanhood when he famously said that “Translation is like a woman. . . . If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” Yet this line is quoted ad nauseum.

The problem with all this, in the words of the critic Irêne Assiba D’Almeida, is that when “Africa is compared to a nurturing mother and the African mother is given the proportion of the whole continent,” the nuances of actual African women’s lives and experiences are lost. The Mother Africa model “magnifies her, but only as an idea, a concept, for it is far removed from the reality of women’s daily existence.” Négritude is hardly the only literary tradition characterized by a confusion of woman and country. Boland laments that in Irish nationalistic poetry, which also arose from a painful colonial past, women are invoked as “fictive queens and national sibyls,” as “elements of style rather than aspects of truth.” She asks: “If the passive images of Ireland—the queen, the silver stamp—were so present in songs and remembrances, what had happened to the others? To the women who had survived. And those who had not.” And more recently, during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, much of the nationalistic verse recited in Tahrir Square depicts the country as “a youthful matriarch whose smile summons daybreak after long, dark nights,” or, in the words of the poet Ahmad Fuad Nigm, as “Egypt, O Mother, Bahiyya, in your scarf and jalabiya.” A popular chant, “Masr ya umm, wiladik ahum” (“Egypt, O Mother, here are your sons”), “became the beginning of a longer poem that went on to describe how the ‘sons’ are the ones who truly care and prove their loyalty with their own blood.” But while romanticizing the mythic Mother Egypt and evoking nationalistic pride, the language used in these chants ignores the contributions of the “daughters”—the women of Tahrir Square, who equally called their people to action at the price of their flesh and blood. By replacing them with a hazy figure symbolizing the mother country, such verse discounts the actions and sacrifices of actual women.

The portrayal of women as passive images in literature, then, is not unique to African countries or countries where French is the main written language. African women writers do, however, face particular challenges including limited access to education and written language and, in many countries, a strict code of conduct. Though women enjoyed prominent (albeit restricted) roles in producing and performing the oral canon of the past, the playing field changed when Western education was introduced and the knowledge of European languages became mandatory, as the critic Obioma Nnaemeka explains:

As the transition was made from oral to written literature, new imperatives for mastery emerged. The factors that legitimated centrality shifted from those based upon age and sex to those based upon knowledge of the colonizers’ languages—English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. The sexual politics and Victorian ideals of colonial education created a hierarchy privileging men by virtually erasing any meaningful female presence.

 Because women were expected to become mothers and wives at an early age, they were barred from the training that would have opened doors to the literary world.

Bearing these challenges in mind, then, how were women finally able to be taken seriously as poets? In places such as the Ivory Coast, saddled with proverbs such as the one claiming that “a woman’s rebellion is like a glass of hot water—you only have to let it cool off,” how did a culture of women’s poetry emerge? An impetus for this movement, as the critic Odile Cazenave suggests in Rebellious Women: The New Generation of Female African Novelists, was that women were calling for an alternative to the earlier body of literature in which they appear as quiet onlookers or as vehicles for perpetuating the “Mother Africa” myth. Cazenave evokes a previous phase of African writing in the 1980s, when “The woman writer had to reestablish a true image of the African woman as seen from the inside, not through the eyes of African or European men.” She continues: “Then, in not even a decade, Francophone women authors saw their ranks increased by young authors whose writing was willful, combative, and full of a new energy that was typical of their generation.”

For example, the Cameroonian poet Werewere Liking uses the pervasive pressure to bear children as a thematic element rather than an obstacle, drawing a reconciling link between motherhood and artistic creation, in her verse-novel Elle sera de jaspe et de corail: “from the depths of my fertility gush forth / All the creative imaginations that renew the world.” Liking also juxtaposes the female realm of motherhood and domesticity with the male realm of battle:

What smiles would be more tender
Than the smiles of Lem and Lia
Crouching heads together
End point of an arch of triumph on my face
The mornings when they say: “Good morning mama!”

By comparing her own smile to an “arch of triumph,” a monument commemorating war victory, Liking connects her triumph as a woman—that of raising children—with the masculine success of winning in battle. At the same time, in invoking these two images she draws attention to the distinction between one and the other. Who needs an arch of triumph when the smile on a mother’s face is proof of a victory that is just as viable? A smile in fact is an arch turned upside-down, an alternative to the culture of war.

One way that women poets effectively gained traction was by declaring their presence as writers and speaking outwardly about their craft. Liking remarked in an interview with the internationally known magazine Jeune Afrique:

I do not have a conventional writing style. It is difficult for my writing to find acceptance because it is a work of art that works on itself. . . . Up to now, African writers were more preoccupied with content than they were with form, whereas literature is art—one of the great arts. A text must attain a certain sensitivity of feeling, more important than merely quenching a thirst for anecdotes.

When such commentary gains attention and is made widely available to the public, readers note that these words could only have been spoken by a serious literary writer, whether male or female, Western-educated or otherwise. In constructing a new body of poetry that eschews idealization for representations of their own lives, African women writers “have opened a space for discussion that figures prominently in the cultural debate in Francophone Africa.”

Women’s entry into the poetic canon was also aided by a cultural moment characterized by a renewed interest in precolonial African traditions—an African renaissance. In the oral tradition, though power structures determined which literary genres women could take part in, there were genres open to and even reserved for them. Nnaemeka points out that “In African oral tradition, women were very visible not only as performers but as producers of knowledge, especially in view of oral literature’s didactic relevance, moral(izing) imperatives and pedagogical foundations.” She continues:

At work and at home, women weave personal experiences into solitary songs that often constitute personal statements. Women also use political songs, lampoons, and abusive songs as forms of social control. These songs, which often ridicule deviant and socially unacceptable behaviors, are usually directed against personal and collective enemies.

As the history of oral tradition shows, women did, in precolonial times, have some influence in the political, social, and artistic spheres. In an article entitled “Le temps des héroïnes africaines. Entre mythes et histoire” (“The Era of African Heroines: between Myth and History”), critic Claudia Martinek discusses the recent proliferation of books with heroines from pre-colonial African history as protagonists. She cites several prominent literary works published in France in 2004—among them Reines d’Afrique et heroines de la diaspora noire, by Sylvia Serbin; Femmes de l’ombre & Grandes Royales dans la mémoire du continent africain, by Jacqueline Sorel and Simone Pierron Gomis; and Reine Pokou. Concerto pour un sacrifice, by Véronique Tadjo—, that shed light on the lives and times of these women and “seek to create an entrance into history for African women who influenced the fate of their people.”

Thus the questions women face both as writers and as members of African society became an integral part of the ongoing discussion about African literature today.

These works also refute the mistaken notion that women in the Western world have a monopoly on feminism. Says D’Almeida: “By cautioning African women against falling prey to feminism, which is perceived as a Western invention, African male critics forget that historically, feminist activism has always been a part of African women’s experience.” It is worth noting, however, that there are some similarities between French feminist philosophy and the feminism found in the works of francophone African women. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, insists that women should not have to live up to an idea of what is essentially feminine (i.e. the Mother Africa motif, or the idea of woman as homeland or place of respite) that has no basis in reality and does not accurately reflect the lived experience of actual women:

[A]s against the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existences of actual women, mythical thought opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and changeless. If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine. The contrary facts of experience are impotent against the myth.

Beauvoir argues that a person is no more and no less than the sum total of his or her actions, and that therefore we can only characterize an individual woman based on what she does. Without knowing this, we cannot say that she is life, is beauty, is Earth’s Promise, as Senghor does in “Femme noire.”

The feminist Hélène Cixous also contends, in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” that the myth of the feminine is unrecognizable to actual women. Only by writing can she recover herself from the images of her set forth by male writers: “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display.” Moreover, this writing must be different from that of her predecessors, which has done great injustice to the female body. Exuberantly, if prescriptively, she calls on women to form a distinctly female way of writing: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” She exhorts would-be women writers to reclaim their lives, their bodies, and their experience. In fact, African women writing in French in the 1980s and ’90s used these kinds of justifications for their own work as they presented it to a reading public with almost no precedent, at least not in the realm of poetry.

As poetry by and about women became more accepted in literary culture, young women began to see writing as a means of self-representation and self-expression. In an article enthusiastically titled “Et les Africaines prirent la plume ! Histoire d’une conquête” (“And the African Women Take the Pen! History of a Conquest”), the Ivoirian poet and critic Angèle Bassolé-Ouédraogo asserts that “By putting pen to paper, African women transgress an unspoken societal rule. Through writing, they sign their first act of rebellion against these societies that have always made them into simple spectators. They usurp forbidden language in order to tell their own story rather than letting others tell it for them.” The “forbidden language” Ouédraogo refers to includes language of the body and sexuality, previously the exclusive domain of men.

Broaching the taboo subject of the body and sexuality is something of a Catch-22 for many African women poets. On the one hand, it is important that this topic no longer be off-limits and that women have the freedom to write about all aspects of their lives. By denouncing the view of the female body as an object to be conquered or consumed, says Cazenave, a more truthful representation of female sexuality has made its way into the center of the literary discussion:

[B]y exploring the body as an erotic zone, a zone of pleasure, but also as a zone of suffering and a privileged site for self-knowledge, women writers have broken the silence to create a new space. This space is no longer in the margins but has become central to African literature. From this space, women writers are from now on in a position to explore sociopolitical questions and to enter an area that has been regarded until recently as man’s privileged domain.

On the other hand, when women write about matters concerning the body, they run the risk of perpetuating the binary system that aligns woman and body and places them in opposition to man and soul. Claudia Martinek points out that in literature written by both European and African men, African women “frequently appear as the bearers of a heightened sexuality, more ‘natural’ than that of European women. Symbols of fecundity and fertility, they are seen as linked to the ‘Mother Africa’ trope, promulgated by many male African authors since the Négritude movement.”

Many women writers have found that the best way to push the boundaries of what they can and cannot say while also challenging stereotypes is to write the truth of their own experience and that of other women. In societies with numerous restrictions, writing has proved an effective way to express what cannot be said out loud. D’Almeida highlights the merits of taking a transgressive approach:

Writing has allowed women to speak the unspeakable, to utter words, ideas, concepts that are forbidden to them within the conventions laid out by patriarchal society. Sex, desire, passion and love are topics that women are expected to pass over in silence. By transgressing these taboos through the medium of literature, writers such as Calixthe Beyala, Ken Bugul, Werewere Liking, and Véronique Tadjo break the unwritten conventions while still accepting, as positive value, the topology that regards women as emotionally sensitive; thus they reclaim the right to express their feelings.


Speaking the unspeakable leads to new insights about oneself as well as the other person in a relationship. After all, writing is not merely a matter of putting what is already known onto paper; rather, it is a process of exploration and discovery in itself. The African writer today, says Cazenave, “wants to abolish the interdictions that have been imposed on her and to explore her self (son être-soi) and her being (son être-là) in society. . . . This ambition leads to the exploration of areas considered off limits, such as questions concerning representations of the body, sexuality, desire, and passion, but also to the minute observation of the other in intimate relations.”

Tanella Boni, who is from Côte d’Ivoire, is one poet who exemplifies this approach to writing as a woman. In the first section of her book-length poem Chaque jour l’espérance, she writes that “a woman’s fate/the most silent mortality/sticks to her skin,” illustrating the connection between a woman’s destiny and the body she is born into and that, consequentially, her fate is visible from the outside. She also suggests that being inside a body is constricting, comparing the skin to a prison: “free the suffering/the patience of skin/prison space where emotion/is dying.” A woman’s emotion, and not her body, is her essence and is trapped inside the skin where it cannot be seen or understood.

Instead of lamenting the condition of having a female body, however, the poem expresses hope, as the title makes evident. Boni’s speaker turns to poetry as a way to break out of the prison:

but emotion greets the open air
in all winds
from the summits
to the kingdom of wild grass
emotion drifts over the sea
waves and boats of poems

The way to draw the emotional core of the person outside the prison cell of the body is through poetry. The short lines and abstract language in Chaque jour l’espérance create a sensation of freedom: there is room to breathe between lines, and the poem’s structure is free of grammatical rules, with no punctuation and very few full sentences. Similarly, the absence of concrete imagery leaves the reader with space to interpret the abstract ideas of emotion and openness, using the imagination to add new meaning to the poem. At the same time, what the poem lacks in specificity it makes up for in aural continuity. The sound repetition (“vent/vogue/vague” and “émotion/sommets/mer/poèmes” in the original) reassures the reader that freedom does not have to coincide with a complete lack of structure or the worry of being lost in space. This is thus a poem of the body as well as of the soul: the sounds provide a skeleton that allows the poem to move unrestrictedly. Body and soul are not opposed but work in tandem.

Boni uses this guiding principle in her treatment of aging. As a person grows older, the imprint of memories and experiences can be seen on the aging body:

I invoke the spirit of words
every morning when my memory
tells the earth the story
of the betrayal of Time who treads
on the soil of my skin
rhizome roots
on the changing landscape
that recounts its grains of sand

The body is likened to a landscape, where seeds are planted, memories take root, and the terrain is constantly changing. The speaker is not frozen in her youth but progresses through her natural course of life, as living and breathing women do. Her attitude toward change is optimistic as compared with the one expressed in Senghor’s “Femme noire,” in which time is a threat that will ruin the woman’s body: “I sing your passing beauty, your form I fix in the Ageless Night/Before old jealous Destiny brings you down in the fire and gathers your ashes for the suckling life.” Senghor’s speaker praises the woman’s beauty in order to keep it fixed on the page, to be recaptured after her youth has passed. Once she is no longer young, she is not considered an appropriate subject for poetry. By contrast, while Boni refers to the passage of time as a “betrayal,” she ultimately accepts it and allows the poem to portray a woman’s life completely, rather than as a static snapshot from which age is censored.

Boni also relates the physical and sexual realm to the realm of language. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, in his preface to Chaque jour l’espérance, draws attention to the parallel between the meeting of bodies and the meeting of words, both of which form a cohesive whole more meaningful than their separate parts:

And it’s very much a question of skin also. “I search,” she says, “for the word that tells the tale of my skin,” and notice also that the skin is “papyrus” that must be read and understood like the lines on one’s hand. This is because it’s necessary to understand one essential thing about love, Tanella tells us, which is that only words meet other words. And thus, in accordance with the lexicon that teaches us her poetry, we can conclude that, in the meeting of words that we are, one skin can finally touch another. So that these separate skins that are our depth can welcome one another in words linked in language and hollow out in music and xylophone furrows, until our silences are finally abolished and, Tanella writes magnificently, distance has nothing more to say.

For Boni, language is a way to respond to romantic experiences and make them come alive. In the lines: “I cross the starry silence/that uncoils its loincloth/on the map of my skin,” the silence is not an absence but a presence, playing an active role in the language of the couple’s intimacy. The metaphor comparing the skin to a map suggests that the body can be read, studied, memorized and learned from, and yet it is not the real destination but only a gateway, the means to an end which is the true understanding of the other person. In using wordplay to illustrate the nature of the relationship, Boni shows that love and language are interlinked: “I will go scatter language/in the sky/like sparks in the dead of night.” Language thus gives meaning to these nights of pleasure, which would otherwise be hollow. Furthermore, when language is portrayed as something that can be scattered in the sky, it takes on tangible and visible properties that might not be initially apparent. The poem continues:

I love words like sand beaches
cyclone words
tempests and tornadoes
that engrave their naked tempers
on the surprise of my skin

Boni juxtaposes “love” and “words” and blurs the distinction between the two concepts. Skin can be a surprise, and words can be naked, even though nakedness is more often associated with bodies and surprise with human emotion.

Women poets have also begun to reverse the positions of man as gazer and woman as object. Cazenave points to Elle sera de jaspe et de corail as an example of “a woman’s discourse on man”: “The ‘misovire’ assumes the function of observing men in order to guide them and give them strength and dignity—‘these men who come and go with their tail between their legs, accepting themselves as inferior, with nothing beautiful or powerful to teach or to offer.’” The misovire’s discourse on men, however, differs from the male speaker’s discourse on women in much of Négritude poetry in that she acknowledges the individuality of these men. Her purpose is not to find in them a means to writing about a larger concept, but to intensely study who they are and help them to become better human beings.

Véronique Tadjo, a poet born in Paris and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, likewise reverses gender norms in that the male addressee is muse to the female speaker:

YOU ARE MY MUSE
WHO GOES AWAY
MY MUSE WHO COMES BACK
MY DOUBLE-EDGED MUSE
THE FRUITS OF MY FLIGHTED SOUL
MY BELLY ROUND WITH FERTILITY
MY MUSE WHO’S AMUSED
PLAYING TRICKS ON ME

The speaker uses a playful tone, showing the pleasure she takes in her full knowledge of this person and his of her. She is attuned to his comings and goings and uses unexpected adjectives in her description of him—“double-edged” and “amused”—rather than relying on words that describe a more generic lover.

Significantly, she associates the man with her “belly round with fertility” and his role in her pregnancy, taking the link often drawn between womanhood and motherhood one step further: his fatherhood is as defining a role for him as her motherhood is for her. Through the portrayals of men in their poetry, Liking and Tadjo show that a non-essentializing, non-reductive discourse on the other gender is possible.

Liking poses an alternative to the dominant narrative of gender relations, prefacing each of her visions for the future with “when” to show certainty that change will happen: “When man no longer plays the pig/When woman is no longer a bitch in heat/When I am no longer a womanist and there are no more misogynists/When all that’s left are Beings in search of a better future and a higher Being.” She emphasizes how men and women are reduced to animals when expected to behave according to stereotypes; man is not really a pig but “plays” the pig because of external pressures to exert sexual domination over a woman. Liking then personalizes the effects of gender-based stereotypes by shifting the subject to “I.” Behind the general social concepts of “man” and “woman,” she reminds us, are individuals.

Towards the end of Chaque jour l’espérance, Boni writes: “the moon translates our dreams into words/so the poet can listen through the veil of her skin.” By using the moon, an image associated with the feminine, as a vehicle for transforming thought into language, the poet in the text shows that she interprets thought from a female perspective and that her writing will express this, while her shift from first-person plural to third-person singular emphasizes the commonality of women’s writing.

The Ivoirian poet Angèle Bassolé-Ouédraogo, in her debut poetry collection Burkina Blues, articulates a goal that is arguably common to all poetry: “Surrender is not found in your dictionary/I need to reinvent those letters and rewrite this non-history / To merge with your memory through half-opened doors.” Rather than surrendering to personal frustrations and social obstacles that threaten to keep them from writing, poets rework and rearrange language to create something entirely new. Bassolé-Ouédraogo’s words reverberate particularly within the subcategory of African women writing in French. The literary history of this group is somewhat of a “non-history,” only a few decades old. And yet the tradition needed to be rewritten even before it began, as it sought to defy representations of African women in a poetic canon that had been built up over centuries. The speaker-poet hopes her work will merge into the collective memory and ultimately be remembered, knowing that not all readers will be open-minded to her poetry—the door to the collective consciousness is only “half-opened.” Yet like most writers, she strives to be part of a broader humanistic conversation, one that transcends gender, race and ethnicity. In the words of the poet Orthense Tiendrébéogo of Burkina Faso: “I would like to be a griot, / To be involved/Only in what fashions a human being.”

Originally published in Issue 28 THE QUARTERLY CONVERSATION