Rewriting the Letter: Women and Epistolary Forms in Post-Independence African Fiction in English

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Okparanta, Chinenye
Nunes, Zita
ABSTRACT Title of Document: REWRITING THE LETTER: WOMEN AND EPISTOLARY FORMS IN POST-INDEPENDENCE AFRICAN FICTION IN ENGLISH Chinenye I. Okparanta, Doctor of Philosophy, 2013 Directed by: Dr. Zita Nunes, Associate Professor Director, Center for Literary and Comparative Studies This project advances an argument about the significance of epistolarity and other such personal forms of writing in African novels for research in African literary studies and African feminist literary criticism. Although not a widespread form as yet, the epistolary novel is increasingly taken up by writers to represent marginalized figures who are often silenced or unable to tell their stories--most frequently women, the undereducated or underemployed members of society, or those who refuse to live by the mandates of their social world. My project suggests a new frame through which to consider this form in order to contribute to existing work in postcolonial studies on political and social identities, especially in relation to gender and sexuality. I argue that African epistolary novels subvert a range of generic conventions in the process of rendering visible the perspectives of those too-often marginalized by social stigma. The subject of this project is a selection of postcolonial African epistolary novels in English that use letter-writing protagonists to interrogate national, gender, and sexual identity. The critical impulse of this work is the study of the particular techniques used in the chosen works to represent the coming-to-self of the letter-writing characters. In this dissertation, I extend discussion about epistolary forms in African literature in English by exploring the messages they make visible about individual processes of self-making and the place of unconventional identities and intimacies in the post-independence nation. By emphasizing narrative moments that show the letter-writing protagonist coming to consciousness about her or his "unconventional" identity, these epistolary novels highlight the value of reading through the multiple layers of mediation that impact identity. These narratives of intimacy and desire are ultimately about knowing and embracing one's self enough to present that self to another. The African epistolary novel negotiates the tension between what is expected of the individual and what the individual ultimately chooses to do or become; by so doing, it introduces new possibilities for postcolonial identity and simultaneously broadens the critical frame through which African literature in English is read. This project introduces the possibility of an African literary epistolary genre, heretofore largely unexplored in the field of African literary studies, but one which may provide innovative paradigms for critical work in African fiction and African feminist literary studies. Epistolarity or the study of epistolary forms in African fiction need not be limited to epistles or letters but can include related narrative forms, for example, journals, e-mails, or blog entries that similarly disturb the general narrative stream, testifying to personal revolutions by the characters that correspond to formal revolutions by the authors. To underscore the value of these formal revolutions in African literature, Abiola Irele's work has examined the unique way the oral tradition and writing are bridged in African literature. He emphasizes the value of orality, for example, through his analysis of the function of proverbs, chants, and other forms of "speaking" in African literature. The "speaking" passages interrupt the flow of the narrative in the same way letters do, emphasizing moments of self-declaration for the speaking or writing individuals. Attention to these narrative moments, Irele suggests, ensures that African literary criticism embraces a critical perspective informed by the specific nuances of African cultures and history. Evan Mwangi has similarly drawn attention to formal innovations in African literatures, spotlighting the significance of metafiction, whereby East African novels write back to one another as a way of de-emphasizing the West's role in the production of African literature (i.e., African novels writing for and to themselves, rather than for or to a Western readership). Mwangi further suggests that the recurrence of these "writing back" patterns in African literature, specifically East African in his analysis, is a way to encode subversive messages about the restrictive practices of various African nations. Metafiction, Mwangi argues, challenges the `masterfictions' of traditional African societies that violently control individual expression. A similar type of literary challenge is made in the novels I consider in upcoming chapters, which contain letters that disrupt the novel's narrative sequence. I analyze those moments of narrative split that occur through the appearance of letters and consider what they signify for the involved characters. I read those fractures or narrative disruptions as pivotal moments of self-declaration and as signals of the writing characters' process of self-making. Inspired by these and other works that engage with formal experimentation in African literature, my project invites African feminist literary critics and African literary scholars to evaluate epistolary forms that appear in post-independence novels as a way to map changing postcolonial identities. This epistolary framework illuminates messages advanced about enduring restrictions in the postcolonial states against marginalized populations--for example, against women who create intimacy with women, men who create intimacy with men, women who reject "traditional" African female identities, and men who do the same. Indeed, such attention to the forms and functions of African literatures, specifically narratives that emphasize identity, may over time have transformative extra-literary social and political impact.