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Women as you know, have this weakness for mystery which they cultivate with consummate skill. There is always a slight veiling about their words and acts; a pinch of shadow in their laughter so that you must uncover the meaning behind it; an ounce of shadow in their expression so that they can maintain a certain eloquence; a morsel of shadow in their rendezvous so that you can stew there, weaken, and end up at their feet.
Bernard Binlin Dadie In addressing the writing of Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga, there is no need to delineate their blackness nor their womanhood: through their fictions, they themselves speak extensively on, and with unerring insight into such complex matters. Literary criticism should engage the writing itself and the fertile beds of meaning germinating in what Wole Soyinka has called "a different climate of imagination" (27), without losing sight of the sociological, anthropological, and political implications which the texts also embody. To date, criticism on these writers has concentrated on a perceived, and valid, exposition of racial and sexual issues, more or less under the assumption that a writer's task is to criticize and re-order socio-political injustice. Creative writers are indeed deeply moved by the afflictions of the human condition, but their treatment of these matters, nevertheless, involves fictional conceptual frames that infuse texts with an "ounce of shadow" and a perplexing awe of the inexplicable. If, for example, Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood details the social dead-ends constructed against women caught between the two incompatible value systems of rural Africa and urban colonialism, if the novel cries out against the constrictions on Nnu Ego's selfhood, the novel is also a font for the bitter, yet inviolable "preciousness of life" (Christian 246). Theoretical approaches tend to shy clear of imponderable qualities simply through the force of their specific commitment. Paradoxically, loyalty to ideas can turn into a form of censorship, not unlike that to which Per Wastberg refers when he talks of the "energy...devoted to prevent and destroy fragile things like fantasies, thoughts--and their creators," because to accept that humankind is "unforeseeable" and "never [to] be defined" subverts proscribed fields of human endeavor (25). In mining the texts through dream and dreaming, I intentionally emphasize the intangible and the paradoxical as a means of re-visioning these texts in which language, like the multi-tonal grief and celebration of African women ululating, disturbs and challenges the rational stability of knowledge.
The manifold dimensions found in African dream activity are significant when considered alongside Eurocentric perspectives, where dreams are basically aberrant fragments of experience which may elucidate problems previously encountered in waking life. Throughout the ethnic diversity of Africa, dreaming is a gift passed down through a multitude of forbears and the dreaming received is full-blooded experience. Dreams predict and torture or protect; dreaming enters other realities and is the site of ritual psychic healing; dreamselves travel out of bodies, and sorcerers, gods, goddesses, spirits, and the dead physically enter the dreamer's presence; finally, dreaming transgresses chaos and contacts the highest sacred authority. This dream activity is beyond Freud and Jung, as the anthropologist Barbara Tedlock warns:
...we must remember that some cultures are much more interested in and sophisticated about alternative or altered states of consciousness... Western analysis of altered states would seem primitive to peoples who have been living with and actively developing these types of consciousness for centuries. (20)
Thus for African writers, dream activity is a valuable storehouse of experience with which to explore narratives and question the nature of knowing across the breadth and depth of the unending human story. Furthermore, because they write in English, Nwapa, Emecheta, Aidoo, Head, and Dangarembga have, as substance for their creativity, more than just Sissie Killjoy's squint-eyed perspective of an enslaving language in which her "mind always come[s] shackled" (Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy 112). Their European-centered education has interfaced indigenous knowledge with (for our purposes here) notions of dream in European literature from Romanticism and Russian Formalism. The Romantics view the act of dreaming as an inspirational force, while Russian Formalists stress the significance of defamiliarization, wherein the surreal and surprising imagery of dreams highlight unusual aspects of subjects, events, or ideas. In a creative context, access to both cultures potentially gives the writers a multitude of ideas with which to generate fresh intellectual insight.(1) In so arguing, I am conscious of the dangers of inverting the colonizer/colonized debate, which may violate sensitive areas and agendas, and yet the all-too-painful and inexcusable phenomenon of colonization must have regenerative, as well as degenerative, consequences. I believe with Bessie Head that Africans--and other post-colonial peoples--manifest matchless creative powers, because history has bombarded them with not one but at least two ideational worlds, enabling them to command such a spectrum of possibilities that it is impossible to say how many dreaming realms they access.
Head retrieves belief in the oppressed and ordinary people's sactity out of the holocaust of her mind and manifests that belief in her professional life. She extends trust to the people in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, by encouraging the community to tell their own stories, while the latent energy of her oeuvre remains for posterity, adapting readers' concepts to contradiction and unstable reality with, as she would have it, "magical" grace. Committed to the idea that she writes to "shape the future" (A Woman Alone 64), Head projects dreaming onto inhospitable terrains, like apartheid and insanity, to deliberately alter that reality. Here Head re-enacts the ageless faith in the absolute naming power of the word: an object--or subject--is not, until it is spoken. Alternatively, the same phenomenon is discovered, though transformed, in the Hindu concept of maya, which Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty describes as encapsulated in the paradox of the dreamer dreamt. O'Flaherty explains this concept as "the mutual feedback system between finding (dreaming what is already there) and making (dreaming something into …