Gabonese Angèle Rawiri (1954-2010) is recognised as not only the first woman novelist from her nation, but the first novelist per se. Her first novel, Elonga, appeared in 1980. Now, newly translated from French into English by Sara Hanaburgh, Rawiri’s best-known work, The Fury and Cries of Women provides a rare entry-point for Anglophone readers into the literature of this Central African country. It originally appeared as Fureurs et cris de femmes in 1989.
The relative lateness of the genre’s uptake in the ex-French colony is explained in Cheryl Toman’s afterword as largely the result of Gabon’s poor pre-independence educational infrastructure. The first secondary school was only established in Gabon in 1958; Gabonese who wanted higher education had to Brazzaville or the Congo; and there remains only one university in Gabon that awards degrees in literature. As Toman rightly points out, a degree in literature is hardly a prerequisite for becoming a novelist, but very few Francophone writers have not at least graduated from high school.
So, The Fury and Cries of Women should be of interest to readers interested in this aspect of African and French colonial/post-colonial history. The novel’s protagonist Emilienne—when we meet her a hollow shell of her former self—was once a beautiful, highly educated and independent woman. She clings to these qualities throughout the novel as far as she can, but The Fury and Cries of Women is, ultimately, the story of Emilienne’s disintegration. After studying in France she falls in love with Joseph, a man from a different ethnic group. Against both of their parents’ wishes, they marry, determined that love is more important than ethnicity. She chastises her mother for her old-fashioned perspectives, believing that Gabon cannot progress when such perspectives are rife.
Things don’t progress as smoothly as the naïve young lovers might have hoped. When we meet Emilienne and Joseph, their relationship is tense and they are almost living separate lives within one household. Emilienne’s inability to fall pregnant a second time and give Joseph the son he desires—claims to need—is supposedly at the root of their troubled relationship. When their ten year-old daughter is murdered in a random and senseless attack, Emilienne’s feelings of inadequacy as a mother and wife only heighten, and Joseph further withdraws from their relationship. We learn that Joseph keeps a parallel family, including sons. Emilienne is distraught and shocked by the news, but as readers, we saw this coming.
Emilienne is determined to fall pregnant with a son, believing that everything will miraculously improve between her and her husband when she does. But miscarriage follows miscarriage, damaging Emilienne’s self-esteem:
“Everything in me is emptying, drying up and falling apart. Soon, I will be the mere remains of my reflection. And to say in spite of it all that I should take care of this barren flesh. For whom and for what must I put up with all these petty annoyances? The man I love no longer even notices my shadow. In such circumstances, how could he even describe the clothes on my back when in the rare moments we’ve actually crossed paths in this house he has turned his back on me?” (26)
Adding to her troubles is her mother-in-law. She torments her daughter-in-law, and although Emilienne is assertive enough to shake off the older woman’s personal attacks, she has a harder time withstanding the sabotage of her marriage, her friendships; even her dog. We see that Joseph recognises, to some degree, that his mother’s interference is malicious, but he cannot—or will not—stand up to her to the degree required.
The plot of The Fury and Cries of Women is quite simple, and the challenges that bombard Emilienne are those that are recognisable in women’s literature from around the world—motherhood, marriage, family relationships and the tensions between tradition (which is, inherently, patriarchal) and modern lifestyles. The novel is not just an account of the events that cause a relationship to fail and a woman’s self-esteem to be destroyed, but the internal battles that occur in the process. Emilienne is indecisive, and much of the novel is comprised of her back-and-forth between resolve and action (or the lack of both).
What makes Rawiri’s novel uniquely interesting is its insight into how a Gabonese woman may encounter and attempt to overcome these challenges. That is not to say that Rawiri or her characters should be taken as representative of all of Gabon; that is too simple a truism levelled at women writers from around the world. However, with so little literature from the country in English, it is only natural that Rawiri’s voice be considered a mouthpiece of sorts. But, readers wanting an easy presentation of Gabon may be disappointed. Rawiri deliberately created a world that could stand in for any Central African nation (the city in which her characters live, Kampana, is made up). As scholar of African Francophone literature Cheryl Toman writes in the afterword, this practice of Rawiri’s has less to do with masking her country and more to do with crossing borders and finding commonalities in the region.
Written in the 1980s, Rawiri’s ‘answers’—for want of a better word, because she provides nothing so straightforward—may be disappointing for contemporary readers, used to a variety of ways of discussing feminism. Despite loving her daughter and apparently standing up for the dignity of daughters, Emilienne will not stop struggling until she has a son. Society is telling her that her life’s purpose will remain unfulfilled until then, and she believes them. Part of this desire is to save her marriage, but when we see glimmers that Emilienne is realising that perhaps such a marriage is not worth saving, they are fleeting. The following extract says a lot about Emilienne; she is aware of her oppression but will ultimately put up with it:
“If one thinks long and hard, woman has always depended on man, willingly or not. Even in their life as a couple, he always had the last word. The only times she held the advantage were when he desired her or was courting her. Then she had the power to make those exhilarating moments last, during which time, in an effort to conquer her heart, he was capable of tearing down the walls, jumping over hurdles, and getting beaten. Those were the times when gifts would accumulate and his attention would intensify… You’ve got to admit that those are the most amazing moments in a woman’s life. He would tell her that she was by far the most beautiful woman, and she would end up believing it. Her caprices were still qualities, legitimate demands, that he hastened to satisfy in order to neither displease nor annoy her. His amorous gaze wooing her was so penetrating and so sadly sincere that she would hasten to abbreviate his moments of suffering, although delicious for her, by the gift of her being. That was when she was the queen in his eyes.” (122)
Certainly, to create a protagonist who breaks free of the shackles and lives an independent life without a husband or son could ring hollow; 1970s’ feminist literary critics who suggested that only books that portray such characters and plots could be called feminist literature certainly read as outdated and un-nuanced today. But Emilienne’s single-minded pursuit of retaining her respectability only reinforces how helpless her life is, how hard it is to be a woman (in Gabon, or elsewhere). Her earlier decision to go against her elders and marry Joseph proves a bad move—in reality, if not in principle—highlighting the wrong-headedness of an independent woman. Further, the reason for the lesbian fling that Emilienne conducts with her secretary—a lack of heterosexual sex—leaves much to be desired. Further, Joseph is one-dimensional; we are unable to understand why he behaves so badly, so he ends up as a caricature. While this enables to reader to see things entirely from Emilienne’s perspective, it is a crude way of generating the reader’s identification with a woman character. The Fury and Cries of Women has not, in many respects, aged well.
The afterword, by Cheryl Toman—scholar of African Francophone literature—is highly informative and a valuable contribution to African literary criticism. It contextualises The Fury and Cries of Women within Rawiri’s oeuvre; it contextualises Rawiri within Gabonese literature—or the dearth of it, as is the case—and Gabon within sub-Saharan cultural and literary traditions. It also raises some issues that are worthy of further discussion in literary and women’s studies. She writes:
Unlike early Western feminism that tended to view motherhood as enslavement for women, based in part on theories brought forth by Simone de Beauvoir […], one finds the opposite in Rawiri’s novel—the empowerment of women through motherhood—and this idea is essential to African feminisms and thus is typically found in African women’s writing (203).
What is ironic, then, is that Emilienne is not empowered by motherhood; she is defined and constrained by it. After all, ‘motherhood’ really just means bearing sons.
Elen Turner is a Western New York-based editor and writer. She has a PhD from the Australian National University, and her thesis looked at the contemporary Indian feminist publishing industry. She is an Assistant Editor with Himal Southasian, Assistant Managing Editor at Kitaab and can be found writing about her travels www.wildernessmetropolis.com.