PORTRAYAL OF GENDERED EXPERIENCES IN SELECTED AFRICAN MIGRANT NARRATIVES
Migration over the years has become a recurrent theme in contemporary African literature. Existing studies on migration have focused mainly on the female gender in discourses of migration and gender. Literatures on gender and migration have evaded critical study of the experiences of both males and females. This study therefore investigated the experiences of both sexes in migration narratives.
A qualitative approach was used in this study. This entailed in-depth analysis of the selected texts from the four regions of Africa: North, South, East and West. To create the desired gender balance, two of the authors are male while two are females. Postcolonialism and Postmodernism theories were employed in the analysis of the texts. Postcolonialism was applied in the analysis of the characters’ interactions with one another while Postmodernism was used in the analysis of the characters as it relates to the new society they find themselves.
This study revealed that the male characters have their masculine ego subdued in the diaspora while female migrants experience freedom to pursue and actualize their dreams despite initial challenges. In The Beautiful Thing that Heaven Bears, Sepha becomes timid and suffers inferiority complex in his relationship with Judith. In Brooklyn Height, Hend resists all sexual advances, sticks to her moral standing and eventually achieves her dreams. Effects of migration include distrust and breakdown of traditional African communal life. In A Squatter’s Tale, Obi distrusts Happiness when he finds out that Happiness lied to him about the fees for the papers. Obi also suffers rejection from Ego who ordinarily would have accommodated him if they were to be in Nigeria. Coping and survival strategies adopted by Africans in diaspora include aping American looks and accent; procurement of fake documents; and contract marriages. In We Need New Names, Fostalina adopts American outlooks and appearances. She changes her meal and exercises in-front of the television to become slim like the American women. Role reversal occurs socially and in gender relationships. In Beautiful Thing that Heaven Bears, Berhane who had a driver driving him back in Ethopia, became a taxi driver in America and Sepha, the very vocal man, lost his manliness to Judith as she played the “man” in their short lived romance.
The study concluded that postcolonial disillusionment affects migrants and their gendered relations. It recommended that migrants should maintain their traditional communal living ethos even in diaspora, they should maintain their identities, work on the decolonisation of their minds.
Keywords: Gender, disillusionment, migrant, politicking and transnational
Word Count: 414
- Background to the Study
Due to the volatility in the political terrain in African states, migration of the citizenry has been on the increase daring all odds just to escape from political violence and victimisation and also seeking for greener pastures. Constantly, African writers have narrated their experiences and memoirs alike. Some of such memoirs are based on personal experiences of the writers while others are either fiction or observations of the writes. In all, migration remains a recurrent theme in the current literary circle and has been broadened with close relation to other fields and areas of interest such as gender, child development and so on.
In the politics and governance of migration, migrants are studied in the new nations of settlement they occupy. However, in according preferences and conditions of service and living, migrants are assessed based on gender. There are therefore militating factors in the life of the immigrant that arise as a result of gender politicking and gender roles. The migrant narrative is arguably one of the best ways to understand these influences. According to Marita Eastmond (2007;248), “Placed in their wider socio-political and cultural contexts, stories can provide insights into how forced migrants seek to make sense of displacement and violence, re-establish identity in ruptured life courses and communities, or bear witness to violence and repression”. The effects of gender politicking further come into play in the making of decisions “in the workplaces of immigrants, in neoliberal or welfare state policies towards migration or foreign-born populations, in diasporas, and even in the capitalist world system” (Donato et al. 2006: 6) as well as other areas involving the migrant.
Migrant narratives usually focus on international migration and the ordeal of the migrant seeking for a better self or a better tomorrow in countries other than theirs. And the narrative perspective is usually the scenario whereby the migrant writer that engages extensively in the literary preoccupation of telling migrant stories is a migrant or have been a migrant at one point in life. Therefore it is safe to say that the migrant writer usually writes from experience, that is, in fictionalising stories he or she may have witnessed while a migrant. So in effect, a study of migrant narratives reflects the reality of the migrant’s new milieu.
An understanding of what it is to be an international migrant is essential. In the apt description by Mary Chamberlain (1998):
International migrants are by definition global people whose horizons and allegiances, education and enterprise, family and friendship are both portable and elastic. What, finally, unsettles about international migration is that it internationalizes the nation-state and globalizes identity. Fluidity, not fixity, characterizes the migrant, contemporary nomads and cultural gypsies.
The effect of international migration internationalizing the nation-state according to Yurick (1995:205) is that “Newly emerging states had to make political choices upon which all aspects of national and economic survival depended and to position their autonomy not merely within a regional perspective, but a global one.” The outcome of this new global order is that “trade emerged not as .a precursor to territorial and imperial expansion, or as an economic lubricant but as a display of ideological finery, to sell and seduce”.
This idea of ‘selling and seducing’ in the type of trade that largely accommodates the migrant is an offshoot of gender politicking in effect. The purpose of this research therefore is to examine portrayal of gendered experiences in African migrant narratives. In view of this, migrant narratives and “oral histories can tease out ways in which gender differences impact on, or are impacted by, transnational lives” (Chamberlain & Leydesdorff 2004:227).
- Statement of the Problem
Several decades back, studies on gender and migration has essentially focused on the female folk. The female migrant has technically been used to imply or connote gender in gender and migration based researches. Researchers in gender and migration field had focused more on female migrants owing to the assumption that women migrate to accompany or reunite with their breadwinners and in other cases migrate to escape the largely patriarchal society or seeing migration as another means of securing greener pasture especially for single mothers.
Nonetheless, gender is the biological reality that there are two sexes. Over time, gender discourses as it relates to migration has focused more on the female gender and subjugated the experiences of the male gender in its discourses. This has led to a dearth of critical work on the real focus of gender migrant experiences as encompassing both sexes. There is therefore a need to fill this vacuum and examine the entire migration process as a gendered phenomenon by studying in detail migrant narratives and the militating effects of gender politicking and gender roles in the lives of all the migrant characters they present. This study unlike previous researches focuses on both the male and female gender without downplay on the male counterpart.
- Objective of the Study
The main objective of this study is to highlight the portrayals of gender experiences in selected migrant narratives. The specific objectives are to:
- identify peculiar experiences of male and female migrant characters as portrayed in the texts;
- investigate the effects of gender politicking in the experiences of identified migrant characters in the text;
- examine the coping and survival strategies adopted by identified migrant characters and the roles gender play in this and
- identify cases of gender role reversals in the selected texts
- Research Questions
The following questions shall guide this research:
- What are the peculiar experiences of male and female migrant characters portrayed in the texts?
- What are the effects of gender politicking on the experiences of identified migrant characters in the text?
- What are the coping and survival strategies adopted by identified migrants in selected texts and what roles do gender play in this?
- What are the identifiable cases of gender role reversals in the selected texts?
- Scope of the Study
This study evaluates solely African migrant experiences. The works analysed are written by African writers who are either presently domiciled in diaspora or at one point of their lives migrated out of their country. The texts have been carefully selected to cover the four major regions in Africa; West, East, North, and Southern parts.
To demonstrate how well a new generation of African migrant narratives can help to ascertain the effects of gender politicking and gender roles in the diasporic life of the African migrant, four migrant narratives were selected for this purpose. They are: Ike Oguine’s The Sqatter’s Tale (2000), Bulawayo NoViolet’s We Need New Names (2013), Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears (2007), Miral Al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights (2010). The four titles were written in the 21st century,
To ensure the desired gender balance, two of the narratives were authored by male writers (i.e. Ike Oguine and Dinaw Mengestu) while the other two are female writers (i.e Miral Al-Tahawy and Bulawayo Noviolet). This selection was purposive to ensure that neither of the genders is downplayed in this research work.
- Significance of the Study
Pessar (2006: 55) asserts that human migration is a gendered phenomenon. To understand the ordeal of the migrant, it is imperative to begin from the foundation by understanding the type of treatment and situation meted out to the migrant on the basis of gender. As indicated by Elaine Bauer and Paul Thompson (2004:334), “Migration and gender are two areas in which oral history and life story evidence has been recognised as having a special potential”. Since migrant narratives reflect the day-to-day experiences of the migrant as written from experience, this study therefore helps in elucidating certain themes that can be found in narratives about gender. In addition to this, it makes a strong case for the premise that gender truly matters in migration studies. “Gender matters. [Therefore,] To incorporate gender in migration research is not to “privilege” it but to accord it the explanatory power it merits” (Mahler and Pessar 2006:52). And since gender in migration has been downplayed in situations where only the female migrant is analysed, this study add to the body of literatures where both the male and female migrant is analysed on equal basis.
This study is text-based inclined with a textual analysis of the primary texts. Secondary texts of renowned scholars shall however be used to corroborate or support some of the views made inside the research. These materials were sourced from journals as well as online and print materials.
The study is also qualitative. It comparatively studies the characters presented in the texts focusing on their roles and whether or not migration has subdued the roles they play in their home countries. The study will also use postmodernism and post-colonialism to analyse the life of migrants as it relates to the intrinsic politicking gender differences brings out in the diaspora. Postmodernism will be used to highlight the changes in gender roles in the diaspora while post-colonialism will be used to comparatively analyse the effects of gender politicking on migrants who are now in an environment where their cultural values of a largely patriarchal society is subdued.
- Justification for the Choice of Texts Used
Of the three genre of literature, narratives captures best in details the experiences of migrants hence the choice of narratives for this research. The primary texts for this research include:Ike Oguine’s Squatter’s Tale (2000), Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears (2007), Miral Al-Tahawy’s Brookyln Heights (2010), Bulawayo NoViolet’s We Need New Names (2013)
The four texts were selected from the four regions in Africa and were all written in the 21st Century this is because migration has remained a central theme to literatures of the 21st century. Furthermore, Ike Oguine and Dinaw Mengestu are male authors while Miral Al-Tahawy and Bulawayo NoViolet are female authors thereby creating the needed gender balance. All the texts examines the life of the characters as immigrants vis-à-vis their life in their home country. Two of the central characters are males (Oguine’s Squatter’s Tale and Mengestu’s The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears) while the remaining two are females (NoViolet’s We Need New Names and Al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Height)
- Theoretical Framework
Literary theories are used as underlying principles to understanding Literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts. For the purpose of this research, Post-colonialism and Post-modernism forms the theoretical framework for this research.
For a study focused on gendered experiences, gender based theories such as feminism and masculinity would have been favoured for this work but this research chooses to study the gendered experiences using Post-colonialism and Post-modernism. The choice of these theories is to allow the researcher study the selected characters in the space of their societies. The use of gender based theories will ultimately downplay either of the genders and will erode the placement of the characters within the space of the society. Consequently, this research adopts the selected theories which are further explained below.
According to Ramona Hosu and Petru Maior (2013:554), postmodern art “entails an individual (author/writer, reader/spectator, protagonist(s) as participants in the act of communication) that plays an active role in the act of fictionalization of reality and the self, possible only through narrativity and (visual) representation”. Looking into Linda Hutcheon’s explanation, “Postmodern theories sustain that human ‘reality’ is a construction, that there is no stable and coherent self and that history and the novel do not offer a totalizing subjectivity but rather construct it around différance” (Hosu and Maior 2013:544). Primarily, it is in line with the difference that exists in human reality that this research is geared.
Jean Baudrillard, a well – known postmodernist theorist, believes that “reality” cannot be known or accessed in an immediate fashion through the senses or through the intellect. Instead, we know it through its representations, especially through its media representation.” (Bhat 2010:4) By using the term “simulacrum,” Baudrillard describes the various artificial environments that mediate our perception of the world. (Bhat 2010:4) It is worthy to note that this includes the novel.
For the critic Ihab Hassan,
Postmodernism is one of the three modes of artistic change in the last hundred years – avant-garde, modern, and postmodernism. While modernism has been “hieratic, hyptactical and formalist,” postmodernism is “playful, paratactical and deconstructionist” (The Postmodern Turn: Essay in Postmodern Theory and Culture, 86). Hassan identifies indeterminacy (with its traits like irony, rupture and silence) and immanence as two major tendencies in postmodernism. As Christopher Norris remarks, most of the critics of postmodernism … have opted for the “open-ended free play of style and speculative thought, untrammelled by ‘rules’ of any kind” (Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, 91). (Bhat 2010:2)
This open-ended free play of style identified by Norris is what in postmodernism is known as pastiche or eclectic juxtaposition.
According to Sushil Dhuldhar (2012:9), the main features of postmodernism include:
fragmentation ,decentred, indeterminacy, the break with tradition, new in subject matter, free verse, self-consciousness, discontinuous composition, ambiguity, destructured, dehumanized subject, incoherence, relativism, no grand narrative, antiform, anti-narrative and irony.
Although migration is said to be a human phenomenon, it is still a break with tradition and therefore postmodern. This is because people who seem to have settled in a country and maintained a culture over time suddenly decide to abandon their roots and culture to travel across borders and maintain a new environment and nationality strange from their roots. In the explanation by Steven Connor (2004:63), “Where modernist literature worked on time, literary postmodernism would work in time. If modernism means the assumption that literature approaches to the condition of poetry, postmodernism means the tendency to assume that literature is intrinsically narrative”.
Postcolonialism comes from the word and idea of the postcolonial. According to Lawrence Phillips (2003:299), “The term postcolonial designates the states of peoples and regions formally colonized principally by western imperial nations, and the study of the material and cultural implications of that history and its aftermath”. Looking at migrant narratives focusing on the stories of African immigrants, one examines the states of peoples and regions formally colonised principally by western imperial nations. In diaspora, the African also faces cultural and material implications. According to Raman Selden et al. (2005:219), “From a postcolonial perspective, Western values and traditions of thought and literature, including versions of postmodernism, are guilty of a repressive ethnocentrism”. By this the culture of the migrating African internationalized in Western countries is ignored, ridiculed and criticized as inferior. “Models of Western thought (derived, for example, from Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) or of literature (Homer, Dante, Flaubert, T. S. Eliot) have dominated world culture, marginalizing or excluding non-Western traditions and forms of cultural life and expression” [Selden et al. (2005:218-219)]. This is the fate of the African in Western quarters. It is a situation that is also seen to affect some African writers writing from the West.
However, it is worthy to note that there are African writers that still maintain their traditional and cultural forms of expression despite writing, living in the West, or commenting on African situations from the diaspora. As pointed out by Lawrence Phillips (2003:229) in this regard, most practitioners of postcolonialism and their critics would agree that “postcolonial studies is founded on the aim of giving prominence to voices and subjectivities previously marginalized or silenced by western colonialism, which embodies a fundamental critique of western presumptions of cultural and racial prominence”.