How Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood Resists Feminist and Nationalist Readings


The Joys of Motherhood is a novel that gives the impression that it might well appeal to western feminists. With motherhood as its theme, and the irony of its title, it appears to be part of the significant body of feminist literature concerned with women's experience of motherhood in patriarchal cultures. John Updike, in his review for The New Yorker, calls it "a graceful, touching, ironically titled tale that bears a plain feminist message". However, the messages contained in Buchi Emecheta's tale are neither plain nor traditionally feminist.

In fact, the morals of Nnu Ego's story are disclosed in a literary style that is only fleetingly satisfactory, or even familiar, to the western feminist reader. Despite its subject matter, the novel rejects the feminist codes normally associated with motherhood. Instead of utilizing the celebratory or critical gestures towards motherhood that we normally associate with feminist discourse, The Joys of Motherhood draws us into unfamiliar territory where the relationship of motherhood to female subjectivity becomes everything or nothing.

    To begin, I would like to summarise what we might mean by western feminist interpretations of the woman-authored African text. Female-authored Third World literature became popular with feminist publishers and readers in the First World for a number of reasons. As a postcolonial and literary rendering of English, it represented at once an engagement with, and alienation from, a language that Euro-American feminists have identified as oppressive and man-made, responding, therefore with frustration about the restrictions placed upon women writers historically, especially in Europe. Secondly, it rejected or disrupted male European forms of writing previously assumed to be normative.

    These critical approaches to the Third World text, while potentially rewarding and enlightening, are nevertheless problematic. Donna Haraway, US academic and cultural critic, places The Joys of Motherhood on her reading list to demonstrate to Women's Studies students the pleasures and dangers of misreading writing by Black women. Haraway proposes that the recognised correlation between postcolonial, literary, and gender theories have restructured the various meanings that lie beyond the category of  "women's experience", a category which she argues, "does not pre-exist as a kind of prior resource, ready simply to be appropriated ... 'Experience', like 'consciousness', is an intentional construction, an artefact of the first importance"(http://humwww. /CultStudies/PUBS/Inscriptions/vo.../Donnaharaway.htm). Owing to the pervasiveness of this construction, readings by white women about "Black women's experience" are inevitably influenced by western feminist discourse on "women's experience". As Haraway argues, these literary and sociological constructs are permeated with their own conflicting agendas.

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