FRANKFURT BOOK FAIR 2018
FEMINIST PRESS REVERSING THE GENDER BIAS

FRANKFURT BOOK FAIR

LETTRES D'AFRIQUE 2018

 FEMINIST PRESS REVERSING THE GENDER BIAS



On Saturday 13th October 2018, I hosted Antoinette Tidjani Alou,  Niger based author of Tina Shot Me Between The Eyes & Other Stories in an interview within the intimacy of Lettres d'Afrique at FBF2018. It is an uncommonly good collection published by the forward looking Amalion Publishing. Presented in a volume that is deceptively slim for its weight in terms of ideas, the collection brims with the lives of a colorful range of characters including a Hausa woman, a scholar, a self-described 'classifactory aristocrat' who must journey from the North of Nigeria all the way to Central Florida in the USA to find herself. She does find  herself and after 29 years of repression in Hausaland, loose herself. Free at last to kick up so much dust on the dance floor, a male observer asks the ironic/comical question, 'So who's praying for this bitch?'. This is how Tidjani Alou opens The Dance, Terry's story.

But I am a Yoruba woman from the South West of Nigeria and resident in fairly modern Lagos. And I can testify to never having directly experienced gender marginalisation, at least overtly. On the contrary, I conspicuously identify with Yoruba women at home and across the globe who are recognised for the way we can safely self-realise and for the consequent economic - and increasingly - political empowerment. Intellectually we are well represented at the highest levels of tertiary education in the South-West of our country. Sexually, our emancipation (though discreet) is well-relayed; a source of ribald entertainment in our rich culture of story-telling (many of which are true stories). My late grandmother, a prosperous textile merchant, married three times, was the toast of society in her day.

I was interested in the feminist press panel  held on 12th October 2018 in the Lettres d'Afrique, not so much because real feminism and its evolving theories are compelling (they are) but because I had never listened to (or even met) anyone from the wider non- African francophonie  Legs Editions is from Haiti in the Caribbean. Anne Migner-Laurin from Quebec is editor at the leading French - Canadian feminist press, Les Editions du Remue-Menage. Fluent (French) speakers, both women were encouraged by moderator Nick Mulgrew (Uhlanga Press, SA) who spoke bravely in French, to demonstrate their impressive knowledge about the territories in which they operate as publishers and to provide examples of their commitment to reversing whatever gender bias they have found and the various ways they challenge and seek to change existing gender narratives.

Mirline Pierre set her presentation within a timeline measured in six periods. Her take- off was provocative: 'A national literature without the nation'. That is what we have in Haiti. Whereas 'We (women in publishing) want to bequeath a patrimony to the next generation.' She traced the evolution of feminine literature which had remained modest in tone -'pudique' - up until a suddenly released book about adultery broke through the historic cultural restraint and shattered the barriers of censorship. The book paved way for more risque literature by women writing under noms de plume. In a commitment to push back against male hegemony in Haitian literary production, Pierre's Legs Editions publishes and distributes a collection dedicated to women writers often stigmatised by society and held back by their families. It was interesting to learn from Mirline Pierre because beyond the heroic slave revolt led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in 1791; beyond the nation's poverty and devastation wrought  by Hurricane Mathew in 2016, and beyond regular news on social media about renowned novelist, Edwidge Danticat, I know little about Haiti.















Anne Migner-Laurin presented the fascinating history of Les Editions du Remue-Menage  founded in 1976. An initiative of feminist protest, its creation coincided with the groundswell and eruption of other powerful movements Canada was experiencing at that time. [Project Ploughshares was a peace movement launched in 1976; Operation Dismantle another peace movement created to gain support for a world referendum on disarmament.Women's movements tackled women's representation in every aspect of society, Then there were the secularization of the education and healthcare systems; the new labour codes that made unionization easier and gave workers the right to strike; and importantly, new public companies were created for the mining, forestry, iron/steel and petroleum industries of the Quebec Provinces.] Remue-Menage was conceived to harness ideas driving feminism, to keep its ears to the ground and to serve as a repository of 'all the incredible texts' generated by these contemporary social movements. Through mobilising (publishing) and converging (distributing) reigning ideologies and discourses, Migner-Laurin posited that up until the university presses launched their own rival feminist collections, Remue-Menage stood at the vanguard of the concept of inter-sectionality. She stated that in the past five years, the market for feminist literature has grown significantly with consumers from the general public increasingly seeking classic reference books about feminism. But while she forecasts a bright future for feminist literature, she added a caveat: feminism is constructed in waves; we are right now in an ascending wave...the backlash is always near.













Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books boasts 150 publications including award-winners. She started her small and redoubtable South Africa based press for two reasons, the first being her kind of writing. It was poorly received by male dominated publishing houses in the country. The kind of feminism she espouses and promotes through Modjaji Books, is evident in Whiplash, a novel by Tracey Farren which thrills her with "its voice, its dark, gritty story and its redemptive element". Bookshops wouldn't buy it because it was about a prostitute. They argued that their readers were not interested in prostitutes. But Higgs doggedly pushed the book and ultimately sold the rights for the production of Tess, its screen adaptation. The second reason for founding her own publishing firm is rooted in the contradictions and hypocrisy endemic in the South African nation. Despite the possession of a 'wonderful rights based constitution', she told the audience that gender based violence is prevalent in South Africa. Higgs added that what is known as the 'corrective rape of lesbians' is a regular horror, to teach lesbians the error of their ways. She displayed a copy of Modjaji book La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono. Banned in Equatorial Guinea, originally published by Feminist Press (USA) and shortlisted in 2018 for the Global Literature in Libraries Translated Young Adult Book Prize, Obono's coming of age novel, is described by Publisher's Weekly as 'a tale of queer rebellion in Fang society'. It is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean to be translated (by the gifted, tireless, Lawrence Schimel) from its original Spanish into English. Though the novel was not authored by a South African woman, Higgs explained that she had been powerfully drawn to Obono's treatment of the LGBTQ+ issues that are a priority for her as a South African publisher.

Beyond this pioneering novel, which introduces not only author Obono but Equatorial Guinea into the mainstream of LGBTQ+ marginalisation, it was Modjaji's engagement with Muslim women writers from India that moved me most powerfully.  Modjaji Books is a highly reputed publisher. Its participation in the rights of Muslim women to be heard is a hopeful insertion into a conversation about the power of presses to provide badly needed platforms for oppressed demographic groups; to provide opportunities to break a silence often imposed on them and to give visibility to so many women 'behind the veil' ie hidden away or marginalised.

My attention ratcheted up when a question was raised about staff diversity at the presses represented on the panel. Colleen Higgs was proud that Modjaji Books is leading in the realm of publishing black women writers in South Africa. The press always ensures a racially/culturally diverse range of interns. Anne Migner-Laurin who had earlier boasted that Remue-Menage was at the vanguard of inter-sectionality confessed that the R-M masthead was all-white but assured the audience gathered in the Lettres d'Afrique that R-M possesses a 'diversity sensibility'. What does that mean? As though she had read my mind, she added: 'If someone leaves, we won't hire a white person.' 

Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race is critically acclaimed, moving and fierce polemic by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Published by Bloomsbury, UK, in 2017, The Feminism Question is the chapter or 'manifesto'  which Eddo Lodge has set up to illustrate the problem I would have had with the 'diversity sensibility' of the 42 year old  Remue-Menage if Migner-Laurin had not given us that final assurance.  Let me quote an excerpt from The Feminism Question:

'When feminists can see the problem with all-male panels, but can't see the problem with all-white television programmes, it's worth questioning who they are really fighting for.'

 

 

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