Literature and Social Sustainability: The Woman’s Creative Potential

Presented at the FEMRITE Public dialogue held on the 14th March, 2008
at the National Theatre, Kampala, Uganda.

Presentation by Betty Kituyi

When I looked at this topic, I came up with my own interpretation that allowed me to find a comfortable viewpoint. I had to first define the terms, literature as the written word, either as oral or written. To understand social sustainability, I had to define sustainability from the contemporary usage of the term that refers to it as ‘wise use of a resource without compromising the future needs. Other development and culture experts define social sustainability as community members’ ability to acquire social equity (Roseland et al (1998). They dwell on the ability to achieve and maintain personal health, whether physical, mental and psychological; In a socially sustainable environment:  members should feed themselves adequately; provide adequate and appropriate shelter themselves; have opportunities for gainful and meaningful employment; improve their knowledge and understanding of the world around them;

From the artistic point of view, there should be opportunities to: express creativity and enjoy recreation in ways that satisfy spiritual and psychological needs; express a sense of identity through heritage, art and culture; enjoy a sense of belonging; be assured of mutual social support from their community; enjoy freedom from discrimination and, for those who are physically challenged, move about a barrier free community; enjoy freedom from fear, and security of person; and participate actively in civic affairs.

This is an extensive list of attributes for social sustainability; however, one must keep in mind the fact that it draws from a long tradition of writing and activism for social justice Roseland et al (1998). To interpret the topic to our advantage therefore, we need to ask: How can the woman writer creatively write socially sustaining literature. How can she write stories that are urgent and relevant to her situation and understanding of the world, meeting the immediate cause and yet cater for the needs of the future reader? This essay will try to answer these questions.

Ama Ata Aidoo (1999) that was one time named as the ‘mother’ of African literature in her essay on women’s voices in construction, Ama urges women writers to reconstruct their voices to meet the current and the future reader. She tells a story of a young woman who had played in the women’s world soccer cup and had been described as a brilliant goalkeeper. Ama was taken by the girl’s and the grandmother’s voices. Her grandmother had advised her against the game because it was not a woman’s thing. The girl had gone out of her way to pursue her dream. After the match, when the grandmother was interviewed, she said that she hoped that her daughter’s health would be okay. She had realised that her position on the issue had been wrong. Today’s woman writer can draw a lesson from here.

Perhaps we need to reconstruct our voices to make our literature, relevant, urgent and to cater for the future needs of our readers; Literature that will inspire and enable tomorrow’s reader to form meaningful social connections, towards social transformation.
Dr. Susan Kiguli (1998) in her poem ‘Deconstructing you’, seems to tell us to do just that:
I want to deconstruct the codes that make you up
Separate each piece
And see what makes you.
I want to read the codes
So I probe your identity
Possibly understand difference

I want to turn over each piece
Slowly read the centre
And the margin.
I want to study how they merge.

I want to pore over your
Lack of explicit boundaries
Loss and the reflections
And capture representations.

Trying to open you up
I discover the maze
Of tiny well-woven delights.
I get lost in these
And discard my mission.

Now that I have failed to deconstruct you
What should I label you?
Whatever you are
You are the most intriguing experience.

Our themes should cross borders and boundaries and engage reader with the global scenes on climate change, advancement on science and technology, sexual orientation and politics. Women writers need to move away from the traditions which reaffirm stable values and passed on inherited knowledge but instead articulate traumatic experiences and private pain that need coherent form, to become a record of suffering and allow the teller freedom to give shape and meaning to what the world is doing to her.

There needs to be a complete rapture between pre-colonial and rural traditions of story telling which give women significant roles as preservers of the social order. More women writers need to engage in performing arts. Write film and drama scripts to reach the growing television audience. We need to confront ourselves and insert our stories into the public domain to live audiences. For example, we should recite and perform our poetry in public gatherings like funerals, wedding and conferences. When given chance, politically committed writers should always sell their works and view points at rallies.

The issue of language has become common in social sustainability debates. What language do you write in? Most of us write in the English language. All FEMRITE’s titles are written in English. We need to ask ourselves a few moral questions. Will the future generation of readers blame us for the death of our mother tongue? Writing projects should budget for the translation of some of our books into the local languages. FEMRITE’s tears of hope, I dare to say and the upcoming titles should be translated into local languages to reach the majority rural women audiences. Perhaps it is time for the woman writer to take literacy lessons in our mother tongue to improve on our local language skills. Those of us who teach students at the universities could involve students into translations of some of these texts as thesis for their degrees. Teachers in our schools should allow children to express themselves in their local languages and translate into other languages.

Finally, when we talk about social sustainability, we have to think about the threat to women’s freedom of expression and take appropriate action. Our voices have to survive. We need the freedom to express ourselves. Many times, women are too busy, being poor, hungry and exhausted from haranguing demands to worry about their voices being heard. When times are hard for too long as often they are, then our lives are at stake (Sindiwe Magona, 1999). We have become victims in wars. Refugees and their children have their lives hopelessly dislocated. How free can they say what is on their mind?

A woman values life for she is the source of life, but as long as she has no voice in the scheme of things, then we are doomed. Our men have not loved us enough, respected as enough to make us equal partners, thus we have no voice. Right now in the tones of world’s literature we are absent, we only have a few names rings. We need more Sindiwe Magona, Yvone Vera, Chimamanda, Ngozi’s.  In our countries, we are not transcribed in schools. In Uganda’s schools, women writings make the elementary readers and are not literature texts. In bookshops our titles are either absent or lame, lonesome volumes are put way put away as though they want to hide. But the hope is, we have survived worse things.

The modality of writing essentially solitary, requiring sustained individual effort requires women to find un-interrupted time and private space to write. Women writers should go for writer’s residences or writing retreats to concentrate on their craft. But we need other women writers to share our experiences, to keep the fire of writing burning. FEMRITE is a success story where women have communed and helped each other to grow in the writing. For offering each other support, we have gone far, we have nurtured our writing craft, ignited and blazed – let our voices be heard! When we become great writers like our own, Goretti Kyomuehendo, Susan Kiguli, Monica Arac de Nyeko, Doreen Baingana, Jackie Batanda, Glaydah Namukasa, Violet Birungi among others. When we give ourselves permission to self-expression by creating for ourselves conditions conducive to that outcome, our destiny shall be in our hands and the now and the future will be catered for and we shall have done our part. The FEMRITE writers who are going to read tonight are the bearers of that light.

Thank you.
Amma Atta Aidoo (1999) women’s voices in construction, Zimbabwe international book fair, Zimbabwe women writers, Harare
Roseland M. et al (1998) Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and their Governments. New Society Publishers: Gabriola BC)
Sindiwe Magona (1999) Freedom of expression for women: Myth or reality
Zimbabwe international book fair, Zimbabwe women writers, Harare

Susan N Kiguli (1998) African Saga.  FEMRITE publications Kampala
Femrite is a Women’s Organization in Kampala, Uganda. It publishes books, periodicals, organizes workshop conferences and course for women writers.

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