Style in Emecheta, Hove, and Vera

Jennifer Ellingson

In contast to the poetic, often dreamlike style of Bones and Nehanda, Emecheta's The Slave Girl uses a very lucid, realistic prose to relate the chronologically continuous tale of Ojebeta's enslavement and later re-enslavement. Furthermore she clearly denotes a feminist analogy to colonialism and neocolonialism:

So as Britain was emerging from war once more victorious, and claiming to have stopped the slavery which she had helped to spread in all her black colonies, Ojebeta, now a woman of thirty-five, was changing masters. (179)

Although Emecheta concerns herself primarily with women within her own culture, she clearly wants the reader to draw the parallels to contemporary neocolonialism, which replaces imperial exploitation by a new, domestic exploitation. Women, like the poor who were first oppressed by foreign colonizers, then by indigenous elites who took their places, lose out regardless of the political system or their personal master. Ojebeta claims to "feel free in belonging to a new master from my very own town Ibuza" (178), but the reader hardly rejoices for her. In the same way that the colonies change masters, so do women, and in the end it doesn't seem to matter much who they are -- foreign or "from my very own town." Ojebeta's acquired freedom essentially means nothing as neither her new personal situation, nor outside forces, change her status as a virtual slave.

In contrast, both Hove, who uses a poetry of dialogue, and Vera, who uses a very lyrical, poetic style make consistent references to birth and re-creation in their discourse on women. While Nehanda lives and hides from the colonists in a cave (with many womb or cocoon-like transformation qualities), Vera comments on future selves:

In the caverns the bats hang and give birth in the darkness, struggling to hold on to their newly born who are drawn to the ground. Their perpetual blindness ensures that they are always the newly born. Always they are finding ways of seeing, and of experiencing the air. (108)

The women welcome the message of their inheritance and they will not forget: the time of fading truths is gone. The newly born come into the world bearing gifts. They have eyes that hold memories of the future. (113)

These future selves so full of potential align themselves with the natural world, as if the order of oppression is not so inevitable. In Bones, Janifa, imprisoned in the "house of ghosts," addresses a dead Marita about her vision of Marita's "bad" son, who is aslo most likely dead. Nevertheless, a spirit of resurrection or natural renewal pervades the circumstances of despair and death:

Marita, your son has come back. He limps when he walks, but he is here. Now that he is here, all the insects can sing their songs and run after the scent of the flowers. All the birds can make their nests and sing from the tops of the trees whose flowers smell with the smells of rains. A womb is a dark place and no one knows what will come out of it. (110)

Strangely, Bones and Nehanda present a far more hopeful sense of the future than The Slave Girl, despite the fact that they both end with more overt destruction and ruin. Even the somewhat morbid title Bones refers to a casting of the remains of the dead (bones) to foresee the future. Both Zimbabwean novels reiterate the theme of transformation in their imagery. Although emphasizing the essentially stagnant nature of women's oppression even after apparent change, The Slave Girl interestingly does makes reference to such a resurrection. The tale of the enslaved princess who is buried alive to accompany a dead husband to the after-world is an example of recycling the dead into something which may come again in another form:

She resisted, but there was no pity on the faces of the men who stood by watching, amused by her cries. She made appeals to the gods of her people to save her, she begged some of the mourners to spare her life saying that her father·would repay them but to no avail. "For showing me this little mercy, chief, I shall come again, I shall come again."(62)

Typically of all three books, resistance is futile to save the poor women who defy whatever fate an unjust world has conspired for them, yet it opens the doors for all kinds of future possibilities.

The interaction of technique with historical-political context in these novels also offers insight into their perspectives on change over time. Bones takes place in relatively recent postcolonial Zimbabwe, an officially independent nation whose people are still exploited by neocolonial landowners. Different voices narrate the story, with significant leaps and gaps in chronology, conveying both a sense of subjectivity of truth and of time. The Slave Girl also takes place during what it portrays as the end of colonialism, but is in contrast related to the reader in sequential chronology by an omniscient narrator, presenting a much more rigid, direct view of the course of events. Nehanda, on the other hand depicts a precolonial society, in an epic, almost mythic extended poem which extends a certain timelessness to truth.

The different combinations of these historical-political contexts with the sense of reality (or surreality) elicited by the novelsâ diverse representations of time and truth are important in conveying the authorsâ vision of the significance of the text to the reader. The Slave Girl, for example establishes a pattern, an inevitability. The course of events for Ojebeta which Vera has established as logically sequential, against the backdrop of colonialism result in the realization of a pattern, for Ojebeta, for women, and postcolonial societies. Bones unfolds against a similar backdrop of colonialism, yet Hove's more unconventional use of dialogue expresses his vision of flux between past and future; an interrelation rather than a pattern designed to repeat itself. Finally, in Nehanda the reader glimpses a precolonial past (fictionalized though it may be), through Vera's imagery and language of transformation, which reads like a very opaque, yet prophetic vision of the future.

Taken together, these three novels about women strongly implicate colonialism as complicit in, or at least analogous to their oppression. Nehanda, the only novel which is set in a precolonial era, is also the only one of the three in which a woman is prized by her community for her uniqueness, rather than solely for her fulfillment of a traditionally prescribed role. In Bones individuality expressed by Marita and Janifa is taken as madness, treated as such, and in the case of Janifa, becomes the reality. In The Slave Girl Ojebeta is so conditioned throughout her life to identify herself in her role of servility and subordination, that when given a rare choice in the matter, she opts to continue her life in the same role. These three texts clearly illustrate the impossibility of defining one postcolonial feminine experience or one feminist perspective, although the centrality given to women in these, and other postcolonial literature we have read in class certainly emphasizes the significance of their roles and their struggles in African societies.


See also Women in Emecheta, Hove, and Vera: Passivity and Assertion


Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Yvonne Vera Overview Chenjerai Hove Overview