Perhaps an unsuspecting adherent to Chielozona Eze’s concept of feminist empathy proposed in his book Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, in Obinna Udenwe’s short story, we come into a literary space devoid of the patriarchal antics redolent in works by the first generation writers.
We would not be saying anything too far away from the blatant truth to call out the tug of war being played when we compare most of the literary output from the 60s to the 80s and those of the more recent 21st century writers. There now seems to be something of an ideological pull back, a withdrawal. Although the writers of old (suffice me to call them that) professed their essentially chauvinist ideologies in veiled quarters, only giving subtle but powerful references to what they felt was to be, we know the truth.
Succumbing to the pressures of the times which had begun to see things in different light from how he — and Africa, saw it following the 1958 publication of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe retreated like the proverbial disgraced masquerade into the ant hole with his Anthills of the Savannah published in 1987. What more evidence can we render in justification of Achebe’s seeming ideological withdrawal than his authorial interference in deciding that Elewa gives birth to a girl and that she be named Amaechina, an Igbo name prophesying continuity, in this case, on the truncated life of the great Ikem Osodi?
With writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, Akwaeke Emezi, Ayobami Adebayo, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Chinelo Okparanta, Sefi Atta, Chika Unigwe, and many others, the identity of the woman is being given a fair hearing in the literature of Africa today. With more African writers coming up to propose new ideals for the woman in their works, a paradigm shift is steadily being effected.
We confess, sadly, that some of these ideals are in response to the provocation wrought from decades of a misplaced feminine story. The story of the woman’s affirmation of her place in the realm of things should not naturally have been a bone of contention in the first place. The story of the woman cannot be told without telling the story of the human in the society, which includes, by necessity, men. The story of the woman cannot be excused from the story of the other. A somewhat embarrassing news for the identity of the men, and fortunate for the business of literature — as the genre of feminist literature has gained a foothold in contemporary art, we find this a different reality today.
Obinna Udenwe’s short story questions an issue of note in feminist art today: the issue of the unhealthy balance between the man and woman in the African society. Obinna adds a firm voice in questioning the old, first generation bias against women in our world. He understands the place of rules and sanctions and prohibitions, and he proposes a breaking of these rules, in some ways, a re-modification of our extant laws when our unnamed protagonist reveals the truth of his broken marriage. The dynamics of adultery is investigated in the Izhi clan from where the protagonist comes. The protagonist encounters a young man, Ramsey, who reveals himself as the other half of the adultery business with his wife. The husband reveals that his wife confessed her sins during childbirth when she could not give birth and required to confess to her husband and gain his forgiveness to succeed in the delivery, or keep silent and die with the child. As the custom demands, the husband cuts off from his adulterous wife because a refusal to do so would result in his own death.
We are astounded, then, that a conversation with Ramsey exposes the truth that the husband, too, had committed adultery, an affair his ostracized wife is not aware of, and one which, interestingly, rings no obvious bell of doom to him. But then we discover what we can say to be a closed caveat in the Izhi clan law, perhaps a caveat unknown to the Izhi lawmakers themselves!
We understand the place of punishment an adulterous woman enters into when she commits the unspoken crime against the altar of marriage, but then, we ask, at what point in time does the ever moving sword of Damocles rest on the head of the guilty husbands, too? We pose a bold question to the ancestral Izhi legislators: what punishment accrues to cheating men as it does women? The laws of the Izhi lawmakers can be flawed, but Obinna declares that Karmaic law, the blind laws that govern the world and holds it up with no regard to sex, cannot have its perfection questioned in the court of morality where the sinning man and woman stands.
An initial reading of the story held as much interest for me as it held for other short stories I edited for inclusion in the 29th issue of The Shallow Tales Review literary magazine, which was that it was a very good story from a fantastic writer with an incredible understanding of his subject matter. However, in consideration of other works in the issue, I detected a point of intersection between the short story and the overall editorial theme of the issue which was discovery. I shared this thought with the writer, and on my perception of the dual nature of his piece, the work’s dissecting stance of the theme — or would I say, motif, of discovery. Obinna’s work handles the idea of discovery on two existential planes; tthe physical, and the metaphysical, spiritual and abstract. We find out quite easily that women are seen as the underdog in Obinna’s fictional space which is a microcosm of the overall society. The unnamed protagonist discovers his wife’s philandering partner, and they get to relate, and in this we discover other aspects of this business.
There is the other discovery where we are exposed to the flaws in the Izhi laws. Here, the truth is thrown open to indicate that contrary to the knowledge that has stood as the norm, it is not just the wives but their husbands who are culpable, as it were to stand trial in this court of morality. In this court where the woman has always stood in the dock, we have the feel of an experience of a different court where men are judged for the adultery they commit. And so, the loosely tied sword of Damocles flies above the heads of everyone, both men and women, wives and husbands. The protagonist husband does not find peace, and discovers this only after he confesses to Ramsey who himself finds his peace in the confession of his sin of adultery. Luck has eluded Ramsey since his affair with the woman, and he believes that with his winning of his football bet this time, the cloud of bad luck would finally clear up.
Not only the men, but everyone else in the story, discover at the end that their sins, akin to the foreboding scar on the feet of Oedipus, are heavy anchors that lead them to their self-imposed doom. But quite unlike Oedipus whose fate is sealed by the very earth that creates him, we encounter characters whose fates lie in their discovery of the curses that bind them and their responses to it.
Routing the path of African ethico-feminism which condemns not only the female offender but herself, the willing or unwilling perpetrator of the act, Obinna Udenwe with his work shows empathy — not so much compassion, to the feminist ideals in the world now. Obinna’s recourse to tradition while being particularly commendable can also be flouted by the fact that he fails to show in clear terms a wholesome idea of the situation. We would have expected, quite naturally, without an intervention by Ramsey, to have the woman brought into the fuller picture in order to gain an organic experience of the situation. It would have perhaps shown a better handling of the problems of the work had the readers got one chance to hear from the wife herself in the story, to feel her pulse, and hear her side of the dispute, no matter how subjective the reasons for her adultery would come.
With Act of Contrition, Obinna builds with his story a masterly mosaic of truths battling with long-held untruths.
**Nzube Nlebedim is a Nigerian fictionist, reviewer, journalist, dramatist, poet, critic, and editor who lives in Lagos.