Eastern African women writers’ ‘national epics’: A new force in creative fiction?
In this article, I bring five recent, substantial novels by Eastern African women writers together for the first time in a study regarding the texts as modern ‘national epics’, analysing some of their shared characteristics in foregrounding local participation in the making of East African ethnonational histories. I trace the novelists’ implicit, open-eyed moral evaluation of their leaders and peoples, neither sentimentalising nor deriding the often terrible struggles of their peoples against both inside and outside powers that seek to keep them in subjugation. The texts eschew traditional heroic portrayal of single, male leaders in national epics and allow us to grasp diverse, communal contributions to the growth of nationhood, while giving larger, often central roles to women. The texts earn the epithet ‘epic’ by authoritatively demonstrating that their embodied, localised histories matter, testifying to the wide human spectrum of the peoples they portray; as novelistic acts they are impressive and moving bids for recognition. As post-colonial endeavours, the texts effectively decentre colonial interventions. While the chosen novels are shown to be relatable, their individual power of portrayal and aesthetic achievements are scrupulously differentiated.
Keywords: ‘national epics’, Eastern African women writers, localised histories, authority.