by Leah Vahjen
(Winner, Carson McCullers Literary Awards, Second Place, Academic Writing)
The concept of culture inherently necessitates exclusion. This segregation cultivates an array of behaviors and responses from members within a community, as well as those who are “othered” by the community. One of the most complex ways in which humans can interact with culture is through attempted understanding, which leads to rich applications of culture within literature. The will to understand is a principal motivator in literary analysis, and it allows authors to add layers of hidden text beneath their words, knowing that their readers’ desire to understand will lead them to uncover these indirect messages. In her short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” Taiye Selasi incorporates multiple instances of female characters’ failure to speak as commentary on the difficulty that women still have with voicelessness in patriarchal African societies.
Garnering respect and support for women’s rights has been a global battle. Some cultures have more easily accepted—and reformed towards—the idea of equal rights for women, while others have yet to consent to this ideology. Many African societies, historically very patriarchal in nature, remain on the less tolerant end of the spectrum regarding women’s rights. As Rose M. Amenga-Etego states, “In many [contemporary] African communities, the category woman is not simply an adult female. Rather, it is a special state where an adult female moves from the category of a ‘daughter’ to that of a ‘wife’” (138). In cultures with these principals, women are expected to be subordinate to the man that owns them; “the female in the African family has no personal rights of her own because she is constantly in possession” (138-140). This dynamic is introduced early in Selasi’s story. Edem, observing and describing a garden party in the first scene of the story, reports that “the young [females] sit mutely, sipping foam off their Maltas, waiting to be asked to go dance by men in full suits” (237). This statement illustrates that the females of this culture, like so many of the communities that Amenga-Etego discusses, are taught from a young age that they will forever be waiting for a male figure to determine their next move and their next word.
Throughout “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” Selasi shows how extensive the damage of these patriarchal cultural practices can be. The story is punctuated with silences that show failed attempts of developing relationships not only among women, but even with men who do not have any hand in “owning” the woman in question. Making matters even more severe, the majority of stunted relationships between females are displayed within the frame of family; inability to speak as “self” does not find reprieve, even among the closest of relations.
In a dream, Edem recalls her uncle orchestrating what will ultimately be her last moments with her mother. The patriarchal male figure is in control of the situation. While Edem appears to have questions about these events in retrospect, she recalls her voicelessness in the moment, interacting with her mother:
…that she’s not coming with you, that she hasn’t said why. You don’t think to ask. At this moment, here beside you, your mother is unquestionable. You simply don’t ask. In the dream, as it happened, she kisses you quickly, her lips to your ear, and says, ‘Do as you’re told’ (240).
Despite having the privilege of the mother-daughter dynamic, Edem and Dzifa do not transcend the rules they have been taught regarding their own ability to speak for themselves. Edem recognizes that she did not even think to discuss this life-altering moment, and rather than empowering or consoling her daughter, Dzifa advises her to “do as [she’s] told,” true to the dogma of the culture.
In another mother-daughter relationship, Mariam and Khadijeh seem only capable of speaking to one another by shaming each other for the misdeeds of men. Khadijeh reprimands her mother for selling her virginity to Uncle Mahmood at the age of twelve in exchange for school tuition. Mariam condescends to her daughter for concealing her husband’s illegitimate child as her own. This encounter ends in Khadijeh “crying quietly” and “[saying] nothing” (261). Edem expects for Khadijeh to “instruct” her “about not saying a word to a soul” regarding the incident, but Khadijeh seems to be so devastated by the encounter that she can only reply in the form of unnecessarily humiliating her male house cook, Francis (261-262). In this instance, relationships beyond that of the two parties directly involved are being damaged, which demonstrates how far-reaching the issue of undeveloped communication can extend. Three females, despite their intimate familial relationships, are blockaded from one another by their culture’s successful practice of ensuring that they do not have a voice.
Francis has been a cheery, positive, and arguably protective, figure in Edem’s life since she arrived at her aunt and uncle’s home to live. He has the advantage of being a male in his culture, but he is still oppressed, as he is a house-servant. His social status seems to allow the situation in which he is humiliated and slapped by Khadijeh. In any other situation, such an explosion from a female towards a male would be intolerable—a fact that is not lost on Francis who later cries out to Edem, “I am a man, am I not?” (263). Francis is the closest thing to a positive male character that Edem has within this story, and yet when he is at his most vulnerable, Francis “[stares] at [Edem], silent” and Edem “trie[s] but [can’t] speak. For the thickness in [her] mouth. All the words” (262). Even a relationship that seems at its surface to be innocently developed and healthy, is not a safe venue for a woman to have a voice.
Selasi is also careful to depict the cultural practice of silencing females in these patriarchal African societies through the male perspective. Uncle is the clear, dominant symbol of patriarchy throughout the story. His character exemplifies many of the values that Selasi seems to be criticizing in this story, including the practice of muting women. As Jeylan Hussein declares, “in an asymmetrically arranged society, language and other cultural resources are curved or hooked or shaped in different ways and then used as instruments of subordination,” (qtd. in Asaah 194). The male power of controlling a woman’s next word is evident in Uncle’s presence; when he enters the study where Edem is observing the party, he “say[s] nothing at all,” which prompts Edem to begin explaining her presence in the room, as if she has no right to her own agenda, or freedom within the house she lives in (264-265). Whereas women are expected to remain silent and submissive, a man’s silence carries power and immediately prompts a woman to speak according to what the man might want to know.
Uncle also obviously has some insight into the situation concerning Edem’s mother who seems to have gone missing. It seems as though Uncle appears at random in Dzifa’s life, after which Edem is shipped off to live with him. The idea of moving Edem away from her mother and into Uncle’s life is explicitly stated as Uncle’s idea, and “no one has heard from [Dzifa] since” (240). Dzifa is stripped of her child, putting her at her culture’s “lowest rung” of “childless mother” (267). She has no voice in life, does not seem to be able to stop the sequence of events that leads to her separation from her daughter, and she is finally silenced in death.
It is only this extreme realization of death that leads Edem towards breaking the cycle of voicelessness at the end of the story. When Khadijeh catches her husband (Uncle) molesting Edem, she finds it in herself to subvert the patriarchy and reprimand him for his shameful actions. After utilizing her voice and asserting her true beliefs and judgments, she is harshly punished—forcefully slapped and told by Uncle, “this is my house.” He then walks away, leaving Khadijeh and Edem in silence (266). Edem “wish[es] there was something [she] could say, to comfort her,” but ultimately questions what she, one young female, could possibly say in the face of years of oppression and forced voicelessness within her culture.
While the concluding attitude of the story appears bleak, Selasi’s choice of providing Edem with a small revelation about women needing to unite in order to survive carries the work into a particular movement of literature that, itself, subverts the practice of silencing women. As Augusting H. Asaah asserts:
on the basis of the tradition of imposed public silence or at least the will to inflict such exclusion on women, the resurgence of African women’s writing in the public space amounts to reclamation of discourse… African women’s appropriation of the written word reconnects them to power as they seek to positively re-engineer and re-orientate societal growth by using fiction as a source of multifaceted counter-discourse to gender discrimination (194).
Selasi is empowering her character with a sense of understanding that can be spread, in the form of her short story, to women everywhere. This allows her to be an active, female advocate with a voice of her own. She is encouraging cultural change and providing strength through knowledge and understanding to and for women who “have no mouth” in patriarchal African societies (qtd. in Asaah 194). It seems likely that this cultural cycle will continue to prevail at the end of “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” which can be interpreted as Selasi acknowledging that stories like hers will not be an immediate repair to the years of extensive damage directly resulting from this form of oppression, but they are helping to provide small revelations to real African women that will one day bring long overdue reform and rebirth their true voices.
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Asaah, Augustine H. “Towards The Retrieval Of The Lost Voice.” Matatu: Journal For African
Culture & Society 39 (2011): 193-219. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Selasi, Taiye. “The Sex Lives of African Girls.” The Best American Short Stories 2012. Eds.
Tom Perrotta, Heidi Pitlor. N