Lecture highlights African women writers

In her lecture, “The Fight for Inclusion in the African Canon: Women Writers of Cameroon & Gabon,” Cheryl Toman, chair of the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures, director of Women’s & Gender Studies and professor of French, discussed the concealed literature written by women of the African countries Cameroon and Gabon. The talk was part of Case Western Reserve University’s ongoing Power of Diversity Lecture Series.

With a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary French Studies and an emphasis on African Francophone Women Writers, Toman’s research highlights female authors from Cameroon, Gabon and Mali. “Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory,” her most recent book, is the “first book-length study in English of Gabonese literature,” according to the Department of Modern Languages & Literature.

“History changes when women become a part of it,” Toman said.

Toman’s book emphasizes “invisibility” of women writers with a focus on significant contributions of Gabon’s female authors. She has studied the writings of women in Gabon for 10 years, and Cameroon for 27 years. Her talk on Feb. 20 outlined the importance of pulling this literature “from the empty canon to light.”

“The empty canon is an expression used to describe a canon that erroneously appears empty because no one bothers to look inside,” Toman said. “The empty canon is always unknown, unpraised and unheard.”

The journey of discovery is relevant for students at CWRU. An African-American first-year student who attended the event said, “Learning about my African heritage gives me strength to overcome the difficulties in my journey towards education.”

As Toman explained in her lecture, the African women writers’ journeys involved great struggles to gain recognition. For writings to gain momentum from an audience, they need circulation; just because a piece lacks a broad audience does not necessarily mean it lacks quality as well.

The word “inclusion” was used to describe the writings of Cameroonian women; as Toman discussed, even though Cameroon was considered a literary powerhouse, the female writers in the country were essentially ignored by Western society and also their male contemporaries. The works of the women who managed to publish just one book therefore fell into the empty canon.

Toman went on to explain that Cameroonian women had to fight for inclusion due to lack of support from their male counterparts. According to the Board of Education, less than 10 percent of the books written by women in Cameroon were included, therefore they were not circulated.

Meanwhile, Toman also discussed the conditions of women writers in Gabon, which varied widely compared to those of Cameroon.

Gabon was the first African country to have a both published female novelist and female publishing house, and Toman also said that Gabon has produced more literary publications by women than by men. Regardless of their accomplishments, the works by female writers of the country remain almost invisible because of the historical value placed on the work of men in comparison to women.

Despite its relative invisibility, Gabon nourishes a dynamic and supportive network of literary culture. In essence, Toman’s lecture implied that institutions, including CWRU, need to emphasize the women writers in African nations. She said students can do so by “supporting the courses offered in the French, English and Women Studies, [and] also by being proactive and asking professors for courses students would like to see.”

The next Power of Diversity Lecture Series talk is Thursday, Mar. 8, titled, “Building a Culture of Inclusion: Creating Campus Advocates for Students with Disabilities in the Health Sciences.” It will feature Grace Clifford, the associate director of the CWRU Education Student Services (ESS) Disability Resources.