Opening Windows

Women’s Stories from Five Cultures

A Let’s Talk About It series developed by Karin Dillman

An exploration of storytelling traditions in novels by women from Japan, India, Africa, and the Caribbean.

  • Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
  • Kehinde by Buchi Emecheta
  • The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat

Five writers. Five women from different cultures. Five very different stories. In this series we will discuss each story and how it speaks to us. We will also allow each story to be our guide in an exploration—in most instances our first—of the historical, cultural, and literary contexts of which it speaks and from which it grew. Such an exploration requires no additional reading and certainly no pre-existing knowledge, only an open ear and mind, and a certain daring to ask the simple questions that come from having listened to the writer’s truth.

A thread linking these five women is that none does or can speak from an insular, monolithic cultural experience. All have taken the language that has come to them through education, history, and culture, a language that was not fully their own. For some because the language they learned in school and in which they write is not the mother tongue of the people of their country, but the language of the dominant colonizing culture. All of these women writers, however, have had to struggle to make the language of the literary and cultural traditions as received their own, because that language never fully included the experiences of women or stories by women. Yet, now these women speak to us in writing and their stories are our windows into their cultures.

Opening Windows: Women’s Stories from Five Cultures

Books in the Series

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto

In Kitchen, by the Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto, we read the story of a young woman searching for identity and for connections that can give meaning to her life. The setting is highly urban-contemporary Tokyo. The voice is that of a young woman thinking, observing, and searching. The book came out in Japan in 1988, and was published in translation to great acclaim in the U. S. in 1993. Questions about the reasons and circumstances of this success can yield interesting insights: about young and upcoming writers in Japan, particularly women; about their access to publishing; and about the reading public. In a later volume of short stories, Yoshimoto provides thought for another exploration. Acknowledging American rock, particularly that of the late Kurt Cobain as her muse, one can wonder about the link between her stories and the lyrics and rhythms of that kind of music.

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, a writer from India, tells of a day in the life of two children, twins, that radically changes the before from the after. The story moves backward, moving slowly, spiraling down. The telling is richly layered, highly visual, and with a sense of foreboding that is palpable throughout. Since the story is told through the voice of one of the characters, questions about what and how she remembers and why can lead to a deeper understanding. Another line of questioning comes from the writer’s previous experiences. Roy came to writing after training in architecture and work in stage design and screenwriting. Are these earlier experiences evident in this novel? What does this story tell us about the lingering relationship between Indian culture and its former colonizer, particularly considering that the language of this novel is English?

Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

All five stories of this reading series are by writers who live in a culture where the presence of a former colonizing force is still strongly present. This is true even for Yoshimoto, because although the relationship between Japan and the U.S. came about for different reasons, the imprint of American culture on Japan is great and not always without friction. In Nervous Conditions, a novel from Zimbabwe by Tsitsi Dangarembga, the relationship between colony and colonizer is at the center. It is the story about girls’ access to education in and against the inhibitions imposed upon women by African patriarchal and colonial structures. Since books are in constant dialogue with each other, whether consciously intended by the author or not, a discussion of the literary context of this novel is particularly revealing. Nervous Conditions presents a needed and more realistic counterbalance to a story long considered one of the classics of African literature, L’enfant noir (The Dark Child) by Camara Laye. The latter celebrates the male child and poetically evokes the rituals of its growing up. Nervous Conditions talks about girls and about modem rural Africa in a language in which the rich voice of the oral tradition is equally evident.

Kehinde, by Buchi Emecheta

In Kehinde, by the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta, the living in two worlds is most evident. The story begins in London where a Nigerian family is making a living. When the husband longs for a traditional African life, the wife faces difficult decisions. Being Nigerian in London, yet working and being independent, life in the tradition of rural Africa leaves her with few choices. Juxtaposing this story and that of Dangarembga to the stories of Roy and of Yoshimoto provides deeper insights into the cultural context of African woman writers. Cultural, historical, and economic factors all take part in the shaping and the publishing of stories. There clearly is a wider range of choices for writers living in prosperous and urbanized countries with a long history of written literature. A look at the very language of the novel is another way to deepen understanding. Emecheta effectively uses a variety of styles and voices to show that the main character of her story has been formed by various traditions. The language she speaks with her Nigerian girlfriend in London differs from the English she speaks with her husband.Her telling of events in Nigeria is in a different voice than the London part of the book. Torn apart or enriched? Both perhaps, each at different times.

The Farming of Bones by Edwige Danticat

Storytelling as illustrated by these novels is a search for identity; it is an affirmation of a self and of its place in this world; it preserves, questions, and enriches history and culture for both writer and reader. Storytelling can also be to bear witness and initiate healing. The latter are what drive Edwidge Danticat’s 1999 book, The Farming of Bones. Through the lives of two lovers, the novel tells about nationalist madness in the Dominican Republic and the resulting killing of 10,000 to 15,000 Haitians living there in 1937. The writer, who was born some twenty years after the event, was drawn to this story. She was fascinated by the whisperings about it when still a child, and explored the subject for the first time in her collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, Danticat’s attention to detail and the poetic quality of her language bring dignity and humanity to this dark chapter of her country’s history.

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