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Reinventing epistolarity: Contemporary Africana women's fiction, citizenship, and human rights

Carrie J Walker, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


My dissertation project calls attention to the renewed popularity of the epistolary novel among Africana contemporary women writers. This work investigates why, since the late nineteen-seventies, there has been a resurgence of this classic form among women writers across the Black Atlantic. The adoption of this genre among women writers in post-colonial contexts is especially significant because the classic epistolary novel was a medium that often endorsed notions of female submission and imperialist ambition. At the same time, the epistolary tradition connotes a revolutionary history. With this idea in mind, I argue that an examination of how contemporary women revise the epistolary novel offers a crucial perspective regarding the struggles of women throughout various geographic locations and social strata in relation to nation, citizenship, and selfhood. This project focuses on how Sindiwe Magona, Nozipo Maraire, and Paulette Ramsay "reinvent epistolarity," using the epistolary genre to make interventions in the public sphere by depicting Africana women's experiences of education, marriage, inheritance, and health. I argue that, by employing the "private" quality of the information exchanged in personal letters, writers invite readers to witness situations to which they would not typically be privy and enhance the intimacy between the reader and the characters. I contend that, though these intimate exchanges, authors transform personal experiences into public discourse and, in doing so, expose the artificial, arbitrary nature of the division between the public and private spheres. Just as these writers use this form to challenge binary categories, I demonstrate the parallels between these fictional portrayals and international policy trends affecting Africana women, noting how literature and policy work together to promote justice and equality. My analysis shows that these authors take a complex stand in relation to contemporary human rights doctrines. This project not only addresses how authors endorse international human rights policies, but also it highlights how writers challenge universal discourses surrounding gender equity. The frequency with which these issues resurface among epistolary novels offers evidence that, despite increased access to civil and political rights, social and cultural rights still remain a fiction, especially for women and girls.

Subject Area

Modern literature|African literature|Black studies|Caribbean literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Walker, Carrie J, "Reinventing epistolarity: Contemporary Africana women's fiction, citizenship, and human rights" (2012). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3522089.