Punyashree Panda and Trina Bose
Dr Punyashree Panda is an Assistant Professsor of English in the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Management in IIT Bhubaneswar, Odisha. She authored the Springer title “Memory, Empathy, and Narrative in Meena Kandasamy’s Gypsy Goddess” in the Palgrave Macmillan title Literature, Memory, Hegemony: East/ West Crossings published in 2018.
Trina Bose is a Research scholar in the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Management in IIT Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Her areas of interest include Feminism, Postmodernism, Postcolonial World Literature, and Climate Fiction.
Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by a Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Front Lines (2016) by an American writer Michael Grant investigate the politics of gender construction and convention of gender roles framed in a conservative society. They portray a strikingly diversified world of females, where the stereotypical notions regarding gender are socially constructed by the patriarchy that subjugates women, using manipulative and archetypal androcentric discourses and social structure. Racism and ethnic division heighten the process of social marginalization of women as they fall victim to both racism and sexism and thus are doubly oppressed and peripheralised. But in the diverse world of women, those who are unconventional come out of their domestic circles to work in various significant social platforms. They fight a battle to get recognition in society only on the basis of their work, transcending the boundaries of feminine gender roles. They also come into conflict with the conventional women, who conform to typical female roles designed by society. Hence, these two sets of women are mutually exclusive in terms of opinion and attitude to normative culture and tradition. The present paper intends to interpret, through a close reading of the two novels under discussion, the clash between gender rigidity of an androgynous society and individual performance during the disruptive and tumultuous time of the Nigerian Civil War and the Second World War, and analyze what determines gender identity of a person from a Postmodern Feminist perspective and whether it reverses long-established notions regarding gender.
Keywords: Androcentrism, women, marginalization, gender identity, racism
Postmodern Feminism destabilizes set patriarchal norms and fights for gender equality and the interpretation of identity, and it also emphasises the relativity of gender identity in society, turning down the clichéd conceptions regarding sex and gender, and aims at achieving gender equality. The two twenty-first-century novels from very disparate social backgrounds namely, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Front Lines (2016) by Michael Grant, though a decade and continents apart from each other, can be investigated from Postmodern feminist viewpoints in analysing the roles and status of the female protagonists in the socio-politically chaotic and prejudiced time of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) and the Second World War (1939-1945). The female characters of the two aforesaid novels are marked by heterogeneity that can broadly be categorized as conformist and non-conformist, and they suffer from misunderstandings and communication gap with each other resulting from their different economic, social, and educational backgrounds. The peripheral female characters of the novels like professor Odenigbo’s rural Igbo mother, a village girl Amala, Frangie's mother, a poor black woman from both the texts, are conformists and are possible representations of what is normatively expected of women in society. Having internalized the patriarchal norms passed down to them, they are not in a position to recognize their marginalization. In contrast, the central female characters have rejected the typical gender roles designed in and by a male-dominated society. The principal female characters of both the novels are shown as actively participating in almost every sphere of life such as businesses, educational institutions, household duties, as well as war. This paper examines how, in the aforesaid novels, the diverse female world is impacted by racism, ethnic violence, and male chauvinism in the turbulent times of wars. It also looks at the collision between the orthodoxy of social structure and modernity of the revolutionary female characters who prove and free themselves from gender tags with performances in various commendable though sometimes unconventional places of their time and society.
In the novel Front Lines, the three central teenage girls strive to be soldiers on the front lines, and the novel details their sufferings, psychosomatic struggle, and valour in the battlefield of the Second World War. The girls named Rio Richlin, Frangie Marr, and Rainy Schulterman are from different backgrounds, religions and cultures. Rio is a White girl from a small town in northern California, Frangie is a Black girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma that has its past with racism, and Rainy is a Jewish girl from New York. The young girls are expected, based on their physique, by some of the army officers they come into contact with, to perform the typical feminine gender roles endorsed by the conventional society. According to Simon de Beauvoir, “the most important question about woman and her body is not what she historically and biologically is but what she can become” (Shusterman 12). In Front Lines, there are indeed some obvious reasons behind the participation of the girls in the war as Frangie says: “I don’t aim to kill anyone. I aim to try out for medic” (Grant 71). Rio joins the army to honour her dead sister. Rainy is Jewish and she wants to bring down Hitler by killing Germans on the battlefield. However, when they are on the front lines, they are not spontaneously willing to face the inevitability of death despite their hard training and psychological preparations and thus are not glorified or idealized as conventional war literature though they fight in one of the bloodiest wars of the world i.e., the Second World War.
In Half of a Yellow Sun, Olanna and Kainene, the two central characters, are poles apart from the traditional Nigerian female world. On one hand, Olanna who sincerely loves Odenigbo seeks certainty and security in her relationship with Odenigbo when it is at stake because of the supernatural fetishes of Odenigbo’s mother, and on the humanitarian ground, takes the responsibility of Baby, who is an illegitimate child of her boyfriend Odenigbo. But in contrast, Olanna appears as a revolutionary and strong character like her twin Kainene when the situation demands so; for instance, she refuses the proposal of indirect prostitution for a business profit of her parents. She also does not spare Odegnibo for his betrayal and sleeps with Richard, Kainene’s boyfriend for taking revenge. But later she regrets this when she realizes her mistake in choosing Richard, who was her sister’s boyfriend, as a sexual partner. She is quite rational about relationships, love, and mutual trust, and that can be perceived when Odenigbo goes to her looking troubled and informs about Amala’s pregnancy, Olanna starts laughing. Olanna refuses to let Odenigbo present himself as the victim in that context, as it is quite clear to her that the real victim is the rural girl Amala, “who did not have a voice” (Adichie 250). While arguing with Odenigbo about his betrayal she says, “I never blamed Amala” (Adichie 246). She again says: “It was to you that I had given my trust and the only way a stranger could temper with that trust was with your permission. I blamed only you” (Adichie 246). In this situation, she is an epitome of psychic strength and power. She also protests against her father’s wrongdoings and remarks that it is mean on his part to have a relationship with another woman, and in addition to this, he has purchased a house for that woman where Olanna’s mother’s friends reside. She blames him by saying that it is utterly wrong on his part as he visits that woman when his work gets over and his driver parks the car outside the house. He does not care for the society, and this is why such scandalous activity is like “a slap” (Adichie 218) on the face of Olanna’s mother.
Front Lines portrays the horrors of the Second World War, and the narrative informs about a court decision taken in the United States of America, which, for the first time, approves women as subject to the draft and eligible for service as soldiers in war. Mathis also discusses:
In World War II, the government used propaganda to communicate the need for changes in women's roles for the duration of the war. These changes enabled women to enter factories by the millions, and proved that women were capable of much more than having babies and washing dishes. The propaganda certainly helped the government to achieve its goal of mobilizing American women. (94)
But in Front Lines, the hypocrisy and chauvinism of the male-dominated society stand exposed as the common people also like the male soldiers comment sarcastically about the girls in the army that they “must want to be raped by some of them Japs, yeah, that’s what she wants” (Grant 76), and thus they view this unconventional endeavour of the girls in a negative light. It is as if the sexualised body of a female is the only and the most pertinent thing to be taken seriously into consideration even after such a radical decision of the government. As Spivak remarks, that “…between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the 'third-world woman' caught between tradition and modernization” (102). In Front Lines, according to social orthodoxy, the body of a female that can be violated sexually becomes the primary marker of identity for the young girls who are going to the front lines and who are as ready to fight their enemies as their male counterparts.
As rural women like Odenigbo’s mother Mama and Amala in Half of a Yellow Sun are far away from modernity. They are unaware of and powerless enough not to bother with or critically judge the long-established social customs and beliefs. The two sets of characters, i.e.,the traditional and the modern, in the novel can be regarded as two binaries or at least as not at all alike. In Half of a Yellow Sun, the rural women are superstitious and conservative, and they do not approve higher studies for women. Odenigbo’s mother does not endorse the unconventional notion that women can be equal to or better than men or can control or defy men. It is also pointed out by Folashade Yemisi Fashakin that, “among most Africans, men have been culturally constructed as natural born leaders and head of the families while the woman is seen as the other “ sex, the subordinate one in the relationship” (12).
The presence of Odenigbo’s mother in the text highlights her generation’s obliviousness about such socio-political peripheral status of women in the androcentric African society, and thus they retain their unquestioned loyalty towards age-old social practices. Bell Hooks opines in “Racism and Feminism”:
American women have been socialized, even brainwashed, to accept a version of American history that was created to uphold and maintain racial imperialism in the form of white supremacy and sexual imperialism in the form of patriarchy. One measure of the success of such indoctrination is that we perpetuate both consciously and unconsciously the very evils that oppress us. (374)
In Half of a Yellow Sun, the traditionalist village women like Odenigbo’s mother and Amala have similarities with these aforesaid Americans as unwittingly they are the victims of “interpellation” (xxviii) in the Marxist critic Louis Althusser's term. Ironically, Olanna is looked down upon for her university education by Odenigbo’s mother who says: “Too much schooling ruins a woman; everyone knows that. It gives a woman a big head and she will start to insult her husband. What kind of a wife will that be?” (Adichie 98). She further remarks that girls who go to university for pursuing higher education “follow men around until their bodies are useless” (Adichie 98). This is how Olanna has been thrust upon herself the identity of a morally ruined “loose woman” (Adichie 98) owing to her higher education. It is analysed in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism that “the construction of ‘third world women’ as a homogeneous ‘powerless’ group often located as implicit victims of particular socioeconomic systems” (Mohanty et al. 57), and such type of oppressive homogenizing discourses of Western feminism can also be found in Half of a Yellow Sun as it is evident from the perceptions of Susan, an English expatriate, according to whom, all Black women, including Kainene, are equal and powerless. However, this type of exploitive discourses of racism and sexism appears to be irrelevant in the context of the Igbo female world of Half of a Yellow Sun. It explicates the heterogeneity and juxtaposition of Olanna and Kainene who are individualists to the rural and uneducated women like Amala and Odenigbo’s mother who does not suffer from any sense of marginalization and powerlessness in the male-driven society and blindly supports the societal system, serving as a representative image of the conservative African woman.
Ethnic divisions frame the fragmented and segmented structures of society in Half of a Yellow Sun. Henry Louis Gates reflects on the expansion of the problem of ‘the colour line’ formerly mentioned by Du Bois:
Ours is a late-twentieth-century world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions –to forge, for once, a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities-is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of culture. (xv)
On the one hand, Half of a Yellow Sun which is set against the backdrop of the Biafran War reveals the aforementioned sort of fissures and cracks in the society. Women are exploited in inhumane ways for their ethnic differences during the Biafran War, and the war plays as an opportunity for violent rapists to satisfy their crooked desires. Women of both Igbo and Hausa tribes are sexually exploited amidst the destructive war. On the contrary, Kainene who is an educated Igbo crosses her racial boundary to embrace her lover Richard, an English expatriate, despite the opposition of Igbo society to such an interracial relationship. When Richard feels helplessly weak in front of racial hostility of the Igbo towards his relationship with Kainene, Kainene replies to Udodi, in cold yet clear English, that “my choice of lovers is none of your business, Udodi” (Adichie 80), and in this context, Kainene is a fearless girl who asserts her free will and thus successfully combats racial stereotyping and violence.
In Half of a Yellow Sun, the postcolonial Nigerian society is dominated by the evils of racism, religion, gender, nationalism, and in Front Lines, such social malice also shapes the lives of Frangie and her mother who are from the marginalized section of society due to their race and poverty. When Frangie, a peripheralized coloured girl joins the army, she receives both encouraging and derogatory remarks. Sergent Tell remarks: “Girls in the army. Never thought I’d see…” (Grant 85). Then he ignores it and again, in a stern tone, says: “Look, ladies, it’s not sir. Sir is for officers. I work for a living. You call me sergeant” (Grant 85). Here, his remarks can be taken as a positive one. The narrative informs that it is just over five years since the courts decided that woman may serve, and just over a year since deciding that women must serve as soldiers. The government feels it necessary to appoint women as soldiers and tries to rise above the biases and prejudices in the crucial time of war. But chapter Eight of the novel begins with the line that “women soldiers are an abomination” (Grant 91). This is a typical remark of biased patriarchy that does not consider women as worthy or capable of being a soldier. In Front Lines, on the battlefield, Frangie helps the helpless while the male officers criticise her with derogatory remarks without offering any help to the ones in distress, and thus she comes across as the one who retains the essential humane qualities. Like the instance mentioned above, many more such contexts from both the novels ensure that the unconventional female characters of both the novels prove themselves to be morally superior to men in terms of their kindheartedness and responsibility. The female soldiers like their male counterparts, struggle in the front lines, but instead of glory that is reserved for men, they are scorned. Rio wishes to be appointed as a driver but is assigned on the front lines for fighting. Frangie tries her level best to become a medic yet her gender and race prevent her, and Rainy who is multilingual, gets appointed to work in intelligence. Their sufferings and toil on the battlefield get intensified due to social injustice and gender discrimination in the military.
In Half of a Yellow Sun, the black skin colour of a girl is contemptible for a white person (like Susan) as well as not psychologically desirable by a Native African (Ugwu for example) who yearns for a white-skinned woman in his sub-conscious. Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy is impressed by the light-skinned beauty of Olanna. It is as if white skin colour is still considered superior even by a Native to the more prevalent and organic black skin, even after the end of the colonial period. Biased personal observations based on race can be found in Half of a Yellow Sun where Kainene, an educated girl, is considered by Susan only in terms of her skin colour, and Susan can only perceive Kainene along with her culture as a change of taste for an Englishman like Richard. She cannot make out how a white-skinned Englishman can have a genuine attraction for a black-skinned tribal woman. She says to Richard, “But I did want you to know that I shall keep busy while I wait for you to finish with your dusky affair” (Adichie 237), and in such an assumption, she disregards Kainene’s capabilities. According to Christopher J. Schineider, “…postmodernists argue that all knowledge is seen as subjective and is always influenced by personal, cultural, and political values” (95), and such Postmodernist view can be perceived in Half of a Yellow Sun as Kainene is judged by Susan based on a prejudiced view and partial truth, which only includes her African origin but does not incorporate her education, profession, and independence. By associating an Igbo woman with mere sex, Susan lives up to the stereotype imagined in a racist mind. In “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I Became Black in America,” Hope Reese has pointed out that in this talk on racism, while talking about her own real-life experiences about racism Adichie says: “I wasn't black until I came to America. I became black in America” (n.p.).
The insidious influences of racism can be felt in Front Lines and the word ‘black’ is used several times; it sounds unpleasant as it connotes negativity and inferiority in almost all the situations. For example, a white lady like Miss Ellie considers Frangie and her mother Dorothy Marr as inferior squarely due to their race. She insultingly says, “I reckon I could scour my pans bright with that brushy Nigra hair of yours” (Grant 36). A woman like Miss Ellie pays Dorothy Marr for her labour, and she does not even forget to complain about the dress as it is mentioned by Frangie. Even when Ellie insults Frangie, her mother remains silent and tolerates and this confirms the authenticity of Nasrullah Mambrol’s interpretation of Hooks’s views regarding racism and black identities as he points out:
Employing a critique of essentialism allows African-Americans to acknowledge the way in which the class mobility has altered collective black experience so that racism does not necessarily have the same impact on our lives. Such a critique allow us to affirm multiple black identities, varied black experience. (n.p.)
In Front Lines, in utter frustration, Frangie says that “one did not talk back to white folk or object to words like pickaninny or Nigra, no, not even when it was your daughter being referred to with casual condescension and unearned familiarity” (Grant 37). The mother is too powerless to complain about her own daughter’s unjustified humiliation. Frangie is fed up with their ways of living and hopes that “maybe it’ll be different in the army” (Grant 37). While Frangie imagines that she might escape discernment in the public sphere such as the army, even in that glorified space, she is called a Nigra by the military officers. Frangie has strong will-power to become a medic despite her physical weaknesses and lack of strength of wielding a gun. Frangie is unlike her submissive and traditional mother, Dorothy Marr who suffers from racism, but silently puts up with it. Teresa E. Ebert comments that “every woman, in and of herself becomes individual and unique in her particular race, class, national and age possibility- that is, in her difference from other women” (902). In both the novels under discussion, the female protagonists are strikingly discrepant from each other having quite dissimilar types of an identity crisis and facing similar yet varied sorts of invisibility due to racial and sexual discrimination in a male-centred society.
Though Frangie’s mother tolerates abuses, she encourages her to continue her studies and prepares herself to be a doctor. She argues that as there are “a lot of coloured doctors around” (Grant 37), Frangie can also try to be a doctor. This is said in such a way as if it hints that coloured people who had been neglected and deprived before in society have now progressed academically in a good number. The word ‘coloured’ seems to be given extra emphasis in this particular context. Doon criticizes her by saying that so many people still didn’t believe females belong in college, let alone “coloured ones” (Grant 45). Thus a coloured female is doubly marginalized for being female and as well as for being Black, and Frangie seems to have two prominent social identities, i.e., a female and black, thrust upon her by the representatives of the prejudiced society that might overshadow her identity as a soldier.
In Front Lines, there occurs a reversal of traditional customs and beliefs in presenting the three females on the front lines of the Second World War. Rainy thinks:
It has always been that the men went off and the women kept and waved. There is no blueprint for what is happening now. There is no easy reference point. People don’t know quite how to behave, and it’s worse for the men in the station who are staying behind and feel conspicuous and ashamed. (Grant 92)
When Rio joins as a soldier, the narrative informs about Rio’s hair cut that “her black hair is cut short, almost as short as a man’s” (Grant 110). While it has been tried to give the girls looks of a typical army man and similar responsibilities, army Sergeant Tilo Suarez comments negatively, the presence of women in the army is “a mistake” (Grant 199). According to Rainy, the expression “virtue of their sex” (Grant 102) is perhaps designed for deliberate misinterpretation by Colonel Derry as he addresses to the soldiers that “a natural order that has decreed that woman shall bear children and tend the hearth, while men shoulder the harsher burdens of life’s vicissitudes” (Grant 102). These are the expected and usual gender roles of men and women in a norm-driven society, and the rigid and egoistic male world intends to continue old belief-systems to retain their position and dominance over females by limiting them within domestic circles. The marginalized soldier girls combat such repressive notions and win on the battlefield with their performances.
Half of a Yellow Sun depicts Nigerian tribes, and simultaneously, it resists any stereotyping or glorification of the so-called exotica explicating the social evils and injustices. Olanna and her twin Kainene, are economically independent as Olanna is a professor of Sociology at Nsukka University, and Kainene initially runs her father’s business and then a refugee camp when the war begins. Sadia Zulfiqar remarks that Olanna and Kainene are independent women and “they are the real political agents in the novel, the driving force of the narrative” (97). Progressive characters like Aunty Ifeka, Olanna, and Kainene are conscious of their rights and status in social life, and they are writers of their history by not conforming to the stereotypical feminine roles and codes of conduct fixed by society. For example, in Half of a Yellow Sun, Olanna lives with Odenigbo without marrying him. Kainene falls in love with Richard, an English expatriate, going against racial prejudices prevailing in Igbo society. When they are betrayed by their boyfriends, they do not remain passive. Olanna’s aunty Ifeka asserts unconventionally when Odengbo, Olanna’s lover deceives Olanna by sleeping with Amala during her absence. She says: “You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me? Aunty Ifeka of Olanna said. Your life belongs to you and you alone, soso gi (sic)” (Adichie 226). Quite confidently, she remarks about her principles that her life will change only if she wants to change it.
The portrayals of the society of both the novels inform that the conservative sections consider sex as the only determiner of gender identity while race and social status also serve as tools of further marginalization. Silke von der Emde remarks that “Morgner does not deny the existence of differences between men and women and between individual persons, but she shows that these differences are always operative in specific political situations and can never be locked into fixed categories” (123). But the politics of androcentric society confuse and problematise gender and sexuality by equating them as identical in the two novels under discussion. In Front Lines, the girls who refuse to give up despite humiliations and criticism and join the army preparing themselves for the war confirm Jane Flax’s observation that “the experience of gender relations for any person and the structure of gender as a social category are shaped by the interactions of gender relations and other social relations such as class and race” (623) as true.
Therefore, in the two novels under discussion, progressive women are treated as a marginalized section of society, and whenever they try to cross their limits that are determined by the orthodox society, they are humiliated. Patricia Waugh remarks that there lies “…in postmodern the only possibility of critique and opposition from the margins which gives a voice to feminists, post-colonials, ethnic, racial and sexual minorities” (348), and the stability of a position in society can be gained with repeated performances as it is explained by Judith Butler, an American gender theorist. As in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Butler remarks:
When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a floating artifice, with the consequences that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one. (6)
In Half of a Yellow Sun and Front Lines, the central female protagonists, who had so long been peripheralized despite their abilities, attain identities based on their “repeated” (Butler 7) performances and works reversing the set societal notions regarding gender roles.
The racially marginalized and sexually oppressed yet struggling nonconformist female characters of both the novels affirm, with their performances in numerous significant fields, that race or biological construction has no role in forming social or gender identity. They fight not only with the male-driven society but also with the sections of conventional women of unquestionable loyalty towards conventional social rules and regulations, perhaps due to ignorance or fear. Though such unorthodox females are different from each other based on their diverse socio-cultural backgrounds, they prove themselves to be far better than their gender-assigned roles. Thus despite overt gender-biases and racial prejudices of the two novels, the active presence and unusual professions and performances of the strong female characters discussed from the aforementioned novels can be interpreted as a kind of reversal and refutation of the age-old social organism of male dominance and female inferiority in society in the name of gender, a biased social construct.
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