Food, Femaleness and Friendship in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Fiction

2nd October 2020

Mairi Power, University of Glasgow

‘relationships are described not as people joined by blood, but those who feed one another’

Shirin Edwin [1]

In the short novels Our Sister Killjoy (1977) and Changes (1991), food is used as a metaphor through which author Ama Ata Aidoo communicates the health of relationships and the cultural differences between her characters[2] . Aidoo is an accomplished Ghanaian writer as well as an academic and political activist; she also held the role of Ghanaian Minister of Education for 18 months from 1982-83. Aidoo’s writing is an excellent example of the tension between African and European modernism, drawing heavily upon cultural difference and the lasting legacy of colonialism within the power structures of West African societies. Bringing Aidoo’s fiction into academic conversations aids in opposing a singular understanding of modernity and pushes for a less euro-centric presentation of modernist studies. [3] 

My analysis of Aidoo’s work relies upon observations from the article ‘Subverting Social Customs’ by Shirin Edwin (2008), which states that ‘food, eating habits, and culinary customs in West African societies are embedded with deep social symbolisms and meanings signifying kinship ties, friendship, political relations, and social status’.[2] Aidoo’s texts both reflect and subvert these symbolisms in a manner which evokes the restricted freedom experienced by the female protagonists; these struggles are amplified by the lasting legacies of European colonial power structures that favour men[4] .

In Aidoo’s novels food is a marker of difference, both in culture and gender. Our Sister Killjoy tells the story of a young woman named Sissie who travels to Europe; ‘For Sissie to leave home is to amplify her perspectives; it is for her to know that a Western-sponsored modernity is implicated in an unequal distribution of economic, social and psychic resources’.[3] We follow Sissie’s journey to Frankfurt, where her survey of the city[5] [6]  reveals this inequality and cultural difference at every turn, embedded even in a new friend’s vegetable garden:

Sissie saw several kinds of vegetables thriving. She recognised an old old friend. Tomato  […] there were real fruit trees in the garden. Sissie asked Marija to walk around with her while she tried to identify apples, pears, plums, with her mind thrown back to textbook illustrations at home:[4]

Food here marks difference, not only in geographical landscape, but in cultural understanding,  education, and visibility. Sissie has a moment of identification when she sees the old friend tomato, but the alien[7]  fruits and vegetables in Marija’s garden remind her only of her difference; she is forced to think back to her school education in order to read these unknown plants, creating a level of distance. The fact that she learned of these European plants in school[8] [9]  when she would never encounter them in her home country signals the lasting imprint of colonialism in the West African education system, in which students were taught about non-native fruits while African trees and plants went ‘unmentioned in Geography notes’.[5] In this scene, Sissie is confronted by her cultural invisibility and the comparable lack of western awareness about Africa: an image of euro-centric modernity.

In Changes, a novel focused on the complicated lives of African working women, food is also a signifier of cultural difference, but it is national heritage that is referenced. Ali comments on the difference between his two wives:

[Esi] cooked like nobody else he knew or had known. In fact, until he met her, he had not considered fish as an edible protein […] Fusena his wife was not at all a bad cook. But like him, she had come out of a meat-eating culture and dealing with fresh fish was not one of her stronger points in the kitchen.[6]

This marker of difference between the women indicates Esi’s coastal upbringing, her expertise at cooking fish stems from meat being generally unavailable to her, and the reverse is true for Fusena, for whom fish is rare. To Ali, who is like Fusena and unused to fish, Esi presents a new and exciting experience. Women are depicted like these foods; Fusena has become a repetitive and dull menu for Ali, who is excited by the change brought to his table by Esi[10] .

This introduces the use of food in relation to gender in Aidoo’s work, positioning men[11] [12]  as the consumers; ‘devouring gods’;[7] who demand sustenance from the women to the point of excess.  Oko, Esi’s first husband, uses a particularly relevant image to describe the women in his life, saying: ‘He soon found himself comparing the two women to beverages, and concluding that if Esi had been liquor this young woman was definitely going to be fruit juice’.[8] This self-serving metaphor elicits Oko’s desire for his relationships to cater to his cravings, and that women are products to be consumed by men. This is an apt metaphor as Oko and Esi’s marriage falls apart because of Oko’s overwhelming appetite for Esi, demanding sexual satisfaction from her despite her reluctance. We learn in the novel that ‘traditionally, there is no such thing as “marital rape”’,[9] that sex is merely another thing the wife must serve her husband at his request. Nada Elia states that, ‘Aidoo presents us with the more “concrete” reality of African women’s limiting factors, an un-adorned portrayal of the complex web of frustration making up the everyday lives of contemporary West African women’.[10] These food-based metaphors reflect this concrete reality by imposing this idea of consumption upon the female body.

While in Changes these food based metaphors enforce strict marriage roles, Our Sister Killjoy manipulates these roles through food[13] . Sissie and Marija’s friendship revolves around the times they spend eating together and talking about food. Marija takes the role of carer, nurturing Sissie by feeding her. This is only possible as Marija’s husband is too busy to come home for mealtimes, so Sissie is briefly able to enjoy the male luxury of having food provided to her and being encouraged to indulge in it. Sissie also provides relief for Marija, she is temporary escape from her isolating role as mother with a financially present but otherwise absent father. In line with my opening quote, we see Marija and Sissie become family through their sharing of food despite their lack of blood or legal ties[14] . However, Sissie is aware of problems in this friendship— she constantly genders their relationship, highlighting how much easier it would be if she were male and mourning the loneliness of femaleness as she feels she is forever denied this reciprocal caring relationship. Kofi Owusu observes that ‘”Our Sister” has, out of necessity, developed the ability to “see with half an eye”’.[11] Referring to the subtitle of this novel ‘or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint’, Owusu points to Sissie’s inability to fully absorb herself in this new culture, always partially distanced by her difference.  While enjoying this brief escape from gender roles, Sissie realises that this relationship is unsustainable because of the cultural conditions that still exist to her, which prevents two women from feeding and caring for each other in such a way. 

In both novels, the women’s struggles for independence and fulfilling relationships involve fighting against these consuming gender roles, and in both cases Aidoo uses the ‘organic function of food within West African Societies  – its deep rooted symbolism and significance – [to] empower the literary and social agenda of the novelist in unravelling the complexities of African societies’.[12]


Sources

[1] Shirin Edwin, ‘Subverting Social Customs: The Representation of Food in Three West African Francophone Novels’, Research in African Literatures, 39:3 (2008), p. 40.

[2] Edwin (2008), p. 39.

[3] Kwaku Larbi Korang, ‘Ama Ata Aidoo’ s Voyage Out: Mapping the Coordinates of Modernity and African Selfhood in Our Sister Killjoy’, Kunapipi, 14:3 (1992), p. 54.

[4] Ama Ata Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy (Essex: Longman, 1977), p. 37.

[5] Aidoo (1977), p. 38

[6] Ama Ata Aidoo, Changes (Oxford: Harcourt, 1991), p. 76.

[7] Aidoo (1991), p. 110.

[8] Aidoo (1991), p. 71.

[9] Rose Sackeyfio, “Altered Spaces: Interrogating Tradition and Modernity in Ama Ata Aidoo’s “Changes”.” Obsidian, 8:2 (2007), p. 75.

[10] Nada Elia, ‘”To Be an African Working Woman”: Levels of Feminist Consciousness in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes”’, Research in African Literatures, 30:2 (1999), p. 136.

[11] Kofi Owusu, ‘Canons Under Siege: Blackness, Femaleness, and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy’, Callaloo, 13:2 (1990), p. 351.

[12]  Edwin (2008), p. 49.

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