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Book Details

Empathy and Rage

Empathy And Rage

Editors Tobe Levin, Augustine H. Asaah



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ISBN: 978-0-9555079-4-6 | 224 pages | Weight: 0.38kg | Paperback | Published 2009 | Rights: World

Categories: African | Black Interest | Critical Essays / Criticism | Women | FGM | Culture | International |


Empathy and Rage - these words bracket a spectrum of feelings people confront when they think about the millions of women and girls who have undergone bolokoli, takhoundi, tukore, or gudni'in - names in local languages for a procedure that mutilates women's private parts or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
This pioneering collection discusses representations of female genital mutilation as a theme in literary art. The contributors - both scholars and activists - join together to analyse African and African-American literature in the context of the debate between those who see FGM as a time-honoured tradition and those who recognise it as a human rights abuse.

Key Selling Points

  • This collection is a first - scholars analyse this subject as a theme in literature.
  • In an unusual symbiosis, activism and scholarship join hands to hasten the end of this egregious human rights abuse.
  • The collection examines representations in creative writing by African and African- Americans including Nura Abdi, Mariama Barry, Calixthe Beyala, Osman Conteh, Waris Dirie, Nuruddin Farah, Fatou Keita, Fadumo Korn, Ahmadou Kourouma, Christian Mambou, Nawal El
    Saadawi, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Awa Thiam and Alice Walker. et al.
  • In their efforts to end FGM, the governments of Germany, the UK, Italy and the European Union (Brussels) have drawn on the expertise of Tobe Levin who has written many articles and chapters for books on FGM.
  • Contributors to the collection include: Anne V. Adams, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, Muthoni Mathai, Marianne Sarkis and a translation from the French of contributor Herzberger-Fofana's obituary placing it in the context of the work as a dedication to Sembene Ousmane, a true African pioneer of the exposure of this practice through film.


DURA - January 2013


Empathy and Rage: Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature

Tobe Levin and Augustine H.Asaah eds.
(Ayebia Clarke, 2009); pbk.16.99.

Empathy and Rage is a comprehensive and informative collection of essays from twelve contributors on literary representations of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or Female circumcision, in African and Diaspora literature, film and other media.   The book also provides an insight into the actualities of the practice itself, its geographical location and the history of the anti-FGM movement.  Far more than a simple examination of the use of FGM as a plot device, the volume considers how these representations of the practice can be used towards political and educational ends, and ultimately to "move the discourse from complacency, misplaced patience and under-estimation of the challenges African activists face to a more compassionate understanding, increased solidarity and, ideally, personal engagement on and at their sides".   In short, the book aims to contribute to the anti-FGM campaign.

However, although Levin makes no secret of her allegiances (she could hardly do so given her active participation in anti-FGM campaigns since 1977), the book is far from  just a one sided polemic against FGM.  In fact, one of its greatest strengths is the division of the book into three sections, devised in Levin's words to add a “controversial piquancy” to the proceedings.  So we are presented with the “Empathizers”, the “Enraged” and the “Engaged”.  Whilst none of the contributors are actively pro-FGM, this structure does allow for a spectrum of opinions amongst those who agree that the practice is harmful to women.    In “From Women's Rite to Human Rights Issue: Literary Explorations of Female Genital Excision since Facing Mount Kenya (1938)”, Elizabeth Bekkers concentrates on literary analysis, avoiding discussion of the violence or politics of the act itself and choosing moderate terminology (referring to the act itself, for example, as “Female Genital Excision”).  In contrast, Marianne Sarkis, an “Enraged” contributor, does not shy away from quoting graphic descriptions from the autobiographies which her chapter “Somali Womanhood: A Re-visioning” analyses, nor from illustrating to the reader the violent reactions that African women who speak out about FGM have to endure.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower and Fadumo Korn's Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival are also used by Sarkis to challenge “traditional” anthropological views of women in Somali culture and society.  Anne V. Adams’ “The Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Novel in Public Education: An Example from Ghana” further demonstrates the volume's engagement with various literary models, giving a detailed examination of the use of  Annor Nimako's Mutilated as a text for educating readers on the medical dangers of FGM, both in practicing and non-practicing communities.

The “Engaged” section not only provides a different treatment of the subject but also a different content structure. Pierrette Herzberger- Fofana opens the section with her “Excision and African Literature: An Activist Annotated Bibliographical Excursion”, a thorough exploration of the literature on FGM.  This is followed by Muthoni Mathai's “creative non-fiction memoir” in which she describes several incidents in her own life in which FGM was of crucial importance.  Through these incidents, Muthai explains the reasons (nationalism/tribalism and fear of AIDS)behind a revival of the practice of clitoridectomy  amongst the Kikuyu tribe in her native Kenya.  The section closes with excerpts from Nura Abdi and Leo G.Linder's “Tranen im Sand” (Desert Tears).  The dramatic and violent description of the infibulation of a four year old girl in these extracts leaves us , ultimately, with a better grasp of the reality of this violent “operation”.

This work should be of interest to anybody already “Engaged” with the issue of FGM, but also to anyone who is interested in becoming so.


Fiona MacHugh




"A thorough discussion and education on the subject of female circumcision-whether driven by rage, empathy, or engagement-is important. By focusing on creative writing as the site of discussion, this book provides a multifaced education. A must read."-Ngugi wa Thiong'o

"An important collection on an important subject that some misguided cultural nationalists would rather keep wrapped under the silences and perversions of tradition.... It derives its freshness and power from its excavation of representations in the works of African and Diasporan writers."-Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, University of Illinois at Chicago.


African Studies Review
Volume 53, Number 2, September 2010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This timely and provocative book addresses the controversial issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and offers innovative and practical strategies for curbing its practices across the globe. It is arguably the first edited volume of essays on FGM as a literary theme. The contributors empathize with the victims of FGM and show their rage toward the perpetrators of this violent act.

The essays are organized into three sections, with an introduction that provides a background to the focus of the book. The section entitled "Empathizers" has four essays. Elizabeth Beker's "From Women's Rite to Human Rights Issue: Literary Explorations of Female Genital Excision since Facing Mount Kenya (1938)" offers a critique of precursor texts about FGM, including Kenyatta's, Huxley's, Ngugi's, Waciuma's, and Likimani's. The second paper, Stephen Bishop's "Oppositional Approaches to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in African Literature," argues that literature is an ideal vehicle for discussing a wide range of issues, including feminism, human rights, and religious and political fundamentalism. The third paper, Tameka L. Cage's "Going Home Again: Diaspora, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Kingship in 'Warrior Marks,'" reveals that Alice Walker's concepts of "diasporic dreams" and "sisterhood" provide a lens through which one can understand the crucial issues in Warrior Marks, especially the politics of race, place, and trauma. The fourth paper is Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez's "Mother as a Verb: The Erotic, Audre Lorde and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)," which dwells on the injurious practice through theorizations of female sexuality and eroticism.

The second section of the book, "Enraged," includes four essays that center on writers who display much stronger anger against FGM. Augustine H. Asaah's "Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Ambivalence, Indictment and Commitment in Sub-Saharan African Fiction" investigates the treatment of FGM in selected African narratives. To him, FGM requires sustained scrutiny and debate until it is abolished because it is a sensitive, emotional issue. Anne V. Adams's "The Anti-female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Novel in Public Education: An Example from Ghana" focuses on Annor Nimako's Mutilated to argue for effective social change through literary texts in education. Tobe Levin's "What's Wrong with Mariam? Gloria Naylor's Infibu-lated Jew" offers a pungent critique of Naylor's Bailey's Café, especially her characterization of Mariam and the rationale behind having made the genitally mutilated character a Jew. Marianne Sarkis's "Somali Womanhood: A Re-visionary" contains a lament for the underexamined life-writings of Somali women and the ways in which their life narrations have been left to the inventiveness of androcentric anthropologists and historians who tacitly approve of the practice of FGM as an aspect of traditional codes of honor.

The third section, "Engaged," comprises three papers that interrogate vehemently the practice of FGM. In "Excision and African Literature: An Activist Annotated Bibliographical Excursion," Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana attempts a diachronic reading of increasingly militant discourses on FGM in Nigeria from Nwapa to Aminata Maigaka. Muthoni Mathai's "Who's Afraid of Female Sexuality" is a creative nonfiction memoir on FGM written from the point of view of a physician, activist, and researcher. Nura Abdi and Leo G. Linder's "Tränen im Sand/Desert Tears" is a collection of excerpts dedicated to all the world's women, both victims and nonvictims of FGM. It offers a deconstruction of the various justifications given for the cultural practice and captures the agony and suffering of the victims.

Commendably, the book covers the spectrum of feelings that exist about the millions of girls and women who have undergone FGM. The strength of the book is its multidisciplinary approach to the issue. The authors have shown searing and unsparing temper, corroborating the time-honored role of writers, in the words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They have apprehended the practice in a visceral way, with freshness and innovation.

Copyright © 2010 African Studies Association
Project MUSE®

About the Editors

Tobe Levin is a Professor at the University of Maryland College in Europe, an adjunct to the University of Frankfurt, and non-resident Fellow, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University. Levin became an activist against FGM in 1977 and co-founded FORWARD - Germany, a registered charity modelled on FORWARD UK, in 1998.

Augustine H. Asaah is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Ghana where he teaches African Francophone Literature and has pioneered research into African feminist literature and gender-based violence in African fiction.

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