Celebrating Writers Who Defy All the Odds

October 22, 1997

Lena Williams,  The New York Times

From the realms she calls ''the outposts of the Empire,'' Ama Ata Aidoo, the Ghanaian poet, and novelist have reached a far larger world.

        Ms. Aidoo's words touched Jean (Binta) Breeze, a young poet in Sandy Bay, Jamaica, and cured her writer's block. They found Ramona Lofton, the writer known as Sapphire, in Prof. Jerome Brooks's class at the City College of New York and led her to write her first novel, ''Push,'' and a critically acclaimed collection of poems, ''American Dreams.'' Michele Wallace, the author of ''Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,'' said Ms. Aidoo helped reaffirm her faith in the power of the written word.

        Wherever Ms. Aidoo appeared last week during a conference at New York University for female writers of African descent, she was greeted with the kind of reverence reserved for heads of state. She looked the part, in a royal blue and ivory African boubou that cascaded to the floor.

        In many ways, Ms. Aidoo exemplifies what the three-day conference celebrated: black women from around the world sharing literary works and accomplishments. The author, who has walked with two canes since an automobile accident a few years ago, has written two plays and published a collection of short stories and poems. She is most noted for two novels, ''Our Sister Killjoy'' and ''Changes,'' about the joys and struggles of contemporary African women.

''As a young women growing up in Ghana, I didn't know that as a woman I wasn't supposed to write,'' Ms. Aidoo said during one quiet moment in an otherwise hectic day. ''Those of us who started to write so early were at an advantage because we didn't know what was good for us, in terms of one's self as a writer.''

Still, it took another 15 years ''for me to begin to describe myself as a writer,'' she said. ''On the one hand, I had no problem writing. On the other hand, I clearly had a problem conceiving myself as a writer.''

The conference, titled ''Yari Yari'' (''The Future,'' in the Kuranko language of Sierra Leone), drew more than 100 novelists, poets, dramatists and filmmakers from Africa, South America, Europe and the United States. At times the atmosphere was as joyous as a sorority meeting. But there were also somber moments as women discussedcustoms and cultures that mute their voices and deny validity to their experience.

''The most effective way of silencing women writers is simply to ignore their books,'' Meredith Tax, a novelist, essayist and historian, said during a discussion of freedom of expression and censorship. ''Editors do not assign them for review, male critics refuse to read them, and husbands tear up their manuscripts or tell their wives to put their manuscript back in the drawer.''

To that, Ms. Aidoo responded: ''Ah, some of our sisters in Africa would say: 'You are so lucky. You mean your husband said nicely, 'Oh, put that in the drawer'?'' -- implying that in Africa more serious consequences would occur.

The conference, which its sponsors said was the first of its kind to focus on female writers in the African diaspora, was born of frustration, a sense that the world was giving short shrift to the literature of women of African descent, especially those living outside the United States. Participants appealed to book publishers and the academic world to include a diversity of voices and cultures in their staffs and syllabuses.

''If it were not for the existence of feminist-controlled alternative presses, many works of creation and social criticism by women writers would not be published at all,'' said Ms. Aidoo. Two of her books, ''Changes'' and ''No Sweetness,'' the story andpoem collection, are published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

She recalled a conversation in 1992 with a German publisher at the Zimbabwe book fair that Europeans were ''tired of hearing about colonialism and wanted to hear something fresh, something new.''

''It is a wonder women write at all,'' said Ms. Aidoo, a woman in her 50's who has managed to balance writing with motherhood, a government career and three years in exile in Britain because of threats on her life in her homeland.

''Whenever people refer to me as successful, I am always surprised,'' said Ms. Aidoo, a co-founder of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, based in New York City, in 1991. The group was a sponsor of the conference with New York University's Africana Studies Program.

''I am just so honored to be amongst such successful female writers,'' she said. ''If we did nothing but have this conference, it would be fine with me. But we need more than this to help us carry on and to insure that there will be many more successes.''