Opening Spaces, edited by Yvonne Vera

Yvonne Vera, in her introduction to Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women’s Writing (1999) , states:

“Africa is as diverse as its womanhood as it is in its disillusionment. Our reference to an African womanhood is a mere trope, a way of ordering, much too limiting.  Yet the purpose of an anthology is also to create unities, to motivate strengths, and offer a signature. In this collection the aim is to create a circle…joined by land, by the evidence of the eyes, by current struggles, by a hunger for escape”.

Opening spaces is what the women in these fifteen stories do as they forge new values and new modes of relating to traditional systems and expectations.  Some desperately need to escape confinement, whether physical, mental or emotional. Exerting their agency in opening these spaces, some will succeed, others will barely escape with their lives but all reveal a need for solidarity and an acceptance of just who they are.  Nothing more and nothing less.

Stories in the anthology include:

  • Ama Ata Aidoo’s The Girl Who Can in which a seven-year-old shows her grandmother a new way of looking at a woman’s body:

…one should be able to do other things with legs was well as have them because they can support hips that make babies.

  • In Lindsay Collen’s Enigma, a  teenager executes a plan, which will compromise her own education and life, in order to free herself from the stifling confines of her patriarchal home.
  • What startles, in Farida Karodia’s Red Velvet Dress, is not young Katrina’s murder of her abusive father but her mother’s inability to occupy the space that she, the mother, had opened by daring to associate with people outside her Afrikaner society in apartheid South Africa.
  • In Leila Aboulela’s The Museum a  young Sudanese woman, studying in Scotland, finds she enjoys the company of a fellow white student. She is engaged, by arrangement, to a man she does not care for.  In the end, she cannot occupy this new space of loving:

“If she had been strong she would have explained , and not tired of explaining.  She would have patiently taught him another language, letters curved like epsilon and gamma he knew from mathematics.  She would have shown him that words could be read from right to left.  If she had not been small in the museum, if she had been really strong, she would have made his trip to Mecca real, not only in a book.”

  • Gugu Ndlovu’s The Barrel of a Pen is a harrowing account to a back-street abortion, a portrayal of feminine ties and ends with a search for family.

These women are certainly spirited and some readily employ anger and shocking tactics to demand their due and space:

  • It is amazing what a plate of rice can achieve in Ifeoma Okoye’s The Power of a Plate of Rice.  And no, there are no food fights in this story where a harassed schoolteacher confronts her tyrannical headmaster.
  • Lilia Momple’s Stress is a dreamy story of one woman’s disintegration and decay.  She lives well while, all around her, people suffer the effects of corruption and national mismanagement.  But she is not satisfied and dreams of consuming one man’s small and hard life.

Anna Dao’s The Perfect Wife upends the usual portrayal of women in polygamy when co-wives forge an enduring, loving relationship when forced to confront life alone when their husband dies just as he returns from fighting in World War I.

I was really by touched by The Home-Coming, Milly Jafta’s gentle story. A mother retires to her  home after a forty-year period working as a domestic help and finds comfort in her daughter.

“In her calm voice she repeated the question, asking whether she was walking too fast for me.  Oh dear God, what kindness.  Someone was actually asking me whether I could keep up.  Not telling me to walk faster, to have no males in my room, to get up earlier, to pay more attention, to wash the dog… I was overcome.  Tears filled my eyes.  My throat tightened, but my spirit soared.  The stranger, my daughter, took the case from her head and put it on the ground next to her… “

Some stories are conventional while others are experimental.  All look at women’s lives, but also cover a range of social, economic, familial and societal issues.  The writers are from East, West and Southern African with one from North Africa. I would have like to see stories from North Africa.  Also, it appears that there are three translated stories (out of fifteen) though it is hard to tell because translators, regrettably, are not mentioned.  All my issues aside, the anthology is a truly enjoyable book and I’m happy to have discovered it again.

Opening Spaces itself opened a space from which African Love Stories emerged.  Credit is due to Nana Ayebia Clarke, formerly of Heinemann, and now of Ayebia Publishing for her work on these two anthologies.


The rest of the stories in anthology are:

Deciduous Gazettes [Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Zimbabwe]
Uncle Bunty [Norma Kitson, South Africa]
The Betrayal [Veronique Tadjo, Cote d’Ivoire]
Crocodile Tails [Chiedza Musengezi, Zimbabwe]
Night Thoughts [Monde Sifuniso, Zambia]
A Sense of Outrage (Sindiwe Magona, South Africa)



  1. I loved this collection, and was particularly struck by how they resist pigeon-holing. And wow, so interesting that this book opened the space for African Love Stories, which, um, I’m hoping to win on Amy’s giveaway 🙂


  2. Fantastic to know that this book helped pave the way for African Love Stories. I really enjoyed this collection, I felt it allowed such a variety of voices and expressions. Glad to see your review!


  3. I just added this anthology to my wishlist. “The Perfect Wife” sounds fascinating. I’ve always been interested in reading more about Africa’s involvement in WWI – and I find sometimes fiction can humanize historical periods and events in a ways non-fiction doesn’t seem able to.

    Thanks for the review!


    • In fact, the story would make an amazing book. I wonder whether the author thought of doing that. Lost of themes are covered: WWI, colonialism, domestic issues, polygamy, the family, and more, all in one short story.


  4. I’ve not read this anthology but from Kinna’s review, I’ve been touced by the Homecoming. How often do we overlook that the domestic worker or housemaid is also a human being, who feels emotions like anger, resentment, jealousy and has needs, desires, and yes, ambitions beyond scrubbing feals off dogs and wearing hand-me-downs. I dare say that they come with their own load of problems, that some of them cause disruption in the families in which they work, but all in all we must not lose sight of the fact that their emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing go a long way in ensuring the wellness of our own homes and families.


    • It is a very touching story about the return of a mother to her family after working 40 years away from the town in which her family lives. It’s very well-written. Her daughter bridges the gap between them quickly, helping her mother feel more at ease. A very emotional story but it does not go overboard at all.


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