THE EDITOR: On women’s stories

As the aftershocks of #MeToo continue to reverberate around the world, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS reflects on the role of social media and publishing in the sharing of women’s stories.

Alexander Matthews

Days after revelations that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually preyed on dozens of women, actress Alyssa Milano invited women to respond with “Me too” if they had ever experienced sexual harassment or assault. Respond they certainly did. According to The Guardian, #MeToo was shared nearly a million times in 48 hours on Twitter while there were more than 12m comments and reactions to the hashtag on Facebook in 24 hours.

The viral campaign not only highlighted the devastating ubiquity of inappropriate – and in many cases downright predatory – behaviour towards women. It also illustrated how social media can be powerful platforms to share stories, giving much-needed oxygen to previously-hidden narratives, and becoming catalysts for listening and support among those affected as well as their friends, families and colleagues.

The sharing of these stories have emboldened many women who – fearing indifference, recrimination or retribution – had remained silent until now. New allegations of sexual misconduct have been levelled against a number of MPs and ministers in the UK, for example.

As I followed the aftershocks of #MeToo reverberating around the world, I started thinking about home. South Africa has a long, inglorious history of silencing and marginalising women. Sexual violence remains rampant, with many perpetrators going unpunished.

While fiction, memoir and poetry don’t have the power to stop the violence or destroy a patriarchy that cuts across race, class and culture, these modes of storytelling can, however, inspire change and connection and facilitate catharsis, healing and solidarity.

Recognising this, in 2015 radio presenter Nancy Richards established a dedicated Women’s Library in Cape Town through the NGO she founded, Women’s Zone. In addition to more than 1000 books (everything from self-help to fiction), the space at Artscape hosts panels, launches and workshops.

Richards says, “Not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.”

A decade ago, Colleen Higgs bravely launched a woman-focused publishing press. Since then, Modjaji Books has published 16 short story collections, 21 novels, and 41 books of poetry – ushering new voices into the public consciousness – often books that mainstream publishers have deemed too risky to take on.

Encouragingly, those mainstream publishers appear to have increasingly diverse lists. Some of the most buzzed-about books of the year were by women writers of colour – and dealt with gender issues head-on. I’m thinking of the memoirs by writer/activist Sisonke Msimang (Always Another Country) and outspoken feminist academic Pumla Dineo Gqola (Reflecting Rogue). I’m thinking of Kwezi, Redi Tlhabi’s heartbreaking account of the woman who accused our president of raping her. And I’m thinking of Business Day journalist Rehana Rossouw’s second novel, New Times.

New Times is about a female journalist in Cape Town at the dawn of our democracy. When Rossouw was asked at her recent launch why she had chosen fiction to explore this epoch instead of memoir (after all, she was a journalist in the same place at the same time) she said: “The stories we don’t write are always more interesting than the ones we do.”

She explained that – paradoxically – writing fiction gave her the freedom to write the truth.

The risks of speaking out remain too great for some women, particularly when their abusers marshal considerable power and influence (as they often tend to). I was reminded of this when I discovered that a friend of mine had walked out of her high-powered job at a major brand because she could no longer bear being sexually harassed by her boss. She was advised to sign the nondisclosure agreement and accept the hush money she was offered – because her lawyer assured her that the company’s all-powerful legal department would crush her if she didn’t. She could see what lay ahead – an exhausting lengthy legal battle, her reputation shattered, with scant support from those in her industry with whom a relationship with this brand is more important than sticking up for what is right.

One day I hope she writes a novel about it. Because we need constant reminding of what we might know but choose to ignore: that in the age of equal rights, misogyny is alive and well. It might be more sophisticated and less obvious – but through bullying, manipulation, cover-ups and collusion – it is rife. Shining a light on it won’t make it disappear, but it will contribute to the groundswell of desperately needed change, as we work towards building a truly non-sexist society.

Visit www.womanzonect.com to find out more about the Women’s Library Cape Town.

This column first appeared in WANTED magazine.

EVENT: Lunch with CURRY author Ishay Govender-Ypma

AERODROME and MASALA DOSA invite you to join Ishay Govender-Ypma for an intimate three-course lunch as she chats with Ming-Cheau Lin about her book CURRY: Stories & Recipes Across South Africa.

Curry

When: 12.30, Saturday 3 February (the conversation begins at 13.00 sharp)
Where: Masala Dosa – 167 Long Street, Cape Town

Tickets: R170 (vegetarian option) | R185 (meat option)
Price is for a three-course meal. Drinks will be available at an extra cost.

Booking is essential as seating is limited to 30 people.

How to book:
1. Email riyaz@masaladosa.co.za with the number of guests and their dietary preferences.
2. You will then be supplied with the restaurant’s banking details.
3. Make an EFT, and email proof of payment to secure your booking.

Books will be available for purchase.

About the author:

Ishay Govender-Ypma is a freelance travel, food and culture journalist and writer (former lawyer). She focuses on stories that delve into the human interest, grit and quirk of a place. Her research-based heritage book Curry: Stories & Recipes Across South Africa (Human & Rousseau) launched last year and has been selected the winner in two categories to represent South Africa, including Best Book Overall, at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, May 2018. Govender-Ypma’s journalism has appeared in many local and international publications, including National Geographic, Sunday Times Travel magazine (UK) and SAA’s inflight magazine Sawubona. Food and the Fabulous is her own food and travel website. She was selected by the Mail & Guardian as one of their 200 Top Young South Africans for 2014, for contributions to media.

POEMS by Kyle Allan

Watching birds

There are those times when
my son and I stand by the window
and look outside, brief moments
when we look out the window
and we are silent. Moments
when neither of us speak, when
we are not working or playing
or watching TV or arguing, moments
when we do not use words,
but just stand in that dumbed silence
seeing the colours of blue, dull
brown, yellow, glossy black, the jumping
around on the lawn, the sudden wingspread
and flight up into the sky with ease
that we can never reach. We watch all
this, saying nothing. We stand
next to each other in the room
looking out the window
in silence, watching birds.

Metaphysics

Hot day, growing hotter.
Poetry won’t come.
War is coming in the Middle East,
and you in blue skirt
and bare feet
bringing me water. Sweat
on your dark eyelids,
glistening in the solid heat.

Trends

Trends will come and go,
but the washing never ends.