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.

POEM: How to heal a wound

BY PORTIA MABASO

You take a bowl of warm water, add a spoonful of sea salt,
dip cotton into the bowl and apply the contents to the wound.
The result is piercing pain and grandmother swears that’s the sign of the medicine working.
Basically, hurt the place that hurts; help the pain run its course for healing to come.
Name these things.
Uncle Joe touched me without consent.
Yes, it’s a blue eye, my boyfriend hit me
And no, I will not put make up on it.
All feeling stays for as long as it must.
This is the same for bad feelings as much as the good ones.

When you are done salting your wound (which is the same as flavoring it), sterilize your room, open the windows, rollup the curtains and let the breeze soothe the wound.
This she says because wounds hidden in bandages rot and take long to heal so free it from all coverings.
This morning I had coals for breakfast and they tasted like dead trees protesting in flames the axe that chopped them, the hand that kindled them and the match that set them ablaze.
In place of full and satisfied, I had sparks dancing in my stomach.
When fire meets fire, and you are the subject in between, pray that you are precious enough to be refined and not burnt alive.
I write with breath in my lungs, the remedy must be working.

REVIEW: Grace

MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

BOOK CLUB: Rape: A South African Nightmare

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare is a harrowingly incisive analysis of one of South Africa’s greatest scourges, writes TARAH CHILDES.Rape

Consider, for a moment, our country’s label as the rape capital of the world and then reflect on your reaction to it. No doubt you will feel outraged, frustrated by your sense of hopelessness and perceived inability to help turn the tide against this “endemic” issue. And you would not be alone. As a society, we are overwhelmed by rape: we express our collective horror and shock at each new incident that makes headlines, but to what effect?

It is this repetitive discourse around the taboo, often mysterious and always complex subject that writer, feminist and professor, Pumla Dineo Gqola examines and challenges in Rape: A South African Nightmare – a worthy winner of the Sunday Times 2016 Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction.

In a series of succinct, analytical chapters, Gqola explores the culture of rape and its normalisation into our country’s social makeup, systematically interrogating our assumptions and attitudes from multiple angles and making sense of rape’s complex relationship to our past as well as its conflation with gender, sex and race.

Beginning by dismantling the idea that rape is a post 1994 problem, Gqola traces it back to its violent colonial roots and use as a tool of subjugation in our past slavocratic society —supported by a system that classified black women as legally “unrapable”, while simultaneously casting black men as sexually ravenous and dangerous. This dynamic continued to be institutionalised under apartheid — a time in which “no white men were hanged for rape and the only black men who were hanged for rape were convicted of raping white women”. This formed a patriarchal structure that supported “violent masculinity” as a means of control, rendering women compliant and silent.

The initial chapter creates a useful structure from which to tackle the rest of the book — in which Gqola explores high-profile cases that include the trials of Jacob Zuma, Bob Hewitt, Makhaya Nthini and the rapes of Baby Tshepang, Anene Booysen and Eudy Simelane.

She uses each prominent example not only to debunk prevalent myths about rape, but also to draw attention to our collective and individual reactions to each case, with alarming and unsettling questions about who we deem “rapable” and how and where we apportion blame. Most striking, she points out, is the way in which we demand rape victims to behave and to look — using our prejudice to discredit victims when they do not meet our expectations in what she terms a “violent system that forces victims to ‘prove’ their lived trauma”.

Gqola raises the issue of child molestation and rape to make two important points. The first, that rape is about sex, or that rape victims somehow invite or deserve to be rape because of what they wear or how they behave. The rape of Baby Tshepang, amongst others, defies this logic. The second idea Gqola tackles is our perception that it is somehow more depraved to rape a child rather than a woman. This, she states, diminishes the experience of so many victims and excuses the behaviour of certain perpetrators. “It’s a problem when we show that some rapes are more gruesome than others,” she writes. “What I want to show is that it’s the same thing. I want to show that all rapes are gruesome.”

Most illuminating was the fourth chapter entitled “The Female Fear Factory” – where Gqola details how our society is constructed in such a way that women and those who don’t confirm to gendered stereotypes are taught to fear rape and violence, and are thus controlled as well as devalued. She writes:

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check… It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings.

She makes use of the responses to the rape and murder of Bredasdorp resident, Anene Booysen, to emphasise this point, adding that while we sympathised and mourned her tragic rape and death, we were quick to add that she shouldn’t have been out drinking at night, that she shouldn’t have walked the streets – “all behaviour that patriarchy says is inappropriate for good girls”. Rather than appointing blame on the perpetrators who brutally attacked and tortured her, we criticised the circle around Anene for not protecting her from harm — thus further entrenching the idea that it is women who should fear rape, instead of those who rape being made afraid or deterred from doing so.

The crux of Gqola’s book is the chapter on President Zuma’s rape trial — a time she describes as “a watershed moment for what it highlighted about societal attitudes that had previously been slightly out of view”. The rape charge was laid by the woman we know as Khwezi, a well-known HIV-positive activist and a daughter of a friend of Zuma’s. By examining excerpts from media coverage at the time, Gqola notes the way in which both Khwezi and the president were framed, and the worrying way in which we repeatedly diminished the importance of the rape incident, instead expressing views that shamed Khwezi and protected the president. Most troubling is the justice system that allowed Khwezi’s previous sexual history to be admitted as evidence in a bid to categorise her as “unrapable” while relabelling her self-identified status as a gay woman as “bisexual”.

Rape is not an easy book to read. This, of course, is not because it is not exceptionally well written—the academic language is refreshingly accessible and engaging — but because of the odious subject Gqola so methodically interrogates. I reflected on my own reluctance to read the book, identifying with the tendency to divert our gaze and thus enable “violent masculinities” to flourish under what Gqola terms the “cult of femininity”.

Gqola wisely offers no immediate solutions to our country’s complex and entrenched rape crisis. But, by interrupting the insidious and unspoken language of rape and rape culture, she helps us to envision a future in which rape does not exist — and that, as Gqola so emphatically concludes, is one we deserve, and one we must all fight to create.

Rape is published by Jacana. Read an extract of the book here.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Rape. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 November 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.