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.

10 QUESTIONS: Nancy Richards

Nancy Richards, executive director of Woman Zone, tells us about The Woman’s Library Cape Town which the NGO launched in 2015.

Firstly — why a Women’s Library?

Why not? Women’s Marches, Men’s Clubs… it’s a focus. But it’s more than a Women’s Library: it’s a hub – a meeting, workshopping, sharing space. And just to be clear, at this stage, it’s a reference not a lending library.

How did it come about, and who was involved in getting it up and running?

Working on a woman’s magazine and a woman’s radio show for many years, as a journalist (and founder of Woman Zone), I acquired a huge amount of books relating to women. As a collection and a resource, they cried out for a room of their own. The Woman Zone team – whose goal is to unite the women of Cape Town and celebrate their achievements – looked long and hard for such a space. Eventually, after partnering with Artscape and their Women’s Humanity Festival, CEO Marlene le Roux kindly offered us the cube-shaped office we occupy now, conveniently next to the Box Office on the ground floor of the theatre complex.

How many books are there and where were they sourced from?

We’ve stopped counting, but well over 1000 and the figure rises. So they’ve come from my original original collection, from donations, and authors who have had launches at the Library. Initially we had no shelves – just lots of boxes and a small mobile tin unit, courtesy Qualibooks which held 100 or so volumes, and at the launch guests sat on the floor! When the Cape Town World Design capital team broke up their office space at the end of 2014, they donated us some furniture and Steven Harris of Furnspace donated us book shelves. We’ve since bought more – but still more are needed (if you have any to spare).

What kind of books have been selected and what were the reasons for their selection.

Like many of the best things in life, they were less selected than happened. As mentioned above, they are the fruit of collections and donations. Having said that, there are some we have declined, as you can imagine. What kind of books? Hmm, how do we single any out without showing favouritism? Well, there are books that can help – on law, self-assertion, rape, divorce, cooking etc. Novels that can inspire, transport, delight, reveal, charm, make you understand or angry. A very good selection from most of South Africa’s best known women writers – Antjie Krog, Matshilo Motsei, Rehana Roussow, Ingrid Jonker, Angela Makholwa etc etc – as we speak, the very latest addition is Always Another Country: memoir of exile and home by Sisonke Msimang. International authors are also well represented.  But special are the ones that have been donated by the authors – sometimes self-published. Like Surviving Lavender Hill – a collection of personal stories from the women living there and facilitated by the New World Foundation. And although we don’t have a hard copy, Frances Brown from Atlantis came in recently and brought her Afrikaans science fiction novel on a flash stick, motivational speaker Makini Smith from the US came to launch her book and leave behind copies and  another woman popped in to drop off her sister’s book written in isiXhosa… the list goes on. Modestly, might we add that you can also buy here a copy of our own book, Being a woman in Cape Town: Telling your story (Cover2Cover).

What kind of events are hosted in the space?

Glad you asked that question – because for the last year we’ve been hosting a series of Story Cafés. It’s a blanket term, coined by chief librarian Beryl Eichenberger, to cover book launches, panel discussions, story sharing, informal gatherings, writing and poetry workshops, tributes, book clubs, presentations etc. They’ve been very successful and we look forward to more. Our database and Facebook page keep everyone informed about what’s upcoming and the press have been good about putting out word.

Woman Zone is also working on the Everywoman Project – a collaborative textile artwork made out of fabric yo-yos. Yo-yo making workshops have been happening at the Library and elsewhere.

A poetry workshop
Jolyn Philips and Karin Schimke run a poetry workshop.

What have been some of the main challenges in getting the Library operational?

A: The challenges have been outweighed by the joy of having a home for the Library, especially at buzzing and creative Artscape. But it took a while – for a couple of years the books languished in plastic bags in a friend’s garage. Until we were donated the shelves, they burst out of boxes and the mobile tin unit – and even now they’re doubling up on shelves like refugees in an overcrowded tent. A big challenge was cataloguing them. Then a pair of winged libris angels came  along – Anna van der Riet and partner Ilse Arends rallied a team of retired librarians who corralled the titles into the Dewey system, dotted and stamped every one and add to the list with every fresh intake.  Phewy, thanka guys. Biggest challenge however is woman-power. Volunteers open up from 12-2 Thursdays and Fridays – for Story Cafes and other events or ‘by appointment’. Monday and Wednesdays mornings the Library is used for beauty therapy workshops. More volunteers mean more opening hours – and maybe, one day, lending facilities.

What has been the most rewarding moment of working on it?

Having people pop in and discover us. Hosting a Story Café workshop once, a woman got up and said ‘I’m so glad I bothered to get out of bed and come here today, it’s changed my life.’ I mean…!

Describe the library’s typical user.

Women of all ages, colours, backgrounds, beliefs and persuasions have been in an out of our Library. It kind of validates the Woman Zone mandate which is officially to “bring together all women from the Mother City’s cultural kaleidoscope. To get to know one another better, to share stories and experiences, work together, learn from each other – and above all to highlight and promote their past, present and future achievements, not their victimhood. Cape Town’s women are for unity.”

Are there enough women writers in SA? And if not, how can we change this?

How many is enough? Who knows. What we do know is 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.

What’s your vision for the Library’s future?

To take the concept of sharing stories, spoken or in print,  into other communities around Cape Town. We call it “sistering”, a female form of “partnering”. We did it in 2014 – every month for the year we went to a different community from Muizenberg to Nyanga, Woodstock to Kuils River and in each,  listened to one woman tell her story. We recorded and transcribed them into our book (co-edited by myself and Carol du Toit, designed by  Lorraine de Villiers). We would like to do more sistering – so get in touch if it can work for your community. We would also like to become a lending Library – and like our inspirational sister, The Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland, grow into a bigger and still bigger space to become a fully-fledged women’s centre with exhibition and archive space. Imagine that for the Mother City! Our other role model is the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. Breathtaking in its scope. If ever you’re in London, do visit. Meanwhile, if ever in Cape Town and you’d like to visit our own Women’s Library, give us a call on 083 431 9986/082 490 6652 or mail info@womanzonect.co.za.