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A slightly famous author once accused me of liking Sylvia Plath. I was at a book party, standing outside in what the slightly famous author kept on calling “the smoking garden”. It was a concrete courtyard in the middle of the corporate hotel where the party was being held. Very brightly lit. No chairs, even. Writers standing around, all hunched up and furtive, smoking the most depressing brands of cigarettes. Your Rothmans, your Princetons, your Benson and Hedges Special Mild.
The slightly famous author took all of this in his brisk stride. He was at the book festival to promote his latest novel. Like all of his previous works, it was about a young and vaguely left-wing white man clashing with various South African authority figures (mothers, corporals, sergeants etc.). Like all of his previous works, it contained many fine descriptions of Highveld storms, and the gnarled, shining white corpses of lightning-struck trees. His books were not as popular as they had once been. There was something a bit funny about his latest one, especially. It was too obviously nostalgic for the early eighties, too wistful for a time when the voices of people like him had mattered most. The reviews had been mixed. Perhaps because of this, his reading had been badly attended. Also, it was scheduled at the same time as the fourth event featuring an authentically famous writer, the star of the festival.
The slightly famous author did not seem embittered by this. He gave the impression of having a sincerely wonderful time, looking avidly about himself and saying, “Here we are, then. Here we are in the smoking garden.” He seemed enchanted by it all: waving brightly at everyone who went past. A nice man, really.
I saw a girl I knew ask him what his favourite kind of meat was. There was no reason for her to do this. The slightly famous author answered her with avuncular dignity. He looked gravely into her glittering eyes. First beef, he said, and then ostrich. Chicken last. She asked him if he could ever give up bacon, though, and he said no. She said that bacon smelled delicious, and he agreed. She adjusted the sewn-on panda ears of her woolly hat as she asked him if he had ever tried crocodile. He said yes. She said she could never eat crocodile. Yuck. He laughed with total abandonment. Was he on drugs? Was he one of those men who you only realise is drunk after they have tumbled silently down a flight of stairs, wearing a resigned and worldly expression? I could not say.
The girl who loved meat was just getting started. I had an idea of what was coming next – she was going to ask if he had a Kindle. Whatever his answer, she was going to say that she could never have a Kindle. She loved the smell of books too much, see. She loved the feel of a book in her hand TOO MUCH. Old books? Don’t even get her started. The smell and feel of a mega-old book? Please.
I could see it all playing out in front of me. The slightly famous writer could too, I think. He decided that things had gone far enough. He took control by turning to me, blowing smoke into my eyes and ears, and asking me what I thought of J.M. Coetzee. South African émigrés of a certain age love to ask this question. They imagine us sitting around making Coetzee voodoo dolls, writing lists of all the reasons Adelaide is a stupid place to live. They want us to feel betrayed, as if Coetzee is our collective dad who abandoned us for a different family. They want us to take it personally.
I said that I thought Disgrace was a very good book. The meat girl looked disappointed. Coetzee was such an easy one, and I was letting the side down. She moved away. The slightly famous writer pressed gamely on. Women, he said, don’t usually like Coetzee. They don’t like Coetzee or Updike or Bellow or Roth. Or Nabokov, now that he thought about it. He peered at me elatedly, a sort of terrible puckishness suffusing his features. Eyes suddenly more bright, incisors more pointy. It was clear that he had made this speech before. His whole expression, his posture and everything, said, “Here I go again. Get a load of me.” Other people were slaves to the kind of PC nonsense that insisted that women could like Philip Roth, but not the slightly famous author. No indeed. He was here for the truth. I wanted to lie down on the floor.
I said, although there was no point, that I liked all of those writers a lot. He laughed throatily at me. He told me I was just saying that to be contrary. Name a Nabokov novel, he said, besides from Lolita. I did. Name a Bellow. Tell me with a straight face that you got through the whole of Sabbath’s Theatre. Tell me your best book out of all the Updikes. Say which bit in Waiting For The Barbarians made it worth the hassle.
I told him and told him and told him. His laugh became richer and more disbelieving. He was capering on the spot, punching the air with little fists. He was having the most wonderful time, and he didn’t believe me for a single minute. “You girls,” he said, shaking his head. “Say what you want, but I know you all go home and read Sylvia Plath.”
I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. I opened my hands. I closed my hands.
You girls. You girls, with your crush on Ophelia and Virginia Woolf and Elvira Madigan. You girls think you’re witches. You girls, with your anorexia and your cutting and the flowers in your hair. You girls, and your dissertations on perceptions of female hysteria. You think Mad Girl’s Love Song is the best title for anything, and you can’t believe you didn’t get there first. You believe that dying is an art, like everything else. You believe that you would do it exceptionally well. You girls with your incessant talk of periods and mermaids. You girls with your poster of The Lady of Shallot above your bed. You think you have a wound that will never heal. You girls keep tearing open the stitches.
All that. He didn’t say it, and probably he did not think it, but that’s what I heard. I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. He ground out his cigarette and lurched inside, giving a disgraced cartoonist a reassuring arm squeeze as he went.
This was about five years ago. I have had some time to think about what I might have said. Something like a lie: I’ve never read Sylvia Plath, and actually I hate her, and actually I’ve never heard of her. Something like another kind of lie: I know The Bell Jar off by heart, and I admire the gumption of a woman who believes it is appropriate to equate her personal suffering to that of a Jew during the Holocaust. Or, something like the truth: I like her all right – not my best, and not my worst. But you can’t say that, to someone like the slightly famous author. Someone like the slightly famous author, he wants you to be one thing or the other.
I saw him three days ago in an airport. He was shorter than I remembered, with the contented face of a man on his way to the first-class lounge. He nodded to me as I walked past. I nodded back. I hear his last book sold very poorly indeed.
Rosa Lyster lives in Cape Town. She is completing her PhD at UCT, and writes an essay a week at rosalyster.com
Originally published on Rosa’s blog, here
I moved to Harfield Village in April last year. For a little village that basically lies between two roads (Imam Haron and Kenilworth Road) this place has a lot of issues.
During the time I’ve lived here I’ve witnessed two domestic violence assaults in the street whilst others walked by. The first, described here, was in June and when I called the police, they didn’t respond. On many occasions since I’ve since seen this couple still walking the streets together, their faces set in grim determination. My heart breaks a little every time.
The second, described briefly in the first, second and last stanzas of this poem, happened in September and resulted in the most drawn out interaction with the Claremont police station a person can ever imagine. Suffice to say: they didn’t have the right documents, didn’t want to take a statement, tried to put her in the back of the van with her abuser, refused to open a case, told her she’d never report, didn’t have a printer to give me a copy of my statement, lost my statement, made me give my statement again at another station, lost that somehow, and never really resolved the issue of the failure to give people copies of their statement several months later. This attack was also witnessed by two builders, less than five metres away from the couple, who did nothing, and then verbally abused me the next day for shouting at them for doing nothing. ‘Who the f**k did I think I was to ask them to stop him from hitting her?’ Um, a human being.
Also during this time I have witnessed an elderly white man set his dog on two young black women walking back from Rosmead Spar one evening. The dog viciously barked at and attacked the screaming women before the old white man gently whistled and it ran into his property. He walked in, no sound at all, while the women were left to recover their wits. When I confronted him about why he had done this and had not apologised to the two ladies, his response was ‘I didn’t see any ladies.’ I called my councillor, Mr Kempthorne, who suggested that I read the animal bylaws to see if the old man had done anything wrong (in general, I think this was probably something he should have known, and also general racism isn’t in the animal bylaws, but anyway). In fact, this angry old white dude had infringed by having a dangerous dog without a leash walking around so I delivered a copy of the bylaws, highlighted, to his mailbox, and Mr Kempthorne also asked his office to send someone to talk to the man. Despite my angry eyeballing of his house whenever I walk past, I have seen no more of this racist white man and his dog. But I’m sure he’s still in there.
Also during this time I have been called to a community meeting to discuss ‘security concerns’ where it was clear some form of collusion between the village association and a major security service provider had happened, and where community protests at the exclusion of smaller service providers were met with shut downs from the Chairman of the HVA (but only after he’d asked us if we wouldn’t mind giving a donation because he’d actually spent quite a lot of our annual fees on hiring the venue and the sound equipment). As those of us who thought this meeting a laughing stock walked out, we were threatened with the idea that ‘if we didn’t do something now crime would only get worse.’ A week later, after making the news for this general circus, the security tender was revised, and somehow they all managed to work together in a non-collusive way to protect us all. For a small monthly fee.
So, if what happens outside the houses of Harfield is anything to go by, it is a pretty complicated place full of racism, security threats, inefficient policing, domestic violence, and a bunch of white dudes making decisions for all of us. If that isn’t bad enough, let’s explore what happens inside the homes of Harfield. The easiest way to do this, is to go online.
A few months after living here I was alerted to the existence of the Harfield Village Association closed Facebook Group. Whilst I thought the assault of Cynthia Joni nearby was enough of an example of the racism, classism and sexism that prevails in this community, I was not fully alerted to the unashamed commitment to these beliefs until I encountered this ill-moderated page. On this page, ostensibly set up so the members of Harfield can talk about the community, build community projects, and share information about great service providers in the area, things only get worse. It appears that in fact, inside their homes, Harfield Villagers (or at least some of them) are even more racist and offensive than they let on outdoors. A summary sentence would be: ‘non-white’ is still a category of person for these people.
Examples include alerting other villagers when there are ‘non-whites’ in the area who are not expected to be there (this of course doesn’t happen if those ‘non-whites’ are gardening, cleaning, taking away rubbish, within strict areas, so you can see which house they belong to, in which instances the village welcomes them) or coming up with creative solutions to homeless people asleep on the pavement (see this post, where a suggestion includes ‘let’s tar over them’). This is also a site to sex-worker spot, and to alert other villagers to the general deterioration of the social fabric as referenced by the presence of women making a living (I saw one having sex in the park! says one resident). When I proposed a community discussion on the topic of sex work, of course the resident who had started the whole complaints process said she wouldn’t come (what if she had to realise they were humans!??!). In addition, when the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce approached the Kenilworth councillor to discuss the issue, he refused to engage citing that ‘sex work is a crime’ and we must bring the full force of the law down on sex workers (as an aside, I don’t know any sex workers who work in areas where there are no demands for their service. But I digress..). If you’re interested in supporting the human rights of sex workers, there is a protest march on the 20th to his office organised by SWEAT (Tuesday 20th January, meet at Wynberg Magistrates court at 9am).
The Harfield Village Association page allows what can only be seen as values antithetical to constitutional ones to flourish, unmoderated and without recourse. It should have a tagline ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’.
At a feminist meeting group the other evening friends and I discussed how the use of social media allows us to curate our realities – we follow people who are often of the same beliefs as us, we google search only things that reinforce our particular world view, we unfriend those Facebook friends who say things we don’t agree with, and essentially what we end up doing is living in a bubble where people are either as liberal or conservative as we are. We begin to believe that most people think like us. This is dangerous because it means we withdraw from spaces where our views are different, and we begin to lose our skill for arguing for the values we hold dear.
The Harfield Village Association page is one place where this appears completely true. As it becomes more an more a site for white middle-class people to voice and echo disdain for anyone other than them, the more liberal members of the area exit, and join the other page ‘The Harfield Youth League.’ This leaves these racist, sexist, awful people to pat each other on the back for a job well done and to continue with their diatribes of exclusion. This leaves them thinking that they are in the majority when they’re inside their homes and this mentality can only spill out onto the streets. I think it’s time for those of us who left the page emotionally scarred and exhausted to take a breath and dive back in (if they’ll accept our request) because there is nothing more true than this quote:
“Silence in the the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor” Ginetta Sagan
Reeking of the 18th century Ireland Magdalene Asylums, a Chile Catholic Church has confirmed that a priest stole babies for adoption between the 1970s and 1980s. Reuters reports that the priest was:
“Instrumental in the forced adoption of at least two babies without the knowledge of their mothers, and had also maintained an “inappropriate relationship” with one mother.”
The priest, Gerardo Joannon, is being investigated after allegedly telling single mothers that their babies had died, while actually giving them up for adoption. Alex Vigueras, a regional church head who is in charge of the probe into Joannon, is reported as saying,
“The preliminary investigation has established the truth of the accusations…he always knew that both babies did not die.”
Apparently, the priest has tried to justify his actions with the fact that there is a stigma attached to unmarried mothers in the Catholic society in Chile, especially at the time of incidents.
Similar to the nun’s laundries in Ireland, where ‘fallen women’ were housed, put to work in the laundries and their babies given up for adoption, this story shows just what acts can be justified simply because of the patriarchal restrictions society can place on women. The last Magdalene Institution shut down in Ireland in 1996, which wasn’t exactly eons ago. This story in Chile has emerged, showing that these women were lied to and their babies taken away from them in the last three or four decades.
How far have we really come from shaming women?
It’s not restricted to religious culture, third world countries or the past. Slut-shaming is full steam on social media today – alive, kicking and international.
South Africa’s Grazia magazine caused a raucous recently when it tweeted:
“What makes a girl a slut? Is it the way she dresses? What she says? What she does? And …”
The magazine published an entire article dedicated to slut-shaming, clearing up the reason behind its controversial tweet. In-depth and well-put, Grazia SA spoke about slut-shaming culture, amplified by social media commentary that is often abusive. With many getting the wrong end of the stick by Grazia’s Tweet, the magazine deleted the tweet and responded;
“The messages were published to gauge our audiences’ perception of the word ‘slut’ and to coincide with a feature that we are producing on ‘slut-shaming’ – the term used to define a woman’s character based on her choice of language, wardrobe or actions.
The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is one that Grazia South Africa opposes in the strongest possible sense. We take our role of defending and empowering women very seriously and our feature story focuses on the fact that we live in a society where women are bullied and shamed and that it must stop.”
The sensitivity around the issue showed that it is one that did not die with the last Magdalene Institution and more so, that it should not be swept under the carpet. Why are friends, enemies, frenemies, the media or the public calling anyone a slut? What makes a woman a slut? What is it that she does that makes it OK to use that label?
If we’re horrified by the Magdalene institutions or a Chilean priest giving out women’s babies to save them from the shame of falling pregnant out of wedlock, then we need to be horrified by a culture that still judges a woman with such harsh and unnecessary labels based on her personal sexual life, her choice of clothes or who she chooses to befriend.
And it seems that we are. South Africans shunned the idea of slut-shaming (along with Grazia’s Tweet questioning what it means to be a slut) as a repressive, regressive and misogynistic side of society, similarly to how I would imagine they would shun Gerardo Joannon for stealing women’s babies.
Anton Marshall wrote on Facebook:
“This is a deeply problematic and inappropriate question. Deeply problematic. Given the volumes of information available as to why, I’m disappointed and offended by its phrasing, as I’m sure many others will be. EDIT: In fact, I’m pretty shocked that anyone in your organisation would be thinking along those lines at all. Horrifying.”
Chloe Quinn Johnson posted:
“‘Slut’ is simply another derogatory term developed to try and shame women (see ‘bitch’ and ‘ballbuster’ as another example of this). As long as the woman is happy with her life, prepared to accept the consequences of her decisions and her actions are not negatively affecting anyone else – then what she chooses to wear, who she chooses to sleep with, what she chooses to say and whatever else she decides to do with HER body and HER life is nobody’s damn business but her own.”
Let’s continue to draw parallels between 18th Century patriarchal practices and calling someone a ‘slut’ on Twitter and let’s end the shame right now. Instead of using social media as a platform to abuse, let’s use it as these South Africans did above: to defend, to educate and to stand up for.