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Poetry: South African women writing their bodies

Gillian Schutte - 2011-08-10

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There has been a proliferation of poetry coming out of South Africa over the past few years – and much of this poetry has been scribed by women writing their bodies. From the wants and needs of their vaginas to the conflicting emotions that a period may bring on, to the inner stirrings of desire and lust – women are writing it all down and lots of it is getting published.

Says award-winning poet Arja Salafranca: “I think some of this has been due to the really sterling efforts of Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books – she’s putting out a record number of poetry volumes by women writers – more so than any other publisher. This creates awareness and interest in the form.” Higgs launched her women-only publishing house, Modjaji Books, over four years ago and has created a much-needed platform for women’s voices. So have groups such as Feela Sistah!, Body of Words and Rite 2 Speak – all of which are female spoken-word collectives whose aim is to take feminine writing to the public platform.

Feela Sistah! Spoken Word Collective was started in 2004 with Myesha Jenkins, Napo Masheane, Lebo Mashile and Ntsiki Mazwai. Says Jenkins, “We expressly wanted to give voice to the experiences of real women in response to the poetry of the day, which we felt was dominated by male fantasies such as the virgin/whore dichotomy – and did not reflect our reality. We put up the money for our own shows at Kippies and the Bassline and were hired by corporates, government departments, NGOs and individuals to perform at events. Our last performance was at Poetry Africa 2005.”

Since then Jenkins, along with seven other women, started the collective Body of Words. Jenkins explains: “Body of Words was a group of seven women and we collectively worked out a script of talking about our bodies and things that had happened to our bodies. Things that we were seeing done to women’s bodies. We made it into a show and it was really a profound and beautiful piece ... You know when you’ve got many voices, but we were all in a way speaking the same language ... it was lovely, really. So with Body of Words we realised that we have all written these things. Mothers have written about childbirth. Women had written about abuse. There was fear of violence, there was celebration of discovery, there was anger at the violence being done to women ... You know all those emotions were captured in the voices and in the words that women made. It was a Body of Words.”

Jenkins, who refers to herself as an older African American woman, came to South Africa in 1993. It was here that she began her writing career after being inspired by poetry evenings that were being run in Yeoville at the time. Her poetry is sensual and open and she has become something of an icon because of her ability to express a playful sexuality in her celebratory writing. I ask her how she feels about her reputation for dealing with topics some may consider taboo.

“As an older woman I’m aware that many times only young people can claim their bodies, when they are young, svelte and beautiful. There is a belief that only young svelte beautiful, long-haired girls can be sexual, but older women cannot be sexual. I don’t know what it is, but it is the most astounding thing to me that people really have an idea in this culture that women after forty do not have sex for one thing, are not interested in anything sexual, and our bodies are exhausted and tired and broken and that we are basically useless ... but especially sexually. It’s so shocking to me, really. I mean the best lover I have ever had was when I was 48, and he was a young lover ... which is also taboo. I’m not supposed to be going with a young man, or young men are not supposed to be going with older women. They have forgotten a different era when goddesses were training and teaching younger men the secrets of pleasure. In our society, if you are disabled you are supposedly not sexual. That is why we decided to include sexuality in our writing – to get people talking about sex in all its multifaceted nature. Maybe disabled and older single women at night alone are having sex. I think there is a lot of frustration and loneliness that people feel, and having these real discussions will change people.”

Ndoni Khanyile of Rite 2 Speak says that her literary education, infused with feminist discourse, planted the idea that it is essential for women to write their bodies. “Especially as black women, writing ourselves is a revolutionary act. That as people who have so long been represented in our absence, taking a pen to paper is more than just creative expression, it is an assertion of our dignity, our complexity, our very humanity.”

Although there has been a steady increase of platforms for women’s voices, these platforms have been created separate from the mainstream literary world – which is surprising in a world that claims gender equality. The fact that there is a need to create forums for women’s writing is surely an indication that the publishing industry is male-dominated and that feminine writing is often dismissed as unmarketable and irrelevant by male decision-makers. I ask Colleen Higgs what her views on the matter are.

“The publishing field here is male-dominated in the sense that the people who invest in it and the people who are at the highest decision-making level are men. Most of the work in publishing is done by women in the big companies. But I think that this sort of agenda is possibly not conscious; it comes from a fairly mainstream viewpoint. Most of the people who publish poetry are poets themselves and they all do it for the passion and the love of it, but up until now pretty much it has been men who did it. I just felt that I wanted to challenge that. I think it’s also something very disheartening if you have a manuscript that is good and you send it to a publisher and they don’t want to publish it, not because isn’t good but because they don’t get it. I think quite a few of the books I’ve published have been like that. They had a very good reception from the audience but they would have been unlikely to be published by the male publishers.”

In spite of this masculine trend in publishing, more and more South African women poets are now beginning to ride a wave of celebratory feminine writing, which is a clear indication that the indomitable spirit of feminine expression cannot be dismissed.  This is witnessed in the collection of women’s poetry below.

Jenkins speaks with unashamed sexuality in her poetry, as seen in the following poem where she describes the residual sensory traces of sexual satisfaction, and treads the often-avoided landscape of taste and smell.

When you’re gone

I love to lick your sweat
from my arm
just for the taste of you
Your smell enters my nostrils
as I caress
your old bathrobe
Your heavy breathing moaning
echoes in my ear
remembering our pleasure
When I open my legs
the sticky funk of good love
perfumes hot air.
I don’t change the bed
for a while
gently fondling your residue
When I clean
I always leave your curled hair
savouring the possession of a part of you
And sometimes for days
my muscles hurt so good
from that new position.

Timbila, 2005

Khanyile exemplifies this celebratory and rebellious phenomenon, having broken free from patriarchal and cultural constraints in her desire to express a playful and unrestrained sexuality in her poetry.

My vagina is …

My vagina is a mystery.
A little stuck, she never easily pleased.
She comes across as demanding but really she just loves the familiar.
She responds to confidence and music, not just Miles Davis, he’s good on occasion
She gets down to the Chilli Peppers and Fela Kuti, Alanis Morisette and 90s hip hop.
She likes the music loud so she can feel it.
She’s crazy.
You’d love her if you had to meet her.
She’s the type to make guests feel welcome and leave you feeling good about yourself.
She loves company, that’s when she shines, but she gets real cranky when she doesn’t get her alone time.
She loves to be touched and giving back comes naturally to her.
My vagina is confused, currently unused because the last tenant was evicted for lack of maintenance.
She’s in the market for something new.
Someone silly and strong who likes loud music and soft touches to make her feel new again.
My vagina used to want to be a nun but now she knows better.
Even Maria hooked up with Captain von Trapp so you can bet your ass she’s not flying solo.
She used to need a jump-start to get her going.
Artificial stimulation supplied by mind-numbing tequila shots and free flowing vodka.
Now she knows better.
She’s seen enough to know that being awake is always better than being numb and there’s no need to hide from being seen.
My vagina used to believe in rainbows and silver linings but now she’s not sure.
Electric fences and burglar bars have muted her bass beat and left only single high-pitched notes of fear and worry and mistrust.
Rape was once a distant reality that lived in vague daily headlines but quietly it made its way into her neighborhood, her family, her circle of friends.
And now, it lurks in the shadows feeding the mistrust, the worry and the fear.
My vagina used to be fearless, but now she’s had to grow up.
She wants to be left alone when she’s walking down the street,
She hates that stupid whistling and hissing and “baby”, “zwakala baby”.
She wants to be spoken to, flirted with and taken out dancing.
She wants space and closeness, dreams and honesty.
She wants everything – now – ‘cause she’s greedy like that and doesn’t see the point in realistic choices.
She wants freedom
She wants experiences
She wants joy
She wants to feel good
She wants to be remembered
She wants more.

© Ndoni Khanyile, 2010

Helen Moffett, in her collection Strange Fruit (Modjaji Books 2009), writes directly from the body. She nimbly trudges her bodily terrain and inner world – from the sometimes melancholia of solitude, to the multifarious emotions of finding out about her infertility, to the playful joy of sex. Her poem, from which the title of the book is taken, is packed with metaphor and open to many interpretations. It speaks to me of an inner yearning for the ultimate lover who will traverse the multifaceted corners of one’s being, find the subtle way in and unleash the juice inside. Her words conjure up graphic imagery of eager wet desire as well as the sometimes vaginal/soulful parchedness that hungers for the coaxing of deft fingers and matched passion.

Strange fruit

No one knows how to unpeel me.
Some days, brilliantly coloured,
Highly polished, I offer
No grip for fingers
Some days, I’m scarred and scaled,
Leathery like a litchi
No suggestion of sweet pulp.
But if you can find
My invisible fault-line
And crack me open
I am juicy inside.

Modjaji Books, 2009

Salafranca writes of the conflicting, confusing and contradictory emotions of wanting a baby yet feeling relief that her periods indicate that she is safe from pregnancy. She talks about the irrational anger she feels towards her lover for not impregnating her, while celebrating the freedom that comes with not being pregnant.

On the morning of my period

On the morning of my period
I am disappointed, disturbed.
I touch the roundness of my stomach
and wonder why there is nothing there.
I fasten a pad to catch the thick clots
of blood that drip down my legs after
a hot morning bath,
and wonder why there is nothing there.
All this, despite
not wanting children, being on the Pill,
yet even then I am reckless
taking it at odd times.
On the morning when the blood has dried up
and sun fastens itself to the carpet,
I prepare to take a new pill from a new packet,
filling up with love for you,
letting go of the disappointment of empty bits.
I slather butter on pancake rounds,
the extra kilo is round on me, weights me,
does not fill me up. My empty stomach
protrudes guiltily, I am filled with the past.
In the week of my period I am angry at you:
for not giving me a child,
comfort, security, I am contradictory,
we fight over a theatre location,
I tell my therapist I am not ready for commitment,
when, inside, the unborn child stirs,
restless, comfortless, we’re both looking for a home.
And I deny it by our fight,
as I breathe in the hot breath of your body,
full lips, round stomach,
filling up my body with quilts, furniture,
food, acquisitions for the home.
I brush my teeth,
pop open the silver foil covering Saturday’s pill,
weigh myself, bath, dress, make-up –
all the while wondering if this was a
phantom period, wondering if something
stirs in me still.

© Arja Salafranca, 2000, Dye Hard Press, Johannesburg

Ameer Patel (Rite 2 Speak) boldly tackles the darker side of desire in her poem “Insecure”.


I don’t know what happened or how we got here
But I need to file a report
A great injustice has been done
And I’m here to turn myself in as the responsible one
I don’t quite know when it happened
But it seems like I’ve found myself in dispersion
My dreamer self stands aside as I flounder in reality
My desperate voice keeps her away and holds my pussy hostage
She’s dragging her into the dark and sinister underbelly of my being
Drugs of choice being hopelessness, apathy and a huge lack of self-esteem
My pussy is slowly deflating
She’s up for sale on the streets of my heart
The price is decreasing by the minute and my voice of reason is busy in counselling
Desperate convinced reason that she’s living in a fantasy
Now she’s off to seek stability
But she left this madhouse a long time ago
So I turned to logic but desperate had already gotten to her
Turned her around in circles with compound questions and unanswerable existential debates
She’s curled up in a corner huddled in the lowest echelons of my brain
And it seems that desperate found the last trace of depression, called her up and she who never comes to a party empty-handed brought along negativity
They’re the triple-thread of evil in the inner workings of my anatomy
And poor innocent little pussy is drying up under their fury
I tried the police but the receptionist hung up on me
So I’m going to tie the last red ribbon of bravery around my forehead and go in Rambo style! 
Put an end to bad dates, where pussy’s been placed on the table, the centre-piece, the ultimate prize for anyone willing to provide a hint of intimacy and the slightest compliment
In her doped up state she doesn’t stand a chance
I’m her only option and it’s taking every ounce of pride, “oh my god”
I completely forgot about Pride, I race passed the three cronies, through my nasal membrane, over a passed out respect and head towards the eyes, there she is, right next to vanity, staring at their awesomeness in the reflection of my corneas
I know how to handle her, she reacts to begging and grovelling, it burns her to see anyone acting beneath themselves
So we snatch poor pussy from the table
And in a rather hostile take-over, reconfigure my being
Rationality returns and joy soothes me back to pleasure
But don’t be fooled somewhere in the darkness I still hear the whispers of desperation
And quiver at the thought of her return.

All these writers appeal to a distinct aesthetic of the female bodily experience, which exists outside of the patriarchal hold on language, and more and more South African women are writing in this mode, shedding the Calvinistic cloak of learnt shame that has traditionally shrouded feminine expression. Although some black women poets I have interviewed have named it revolutionary to reclaim their bodies in writing, there seems to be an overall reluctance to label this movement towards celebratory feminine writing as anything other than the creation of new platforms for women’s poetry. I, however, cannot help but look back to the poststructuralist feminist movement of the 1970s and recognise a similar phenomenon here. It was the poststructuralist feminist movement that first called on women to find their language external to patriarchal discourse. Spearheaded by French psychoanalytical and linguistic theorists, it was out of this wave that the phenomenon of écriture feminine was born, a philosophical revolt against an immovable patriarchal hold on language. Roughly translated, écriture feminine means writing the body and it was this movement that posed the biggest challenge to the patriarchal devaluation of the female voice and body. This movement also distinctly calls on women to write their sexuality, which, they argued, had been pushed underground and been made to feel dangerous, dark and sometimes even filthy by a patriarchal discourse.

Are we witnessing the beginnings of a feminine revolution in South Africa? Are women poets collectively saying enough is enough and reclaiming a feminine discourse that lives outside of the ongoing patriarchal hold on language in this country? Hopefully what we are seeing is the coming together of a global feminine revolution that will give rise to a new world order in which feminine discourse and women writing their bodies is seen as the norm, rather than the exception.

In solidarity with this notion here is one of my contributions to this revolution.

The Feminine Prayer

By Gillian Schutte

Our Mother who art now back in the world
Hallowed be thy might
Your time has come
Your wrathfulness be done
Against those who do not respect women
Give us this day a unified voice
And let us destroy them who trespass against our bodies
So that we may seize our right to live in safety and joy
Lead us to a state of equality
And deliver us from the rapists the capitalists and the patriarchs
For thine is the truth
The clout and the sway
Never say never
Damn them!

Our mother who art now back in the world
Hallowed be thy vagina
Your time has come
Your wilfulness be done
On earth as well as in heaven
Give us this night a spectacular lover
And forgive them who trespass against orgasm
So that we may always scream our bodily pleasures into the ether
Lead us right into temptation
And deliver us from the straitlaced
For thine is the divine
The profane and the gory
For ever and ever
Damn them!