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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What you missed…aga shem wena: Sexing the Word


Vangi Gantsho’s lament is a fire. It is a fire started in a shack by a primus stove that was knocked over by a careless hand. ‘I expected more from you’ is more than a poem: it is the actual imprint of time, this time, a time of betrayal and grand larceny; and her fierce grief is a call to arms.

The Jozi House of poetry crowd stood in the rain of those powerful words, after (again) watching police publicly mow down demonstrators demanding their right: a living wage. As I listened, each line wrung all my thoughts from me, and confirmed my growing suspicion that we live in different worlds, because how can the country carry on like this? But it does, and it did, and we were just at Jozi House of Poetry listening to our featured poets in the wake of the Marikana murders.

In the spirit of Helen Moffet’s rant about Women’s Day, , Jozi House of Poetry asked poets to push the boundaries of what they think as women’s roles, and women’s poetry. Move from mother to fighter, nurturer to surgeon, midwife to executioner. Ja, some ideas are going to die so that people can live better, and sometimes that’s a job for women. After an hour of luminous poetic inspiration, the audience was given a brief lecture by Professor Deirdre Byrne of Unisa, whose passion and main field of study is science fiction and gender. She quoted the feminist writer, Ursula Le Guin, whose essay, “Bryn Mawr Commencement Address”, describes the difference between the way men and women use language as the “father tongue” and the “mother tongue”:

Using the father tongue, I can speak of the mother tongue only, inevitably, to distance it ―to exclude it. It is the other, inferior. It is primitive: inaccurate, unclear, coarse, limited, trivial, banal. It’s repetitive, the same over and over, like the work called women’s work; earthbound, housebound. It’s vulgar, the vulgar tongue, common, common speech, colloquial, low, ordinary, plebeian, like the work ordinary people do, the lives common people live. The mother tongue, written or spoken, expects an answer. It is conversation, a word the root of which means “turning together”. The mother tongue is language not as mere communication but as relation, relationship.


Women’s poetry is not just about love stories and nurturing and feeling good about your body and your hair. Myesha Jenkins purred “I don’t feel that angry about things” but her measured poem about domestic violence was chilling – even more so when we discovered that the story was not a response to a newspaper article, but was about three cousin sisters, two murdered and one badly burned.

Do women write differently from men? We asked, and the response was most certainly, yes. Professor Byrne evoked the meaning of mother tongue, because it is through a female that all people learn to speak, and that language is our first language, it is intimate, emotional and specific, and precedes the language of the school, the community, the workplace – which are all places where males dominate. The mother tongue precedes the father tongue, which supersedes it because of politics – the social oppression of women. Because of their organic relationship to language, women are linguists. Traditionally it was women who carried the history of people in stories and poems which were passed down through the generations. Women’s words make every aspect of life familiar.

Yet Vangi Gantsho learnt to speak in public from her father. “It’s like the feminine writes it down and the masculine takes the space and uses the language,” she explained. Using language as a tool, as a strategic weapon, is not only a male characteristic, yet in our patriarchal world and in the words of William Shakespeare, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, just as the fields where women dominate for example nursing, teaching and social work – which are all underpaid and undervalued.

According to Byrne, a woman is always writing out of social reality, as a subject, a person oppressed by patriarchy, as people confronted by the real challenge of their biological identity. Everyone is always writing out of their experience, and of course, the personal is political. Commenting on the phenomenal success of Feela Sistah, Myesha said people loved them because their poetry was about the everyday lives of ordinary women. “We engaged and exposed the familiar, and we were bringing that in a more concrete way, than our brothers, who grapple with emotions and tend to express themselves in proclamations and are fatally consumed by competition.”

Uh-oh… do we see the f-word rearing its spiky head? Dawn, a member of the audience asked: So is there a difference between women’s writing and feminist writing? Vangi is wary of calling herself a feminist – because she doesn’t like the idea of losing agency, being defined and limited. Also there is so much ignorance about definitions – as being a feminist is more about defending human rights than oppressing others. “you’re a feminist when someone calls you one – and in our society it’s more of an insult than a compliment.” The audience agreed that we need to take back the label “feminist”, free it from its connotations of “man-hating” and “marginal” and wear it proudly as a badge of courage as we uphold the cause and well-being of women.

I can relate to Vangi’s wariness: having a label ‘black feminist poet’ might relegate a great writer to the fringes of literature. Myesha has lived through all kinds of marginalization and articulated herself so eloquently that the entire audience sat up taller in their seats, enlightened. “When a woman writes, she is trying to assert her power, and so she is challenging the power relations in society. There will always be those who want to remove those voices from the landscape.”

Vangi sees feminism, like black consciousness as ideas that help people find their voices. “It’s about me expressing myself,” she says. Writing is often an act of rebellion, a taking back of the right to define reality from her point of view.

Natalia Molebatsi said: “it’s about defending certain things, and opening up a space where we cannot be censored.” Jozi House of Poetry: Sexing the word saw women proudly bearing the label feminist as they pursued their passion in words still to be written, still to be shared. Towards a space of equality, where the mother tongue has the same power as the father tongue.


[Thanks to Zaheer Karolia for the images]


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