phenomenal african women in music, theatre, fiction, and visual art

pink_blue_bag

Pink / Blue Plastic Bag
Sokari Douglas Camp, 2010
Materials: Steel Perspex Plastic
Housed: Stux Gallery, USA

Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.

The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.

I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.

As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?

Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.

Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?

Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!

Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.

The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
  • Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
  • Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
  • Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
  • Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
  • Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
  • Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
  • Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.
Advertisements

celebrating transgender art

It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.

Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.

In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.

I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.

Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?

I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.

Artists

Musicians

Filmmakers and Theatre Artists

  • Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
  • Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions:  produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
  • D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)

Films

  • Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
  • Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
  • Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
  • Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.

Novels

  • Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
  • Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
  • Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
  • Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”

finding the poem: patricia lockwood’s “rape joke”

I’ve written about the debate over rape jokes, and it goes on and on in editorials, blog posts, and online discussions. But Patricia Lockwood took a new approach by submitting her thoughts in poetic form. “Rape Joke,” published in The Awl last Thursday, has already received more attention than any poem could dream of in its lifetime. I beg you to read it, sit in silent thanks for a moment, and then come back to chat.

I know. It hits the spot–if the spot is a deep ache to say once and for all that rape is both horrific and sadly banal and can really fuck you up but eventually you find a way to go on living and are even able to find the humor in your tragedy, but that humor is yours to share as a way of processing and healing and getting on with life. If the spot is a desperate desire to explain that the real joke is that this kind of thing happens every two minutes, that rape is so normalized that we talk about it all the time but nothing ever changes, that women are often silenced when they talk about rape.

Take a deep breath.

This is what I love about poetry. It guts us in a way that nonfiction generally can’t manage. We might have different interpretations, but it’s hard to come away from a piece like that without feeling something approaching what the narrator feels. This piece also reflects the wide open landscape that we get with poetry. In an essay, the thesis is laid out pretty quickly, but a poem takes us on a ride to a place we didn’t know we were going. I know I’ve got poetry as a knife and as a vehicle here, but I’m just going to take liberties with metaphors and you can bristle and click away or just indulge me.

Poetry requires a different kind of engagement than most other discourses. We open ourselves to experiencing language more deeply, and our imagination is aroused with metaphor and imagery. Reading the comment section after the poem (because I wanted to know what others thought but was quickly reminded that other people’s brains are like quicksand pulling me down to the very bad place), I saw responses that described a physical reaction to the poem (“I can’t breathe”) and its transformative power (“This poem changed me”).

The Guardian posits that Lockwood’s poem may encourage people to read more poetry. I suppose it’s not the kind of poetry most people are used to. Folks who don’t read poetry tend to think of the medium as a tangle of unrecognizable wildflowers that shouldn’t be here so let’s burn them and plant grass instead. But most poetry is more accessible than it seems at first glance if we are willing to take the time to think about it. Sure, it can be tough to deal with poetry that seems to be nothing more than a catalogue of non sequiturs, but a lot of poems offer a narrative that’s fairly clear.

“Rape Joke” is accessible, clever, and moving at the same time. The images of some of the more poignant moments stick in my head: the “pretty green necklace” that she later cut up, her laughter for “one long split-open second.” There is a lot going on beneath these words, but they conjure up vivid images that linger like an uncomfortable feeling.

Lockwood’s poem also uses language most of us don’t think of as necessarily “poetic,” but there are no words or moments that are off limits in poetry. We can write lines about washing dishes (“I opened the windows and shut / the doors and put the plates in the sink / and oodled Palmolive all over.”) or monthly bleeding (“Yes, / I want to talk at length about Menstruation. / Or my period.”) or, as Lockwood does, dip cups (“He had chaw in his mouth the entire time, and you told him he / was disgusting and he laughed, and spat the juice through his goatee into a Mountain Dew bottle. “)

Perhaps this kind of poem shows lapsed readers the usefulness of poetry–beyond the simple pleasure of reading–and, therefore, reminds them that poetry is a subject worthy of their time. Perhaps it says something about rape and rape jokes and rape culture that we needed to hear. Maybe some readers identify with the narrator, find in this poem something of their own story, and feel validated or less alone.

It got me writing about a time I was followed by two assholes who threatened me while I was riding my bike. I hadn’t thought to see a poem in it, but there’s a poem in everything. Maybe there’s a joke in everything too. But as with poetry, it can take a long time to see the humor, feel brave enough to reach out to it, roll it around in your hands, and not want to smother it.


rape jokes and tired tropes: hiding behind the shield of comedy

Over the past year or so, there’s been an online conversation about rape jokes. A male comic performs a tasteless joke that targets rape victims and/or contributes to rape culture, a woman calls him out on it, and the internet response is rife with stale retorts like “humorless bitch” and public threats like “#FuckThatPig.”

I don’t have anything to add to the debate about rape jokes themselves, but I will connect you to some hilarious examples of how to do a rape joke without making yourself look like a jackass. You skewer rapists and rape culture instead of victims as you might make fun of racists and racism instead of people of color.

Instead, I want to talk about some other issues engendered by this debate. First, it’s unsurprising that someone who resorts to the trope of “humorless bitch” supports rape jokes. Responding to critiques of misogyny with misogynistic language only proves the point of critics. Likewise, it’s hard to see responding to concern about violence against women with more violent rhetoric as anything but doubling down on rape love. Rape fascination? Obsession?

Supporters of these comics aggressively maintain the “right” to joke about rape while simultaneously trying to silence women who’ve merely shared their thoughts on these jokes. No one’s trying to take away the “right” to make rape jokes or any other kind of joke; they’re just starting a conversation about the role of this kind of comedy in society and expressing how it makes them feel as women (i.e., as either rape survivors or potential victims, unfortunately). But according to the fans, only comics have freedom of speech? Or perhaps only men do.

Second, there’s an attempt by some of these comics and their fans to pit feminists against comics, as though a feminist cannot enjoy comedy or actually be a comedian. It’s an outdated idea that’s been proven wrong again and again and only serves to demean people who believe in gender equality and nullify their arguments by claiming them unfit to discuss comedy. Haven’t we evolved enough to accept that women can be funny? Moreover, feminism and comedy can work together. It’s not just Margaret Cho anymore. Feminist comedians–or people who are both feminists and comedians–have hit the mainstream in such a big way that I don’t think I need to name them. And they aren’t all women!

Finally, what is the role of comedy? What is the role of art? One of the reasons people are angry about the idea that rape jokes aren’t acceptable is because they don’t want restrictions on art. They don’t want art to be hampered, as they see it, by social responsibility. As someone who studied literature for six years, it’s hard for me to understand this disconnect. Maybe it’s easier to say that literature should serve some larger purpose because it’s designed to make people think, whereas comedy is about making people laugh. But if comedy is just about the passing laugh, is it art?

I think there are plenty of comedians who would say that comedy is about much more than laughter. In his weekly podcast, Marc Maron describes comedy as therapy, philosophy, and poetry. Good comedy makes us think and feel and question as well as laugh. If it doesn’t do that, it’s the equivalent of dime novels or reality television. That’s not necessarily bad. We all need an escape from time to time, but some escape hatches lead to pretty dark places.

When comedians spew sexist, heterosexist, racist, transphobic, or ableist garbage—even if it’s funny—I find it difficult to believe that it’s “just a joke.” (This is a paltry defense, by the way. Jokes have always been part of cultural problems and solutions.) It seems more like they are assholes hiding behind the shield of comedy, that comedy gives them the excuse to say whatever they want with impunity. It’s not edgy; it’s boring and trite. It’s the easy laugh.

Screw political correctness, people say. I don’t want to be told what to do. Let’s try not to base our lives on sound bites. Political correctness is no more than sensitivity and respect. When people say they don’t like political correctness, they’ve just announced that they don’t care if they hurt people.

People can do whatever they want with their art. They can decide that they have no social responsibility when they are performing or writing or painting. But if we are all responsible for our actions, then we’re responsible for the messages we put into the world no matter the medium. The “right” to say whatever we want doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Art doesn’t absolve us of our sins by virtue of being art. We can only do that by being decent to each other.