Drip. Drip. Drip.

8 Dec
It’s almost the end of the year, just one more script left to write, and then I can hang up my satirical pen until January. But before I do, there’s something I want to talk about.
It’s something that affects me pretty much every day of my life. And I don’t normally bother talking about it, because, truthfully, there are more important things to worry about.
Imagine if you had a drip over your desk, and once a day a drop fell down your neck. It’d annoy you, but you wouldn’t focus on it, just brush it off and move along. Maybe one day there’d be a couple of drops, but never enough to make you get up and do something about it.
As a woman who dares to have an opinion, and tries to be funny, I am harassed online by men every day. It ranges from mild antagonism to rape and death threats.
It’s exhausting.
Just yesterday, something I wrote caused rather more drips down the back of my neck than usual – three hundred and nine rape and death threats. Three hundred and nine men who took time out of their busy day to threaten me.
Yes, these people are idiots.
Yes, they’re not worth my time and energy.
Yes, men get threats too, although not generally the rape ones.
But it’s exhausting.
I have no answers here. No solutions.
I know for sure that I’m going to keep having opinions, and trying to be funny, and I’m definitely not shutting up. I know for sure that there are people in this world that I want to rile, that I want to make uncomfortable. And if I succeed, these people will probably threaten me.
But it’s exhausting.

Like but Unlike

23 Apr

Researchers and clever people have just discovered a document which shows that the term “African American” is at least 50 years older than we think, appearing in print in 1782. And, as always, if it appears in print, it’s probably already in general use. This finding fascinated me, as “African American” has always fascinated me linguistically. And remember, I speak as a lover of words and meanings, I am no great academic on the subject.

 

A brief bit of internet research about 1782 in the United States reveals it to be pretty much a year of business for the country – the start of a new bank, a new mint, oh and smack bang in the middle of the Revolutionary War. Money and war, definitely business as usual. This is a time when America is defining itself. When everyone is an immigrant, and proud of it.  How fascinating that in the midst of this an African American is giving sermons. Back in the 18th Century, anyone giving sermons would need to be pretty educated. Who are you, “The African American”? I want to know your tale.

African American

 

But I digress, I am here to look at the phrase “African American”. African American is at once inclusive, and exclusive. It simultaneously declares “Yes, American” and “But not American”. That qualifier, that “African”, is an instant othering tool. There was a time when many of these terms abounded – Irish American, Italian American, Asian American. All of them implying, of course, that there is somewhere, probably in Hollywood, or maybe Texas, an American American. The American that needs no adjective.

 

And see how Irish American and Italian American get countries, while African American and Asian Americans have whole continents attached to them? “Yeah, the Italians aren’t quite white enough for us, but they’re ALMOST white enough”…And while Irish and Italian Americans can trace their roots, can proudly claim their Irishness or Italianness, African Americans aren’t afforded the dignity of classifying themselves as Ghanaian, Senegalese, Nigerian American, because their route to America was not a voluntary one, and no records were kept of their ancestral roots.

 

Boy, they must have been spinning when South Americans started moving north. “We can’t call ‘em South American Americans, that’s just daft!” “But how will people know they’re not really like us?” I bet the guy who dreamed up Latin American got a raise. Okay, okay, in fact, it was under Napoleon that it was named Latin America, in an attempt to create a bond with continental Europe against Anglo-Saxons. In fact, back then, North Americans were Anglo-Saxon Americans. Even Native American others – and, as was pointed out eloquently in “Inventing the Indian”, is a supremely absurd linguistic construction because the land that they are native to was not called America until someone else called it that.

 

Although we’re not sure who called it that –  the etymological origin of “America” is unclear. For many years it has been accepted that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer. But there isn’t a lot of evidence, and indeed some evidence suggests that he named himself after America. There’s another theory that it was named after Richard Amerike, a rich chap who sponsored explorations to Newfoundland. Or possibly it derives from a Caribbean language, and was originally Amerrique. Perhaps it’s best to stick to a rather compelling Urban Dictionary definition of America: “A country that claims the name of an entire continent to itself alone for no compelling reason.”

 

But let’s go back to African American. Isn’t it odd how you don’t hear much about Italian Americans anymore? Or Irish Americans? Isn’t it odd that a search on Google’s amazing N Gram viewer, which looks at the frequency with which words and phrases are used in printed material, shows an increase in usage of the phrase African American by around 130% in the last 20 years? Partly, of course, this is a good thing. That we are talking more about these issues. That there is more being said about African Americans. Especially, I hope, BY African Americans.

 

But part of me wants to know if, like the Irish and Italians, that African qualifier will ever vanish. 250 years later, black men and women are still not seen as American American. That sucks.

What Rumpelstiltskin Means

8 Jan

Anyone who knows me will know I have a thing for words. They intrigue and inspire, they amuse and alarm. But there is seldom anything more satisfying than finding a single word which sums up neatly a situation or emotion. This is why “petrichor”, the smell of the earth after the rain, sticks more easily in our brains than, say “zugzwang”, a term used in chess to describe a situation where you have to make a move even though you’d be better off staying put. Zugzwang might have many useful metaphorical applications, but practically speaking, most of us, well, don’t play chess. But most of us have smelled the earth after the rain, and been struck by the sensory nature of that experience.

And so we collect these words which neatly sum things up, which are apt, and help us define and describe our worlds. This is why we fall eagerly upon lists of “untranslatable” words – because so often they manage to fill one word with an entire sentence of meaning. Who would use “being pleased at the misfortune of others” once they’d heard “schadenfreude”, or “to hesitate as you’re introducing someone because you suddenly forget their name” once you’ve encountered “tartle”?

But the joy of finding a word that explains something you’ve not before been able to express clearly outside of your own head extends far more deeply. How about learning the word “heartbroken” for the first time as a child? Learning that your heart could break, holding that concept. And then, at a point hopefully years later, feeling that word. Or, as my friend told me last night, what about learning the word “gay” for the first time, and knowing that was what describes an aspect of you?

In the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, knowing his name gave people power over him. This is an old trope of magic and fairy stories. And it’s a magic I believe in. Knowing the names for things, no matter how big or small, empowers us. Without words, ideas, emotions – even our very essence – can get lost inside us. Words, however fallible and feeble, allow us to hold things outside of ourselves, in a way that others can try to share. Choose your words carefully. Wear them like jewels.

 

Herrah

2 Aug

Women of our nation, have you been feeling more relieved than usual when taking your bra off at day’s end? Felt a little flutter of excitement at buying your “feminine hygiene” products? Well of course you have! It’s women’s month! And what a glorious month it is, August, the gateway drug to Spring.

What does women’s month mean, you ask? Why it means cocktail parties! Poetry readings! Events with “women” in their title! It means the world is pinker and frillier, and more inclined to be whimsical about things. It means discounts on makeovers and spa days!

This women’s month is even more exciting than usual, because, wait for it, we are naming the machines that will be printing the new ID cards after women that contributed to the struggle! That’s right, their contribution will no longer go unacknowledged. There’ll be an event on 9 August. There’ll probably be photos in the press and everything. I can barely contain my excitement.

You know what else women’s month means? Those silly chauvinists, griping about how there’s no men’s month! Aren’t they just adorable ladies? Don’t you just want to go on a diet, spend your month’s salary on beautification and new clothes, and then go on a date with them and giggle at all their jokes? I’ll bet you do.

Another simply fabulous thing about women’s month is that we get to hear from women about all sorts of issues in once off guest columns or interviews. Of course, we could never expect them to have opinions all year round, that would be ridiculous, but it’s spiffing to get an annual injection of femininity into the national discourse.

We also get to hear our politicians pay lip service to rape, domestic violence, sexism, and other trifling inconveniences that women face – and not only the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, or those insightful minds at the ANC Women’s League, in August we discover that just about EVERY politician is doing things to help women. We just forgot to notice them.

A word to the wise though – don’t get carried away, and try and do womanly things in September or, heaven forfend, October, and expect anyone to be excited. Know your place. We have thirty one whole days dedicated to us, let’s not be greedy now.

Yes, August is a veritable whirl of womyn worship. And just think! Come 31 August we’ll be exactly where we are now. Only ever so slightly more jaded.

Odd Numbered List of Writing Rules

21 Jul

I have to confess that every time I see an article entitled “Seven Grammar Rules You Should Be Breaking” or “Five Steps To More Engaging Writing” I feel an urge to run for the metaphorical hills, find a nice dry cave, and become a hermit. I’d spend the rest of my days cackling at passing birds and developing a reputation for either madness or genius, safe from the tyranny of The Rules. It’s not the Incessant Capitals, nor the odd-numbered lists. It’s not even the likelihood that those articles will contain so much complex jargon that I’ll have developed a passionate and burning disinterest by the end of the first paragraph. No, it’s the veritable army of writing “gurus”, brandishing red pens and an absolute certainty that they know best.

It’s no secret that writers spend at least 50% of our time thinking “I could have written that better”.  As Romulus Linney put it, “There are three basic urges. Food, sex, and the urge to rewrite someone else’s play.” You’ve possibly thought it already in reading this, “bit ranty”, “not gotten to the point yet”. My point is: I have been writing for 14 years, and I’m not sure of much, really. I’m sure that I know excellent writing when I see it – and that bad writing is even easier to spot. I’m sure that most writing – including most of mine – occupies a murky middle ground. The good enough. The it’ll do.

What alarms me though is the way we try and terrify any new writer that dares put fingers to keyboard, and dream of a byline, a book spine, an author’s credit, their name on a poster. When I was starting out the established writers were either encouraging or indifferent. Some offered words of praise, some would be willing to give a serious critique of my work if I asked for it. As soon as I had work out there in the world, critics oozed praise, or harangued and decried.

But at no point did anyone hand me a rule book. Or insist that there was “one way” of writing. At most, writers would offer a “this worked for me” or “I learned this the hard way” anecdote. If I had been assaulted with endless litanies of dos and don’ts, checklists, taboos and best practices, as new writers are today, I doubt I’d be a writer. I’d probably have opted for marine biology after all.

It also seems to me absurd that people would impose the same writing rules on people writing novels as they do on those writing advertisements. A legal document must be clear and precise, and so must a poem, but the writing of the two is as different as chocolate and cheese.

How should you write? I’m not going to tell you that. But what I am going to tell you  is that if you want to write, you should. And that the only way you will get better is by writing, and sharing your writing with people. I worry that a generation of new writers are caught in an eternal internet loop of “9 Things Your Agent Should Tell You” and may never get to experience the thrill of:

“The End”

Radio Times

27 May

Recently, I’ve been whining a little about sexism in South African radio advertising. Okay, a lot. Many people have spoken out in agreement, many have shrugged their shoulders, some have called me a tedious obsessed feminist, some have tried to “explain” to me how advertising works. In particular, numerous people said to me “you might not be the target audience for that particular advert”.

I will happily embrace this notion. But I am not complaining about a single advert. I am complaining about an across the board stance as to how women feature – or, more to the point, don’t feature – in our radio advertising. Which brings us to that other gorgeous argument that was raised against me “the advertising is only sexist because society is”.

Ah, what a poetic defence. We’re bigoted because you are, society. We would love to be changing things up, really we would, but our hands are tied.

I call bullshit.

And why do I care, you may ask? I care because advertising – along with all aspects of media – shapes our cultural perspectives on the world. I care because my children listen to these radio stations – not just my children, but children in general, the children who will one day be running this country. And goshdarnit if we’re not jamming their heads full of our sexist notions.

But don’t just take my word for it – I decided it was time to back up my whining with some facts. And so today I sacrificed myself for the greater good, and I have been listening to the radio since 9:30am. I listened to 5fm for two hours, to Metro fm for 2 hours, and to Kfm for two hours each. And every time an advert came on, I made notes. Now, as tempting as it was, I didn’t note whether adverts are sexist or not, because that was liable to lead to arguments about objectivity. No, I went for something much simpler. I noted how many male voices I heard and how many female voices I heard.

malevsfemale

Yup. 71 male voices, 16 female voices. Or, if you prefer it, 82% male voices – this percentage stayed fairly constant throughout the day, and I’d venture to say it would have stuck in this vicinity had I had the willpower to continue.

And, because I couldn’t help myself, I also noted whether or not the gender of the “character” was referenced during the advert – ie mother, wife, girlfriend, husband, son. Any instance where the gender was not referenced was marked as “neutral”.

malevsfemale2

Of our 71 men, just 2 were in gender defined roles – in both instances they were part of a couple, in an advert where both male and female voices were in gendered roles. Of our 16 women, 7 were in gender defined roles. Leaving only 9 instances of women functioning in gender neutral roles.

I can hear it already. You’re busy saying “So what?”.

So we are being bombarded every single day with further examples of male dominance. When a new technological advance is being explained to us, chances are it’s a man doing the explaining (Unless that technological advance involves laundry). The proliferation of male voices reminds us, every single day, that women are not yet equal in this country.

Is our advertising sexist only because our society is sexist? I don’t know. But it’s sure as hell sexist because our advertising industry is. And, call me crazy, but if you want to differentiate yourself from the advertising morass out there on SA radio, maybe try casting a female voice to tell us why your product is awesome. Just, please, don’t call her sweetie.

Today

27 Apr

My grandpa’s memorial service was today.

Today is Freedom Day.

Much of what was said about him was about his time as a principal in the 1960s and 70s.

And about his principles, of respect, dignity, justice, freedom.

He made public statements calling for open schools, dreaming of a day when children of any race could attend any school.

Decrying the evil of apartheid.

So many people said that his speaking out, had made them speak up too.

Maybe not that day, but when their day came.

They remembered those principles, and stood by them.

Today, “his” school choir sang, and not a single child was white.

Today is Freedom Day.

I hear people say that because POSIB passed, we shouldn’t celebrate Freedom Day.

That because our country still faces devastating and real problems, we shouldn’t celebrate Freedom Day.

Do you look out and see clouds and decide it’s already raining?

And stay inside, and not go out again?

Or do you take an umbrella but go out anyway?

And dance in the sunbeams?

I say because we face challenges, we should celebrate harder.

Because our grandparents and parents fought so hard for the freedoms we do enjoy, we should celebrate harder.

Because we want our children and our grandchildren to have the freedoms we have and even more, we should celebrate harder.

This is our day, and we must speak up.

Not give up.

Today is Freedom Day.

Today my grandpa’s soul is free.

But his principles remain: respect, dignity, justice, freedom.

Happy Freedom Day.