Burden of history

[email protected]: A Selection of 21st Century Black Women’s Writing from the Southern Tip of Africa

Edited by Shelly Barry, Malika Ndlovu and Deela Khan

(Weave)

Gertrude Fester, one of the founding members of Weave (Women’s Education and Artistic Voice Expression) observes “the dearth of black women writers” in African Women’s Voices by citing socio-political and historical conditions that secured a precious niche for white women’s writing. A response to this absence was to create a writing collective, formalised in 1997, to encourage black women (primarily in the Western Cape) to reclaim a social and political agency and to express their experiences through words.

Few would deny the political urgency of such an organisation and the invaluable function of securing safe spaces for black women to find creative and artistic support — and to explore personal narratives and the search for identity through writing.

The newest edition of [email protected]: A Selection of 21st Century Black Women’s Writing from the Southern Tip of Africa from Weave is an anthology of short stories, poems, diary entries and sections from plays and screenplays. It celebrates a generation of women who have dedicated themselves to the struggle for liberation from apartheid and to challenging patriarchy in their communities.

Edited and revised by Shelly Barry, Malika Ndlovu and Deela Khan, the challenge of offering a selection of 21st-century black women’s writing four years into the new century is daunting. The title, in fact, belies the historical value of the writing anchored firmly in the last century. In her foreword, Desiree Lewis suggests “the relevance of the past to the present” and yet the reference to the “new”, as the collection implies, is never fully realised.

With so much to celebrate 10 years into the South African democracy, the historical is inevitably made present by the bold voices of the women who forged alliances — not just to create the collective, but to fight the oppression of black women.

Roughly, the anthology can be divided into three areas. The first is a tribute to Joan Baker, one of the founding members of Weave. Each of the contributors, like a vestal virgin of ancient Rome, makes an offering to her memory. While the gesture is moving, one witnesses the writing of an inner sanctum where the tribute strategically reinforces black women as solitary, and it is Baker’s writing itself that reveals subtle and compelling observations of South African society.

As though to challenge Slavoj Zizek, who claimed that historical trauma could not be represented, activist writers in the ilk of Gertrude Fester, Diana Ferrus and Deela Khan draw closely from their political experiences to reveal how identities are shaped through historical and social contexts. These writings form the second area of focus. Fester’s prison diary, Two Sides of the Story, is intimate as it is haunting, revealing with each entry the loneliness and fractured states of self produced by incarceration and isolation. Imprisonment is not of body alone for Fester, but of the mind, and her poems reflect ironically on the democratic government and bureaucracy.

Newer and younger writers form the third focus in the anthology. The emerging priestesses of the fold — Shelley Barry, Malika Ndlovu, Maganthrie Pillay and Warona Seane — move between reflections on patriarchy and the psychological oppression women orchestrate in order to conform to social expectations. While the high priestesses concerned themselves with the historical and the political, the more contemporary writing celebrates cultural disjuncture and ethnic nuances — not that these are not inflected by history: they offer humorous counterpoints to the burden of history.

The editors have had to weave disparate and eclectic forms and narratives together. To achieve coherence they rely on the broad threads of identity and culture, history and memory. Moreover, they are informed by the ideological imperative to see black women’s writing present and published in the new century. Fester describes Weave as a place where women have a “right to write despite the odds of demanding jobs and family and community tasks — and the need for exposure means ‘barefoot publishing’”.

The accomplishments of the collective are commendable: it has created a writing sanctum of support that secures exposure through self-publishing. Now that writing, too, is a right, black women’s voices will be heard reverberating into the century. In the remaining 96 years, though, it is significant for black women to choose not to essentialise their identities or ghettoise their political and economic cadence, especially on this continent, where narratives of resilience and triumph are yet to be celebrated.

As an anthology documenting the collective efforts and experiences of black women in the last century, [email protected] is essential evidence of the historical path Weave has forged. We are beholden to the new century for seeing the writing innovations black women may produce and the power these priestesses might wield through the words they write on the stiletto heels they may come to wear.

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