Reading this body of poetry has left me with a vulnerability emanating from traumas I have not wanted to confront. For the first time, I’m afraid of words that feel as if they’ve been harvested from my throat, my ears and my scars.
The use of womxn’s bodies as sites for violence is a symptom of a pandemic that is throttling us. The books red cotton and feeling and ugly ask the reader to find themselves in their words, their articulation of experience that is so different but finds similarity in one thing: sometimes the men to whom we entrust our young girls will hurt them.
In feeling and ugly, Dr Danai Mupotsa shares what it means to feel everything so deeply, as if she does not have skin. I think about the lives of black womxn who feel so severely, who hurt so severely — their lives a collection plate of traumas for men to place their contribution of plunder on while matriarchs use bibles to justify what has happened between our legs.
Similarly, there is the consideration that our bodies are more than just houses for looting, for shattering windows and taking parts of ourselves, including our children. Our bodies can be spaces for pleasure, for sweat marks on walls mapping out the places where our consensual desire was performed. There is place for healing, and the healing occurs when we learn to forgive our mothers for protecting us in a manner that makes us fear ourselves or think about our bodies as an object that is too ostentatious in how it attracts men to hurt us.
In her 53-page anthology, Vangile Gantsho confronts the traumas housed in the bodies of black womxn, which are houses that hold ornaments, broken and providing shelter while trying to hide wounds.
She explores the relationships that we have with our mothers, whose authority may seem to be an act of love but may actually be a projection of fear. Sometimes mothers use religion to instil fear, to protect us from sin and to instruct us to behave in a godly fashion.
There comes a time when little girls cease to be little girls, often losing their innocence to predatory uncles, and their mothers know it. There is the fear of generational violence being performed on their girl children; the rationale that teaching them to fear their bodies will insulate them from danger.
“When I was six, mama told me to sit with my legs closed, otherwise men would hurt me.”
The illness that exists in society is convincing womxn that their bodies are the cause of their pain. From a young age, society conditions womxn to believe that whatever befalls their bodies can be attributed to their actions, their behaviour and, if all else fails, to the mere existence of their bodies.
Mupotsa writes: “These uncles ask us to be rational while they rape us.” This is a symptom of societies being concerned about protecting the performer of violence rather than the body that is violated. It’s a symptom of a society where young girls are hurt and sent away, because the scandal will ruin the family name.
The two poetry anthologies dance to a conversation that articulates the body of a womxn as being fit for pleasure. Mupotsa gives expression to playing, pleasure and desire. The unspoken taboo resonates loudly from the pages of feeling and ugly, touching on the parts that our mothers have told us are sacred. Both the conversations speak loudly about what are supposed to be shameful subjects, illustrating just how delicious it can be to be an abominable womxn.
Red Cotton is dense with the capacity for healing, with the role of spirituality as palpable as smoke. It somehow plays the role of a hospital, diagnosing the ills performed not only on womxn but on men as well. It provides subversive forms of healing in the form of burning the residue of lovers with impepho, with self-love being performed by wearing lipstick and sliding into a dress.
The books hold a conversation about what it means to navigate spaces as queer black womxn and what it means to live in a dimension of what gender activist Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane calls “multilocality”, to exist in different realms and experience life as a black womxn. The small girl Gantsho speaks about articulates the different womxn who inhabit the rooms of her body and appear at different times to different people.
Blood is a recurring theme in the poems, reminding us that we are inherently “abominable” by rupturing and flowing every month; it reminds us of the excess that is our bodies, which bibles and the words of nuns attempt to wipe away while they smear a body that is not meant to disappear.
Importantly, here exists a body of work that facilitates healing and illustrates that, although trauma exists profoundly in the lives of queer black womxn, it does not pathologise these bodies. There is room for playing, for falling in love and for demanding pleasure without guilt.