Got my hair, got my head: A review of Living While Feminist: Our Bodies, Our Truths

AiW Guest: Thulani Angoma-Mzini

There is a silence, or perhaps a deafness, that the lay man (and particularly the cis-gendered heterosexual man) indulges in when it comes to bodies gendered differently to theirs. The collection of essays titled Living While Feminist: Our Bodies, Our Truths, edited by Jen Thorpe and published in 2020, speaks into that silence with the amplified voices of South African feminists. The essays detail the lived experiences that occur under the skin, beyond the hypervisibility of biological markers that have been so heavily politicised that they deny bodies the privilege of being merely human. Biographical accounts are shared of paedophilic gazes on blossoming adolescent bodies; workplace sexual harassments at seemingly liberal institutions of higher learning and the struggle for identity, or what M.A Warden in the essay ‘Living the Queer Question’ calls ‘de-cisification’- described as ‘…the active deconstruction of the …framework that had been dictated to me as an assumed member of the predominant social rank’ (p. 151).

The collection combines memoir, narrative prose, personal essay and poem formats to compose a powerful message to the prevailing repressive societal systems. The poem ‘Me’ by Emilia Govender, which opens the collection, captures the essence of that message:

Brown girl,
Brown woman,
When will they see me?
Past the brown and
Look at the woman,
See the human
That’s all I desire
To Be (a being)
(p. 10)

Bodies, in their wholeness or as the sum of their parts, are a primary theme of this collection of essays. For example, hair as a body feature is explored along various axes. For black women it has long been a cloud over their heads, with pressures to grow it long and straight and never to cut. But there’s a nice inversion of this perspective in the essay titled ‘It’s not just hair’ by Mishumo Madima. In this essay, natural (black) hair is identified as a site for resistance. But the author transitions from this militant stance to a more compassionate and romantic view. Speaking on the practice of relaxing black hair to make it straight, Madima points out that ‘Relaxed hair is dead. With natural hair, the cardinal ‘beauty is pain’ rule is replaced with ‘love thy hair and know it well’ (p. 36). Black women are discovering the self-care that comes with the routines and discoveries of keeping their hair natural.

The essays ‘Pleasure Junkie’ and ‘Crystal Yoni’ reflect on the contradictions of how women are lectured about nearly every biological ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ except their sexual pleasure. In the former essay, Imungu Kalevera quotes from Egyptian poet Sabah Khodir: ‘everyone wants to touch the woman, but they want the woman to remain untouched’ (p. 52). Kalevera searches for sexual pleasure beyond just the act of sex (which she coyly professes to be good at) when she says:

I wanted to learn how to expand and improve the total experience of sex, how to make my lover feel open and ready as soon as they walked into my home, how to make my bedroom a place where my soul and hers felt at peace and our bodies grew a silent urge to merge (p. 49).

The voices in Living While Feminist: Our Bodies, Our Truths are varied and distinct, but they are also harmonious. There’s a consistency in the pitch of each feminist’s opinion that clearly highlights how normative and patriarchal structures politicise and police bodies through gendering. The melody of this collection contrasts with Thorpe’s previously edited collection of essays published in 2018 titled Feminism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth. In a similar chorus of strong feminist voices, the book concerned itself with the dissection of the philosophy of feminism – from its waves to its intersections to the nuances of who is centred and who is marginalised within the different feminisms. But the voices in Feminism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth, for the most part, are counterpoint to each other in their convictions. Despite this difference in tone, the two books are complementary to each other.

One of the most arresting essays in Feminism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth is by B. Camminga and is titled ‘Feminism is for every single body’ – a nod to bell hooks’ book Feminism is for everybody published in 2000. By splitting the indefinite pronoun ‘everybody’ with the word ‘single’, Camminga expands feminism to include ‘all this planet’s corporeal forms, as they understand themselves, in their infinite variations’ (p 121). Specifically, Camminga rejects the binaries of normative and heterosexual systems that corrupt feminism. This notion is echoed by Jarred Thompson in the essay ‘The Social Dynamic of Penetration’ in the later collection Living While Feminist: Our Bodies, Our Truths. As a gay man, Thompson questions the heteropatriarchal conditioning that inserts social dynamics of masculinity and femininity in gay sexual positions. The need to wrest the tools of emancipation away from existing frameworks of thinking is highlighted as pivotal. In the essay ‘The (A)gender Boderlands’ Nyx McLean speaks to the forming of new homes for bodies that do not conform – those who ‘…transgress, defy and trouble the confines of what is considered normal’ (p. 164). Referencing American scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, McLean notes that,

it is not enough to take up a position of opposition to the dominant culture because it will force one to engage with the oppressor on their terms… Anzaldúa suggests that it may be better and more healing to unhook oneself from the dominant culture, to “write it off altogether as a lost cause” and to rather go about making one’s own home, culture or space of belonging (p. 168).

The message for feminism to divorce itself from the existing oppressive systems and their language is also anchored in Hellen Moffett’s essay ‘Crones and Witches: The Invisible Body’, a part of which reads:  

Perhaps as feminists, we should be seeking more nuanced, accurate, non-reductive language to give voice to the lived reality of inhabiting bodies, creating a vocabulary that builds different kinds of alliances (p. 108).

At the core of the collection of essays in Living While Feminist: Our Bodies, Our Truths is the desire for self-determination outside of societal pressures of normativity. The book is an embodiment of the Nina Simone song ‘Aint got no; I got life”. Feminist bodies reflect on the daily pillaging they receive from the status quo; the vilification, the trauma, the hypervisibility, the paedophilia, the misogyny, the homophobia, the classism, the othering and the reduction of their existence to a general nuisance. In the end they still proudly affirm that they have life. A truth that no ‘body’ can take away.

Living While Feminist: Our Bodies, Our Truths is edited by Jen Thorpe and published by Kwela Books (2020)

Thulani Angoma-Mzini is a South African wannabe creative non-fiction writer with a passion for reading and a desire to write more.

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1 reply

  1. A beautiful review, thank you💚💚

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