Monday, March 31, 2014

why write?

From one of those websites dedicated to curating disparate bits of information, the question arose today: why write? So instead of writing, I spent the day in moody contemplation.

More truthfully, the muse was elusive.

I'd begun today discussing failure and followed that with the why write article (like a drunk person necking a tequila shooter).

Bad idea because it led to me being unable to pin down why I write or why I even want to anymore. And it made me uneasy that I did not have a solid reason. A sunny Monday that looked like it might be productive at seven am became edgy in a Fear and Loathing kind of way by ten.

The restlessness settled in like an uninvited cousin that had pitched up on my doorstep with a rucksack and no money. I found myself sucking at my fingernails until they felt too long and too thin. All the things I wanted to put on the page elongated away from me. Words became bubbles of chewed gum floating pinkly in front of my eyes until I tried to grab them. Then they slipped from my grasp.  Bouncy things slimy with saliva.

And I got to thinking about the quotes of the famous that are meant to inspire us. And I thought: what are these things if not ideas encased in other people's spit?

Which makes the written word what, exactly? Or more specifically, what are my written words? For what reason do they exist?

I set off on my writing journey more than a decade ago and I see behind me a pavement littered with flattened bits of gum gone grey. Maybe they stick to my shoe, or to yours when you read them, old words I chewed and spat out some time ago. My decade of writing has produced one relatively successful debut and one difficult book (difficult to write that is) which isn't a lot and doesn't count for much unless you're Donna Tartt and you sold a million copies – a decade worth of rent in royalties.

My decade brought a series of disappointments, major shifts and drastic changes. My life has been completely reset to factory default twice in those years. I'm that sucker in Monopoly that keeps getting the go-directly-to-jail card (do not pass go, do not collect R200). I am not surprised that Sister-Sister took so long to write. It's more surprising that I finished it at all. If Sister-Sister does nothing else, it remains as testimony to my resilience. To the fact that I still write.

I do not feel resilient enough of late to stand in the rain and let the hail stones brain me, but I don't seem to have much choice. What else can a writer do, but write?

I suppose I could return to writing in my head, but then I may end up on the train.

Perhaps I write because I am siderodromophobic.

More likely, it's because writing leads me to unexpected places. To words like siderodromophobic. Or to petrol stations at a crossroads between this world and the next.

Writing is a process of discovery. It takes me to places I might never otherwise go.  In the end, all writing offers me is a ticket to ride. And some days, that's enough.

Today was not that day.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

the yacht

A decade ago I embarked on a career in writing with high hopes. I imagined myself the next big thing (who doesn't) penning novels from the deck of my yacht in Reunion, the sea breeze cooling the sweat in my navel. In my fantasy I'm wearing a bikini top and shorts (the short short kind) and I even have the body for it – my fantasy, if I want to airbrush myself into it, that's my business.

The reality is a little different. I've never had the kind of body fashion magazines place in the vicinity of a bikini, the garment or the adjective.  I bulge in places that beauty editors think should be flat, and in those meant to be round, I'm at the undesirable roundest end of the round scale. My finances aren't quite Ahoy There! either. Put another way, if I didn't buy wine for a month (as if) I could probably stretch my grocery budget to a ticket to Seal Island on a catamaran with fifty tourists. But, tenacity is an absolute necessity if you're a writer so, in spite of a decade of fiscal instability, I am still not quite ready to let go of that yacht in Renunion.

Which is why I thought what the heck when Dr Kim Prescott, owner of Anuyu Body and Skin, offered to use me as a spa treatment guinea pig in exchange for me blogging my experiences. I write and they preserve the last islands of wrinkle free skin in this landmass I call home. Perhaps even long enough to realise my yacht fantasy. What's not to like?

Still, the word experimental makes me think of Dr Frankenstein and I arrived at Anuyu for my first treatment, Hyalual's WOW Mask, a little nervous. I love Anuyu Body and Skin. It's the antithesis of that dungeon of distress I blogged about in 2012 when I took my mother for a birthday treatment no amount of Jik will ever scrub from our memories.  Anuyu is clean, the towels are fluffy, the therapists, Cari and Monique, are friendly, smiling and gorgeous – as people who dedicate their working hours to the beauty industry should be. They serve tea in porcelain cups, and everything, from the space-age fat-melting machines to the vials of dermal filler lined up in the fridge sparkle with glossy promise.

My anxiety rose a notch when I saw that treatment beds had been set up in the lobby. Being a guinea pig is a public affair, it would seem. I joined the four other guinea pigs on the sofa, and was offered champagne. We clutched the stems of our flutes, our trepidation hidden behind inscrutable expressions. Soon though, the combination of bubbles and Dr Kim Prescott's easy manner made us feel relaxed and, after a short presentation, masks were applied.

Hyalual's WOW Mask is a strange and slippery creature. It's slides from it's foil wrapping, dripping with Sci-Fi gloop, to wrap your face in a cool second skin. Alien and high-tech, the outside of the mask feels like paper when first applied but, as your skin absorbs the ingredients, it becomes gauzy. Put another way, you start out looking slick and plasticky like Data from Star Trek and end up looking like an egyptian mummy.  Until you peel the gauze off.

Drum roll please.

After 45 minutes, where the most uncomfortable sensation is a little itch around the edges as the mask dries, your skin is left plump and glowing. My skin is sensitive and tends towards redness, but the ingredients in WOW  triggered none of the usual reactions in my allergy prone cells. My skin was Pharrell Williams Happy.

So what's the catch? There's always a catch. The WOW wears off after four or five days. Which means the WOW won't preserve my youth until I can afford the yacht, but it will amp up the fabulous for special occasions. The WOW effect peaks ten hours after the mask comes off: think weddings, book launches and, at the very reasonable price tag, even date nights.

For more about Hyalual's WOW Mask email Anuyu Body and Skin.

Monday, March 17, 2014

on writers and trains

There is no such thing as silence. The quiet buzzes with electrical pulses and insect wings and the inhalations and exhalations of breath and distant conversations and car engines and tyres against tar and the rustle of mice in the skirting boards and birds in the trees and the neighbour's vacuum cleaner. Sounds too small for your eardrum to separate but that mesh together to create white noise. Silence is white noise with the volume turned down.

Most people don't notice the noise. Writers do, along with tiny spiderwebs suspended in the diamond-shaped holes of chain link fences, dead flies on window sills and the hairline creases in the dust covers of the favourite book you borrowed. Writers are unable to filter the insignificant details from life. We upload them and use them as character signifiers for fictional people. We have a voice in our heads that turns these details into prose. A voice that constantly streams plot lines, characters and bits of dialogue into our waking minds. The heads of writers are filled with imagined people and places and perfect sentences that become skittish as mice when we try to pin them down.  There is no space for shopping lists or school timetables or time.

Writers are the sane(r), cleaner, less smelly cousins of the twitching nut jobs who spend their days riding the train from one end of the line to the other. Nut jobs whose muttering rises to a shout every so often – Why did you kill her, Steven? Why? –  causing you to spill your latte all over your lap. All that separates us from Steven's stinky vessel is the physical manifestation of those thoughts: the act of putting pen to paper or keystrokes to Word document.

Writers who don't write are fucked. We descend slowly into a pit of despair from which the only escape is another novel or short story or even a blog post. But the longer you leave it, the further you sink. The further you sink, the harder it becomes to sort through the mess in your head and pair character with plot, fill their mouths with dialogue and scatter dead flies on their windowsills. At some point the voice becomes two, then three, then four. All that stuff you're constantly uploading swirls around like a tornado, battering against the inside of your skull until the noise becomes silence. And the silence is deafening.

So if you love a writer, be they your child, your lover, your mother or your client, love their writing in spite of the burnt dinners and forgotten dry cleaning and missed car services. Remind them to write. Give them time and space and encouragement. Or one of these days, you might find them on the train.

Friday, February 21, 2014

shame on you, fat shamer. shame on you!

The furore surrounding ANC MP Thandile Sunduza figure-hugging boob tube dress has left me wondering when diversity in South Africa became a limited ideal? We South Africans, it seems, have become hypocrites of the worst kind. Celebrate diversity, we declare on Heritage Day, turning the chops on the braai while resting beers on our boeps, but don't let that "celebration" extend to fat women and their taste in clothing.

In fact, let's not celebrate fat women at all. Let's shame them for daring to come out in public dressed in clothing we've decided only the skinny are allowed to wear. Fat women should wear kaftans, dull ones, and hide their curves from view lest they offend our delicate sensibilities, lest steal the limelight from the skinny latte drinkers who work hard at the gym, eat according to the latest diet trend and sip on sparkling water at parties while sucking in their cheeks. Fat women are not allowed to feel beautiful, or dance down the red carpet or flirt with the paparazzi. And god forbid they throw their heads back and laugh in delight. Shame on you, Fatty Boom Boom, shame on you.

Fuck that, I say. Part of what is abhorrent in our society is that we've come to think it's acceptable, and not only okay but fun, to make nasty jibes about a woman's choice of clothing and the shape of her body. We've decided that bullying, when directed at fat women, is a social event we can all participate in, together, as a nation.

We're living in a size zero era when gorgeous little girls grow up believing they're ugly. When normal-sized women have body dysmorphia issues that turn beautiful bodies into sick ones in pursuit of an ideal that is, to anyone in the medical profession, unhealthy. Skinny and healthy are not the same thing. Fat people can be fit people, and often are. When did we decide that it wasn't okay for a generously proportioned woman to show off her booty in a lemon yellow boob tube if she feels she can pull it off? Please note, I say if she feels she can, not if you think she can. It has absolutely nothing to do with you. If this affects how you feel about yourself; if you feel hard done by because you, Skinny Latte, feel you've earned the right to wear figure-hugging and she hasn't, get yourself some therapy. Her dress is not about you!

Most of the time, a thin lithe body is the result of a genetic lottery that saw Skinny Latte land in a time in history when thin lithe bodies were the in thing. You, Skinny Latte, contribute nothing real to our society by looking pretty. Beauty, to quote karakamos, is not an achievement. Looking pretty did not eradicate polio, or split the atom, or chair the Portfolio Committee of Arts and Culture. Which is not to say that Skinny Latte is not capable of those things. But, by the same token, Full Cream Cappuccino is capable of rocking a figure-hugging dress if she wants to.

So next time you see a voluptuous woman on the dance floor in a slinky sequined number, ask yourself if she looks like she's having a good time. Then ask yourself: what gives you the right to deprive her of that good feeling by fat shaming her?

And by the way, in my humble opinion: Thandile Sunduza, you looked fabulous.

Friday, September 13, 2013

queen of a magical kingdom

Moms are required to take on all sorts of roles for their children. We are protectors, feeders, dressers, washers, kisser-betterers, nurses, lift-clubbers, life-lesson dispensers and handmaidens to their fairy princesses or horses to their knights, not necessarily gender dependent.

Lately, motherhood has required me to be the Fairy Queen and the Princess of Extreme Patience simultaneously. The steps taken to morph from your average human being into queen of a magical kingdom with the patience of a nun go something like this:

Day One 

  • Rush to 4-year old's bedroom, heart pounding, in answer to anguished cries.
  • Check 4-year old for obvious injuries and bleeding. Find nothing.
  • Ask 4-year old what is causing severe distress.
  • Glean, through snot and sobs, that 4-year old has ripped the wings off the music box ballerina fairy you spent days searching for and two-hundred bucks on because she really, really wanted one for her birthday, because Zinzi has one.
  • When four-year old has calmed down, ask why four-year old felt it necessary to dismember music box ballerina fairy.
  • Nod sympathetically while grinding teeth when four-year old tells you wings were not purple.  Try not to roll eyes.
  • Think of a way to use wing dismemberment to teach life lesson.
  • Help four-year old write a letter to the Fairy Queen apologising for ripping wings off said ballerina fairy. Request Fairy Queen's forgiveness and new wings.
  • Place letter in music box and place music box on mantelpiece to await reply from the Fairy Queen. 
  • Congratulate yourself on your great parenting.

Day Two

  • Scour art shop for purple acetate. Find none. Settle for pink acetate and purple glitter.
  • Cut out new fairy wings from pink acetate while holding ballerina fairy still so Swan Lake does not alert four-year old to operation replace ballerina fairy wings.
  • Smear new wings with glue and sprinkle with glitter.
  • While glue dries, use needle nose pliers to twist plastic wing-holding-screw off back of music box ballerina fairy.
  • Mutter words unbefitting of Fairy Queen when head of plastic screw breaks off. 
  • Glue new wings directly onto fairy. Apply pressure for several minutes. 
  • Place music box on top of cupboard (out of reach of four-year old) so glue can dry. Pray glue is strong enough to withstand four-year old. 
  • Congratulate yourself on great parenting.
  • Post great parenting status update on Facebook.
  • Sit in self-congratulatory afterglow of good parenting until unnatural silence permeating house sets off alarm bells.
  • Find four-year old sitting under rocking chair in bedroom, using foot to operate touchscreen on your cellular phone.
  • Delete great parenting status update and replace with update requesting information on how to remove precious baby photos of four-year old from inoperable phone.

Day Three

  • Call cellular repair shop because Facebook friends have no idea.
  • Sigh in relief when repair man says new digitizer only costs R140. 
  • Try not to calculate how much ballerina fairy music box has ultimately cost in petrol from driving all over Cape Town searching for one, retail price and repairs.  Because you can't put a price on four-year old's happiness.
  • Congratulate yourself on great parenting.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

the baby

Professionally, I lead a weird double life. In 2011, when I started the Short Story Day Africa project (formerly known as Short Story Day South), I inadvertently split my writer-self in two. My intention had been to follow the example of the UK project and get writers, booksellers, readers etc to set up events themselves. I wasn't planning to create anything. I just wanted to put the idea out there and let whoever wanted to participate, do so. Short Story Day Africa was supposed to be a bit like my clever SMEG oven.  In the morning, you put in dinner, set the timer and go to work. The clever SMEG switches itself on at the set time and voila, you come home to a perfectly cooked dinner. The SMEG and I, we have a partnership. Short Story Day Africa is nothing like my clever SMEG. Short Story Day Africa is a baby. My baby.

My baby is a colicky one. It needs lots of attention and, year on year, it needs more. My baby's daddy was a one night stand. He doesn't take the baby off my hands every second weekend and he pays very little maintenance. And yet, my baby has flourished. She's beautiful and I love her, but my other child, my first born and favourite child, if I'm honest in a way good parents are not, has had to move out of its room to make way for the baby.

I'm looking at the rest of the year stretched out before me and wondering when I'll be able to get back to my first love. There's the baby's anthology to edit, design, format. I wonder too, whether anyone will ever want to speak to me about my child again, or if every interview request I get for the rest of my life will be about the baby. Maybe it's because there is little space in the media for books. Maybe the media powers that be think that since the baby's already on stage, my child should be satisfied squinting into the spotlight while I stand behind the curtain, feeding the baby its lines. For example, in June I was invited onto a Cape Town radio book show. I was excited. My child had been on the shelves out a couple of months and there had been a few interviews and one review. Then the presenter of the book show called to clarify. We would only speak about the baby on the show, she didn't have time to also speak about my child. Another time, perhaps, she said to placate me. A couple of weeks later, the producer of the show called again. Yay, I thought, they're going to invite me to speak about my child now, who has a lovely voice, I might add. But no, it was the baby they wanted again, or really, one of the baby's friends. They want to interview one of the writers who had entered the baby's competition.

As much as I love my baby, some days I don't. Some days, I look at the beautiful child I've poured my heart and soul into and I feel like I'm sinking along with it. Everyone loves my baby. They stand over my baby's pram oohing and aahing, but seem to look away when my child enters the room.  I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps my child has some deformity; a great big raspberry mole smack in the middle of its forehead that I'm too blinded by motherly love to notice. Maybe no one wants to tell me my child is ugly in case I won't let them play with my baby anymore.

I am writer. Writing is my talent, my passion, my life's breath. Being a writer means that writing is a necessity; I must write to stop from sinking into a pit of misery. I need another child to focus on so that I can stop caring whether or not the beautiful one with the raspberry mole smack in the middle of its forehead has no friends. But I'm drowning in the administration it takes to keep the baby alive. I used to do odd writing related jobs to buy myself writing time, now those same jobs buy the baby nappies. I've become one of those people with a day job for whom writing is a hobby. Writing has become a luxury.

Today, I'm depressed about that.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

slippery slope

Yesterday, I posted two articles on Facebook. The first, entitled: Can You Tell the Difference Between A Men's Magazine and a Rapist? reported on a study conducted jointly by researchers from the University of Surrey and the University of Middlesex, found that:

people can't tell the difference between quotes from British "lad mags" and interviews with convicted rapists. And given the choice, men are actually more likely to agree with the rapists.
The second was a blog post entitled Cover Up by the author, Alison McQueen. She wrote it in response to the "brouhaha" that has arisen since a British supermarket gave Lad Mags like Loaded and Nuts six weeks seal their magazines in modesty bags or risk being taken off the shelves. Then she went on to recount how as an eleven year old girl, she was confronted with the explicit images that objectified women along every step of her way to school.

It made me feel frightened, and vulnerable, and worried about my future. It made me feel like a potential victim without knowing why. It made me look at the ground and walk past quickly when I was barely 11 years old.

Responses on my Facebook page to the first post ranged from "Scary" and "Frightening" to this one:

John One significant trouble with these mags, I think, is the disconnect between appearance and reality. They feed us with fantastic appearances such that we forget what's real. I fancy that probably many more women than we know just can't stomach dirty talk, for instance, and upon hearing it, desire shrivels up within them.
21 hours ago · Unlike · 1

Responses to the second post agreeing with the supermarket were not so positive:

  • Lisa I don't know - I don't think that offence is a sufficient reason for censorship, otherwise so many things would end up being censored. Freedom of speech is more important than preventing offense. Obviously one has to make sure that kids are not exposed to things that they should be, but adults are different.
  • 16 hours ago · Like
  • Jason Do you really think that nudity, or semi naked women on the cover of a magazine in a shops shelf will corrupt a young mind! I don't! If children are brought up with a healthy open and educated mind then its no real biggy for them.
    16 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Lisa  Also - why just cover up naked women? What about the women on Cosmopolitan and other women's mags? They presumably offend a number of devout religious people, who would also, presumably, consider them poor role models for their children. And what about leaders in commerce on the covers of business magazines - their valorisation, presumably, would offend some socialists / communists - and would corrupt their children (on their opinion).
    16 hours ago · Edited · Like

    I have no short answers to these comments, hence this blog.

    Freedom of Expression/Speech is a fundamental ideal and one of the cornerstones of democracy. So it should be.  But it's an ideal too often trotted out as the be all and end all of what makes us as a society. Restraints on Freedom of Expression operate in every democracy around the world. We censor the things we deem too damaging to our society be allowed into the public sphere. We have rules. We have laws. We decide what we value and we design our democracy accordingly. We set up the ideal, in this case, Freedom of Expression, and then we make exceptions. 

    Child pornography is an exception to freedom of expression. Woah, you cry, the child isn't of the age of consent. True, but we censor even fake images of child pornography, images where the "child" is an actor over the age of eighteen. Why do that? Why censor the pretense of children having sex? Why ban an animated film depicting sex with children? What's wrong with pretending to have sex with a child? Or a cartoon child? What's wrong with getting off on sexual media involving a child if it isn't real?  In South Africa, the UK and many other countries, owning an image that depicts sex with a child is considered a crime. We allow citizens to engage in sexual fantasies of everything from barnyard porn to rape fantasies, but you just need to look at a picture of child pornography, even a fake one, and we'll slap the cuffs on you. It's a thought crime. The most extreme curtailment of freedom of expression. Why? Because we want to protect children from abuse. We worry that if our citizens are allowed to get off on images of children, on thing will lead to another and...

    Hate speech is another curtailment of the Freedom of Expression ideal. We don't allow expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation. We do that because there's a higher value here than Freedom of Expression. We want to create a tolerant society, where people are not free to breed the kinds of hatred that lead to horrible things like apartheid and genocide.

    So am I a prude that thinks images of nudity or semi-naked women will corrupt young minds? That depends. What is the purpose of the image? Does the image objectify women? What does that image say to my daughter/your son about being a woman? Does the image contribute in any way to a culture where young men don't know that non-conseual sex is rape? 

    I don't hide my body from daughter. Nudity in our house isn't taboo. We bath together. She bathes with her dad. She sees us naked and  gets to run around in our back yard sans clothes all summer long. Do I think this corrupts her? Nope. I think this is healthy nudity. It's a natural kind of nakedness and I think it shows her that there is no shame in her body.  I'm happy for her to see images of naked people that make her feel unashamed. But I've got to ask, does an image of a woman peeling off her sexy underwear while sticking her breasts or backside out, licking her lips and lowering her eyelids imprint a healthy attitude onto my daughter's mind about her body and sexuality? What does it tell my daughter or your son about the role of women in society?  It's an image that's pretty much de rigueur for the cover of Loaded, FHM, Nuts, Playboy, Hustler and every other Lad Mag out there. And kids are getting bombarded with those images every time you take them shopping.

    What about the slippery slope eroding civil rights? If we say this kind of content shouldn't be on display for our kids, what about other kinds of content that offend other groups? No one is asking adults to stop looking at images that turn them on. Go ahead, masturbate away. Download pornography to your hearts content if that's what floats your boat. But let's stop exposing young children to the wholesale objectification of women as sex meat. We're sexualising our children too young, and in all the wrong ways. 

    Early imprinting creates a neurological blueprint that impacts on behaviour for life. Your young child's brain is a sponge, sucking in data from every direction. That row of Lad Mags in the supermarket contributes to the gender perceptions of our sons and daughters. You're deluded if you believe that your influence as a parent negates the bombardment of material objectifying women. The Strubenville foot ball players that raped a sixteen year old girl, urinated on her and then circulated the video of the crime, weren't taught to behave that way by their parents. Allegedly, they were good kids, normal kids, not much different from their peers. They didn't even think that what they were doing was very wrong. It's considered normal for teenage girls to circulate selfies in which they try to look like the sex meat on the cover of Lad Mags. Did their mother's teach them to stick out their butt while peeling down the straps of their lacy bra, or did they get it from someplace else? 

    I want to be able to choose to look at sexual images or pornography. I want you to be able to choose. But I don't want those images forced upon my four year old daughter because she isn't yet able to contextualise them. These images are damaging. I'm tired of it being considered normal to objectify women and treat them like pieces of meat to be flipped over for a good rogering. I'm tired of rape jokes. I'm tired of the rhetoric that degrades women. We live in a world where we think this is normal and we're imprinting these perceptions of "normal" on our kids by over exposure to media that objectifies women and contributes to a culture of sexual violence. Slippery slope? Rape culture has become the norm. We've been sliding down that particular slippery slope for decades. These magazines contribute to that.