‘Righting’ Her Narrative!
For the last 4-5 years I have had the opportunity to be involved in the ‘ATIA’ book writing project. It is the acronym we use for the now published “All that I am: becoming the best you before your Boaz” book by Patrice Amoaye. Over the same period, I have also embarked on this blogging journey. Both experiences have stretched me and sparked my interest in the writing and self-publishing industry.
The lessons learnt have been many and so have been my observations of gender bias, and gaps in services provided for women! About a fortnight ago I received a text message that took me on a reflective journey about the lack of diversity and representation in some of these spaces. So in this post I’d like to share some reflections about ‘Righting Her Narrative’ . In other words, I would like to share about ‘blindspots’ in the literary and publishing world that I think contribute to, and increase the barriers women face in multiple spheres.
About a fortnight ago, a good friend of mine sent me a text message about a biography she had recently added to her reading collection. This book is written by a woman who I must admit I had not heard of or come across. When my friend initially messaged, I could sense a level of excitement from her. She had indicated that while reading the opening statement to the book, the voice she could hear as she read was mine. I thought to myself, ‘What a compliment!’ However, I suspect I may have underappreciated just what my friend was communicating in that moment.
When I finally got up to speed with who the author is, Dr Mamphela Aletta Ramphele, I was taken aback. I learnt that she is an accomplished South African woman! She is a former politician, and she was an activist against apartheid. She is also a medical doctor, academic, businesswoman and more. I had a greater appreciation of just what my friend was excited by (thank you dear friend for the compliment, there is a lot more to how so timely your text was!).
We exchanged a few more messages and in between I made a remark about the general lack of diversity in both the publishing world and the selection of authors whose works are available in brick-and-mortar stores down under. My friend echoed similar sentiments and stated that in her part of the world it was also surprisingly difficult to find books written by not just people of colour but women of colour. We both agreed that there is a need for greater diversity and choice of reads as this impacts greatly on women.
Some days after this text exchange I found myself wondering whether I ever explored the idea of intentional reading and questioned if I had been intentionally selecting books written by women of colour when I was younger. In that moment, I recalled my first term of form 2 (the equivalent of year 8 in Australia) at my former boarding school in Zimbabwe. This was the term when our grade/year group would earn full access privileges to the school library. This meant graduating from reading Nancy Drew files and embarking on a literary journey with new authors who had previously been unknown and inaccessible to us. It meant that we were about to encounter new words, storylines and characters.
Most importantly, and in retrospect, it meant that for our creative stories, the characters we would include would now shift from being described as “Tall, dark and dangerous or blue eyed with chiseled jawlines” to characters who had depth. The new selection of books did not disappoint!! It was intriguing and in that season I fell in love with classical literature. I was introduced to the world of Eleanor Alice Hibbert (who also wrote under several pseudonyms). Post high school, this love led me to the works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Virginia Wolf and so much more.
The other literary collection in the school library left me feeling conflicted. This was due to the fact that some of the values, morals and principles expressed in the reads (implicitly or explicitly) were contradictory to what we were taught to embrace, embody and become as young girls. They were also stories narrated from a western viewpoint that quite often did not include characters like ‘us’, however, I had not thought much into this at the time.
Now that I’m older, I recognise that while we were afforded the opportunity to read some of the local content, it was only because some of these works were prescribed readings for our native language or English literature classes. Rarely was it the case that literary works by people of colour or African writers were recommended leisure reads. So, growing up, the heroes and heroines, leaders and trailblazers we learnt a lot more about through fiction or biographies were based on a western view which to an extent limited our outlook on life. It also left little room for young girls of colour, in my case – young black girl – to imagine and believe that in reality, she too could rise up to be a leader, writer, innovator, inventor, maverick or so much more.
Reflecting on my experience I was reminded of Marley Dias who started her #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign in 2015. Unlike me, she was able to identify the lack of diversity in books she read at a very early age and she chose to do something about it! She recognised that what was prescribed for reading at school and the books that were easily accessible were books that did not include characters like her and many of her classmates. So she began a campaign that aimed to collect books that had lead characters that represented her and her classmates. Since then, the campaign has grown and I have no doubt the lives of many young girls, myself included, continue to be transformed (hey, age ain’t nothing but a number, one is allowed to consider themself young!).
Thinking about the transformation of young girls and women I found myself circling once more on the #choosetochallenge theme for International Women’s day 2021. Each year, I make a note about the theme, then I aim to do something differently as part of my own personal commitment to the empowerment of young girls and women. So for me, the many questions running through my mind relate to empowering women through storytelling and understanding what the systemic blind spots are, i.e. understanding the barriers that enable organisations we interact with daily to let gender inequality and injustice go unaddressed.
Not only do women face multiple barriers, but there are also groups of women or sub-populations that are more disadvantaged than others. For example, women of colour, women with disabilities and women who are victims or survivors of domestic violence. For these groups, there are added layers of complexity to consider that limit or restrict progress in the long term.
So, my interest in the literary space and my commitment is not just about providing books. It is about getting the right types of books to the right people. It is about ensuring each woman, when she reads, can imagine, see and be the heroine she reads about. It is about ensuring that in the process of it all – writing and reading – everyone is both inspired and empowered! In a nutshell, it is about granting access to voices – opening doors – that allow women from all walks of life to see greater opportunities so that in the end there is transformation of self, family, and community! A rewriting of the narrative and a correction (‘righting’) of the imbalances that exist in the industries attached to book writing and publishing!!
I have barely scratched the surface on this, but I will pause here for now and leave you with one question. Given the opportunity (and unlimited resources), what issue would you choose to tackle so that more women are empowered? What would you #choosetochallenge?
Thanks for the great read.
My challenge currently has been the lack of artwork that reflects me. I am in the process of decorating my house and even though I am in Africa it’s difficult to find artwork with my face. Yes there is touristy stuff (Which in a way I wish I had invested in some of this pieces when I was younger and not thought it was not for me). But I mean the normal everyday artwork that’s just reflects me not the struggle art(though it has it’s place) but just normal life with me.
I even see artwork of poems or words of wisdom and all I can think of is how I would love a framed nhetembo or mandimikira just because it’s equally as beautiful as all these English mantras we buy for our walls.
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Oh Rumbi!! Thank you 🙏🏾 The arts issue is something that has been on my radar too. I’ve begun searching for pieces that remind me of home and the great lands and wildlife we had. It may seem like a small thing but it makes the biggest difference. Recently stumbled across the works of Barry Lungu and he is a Zim township artist, does some spectacular work I’d recommend you check out! (https://www.facebook.com/people/Artist-BARRY-LUNGU/100039461623841/?refsrc=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&_rdr )