October Editor’s letter: What is agency?

Panashe-Chigumadzi_Sweet-Medicine_book-cover

Dear Vanguard family,

It’s strange – there have surely been countless murmurs and shouts elsewhere about my novel, but the Vanguard family is the last to receive an official announcement or introduction. I couldn’t quite find the right time to share this with the community that we have spent the last year and some cultivating and building.

Maybe it’s something close to finding out you are pregnant and telling everyone but your closest ones first? I don’t know, but I think the answer comes in how after some years of writing and editing non-fiction and fiction, I have come to see that there is nothing more personal for me than letting someone into your imagination; nothing makes me feel more naked in the public eye. I am naked as I give birth to a baby which has been in the womb for nearly five years, with very uneven growth spurts and strange ways of kicking stomach walls for its mother’s attention.

So, with two weeks left, out with it: My debut novel will be launched on the 24th October. For those who want more race stones to be thrown after Ruth First, they will be sadly disappointed. Sweet Medicine is the story of Tsitsi, a young woman who compromises the values of her Catholic upbringing to find romantic and economic security through otherworldly means. The story takes place in Harare at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic woes in 2008. According to my wonderful publisher Thabiso Mahlape (one of the few black publishers in the industry) the book is my attempt “at grappling with a variety of important issues in the postcolonial context: tradition and modernity; feminism and patriarchy; spiritual and political freedoms and responsibilities; poverty and desperation; and wealth and abundance.”

All of my work is a reflection of how I grapple with what it means to be black and a woman. My fiction differs from my work with Vanguard and other platforms, in that I see it as a different form of writing where I work much harder not to be perspective or didactic. I believe with fiction, youhave to work to “show” and not simply “tell”.

Once finishing my novel you are less likely to feel satisfied in saying, “well, the moral of the story is…” There is a lot more space for ambiguity and complexity. I love to have readers tell me of their different interpretations of the characters and circumstances, particularly when these are perspectives that are completely different than what I had had in mind. When that happens, I feel that I’ve done a good job of writing a complex being and complex world.

What is interesting is that I had one prospective publisher tell me that they loved the story but wanted me to change the ending because it wasn’t quite “feminist enough”. I immediately pushed back and responded that I wouldn’t change it because the reality is that the world is such that we don’t always get to have our satisfactory feminist endings, even when the endings are written by feminists. The world does not have easy answers and so I want to be able write fiction that also does not have easy answers.

This comment from the publisher then had me thinking a lot more about the question of agency. What is agency? Who has agency? When do we recognise it? Why do we recognise it? Without giving away too much, I then began to refuse the idea that there is no agency on the main character Tsitsi’s (and for that matter the rest of the women character) part. I wanted to ask, what counts as agency? And beyond that, is it that only women who are the ‘perfect/archetypal feminists’ who are worthy of being written about?

I became less resolute about my answer just as the love triangle between Bonang, AKA and DJ Zinhle came onto my radar. In this I was struck by how both women were respectability police’d (Zinhle praised for being a ‘strong woman’, a ‘classy woman’ for her ‘classy response’ and decision to leave the relationship; also it was questioned if she hadn’t known better), slut-shamed (Bonang derided by hashtags such as #BonangMafeba, and outright remarks that it was no wonder that Euphonic assaulted her), while AKA, the man who had recently had a baby and cheated whilst his fiancé was pregnant, has escaped with no more than just ‘men, SMH’….

This begun spinning in my head as I watched how women were treated and I began to worry about some of the parallels Sweet Medicine has to this situation. As brilliantly captured by Pakama Ngeni in her article which called out Drum magazne and wider media for slut-shaming Bonang:

“Bonang is an adult woman whose body is her own, and what she chooses to do with it or how she chooses to exercise and experience her sexuality is up to her apparently except that if you’re a black woman, these freedoms are thrown into perpetual relief. This is evidenced by the horrific trend of the labelling certain women, due to their alleged sexual preferences and proclivities, even something as seemingly quotidian as taste in clothes, as degenerate sluts. This same trend seems to inform both your choice of story and narrative procedures. It encourages this obscene voyeurism, porno-troping and regulation of black female bodies.

In a nutshell, the idea of Drum shaming a woman for, firstly, being sexually active, secondly, having more than one sexual partner, and, thirdly, acknowledging and acting on sexual feelings does not come as a surprise.

Your editorial itself vacillates between rightly pointing out that AKA is no victim in this situation to going right ahead and negating any possibility that Bonang, or DJ Zinhle, for that matter can take pleasure in exploring and embracing sexuality publicly without it playing out as detrimental to some sort of national consciousness, values and norms. So what if she does not take time out after “South Africans were pitying Bonang for being embarrassed by D’Banj” as you say in your editorial?  You dare tell her that she needs to take a serious break before “moving on to another man”. Have you ever given President Zuma that kind of advice? When it comes to how and to whom sexuality must be controlled for moral regeneration, there has been and continues to be a clear double standard. There is one set of sexual rules for men and boys, and another, unequal one for women and girls.”

I almost gave in to the pressure to change the ending because I too wanted my “feminist enough” credentials. In the end, I didn’t and I am happy about that. I am very much satisfied with my unsatisfactory ending. Who knows whether it is “feminist enough”? Readers can too be the judge and may also side with the publisher?

In the meantime, Vanguard brings a number of articles around the question of agency. Amongst many other articles, last week we began with Tatenda Muranda’s “You just haven’t found the right one: On corrective dating”, this week we publish a recording of my reading an excerpt from the book that in some ways speak to agency, we look at the need to target rapists and rape culture and have a brilliant article on black men and grooming.

We hope you do enjoy the issue.

Of course, we also hope you buy the book, and even better, if you are in Johannesburg on the 24th – that you will come to the book launch!

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