Andiswa Maqutu describes herself as a pan-Africanist and feminist. She is the author of Black Women Be Like and the founding curator of the eponymous series that consists of stories, poetry, visual and audio art to be produced by black African women from around the continent. Whether exploring a lesbian couple in South Africa, or travelling around Asia as a black woman, Andiswa’s writing is a magnificent lens that captures so much of what it means to exist, on one level as a relational human being, and on another, as a black woman negotiating societal tensions. What could become a futile exercise in double consciousness instead becomes a work of art and genius in Adiswa’s hands. The ABR had a brilliant chat with Adiswa about Black Women Be Like and more.
ABR: What inspired Black Women Be Like?
MAQUTU: Black Women Be Like-The Book, was inspired by my experiences as a woman who is black. It was driven by the conflict I had with my lived experience as a black woman in the 21st century, and the stories I had read and watched about black African women in short stories, books, films and music videos.
I believe the way to get a nuanced story about any people, is for those people to tell their authentic stories themselves. Even in stories that are purely from the imagination and may never take place in this realm, an authenticity needs to be tapped into. And if a storyteller wants to venture into the experiences of another person, she should do the necessary research.
But I struggled to find stories about women who looked like me and had similar conflicts to mine, even though I had read many stories about black women, especially African women. I mainly saw four recurring typecasts of black African women in the creative literature I read; the struggling, mystical and asexual grandmother raising her many grandchildren while dishing out pearls of wisdom or curses to strangers, the [perceived] oversexed jezebel who sleeps with army generals or older men to survive, the educated professional who is rude and proud, and the meek but passive aggressive black Muslim girl.
In her paper titled, Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and Their Homegirls: Developing an “Oppositional Gaze” Towards the Images of Black Women, Dr Carolyne West explores these stereotypes in American media and how they have narrowly evolved over the years. And I realized that it is not a problem unique to black women on the African continent, while the recurring stereotypes are sometimes the lived experiences of black women, particularly in Africa’s developing nations, they are not the only images of black women that exist. So I wrote the anthology with the intention to share stories of my experiences as a young black middle-class woman in South Africa.
Black Women Be Like-The Movement, was inspired by my desire to get other black African women writing their own stories, to get the nuanced story of the black African woman.
ABR: What was the process of writing the collection? Are they based on your experiences or on those of other people and was there any emotional/ personal journey that occurred as you confronted and wrote about these issues?
MAQUTU: The process turned out to be more emotional and conflicted than I had imagined. I usually carry a little black book to write down story ideas and experiences that I can explore in the form of short stories or poetry, so I can capture the emotion of each moment in the moment, so I had a list of potential stories and decided to choose the experiences that were closest to me for good and bad reasons.
I had intended to title the book When Black Women Speak for Themselves, because I felt that was what I was doing as a black woman who had been written about and yet had never seen her stories told. But I felt that title was too loaded and would distract from the content of the book, so I decided on Black Women Be Like, playing on the memes circulating social media and perpetuating stereotypes about black women.
I also wanted to shy away from exploring themes and experiences that presented new haughty extremes to combat existing stereotypes about black women. It was more important for me to share stories that were close to me, authentic and I could write well.
So the process of writing the book was me wrestling with trying to creatively write out my experiences using the characters in the book to explore internal conflicts, and worrying about how the book would be perceived because I am a woman who is black and aware of it. And I could have easily been labeled a number of things including angry black woman and/or using empowered black African women in my stories as a feminist trope and gimmick.
Each story has at least one of my experiences. The first and last stories titled My Favourite Aunt and Kulula Izila, are both inspired by my mother and her sisters, who have been my opinionated and empowered role models. .
The story When the Jacarandas Had Begun Rotting was inspired by friends who are lesbian and by the events and brutality against lesbians in South Africa and on the continent. I wanted to explore some of the forgotten ways black women are oppressed and how they fight back, love and are loved. I had my friends read the story to ensure I hadn’t explored it from the point of view of heterosexual privilege.
Out of Africa, is about my experiences and thoughts on my trips overseas during 2014. I was really emotional transferring that piece from my little book into a short story because the experience of the racism and otherness was fresh. I could still remember sitting on a bench outside the Ayasofya in Turkey, with people watching and pointing at me. On my visit to Istanbul, I experienced, for the first time, the kind of racism that made me fear for my life.
ABR: There’s a thread of dissonance that runs through the collection, especially in the essay titled Out of Africa. Dissonance between how the protagonist is perceived based both on her gender and skin color, which is different from how she perceives her own self as a human being. Do you think that dissonance is reflected in black women today? And with regards to the dichotomy between how the protagonist sees herself vs. how the world sees her, is there any point in trying to reconcile both viewpoints? Is there a stage when one should be more important than the other? And is there a way to utilize both to one’s advantage?
MAQUTU: There is definitely that dissonance reflected in black women, and particularly young black women right now. And that’s one of the conflicts that I experience as a young black woman that I feel is not explored enough in creative writing, even by black women writers.
Black women are an acute reflection of how perceptions about both race and gender have changed very little, and where those perceptions have evolved, they have only evolved narrowly.
Black men are grappling with a similar conflict to what white people and previous oppressors of black people are; that these people (women and black people) who were supposed to keep quiet and do as they were told, now want to exercise their right to control their own actions and also have opinions about the status quo…as equals.
So the dissonance comes from black women, who are already comfortable with their position as equals and have defined what that will mean for them, and men and supremacists adjusting to this new order. It is particularly more pronounced in young black women because any revolution is brought in by the youth, who have their lives ahead of them and therefore demand a world and life that allows them to realize their goals. And that is the common theme and tension that I explore in each of the stories.
I don’t think the point in reconciling opposing views where black women are concerned in the world, is as complex as reconciling how black women see themselves and how they are perceived. Although this is also important given the way black women have been sexualized, villainised and victimised.
However, trying to reconcile how each black woman sees herself through a blanket view of all black women, may lead to prescribing a new way for black women to be and once again rob us of the agency to explore and exhibit our internal conflicts as human beings.
More important is reconciling how women should always have been viewed as human beings and old perceptions that are the result of pathologies in our societies that robbed them of this basic right. What is important is for black women to be seen as human beings too and equals to others regardless of race or gender. And any efforts to try to reconcile this are important as any human rights efforts.
Women, and on my continent, African women, cannot continue to be half the population and a special interest group. Any actions for or against women are human rights wars.
ABR: Black Women Be Like grapples with the intersection between race, sexuality, and feminism very well, and stories such as When the Jacarandas Had Begun Rotting show how these concepts are usually intertwined. Thinking about these intersections, what would you loosely define black/African feminism to be? Is it a cognizant choice, or subconscious part of daily life? What does it look like as you envision it today, and how would you ideally like it to look in future?
MAQUTU: As a feminism fundamentalist, I have had to come to terms with the fact that the word feminism now defines a movement and not just the belief in the political, economic and social equality of women.
So whereas before, I would have said black/African feminism is just feminism, now I believe that loosely defined, it is the feminism movement as perceived, experienced and taken forward by black and/or African women.
And in recent years we have seen how black feminism and even African feminism, which are not new concepts, have chosen not to define themselves according to or to identify with the mainstream feminism movement, which has been punted as a white women’s movement.
Feminism is a cognizant choice and it has to be for women to be able to see and deal with the ways in which they also perpetuate patriarchy. I have also found black feminism and African feminism to be a cognizant choice too.
The black feminism movement that dominates my space right now is the black feminism movement I see on social media and I don’t identify with it. I find it alienating even for me as a black woman, by how prescriptive it seems. For example, the movement seeks to exclude women of other races, whereas I believe that as the women of each race group tackle issues of patriarchy in their respective races and cultures, there will be places of intersection where one movement will benefit another. Similar to how black women in South Africa, in seeking their own space and rights in a post democratic society, liberated white women faster. So I subscribe to a more inclusive feminism movement.
The black feminism movement also has an assumed and expected focus on white supremacy, but I feel the problem is a general perception of black people as being less than by people of every other race. So the important issues for me are black pride and perceptions of black people as not being people by white, Indian, Chinese and Arab etc people. This view is particularly important in the African setting where we still have deeply entrenched hereditary slavery of black people in North Africa in countries like Mauritania and where we are seeing an influx of Chinese and Indian people on the continent. For me, it is important for black people and black women to view themselves as equals and to be viewed as equals by all races, especially with the globalization process. I identify with the African feminism movement more than any other. I believe a Pan-Africanist view is the best way to build mass black pride internalization among black people because Africa has the largest number of black people in one continent. Black people are the majority race on the continent, but they do not always yield the economic power. The challenges facing African women are cultural, political, economic and social, and I think because of this, black African women will be uncompromising in achieving equality because there can be no middle ground for us. And this will not only liberate black women, but black men and white women as byproducts as well.
ABR: There’s an interesting fluidity in the way blackness is perceived depending on the space a person occupies (especially in Out of Africa) could you talk about how (or if) this shifting notion of ‘blackness’ influenced your process of writing Black Women Be Like?
MAQUTU: It was not difficult getting the nuances on the page because these were experiences I had had and the black women around me had experienced. But I do think that writing them down made me more aware of how race is perceived differently. So in Out of Africa, I explore how my blackness was viewed simply as black and a threat or less than in places like Turkey and China. In Nigeria, my blackness was part of a spectrum and each shade of the black race held its own status in terms of aesthetics and perceptions in society.
What become clearer for me after exploring these themes in the book is that the most important perception of the black race is the black person’s own perception of her race. That is the only view that can remain constant. And that is not to say that racism does not hurt, but overtime it can hurt less if I as a black person have a sense of black pride.
There have been trips I went on where I missed out on the beauty of the place I was visiting because I was offended by how my skin colour in combination with my gender was perceived. In future, I intend to hold on to my True North perception of myself as a black woman, so as not be easily offended and also to know what my rights are without insecurity.
ABR: Black Women Be Like is a part of the Black Women Be Like Series, aimed at challenging stereotypes of black women. Can you talk about what you want the effect of challenging those stereotypes to be?
MAQUTU: I want the challenging of stereotypes to re-present black women to the world as they really are. And not as they have been framed to be by the stories that are already in the mainstream.
I would also like to see to black women forming an authentic identity for themselves by realizing that their conflicts are real, valid and shared by many women, and mainly black women, across the world. And develop a form of humanity for each other in that.
ABR: Who/ What are your favorite African authors or works?
MAQUTU: My favourite author is South African writer Rayda Jacobs, author of Confessions of a Gambler. I discovered her work when I was in university and I remember being shocked at the way she presented coloured and Muslim women in her writing. They were always empowered, whether in material wealth or emotionally, even when they seemed to be losing social battles or internal conflicts. And that image of women in stories was new to me, although I had been raised and seen women just like that around me. At first I was uncomfortable with seeing the conflicts her characters could experience on paper. Some of the conflicts were the things women experience that are taboo and not spoken of. But the more I read her work, the more I knew that was the kind of writing I wanted to explore.
I also like a series of books (the first titled A Woman of Substance) written by Barbara Taylor Bradford in the eighties about an female Irish magnate’s rags to riches story. I have seen stories like that told about men in books and movies, but nothing quite the same for women, especially black women, even in film. And that is the book I want to write next. An epic of sorts about a black African woman hero with may uncomfortable conflicts, especially because we are seeing a number of powerful businesswomen on the continent.
I also like how Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie often has disagreeable young black African women in her novels and short stories, and I always wonder if she is perhaps writing about herself. It makes for greats conflicts to explore, some of which I identify with as a young black African woman. But I do think she has a tendency to explore the existing stereotypes about black African women.
Andiswa Onke Maqutu’s creative work has been published in ELLE Magazine, The African Roar Anthology, Storymoja, Storymondo, Vanguard/Dibookeng and Poetry Potion. She graduated from her BCom Accounting at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is always writing, and when she is not writing creatively, she writes factually as a business journalist for the oldest business daily in South Africa. She is currently working on her second book.