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.