Thursday, July 20, 2017

How to Silence a Woman Writer #1 "Dirt, spit and poetry"

How to Silence a Woman Writer #1 "Dirt, spit and poetry"

Imagine a woman who wanted to be a writer, but didn't dare write when her husband was around.
Too far-fetched? Not in this day and age? Well, I know one that happened to. Here in Scotland. Not that she got much of a chance to write anyway, with a houseful of kids. So she'd wait till the wee ones were in bed. Then she'd wait till her man was asleep, creep downstairs, quietly shutting all the doors. Holed up in the living room she'd tap out stories on a small portable typewriter. But typewriters are noisy, clattery buggers. Even wee portable ones. So she'd balance it on a pillow on her knee to stifle the clickety-clack of the keys. For a while it worked. She started to get her stories published in magazines. Then he copped on to her infidelity. Burst in one night, caught her red-handed. In a rage he battered the typewriter off the walls. Then he battered her. The typewriter was broken beyond repair. But the writer wasn't. She eventually escaped the husband - not without a lot of difficulty - saved for a new typewriter and now has poetry collections, novels and prizes to her name.

Then there's Salma. Salma had the misfortune of being born a girl in India. Her father wasn't interested in another daughter, so she was given away to be looked after by a cousin in another village. That cousin was five years old. When Salma herself turned five she was sent back to her parents so she could go to school. But at 13 she started to menstruate, and was taken out of education.  Her fate as a woman was simply to be a wife. And until she accepted a husband she would be confined to the family house. She steadfastly refused to be wed. So she was kept locked in. Until her early 20s when her parents tricked her into a forced marriage.

Life as a married woman didn't bring freedom though. In her new home she was once more kept in confinement by her in-laws. But through 25 years of what was essentially house arrest she was allowed to read, and had access to books from the local library. So she read widely. Dostoevsky. Tolstoy. Camus. Her mind travelled and grew, and soon she started to write poetry. Secretly. On any scraps of paper she could find. The backs of old calendars. On discarded newspapers. Sometimes she got her hands on notebooks. And when her husband found the notebooks and scraps she'd squirrelled away, what did he do? He ripped them up. He destroyed them. So Salma started over again. Infuriated, he threatened her. He would beat her, he said. But she continued to write. He'd throw acid in her face while she slept, he said.

Salma is beautiful. A serene, calm presence. Perhaps, like the American poet Audre Lorde she had reached that point Audre reached when she wrote her famous essay, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. In it Audre wrote, "Your silence will not protect you." Six words I find infinitely powerful. (EDITED LATER: I've just discovered the quote should be attributed to Adrienne Rich in 1976.) The poet may as well use her voice, Lorde explains, for the injustices will continue whether or not she speaks out. Salma was not going to be silenced.

Magi with Salma
Glasgow Women's Library 2014

When confronted with the threat of acid, she slept with her baby hugged close to her face, trusting that her husband would not assault her with the child there. It worked. And she kept writing. Her mother smuggled her poems out in the folds of saris being taken to the laundry, and on instructions from Salma, sent them to a literary magazine. The editor recognised her extraordinary voice, the poems were published, and if you'd like to know how Salma's story unfolded, and how she eventually helped change the lives of other Tamil girls and women, listen to this podcast I made after you've finished reading the blog. The recording I made talking about Salma's story for the Dangerous Women project. There is also a documentary about Salma, made by Kim Longinotto.

Both these stories are true.

Both are about living women poets whose voices would have been silenced but for their extraordinary bravery and tenacity.

The first took place a few decades ago in Scotland. The second from not very long ago in India.

In writing groups I've tutored I've often worked with women whose husbands or partners were opposed to, or 'not keen' on, them writing. Of course, writing can be threatening for a partner, regardless of whether it's the man or woman taking it up. There can be fear of unwanted exposure, of revelations about private lives and emotions, fear of betrayals. Fear that the partner might grow and change through writing,  a very real and grounded fear, because they often do.

And Salma did write of the intimacies of her life as a Tamil woman living in an arranged marriage. Sensitively, brutally, beautifully.

A Midnight Tale
These nights
following the children’s birth
you seek, dissatisfied,
within the nakedness you know so well,
my once unblemished beauty.
You are much repelled,
you say,
by a thickened body
and a belly crisscrossed with birthmarks;
my body, though, is unchanging
you say
today, hereafter and forevermore.
My voice, deep-buried
in the valley of silence,
mutters to itself:
True indeed,
your body is not like mine:
it proclaims itself,
it stands manifest.
Before this too,
your children, perhaps, were born

in many places, to many others;
you may be proud
you bear no traces of their birth.
And what must I do?
These birthmarks cannot be
repaired, any more than my own decline—
this body isn’t paper
to cut and paste together, or restore.
Nature has been
more perfidious to me
than even you;
but from you began
the first stage of my downfall.
More bizarre
than the early hours of night
is the hour past midnight
when dreams teem.
It is now, at this midnight hour
the tiger which sat quietly
within the picture on the wall
takes its place at my head
and stares

and stares.
(Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
It is undeniable - and some would say almost inevitable - that power imbalance will exist within a marriage or, indeed, any relationship. It is also undeniable that historically within marriage that imbalance has almost always been in favour of the man. As Friedrich Engels wrote in Origins of Family, Private Property and the State in 1884:
"In an old unpublished manuscript, written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words: “The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.” And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male."
So it should not surprise us that a writing woman might be seen as a threat to a marriage, and that her husband, even in the early twenty-first century might try to block her development. Whoever has the upper hand in a power relationship will inevitably favour the status quo. Change presents threat.

And although middle and upper middle class women writers like Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (author of amongst many other feminist tracts, the famous short story, The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892) did meet with adversity as writers in the masculine literary world of their era, I would argue that working class women today often feel most sharply the dark undertow of deep-rooted oppressive attitudes. After all, their voices are not only outside the establishment like the working class voices in the writing of, for example, James Kelman and Tom Leonard, but they're also, in that other sub-class, the one that makes up 50% of the population. Women.

Edinburgh poet Sandie Craigie (1963 - 2005), whose unique voice is sorely missed in the Scottish poetry world, captured this double oppression in this prose poem.

A Good Man by Sandie Craigie
Gie him aes due, never laid a finger oan mi, never lifted his hand. When he met me ah wiz shy an blushin an aw that shit, ah wiz sixteen. Ah wizny a fuckin wimp tho, an ah wizny inti marij or that ken, or huvin things, or styin poot – anywhere. Ah sez "ivry man wants ti make yi his fuckin mother" he sez that's what he liked aboot mi, ah wiz difrint. Blusht like a virgin, tawkt like a skeemy, thoat like a fuckin hippy. Twelve years oan am mairryd wi a bairn, nae munny an the three piece suite. An him sayin how he quite fancyz ma best mate, sez mibby we should huv wan ae they open relationships.
            Ah gret fir three dayz. Then wan night ah askt him how the fuck he kent ah wizny awready huvin wan ae they open hings. He sed, YOU, youv no gote the GALL, no gote the NERVE ti stand nakid in front ae any man, what's fir tea. Then he undressed mi. Gie him his due tho, never layed a finger oan mi, never lifted his hand. Never hud ti.

Of course, as individual writers we can choose to get out of oppressive relationships, to stay out of them, or not get into them in the first place. But we are still stuck with the country we live in. And Scotland has got 'previous' on silencing its women.

As much as Scottish women like to think they have a 'guid Scots tongue in thur heids' that can give as good as it gets, as much as we like to think no one would be able to silence us, the reality is that we are carrying the weight of centuries of being silenced, of our voices and opinions, both as women and for many of us, as working class people, of being undervalued and deemed as not worthy of being heard, as we take up our pens and open our mouths. To be both working class and female, is to inherit a double whammy.

Our museums have a fine array of so-called Scold's Bridles, also known as Witch's Bridles, branks and jougs. 'Brank', according to my dictionary, comes from: a pillory or bit for a horse and Dutch prang  a fetter; also with late Middle English barnacle(s), denoting a powerful bit for restraining a horse

Brank or witch's bridle. Kelvingrove Museum. Glasgow

Woman - horse - nag. The association is all too clear.

The first reference in writing to a scold's bridle is in 1653 in the Lanark Borough Records. Imagine the disgrace of it! To be shamed in your village as a woman who talks too much. Your chin immobilised. A spike pushing up under your tongue. Your head literally clamped in iron. Unable to eat or drink. Historically, children should be seen and not heard, we all know, and mouthy women should be brutally disgraced.

In my group work with women I hear them constantly self-disciplining, apologising for talking too much. Self-chastising. If this is explored as a theme in creative writing, stories and poems emerge of being reined in as a child, punished at school, given lines, put outside the door.  The chatterbox child. I've tutored mixed groups, all-male groups and all-female groups. I've not done scientific data collecting, but this seems to be a predominantly female experience. I do have a male neighbour, who has OCD, who apologises for talking too much. But in all my years of teaching and tutoring I've come across very few men who are apologetic for talking too much. But women? They apologise constantly. So maybe that's why sixteenth century law-keepers came up with the brand and the bridle? Maybe women are just predisposed to letting those tongues wag wag wag?

Scottish bridles - see the spikes!

Yet evidence abounds that boys speak much more than girls in school, and that this behaviour is the result of early social conditioning. "Boys talk nine times more than girls in the classroom—and are encouraged to do so—according to findings from a new language dynamics study." There are many other studies. Here's another recent study suggesting girls are silenced by 'rowdy' boys in the classroom.

Historically in Scotland, a woman with too much to say not only met with social disapproval in life, but in the Western Isles, could be buried after death face down to halt her tongue as Kathleen Jamie's beautiful and haunting poem describes.

Tradition suggests that certain of the Gaelic women poets were buried face down.

So they buried her, and turned home,
a drab psalm
hanging about them like haar,

not knowing the liquid
trickling from her lips
would seek its way down,

and that caught in her slowly
unravelling plait of grey hair
were summer seeds:

meadowsweet, bastard balm,
tokens of honesty, already
beginning their crawl

toward light, so showing her,
when the time came,
how to dig herself out —

to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.

Not so easy to silence a woman, then.

The American poet, Adrienne Rich, in her essay, Arts of the Possible said, “Every real poem begins in the breaking of a silence, and the first question we may ask of any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” For women and others who've been historically marginalised; the disempowered, the colonised, Rich points out that “the impulse to create begins – often terribly and fearfully in a tunnel of silence.”
For some women I've known that's meant creeping downstairs in the middle of the night to type. Or hiding poems in the folds of a sari to have them smuggled out. Or, indeed, coming along with excitement and trepidation to an all-women writing group.

For many women in today's society you may think there's no struggle at all, but it's worth remembering just how recent these gains and breakthroughs are, and just how equally easy it might be to lose them again. It's also worth remembering how important poetry is. It may be romantic, but it's also political, and it can be life-changing and culture-changing. So women's voices in poetry are not only important, they are absolutely necessary.

So we must heed the words of Jamie's poem, and no matter how beaten down we sometimes feel, we must keep our mouths "young, and full again/ of dirt, and spit, and poetry." For without our women's poems, we only hear half the story, only hear half the song. We only dream half the future.


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