“I Dare to Say” Book Review: A Lesson in Hope and Resilience from African Women

I first learned about “I Dare to Say”, a new anthology of African women sharing their stories of hope and survival, after I’d recently decided that, when it came to writing about Africa, I would only ever highlight stories of struggle alongside resistance.

Incidentally, I’d also just published a response to the Kony 2012 campaign about the need for more African women’s voices in the media. Needless to say, the publication of this anthology by FEMRITE, the Ugandan Women’s Writers Association, was timely.

When my copy arrived in the mail, I felt a sense of pride staring at the glossy cover, a sepia photo of two older African women dressed modestly in old garments. Something about the woman in the foreground felt familiar, wrinkles on her bare forearms, wearing the kind of smile that only follows after a really good laugh.

A month later, I realized it had been the memory of both my grandmothers that the image had invoked; they too masked a lifetime of pain and perseverance behind bright white smiles in the sepia photos of my family’s history, their stories held captive within fading images of moments when they temporarily forgot their burdens.

I had once felt I could never know what my grandmothers (and even my own mother) suffered at the hands of poverty, the unforgiving hand of patriarchal traditions, and Nigeria’s bloody civil war. I’d for a very long time resented my mother for her matter-of-fact way of moving through life, never stopping long enough to share the details with an eager first daughter who yearned for a deeper connection with the women in her family; I spent my childhood yearning for stories that lived beyond the slew of parental commands that came infused with generations of gendered duty.

My mother was the kind of woman that would casually toss harsh truths at you from the other end of the dinner table, right before asking you to pass the salt. “I Dare to Say” captures the reality of that kind of resilience – the kind that has learned to live in the next second, the next minute, the next day, never having had the luxury of sitting on a rock for timed introspection; the kind that’s learned to convert detachment into the instinct to keep breathing despite the suffocating feeling of hopelessness.

Reading the book itself was a lesson in perseverance; the longer I paused between stories, the harder it was to bring myself to brave the next one. So, onward I would press on, carrying all the pain, anger, frustration, and chest-heavy burden from being triggered by these women’s experiences, reliving their trauma with them.

Through tears and turning pages, I would question everything I believed: whether I was truly grateful for the life I was currently living or gorging my ego with self-pity, whether or not the work I was currently doing as an activist was meaningful, given how few of these women it touched. I would feel myself shutting down, wanting to close my heart to further pain by closing the book, and in essence, silencing these women’s voices.

But when African women facing overwhelming hardship and circumstances, re-live their trauma to share their journey with us, in order to engage us, educate us, even heal us, we owe them more than a few brief moments of empathy; we owe them our undivided attention, our gratitude, and our commitment to holding on to the voices and their stories as though lives depend on it; because they absolutely do.

“I Dare to Say” not only reveals to the reader, the unrelenting burden of resilience that comes with living in some of the most impoverished areas and under the most debilitating circumstances in Africa, but its first-hand accounts by Ugandan women offer poignant insight into some of the most prominent issues facing women all over the world today.

Here are a few reasons why this groundbreaking collection should be gifted, purchased, and read by every women’s and gender studies department, every single African feminist, every human rights activist, every father, brother, and uncle, everywhere:

1) Concise, Clear Focus on Concrete Set of Issues: Rather than attempt to cram the myriad of issues facing African women into a dense and overwhelming product, this anthology focuses on the ones tied to culture and tradition, and thus are often stigmatized, making their exploration more powerful. The editors organized the collection into four distinct sections:

  • Tears of Hope: Surviving Domestic Abuse
  • Farming Ashes: Tales of Agony and Resilience (Post-Conflict)
  • I Dare to Say: Facing HIV/AIDS
  • Beyond the Dance: The Torture and Trauma of Female Gential Mutilation.

2) Stories Remain Powerful When Read in Order or At Random: I read the stories in order, from start to finish. I must confess, however, that even though I initially believed the sections would prepare me for what was to come, each story felt like a different emotional expedition, raw and unexpected. So, I’m not sure how different the experience would be for a reader who opted instead to select stories at random. Nonetheless, the modular way in which the narratives were presented, certainly made the context around some of the issues a lot easier to learn and digest.

3) Ethical Curation: This Anthology Honors the Storyteller, Not Just the Story: Each story pays homage to Africa’s long tradition of oral storytelling, by acknowledging the power in both the listener and the person doing the storytelling. In every chapter, the moments leading up to the initial meeting between the writer and the subject are described in first-person and italicized. The interviewer literally holds our hands as they travel on overcrowded buses, walk through villages, and get their subjects to start speaking. When this happens, the narrative voice of the African woman, jolts you into the main story; its rough edges and insights feel raw and uncensored  in verbatim, and you can ‘hear’ her, and experience her story as you would if you were right there with her in the room.

Every so often, I meet a book that opens up itself to me in a way that, in turn, encourages me  to be more open with the world about who I am. “I Dare to Say” is one of those books; after reading it, I am forever changed. I feel stronger and prouder than ever to carry the weight of these inspiring women’s stories on my back; their bravery has encouraged me to keep telling my own story, keep fighting for a future in which all our voices are heard, and live from the same place of hope and resilience as the women who have walked this path before me.

The London Feminist Film Festival Seeks Submissions from African Women Filmmakers

Dear Readers,

I was contacted by the London Feminist Film Festival committee to help share some very exciting news. Not only are they receiving great film submissions from all over the world (from as far as Sudan and Burkina Faso!), but they seem very committed to making sure African women and the Diaspora are represented in the festival’s programming, including the films themselves and post-screening panel discussions.

If you’re an African woman filmmaker (or know of any) who identifies as a feminist or has produced a film exploring feminist themes, please submit! The deadline for submissions is August 31st, so you still have time to prepare your reel.

I may actually submit something myself; I’ve been in a feminist erotica filmmaking mood of late. On a more serious note, I’ve been casually collecting footage of African women having conversations (or proclamations) about feminism for the past few months via my Africans for Africa project. The London Feminist Film Festival (LFFF) committee is interested in seeing it, so perhaps their impending deadline will serve as enough motivation for me to edit the first round of footage so that I can send them a short on African feminism. We shall see.

Meanwhile, here are some quick-hit submission criteria:

  • Women directors can be from any country
  • Films should deal with feminist issues and/or be feminist in their representation of women
  • Films can be of any length or genre, and from any year
  • Non-English language films must be presented in English-subtitled versions

NOTE: Submissions by mail will still be accepted as long as they are post-marked on or before that day. Read the full call for submissions here.

More info about the inaugural London Feminist Film Festival below:

The London Feminist Film Festival was set up as a response to the underrepresentation of women in the film industry, as well as to the lack of films addressing feminist issues and the fact that the representation of women on screen is often narrow and stereotypical. The festival aims to counterbalance the mainstream film industry’s narrow representation of women and its neglect of feminist issues by showing a season of feminist feature films, documentaries, and shorts made by women directors from around the world.

Festival Director, Anna Read, says “We want to celebrate women creatives whilst ensuring that this feminist ethos also extends to the films we show. The festival will be a celebration of feminist films past and present. Our aim is to inspire discussion about feminism and film, to support women directors, and to get feminist films seen by a wider audience”.

The festival’s first matron, writer, critic, and broadcaster Bidisha, released shared in support,“In a year when the Cannes film festival had no women in its official selection, when less than 10% of industry directors, writers, cinematographers, and leading characters are women, the London Feminist Film Festival is here to challenge, change, inspire, redress, entertain, and satisfy. I support it wholeheartedly as a women’s advocate and also as someone who has always loved film and sat in countless screenings watching the action and the credits and thinking, where the hell are the women? Well, here they are.”

Read / download their Full Press Release.

Incidentally, the LFFF has confirmed Jacqueline Williams, author of Out of the Shadows: Black Women in Film 1900-1959, a book which explores the contribution black women have made to movie making in the first half of the twentieth century. They are still confirming more speakers which they hope to represent a wide spectrum of feminist perspectives on film and the industry.

As with many feminist spaces, the emphasis on “women” almost always tends to universalize the experiences of the dominant group (e.g. straight women, white women, theorists/academics with class privilege and a macbook, etc.) so that over time the space becomes monolithic and unwelcoming to minorities. The organizers are aware of this and are working quite hard to get the call out to as many communities as possible.

I deeply appreciate LFFF’s effort to ensure diverse voices are represented in every aspect of the festival, including their decision to do outreach so that they can mainstream films from minorities (vs. create a separate track for them). Hence, I would love to see ALL kinds of submissions make it into their submissions pool, not just for the sake of sustaining their enthusiasm about working diligently towards diversity (however important), but so that the voices of African women and the Diaspora (including LGBTI people) will be heard in this very important forum.

So! If you’re an African woman who either identifies as feminist or would like to submit a film/short that explores feminist themes, read the full criteria, then submit!

If you have any questions about submissions, feel free to get in touch with LFF directly via info@londonfeministfilmfestival.com. Feel free to join the LFFF Facebook Group and/or Like their Facebook Page. You can also follow the LFFF on Twitter @ldnfemfilmfest for more information and updates.

Zoe Saldana to Star in Nina Simone Biopic: How the Dark vs. Light Skin Debate Misses the Point about Black Women and the Media

In case you missed it, Hollywood is gearing up to release a biopic of Nina Simone, an African-American singer, pianist, and civil rights activists whose music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights for blacks in the US.

I myself was only introduced to Nina Simone via a remake of her song, “Feeling Good.” I remember jamming to it in my dorm room when a friend of mine remarked that it was no where near being as good as the original. I promptly searched for the original on YouTube and was blown away by the command of her voice.

Further searches led me to “Strange Fruit“, a song (based on a famous poem written by Abel Meeropol) she performed about lynchings in the south, along with a slew of other noteworthy appearances that punctuated her career path as a Black woman singer-turned-political figure.

A biopic about Nina Simone will undoubtedly strike a chord with the African-American community. But given the recent controversy surrounding the project’s casting choices (i.e. Zoe Saldana, a Dominican actress as the lead), it’s not likely to be perceived as the “right” chord.

But when is it ever?

In a recent update on Facebook, Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone, shared her thoughts about the new film project. Here are, for me, the most important aspects of her comment:

Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate.

If written, funded and CAST PROPERLY a movie about my mother will make an lasting imprint.

From Tragedy to Transcendence – MY VISION. The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY.

For all she endured while here and all of the lives she has touched, she DESERVES to be remembered for who she truly was; not some made up love story from a former nurse/manager (now deceased) who sold his life rights because of his relationship to Nina Simone.

You can read the rest of her comments here. In a nutshell, here are my two cents…. 

I’m not surprised that a movie is being made about Nina Simone without consulting her family or estate. Not one bit. We know this story all too well: The Help and Untitled Nelson and Winnie Mandela Biopic also moved ahead without consent from the source.

I’m also not surprised that the screenplay for the Nina Simone biopic wasn’t written by a black woman, and thus, per her daughter’s concerns, will use that as license to perpetuate inaccuracies.

And finally, though sadly, I’m not surprised that black women have busied themselves with the question of who will “play” the role of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana vs. dark-skinned black actresses) rather than focus on the root cause of mis-representation in Hollywood: the absence of a strong network of black writers, producers, and studios.

This is the only comment I will be making on this issue because it’s always the same story, but even more frustrating, always the same rhetoric about how white people are appropriating our stories. As a community, we’re not doing nearly enough writing to make white people’s overly-simplistic, inaccurate, saviorist depictions of our lives irrelevant.

The hard truth is this: if we spent more time creating media instead of criticizing it, there’d be way more diversity in representation, and way more stories and perspectives to which white people can be more frequently held accountable. 

Pushing for ownership of both the infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences — that is the crux of the issue; not just the politics of light vs. dark-skinned actresses. So, whereas I am completely on board with calling out the colorism behind the biopic’s casting choices (and the harmful message that’s being sent to young, dark-skinned black girls everywhere by having a light-skinned woman play Nina Simone) there aren’t enough strong lead roles written for women of color in Hollywood for me to fairly tell Zoe Saldana, a hard-working, talented brown woman to “sit this one out.”

When will black women, LGBTI, Africans, everyone-that-has-been-screwed-over-by-hollywood finally get it that we need more autonomy over our media? When will we begin militantly fighting for mainstream media’s accountability to not just the story but the storyteller?

Whenever I pose this question, the conversation is almost always derailed by arguments that advocate about “allies” i.e. whether or not they have the right to be the owners and producers of our stories based on the fact that they have “skill”. Take for instance arguments that suggest the writer-director of the project, Cynthia Mort, doesn’t necessarily deserve the right to lead such a critical project with just chops from writing for shows such as Roseanne and Will and Grace. Or that Zoe Saldana is a brilliant actress regardless of her skin tone, and so will undoubtedly do a great job in her lead role as Nina Simone (and that therefore, black women shouldn’t be angry?).

But when we frequently prioritize debates about “industry expertise” vs. “authenticity/stakeholdership of the storyteller” we completely miss the point: our focus shouldn’t be just on the depiction of one character, or even the accuracy of one story, but about the (dis)empowerment of the storyteller i.e. who writes and owns the f**king book.

Afrolicious, one of my favorite black woman media advocates says in her most recent blog post:

… we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and creating them. We need to create platforms that we own, community-owned media centers that are not at the mercy of funding cycles or internet service providers. But most of all we need to keep telling our stories.

I couldn’t have said it better. Now, back to writing and documenting my work training and coaching African women and LGBTI groups in Southern Africa to tell their own stories, so that they can become thought leaders, and change the world.

NOTE 1: Correction added. Strange Fruit was based on a poem written originally by Abel Meeropol, and performed by a number of singers, including Billie Holiday. Thanks, Sarah J. Jackson for the tip!

NOTE 2: Updated to include black-owned studios as additional point at which we can subvert white-dominated film industry i.e. ignore them and create our own.

[VIDEO] Teaser Trailer for “Confessions of a Queer African Boi” Poetry and Erotica Chapbook

I’ve been working on a collection of erotica, poetry, and other free-form expressions for a year now and recently printed them into booklet form for editing.

Flipping through the pages for the first time felt like the cold sensation of fingers slowly running down a soft layer of brown skin. These were words I hadn’t yet shared with fans of my writing; they held within them a different side of me many have not been privy to see. And so, with this new chapbook (hopefully being released by December or January of next year), I’ll be taking a very big leap…

I’m known publicly for my personal essays that offer a unique political perspective — one heavily inspired by my mantra, “Love is My Revolution”. But I have actually always been a fiction writer.

My parents will tell you that I’ve been writing and directing plays since I was 7 years old, using my disgruntled younger siblings as props, my mother’s plush pillows as elaborate sets, and my father’s Miles Davis tapes as background music. I wrote my first poem, “Ruler of the Sea”, after watching Steven Spielberg’s jaws. I wrote my first novel when I was thirteen, based on the “Mean Girls” of my secondary school (and the boys they constantly fought over).

At MIT, I added writing as a major in my junior year — studied under Pulitzer Prize winner, Junot Diaz for two semesters — and wrote over a dozen short stories about love, relationships, women, and self-image. I even went on to win two awards; one, for a story I wrote about my struggle with eating disorders, and another that used magic surrealism to explore the spiritual connection between the mothers and daughters in my family.

When I first began dating women, I stopped writing, perhaps because my words have always been my anchor to the world, and I wasn’t yet ready to validate my sexuality (and some traumatic experiences), as part of my reality. When I was finally able to write creatively, I remembered that my words haven’t always just been grounding, but healing, and so I’m excited to share this part of my “recovery” with all of you.

Incidentally, the other night, as I was editing my chapbook, I decided to take a self-care break and do something fun for encouragement: make a video teaser trailer for my chapbook. So here is the result of my late night photo shoot with queer African boi erotica and poetry. I hope you enjoy.

Well, what do you think? Would you read it? Buy it? Please leave your comments/feedback below. But remember, be gentle. To borrow from Erykah Badu, “I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my sh*t.”

Celebrate LGBTI Africa’s Pride Everyday (and Everywhere, Not Just Uganda)

Uganda’s first gay pride has been hailed as a milestone of achievement for LGBT Africa. 

We often hear about African LGBTI people being persecuted by their governments, and in addition, being raped, murdered, and socially-ostracized from their communities. Their infantalization in the media is evident via the plethora of news reports that have essentially chronicled the queer African movement as mainly a series of violent acts, political debates, and perceivably (at least to the west) rare moments of triumph.

But is there ever triumph without steadfast resistance? More importantly, what exactly is triumph to queer African people whose lives and humanity exist in the every day, and not just within the 5 minute scan of the latest sensationalized news story?

How often do we hear stories about two African lesbians falling in love, not as part of a political debate, but as idle banter over fish and chips? When was the last time we heard about a group of LGBT Africans partying just because — and not necessarily tied to a social cause?

When people think about queer African people, how often do they imagine them as happy, empowered, and even ordinary? Can we really only picture their liberation as a photo of a scantily clad African man wearing a fusion of traditional garb and rainbow colors, an imported western symbol of gay pride?

Given the viral sharing of the photo of gay Africans participating in their first gay pride in Uganda (a country described by BBC as “the worst place to be gay”), my guess is that the west has succeeded in painting the faces of LGBT Africans as sad, helpless victims by default, rendering testaments to the opposite surprising, an exception that warrants mass (international) celebration.

Make no mistake. I am thrilled beyond words for my brothers and sisters in Uganda. Given all what they have faced these past few years — from that dreadful “Kill Bill” to the loss of an endeared community leader and activist, David Kato, and even amidst their pride celebration, harassment and arrests by the police – the images of Uganda hosting their first pride backed by a group of happy kuchus is undeniably a powerful symbol of hope.

As Sokari Eine writes on her blog, “If Ugandan Kuchus could march through the streets then so could we all – Nigerians, Liberians, Cameroonians and well the whole continent.” No matter the politics of pride (or even the looming threat of US imperialism through the western foundations that support them), big acts such as the Uganda pride festival are an important part of Queer African history, and thus, worth documenting.

However, during my short time in Cape Town, South Africa, which I’ve spent almost exclusively with individuals from the LGBT community, I’ve seen other remarkable acts worth celebrating.

Nearly every day, I have been reminded of the power of the mundane acts we each take towards our own fulfillment: discussions about family and coming out with my Zimbabwean host, invoking both tears and laughter over Buchu tea; an eruption of giggles by an aspiring human rights lawyer after her girlfriend whispers something in her ear; the silence of a crowd of black South African lesbians as a passionate feminist poet spits truth about the impact of corrective rape on young girls.

I have witnessed the daily grind of empowerment of black South African lesbians, watched them sink and wade through the cultural stigma that surrounds them like a mist, clouding the world’s perception of their lives as ordinarily human. Thus, I have come to re-affirm my belief that we must also celebrate our proud perseverance, our steady survival, just as fervently as we do big, bold acts of bravery. 

For those of us who have chosen media as our battlefield, it can be easy to forget that LGBTI Africans don’t just live online, or on the streets, for that matter, holding up cardboard signs in perpetual protest; they occupy small apartments with leaky faucets, the residence halls of liberal arts colleges where they hope to launch their careers, and small bungalows in the impoverished rural townships.

Their “pride” may not come in bright rainbow colors, but in the dull pastels of pink and blue collared shirts that call them “lady” when they wish to be “sir”, the dusty brown of their sneakers after practice with teammates that call each other “fag” in jest. Their “pride” will not be heard in the deafening blow of a bullhorn, nor from a platform or podium, but in the awkward silence that follows when they reveal themselves to the people they love, and amidst the painful sighs they let out when they are alone.

I have come to deeply appreciate activists who often have no time to engage in sensationalized international discourse, because they are too busy doing the heavy lifting that comes with supporting LGBTI Africans living in rural townships. I  have come to honor the “others” who don’t call themselves activists–the every day queer African with financial commitments, awkward first dates, the pursuit of lucrative careers to sustain their families, and who despite all odds, wake up every day and renew their determination to keep living.

Unfortunately, many of these small, every day “triumphs” hardly ever get the attention they deserve. Perhaps part of this has to do with the tendency of western countries like the U.S. (who are operating from a different cultural and legislative framework) to re-tell and shape our stories and, in so doing, suggest which parts are worthy of global applause. Or, perhaps many of us are too deep in the trenches to reflect upon our work (and our lives) long enough to view them as achievements in the larger context. In any case, I believe it is time LGBTI Africans begin chronicling our failures and successes as we define them, and more importantly, fill in the spaces in between the bigger milestones, with our voices, our stories, our personal anecdotes.

So, as we celebrate Uganda’s first pride, consider these ten milestones – both big and small, personal and political – that are also part of the Queer African movement and history. These brave and remarkable acts provide me with daily inspiration to celebrate LGBTI African pride everyday, and everywhere, not just in Uganda:

5 Political Milestones

1) Health: The opening of an LGBT clinic Kampala, a milestone that would mean year-round care for LGBT Ugandans (vs. a single day-long festival) is worth celebrating, which is why QWOC Media Wire covered it: This is What Africa’s Resistance Looks Like

2) Entertainment: Miss Sahara, a Nigerian Igbo woman, competed in the Miss International Queen pageant for transgender women, and came in second!

She became Nigeria’s first openly transgender celebrity. Her visibility (and success) at the pageant, incited many conversations about what it means to be a trans person from Africa.

My name is Miss Sahara, and I’m from Nigeria …I just want to make a statement that because I’m a Nigerian doesn’t mean I can’t be a transgender woman… I would like to believe that I am beautiful. I’m here to make a statement.

3) Politics: Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, released a statement asserting she will support LGBT rights and protections, making her the second African woman president (after Liberia’s president Sirleaf) to come out in support of LGBTI African people, sort of.

4) MediaPambuzuka Press recently announced the release of the Queer African Reader, a collection of writings, analysis and artistic work (intended primarily for an African audience).

The anthology, edited by activists, Sokari Eine and Hakima Abbas, focuses on intersectionality while including experiences from a variety of contexts including rural communities, from exile, from conflict and post-conflict situations as well as diverse religious and cultural contexts.

5) Community: Amidst the racism and xenophobia in Cape Town’s male- and white-dominated gay scene, HOLAA (Hub of Lesbian Action for Africans), a new Black South African queer community-building organization and group blog hosted their first event, Poetic Just-Us. Simply put, it was beautiful.

5 Personal (And, Yes, Also Political) Milestones

6) The Power of Community: My Africans for Africa fundraising campaign to offer free social media and online fundraising training to African women and LGBT organizations surpassed its goal of $7.5K and raised well over $10K! Over 160 individuals contributed to the idea that LGBT African people can and should speak for themselves; the support I’ve received via this project has re-affirmed my belief in the statement, “It takes a village…”

7) The Power of Friendships: My best friend, who I nearly lost due to a clash between her religious views and my sexuality, came full circle after nearly five years apart and wrote a guest post for my blog, “Homophobia is UnChristian.”

8) The Power of Words: A queer Nigerian reader and supporter sent me a message recently letting me know that my writing had inspired her to come out to her own parents!

“Just wanted to say, thank you for all that you do… Your bravery and humongous heart have inspired me to come out to my Nigerian parents as well as ignited a passion to aid LGBTQ Africans, especially Nigerians in our fight to be visible.”

What I love about this milestone it’s that it’s actually not one, but two; it is mine, certainly, for knowing that my words are meaningful, but it is also my dear friend’s, for taking the big leap and sharing her whole self with the people she loves.

9) The Power of New Media: As a wonderful addition to my Curve Magazine feature, “This is What an African Lesbian Looks Like”I was featured in Ms. Magazine as an African feminist blogger to watch.

Not only was I the only queer-identified one (which is important to note as LGBT Africans often experience silence in feminist spaces), but renowned black feminist scholar and NBC show host, Melissa Harris Perry, shared on Twitter that my interview was one of her favorite reads.

 

10) The Power of Love: I recently made the “the ultimate commitment” to my partner :) In a world in which queer Africans are persecuted simply for loving, the bold, boastful, boundless love I have for my partner (and that she has for me) is absolutely an act of rebellion, or healing, of liberation, worth celebrating.

 

What other remarkable acts should the LGBT African community be sharing? What acts or milestones often go unnoticed? Why do you think that is? How can we be mindful of sensationalism and the hierarchy of achievement it perpetuates in our movements?


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