Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s daughters out in Africa
Editor: Alleyn Diesel
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After they’ve fed off of your memories
Erased dreams from your eyes
Broken the seams of sanity
And glued what’s left together with lies,
After the choices and voices have left you alone
And silence grows solid
Adhering like flesh to your bones
Lebogang Mashile – In a Ribbon of Rhythm
When I was first asked to review Reclaiming the L-Word I viewed the task with a little trepidation. What could I, a straight, middle-class, white woman, bring to the table, reading about struggles that I cannot even conceive of, in contexts completely foreign to me? But then I started reading and found that this collection of women’s stories spoke to me as a woman. At the heart of this collection was not your average bra-burning feminist, utilising exposure to hop up and stomp all over an antiquated soap box – these are real women, who have chosen to share the difficult paths they have walked in their lives in order to try to talk back to a community that has suffered under the most oppressive form of silence. At the core of the collection one can place the maxim: Just because you say people are free, that doesn’t make them free. Many of the tales in this smorgasbord of experience draw our attention to the fact that just because legislation is in place and recognition of homosexuality has happened on paper, that doesn’t mean that it has translated into the cultural and socio-political sphere of everyday life.
Reclaiming the L-Word is a collection of reflections, photographs and poetry that hopes to fill a large gap in South Africa – to create a literary space where ordinary people can identify with other ordinary South Africans, on a topic that is widely brushed under the carpet in terms of mainstream literature. The photographs by Zanele Muholi that are printed in the book, as well as the one that adorns the cover, express without words the difficulty in expressing what lesbianism truly is.
The stories contained in this collection span several years and several different sets of circumstances and therefore offer a deeper and kaleidoscopic look at the issue of lesbianism in South Africa. The collection tees off with a story of optimism and acceptance written by Heidi van Rooyen, who first and foremost grapples with the idea of writing a piece to be included in such a collection, but her story seems to embody the notion that it is not lesbianism, but silence that is the disease in these people’s lives.
Liesl Theron gives another perspective in her piece titled “Orientation Quiz”, where she discusses factionism within the lesbian community – this is fairly poignant and widens the scope of the collection as the trope of “coming out” and “acceptance” gets taken behind the rainbow curtain and scrutinised from a different perspective from that of the usual straight/gay binary.
The collection is also finely punctuated with poems by Mavourneen Finlayson that serve as palate cleansers between stories; they are touching and heartfelt moments that one can savour into the next adventure.
The crux of this collection is what Yulinda Noortman, one of the contributors, calls “The vulnerable birthing of my own self perspective, which I knew instinctively could not be voiced.” It seems that this inability to voice what one is, is a recurring theme within this collection, regardless of time, space and culture. Many of the contributors are acutely aware of the fact that they did not possess the language necessary to express what they were feeling at the time of deep confusion in untangling their web of sexuality. It seems there is this preoccupation with language and labels when it comes to talking about one’s self and one’s proclivities. Some of them claim they are “gay” and not “lesbian”, as it seems to be a softer, more accepted word (which raises the question: Is patriarchy alive and kicking in this land of women too?); others refuse to employ any of the language associated with “lesbian discourse”, such as “butch” and “femme”, which is also understandable, as that kind of language is in no way emancipating – it is just a harking back to a kind of heteronormative box that makes “all this stuff” easier to deal with.
A theme that runs through all these multicultural stories to some degree or another is the notion that lesbianism is an affliction – a disease for which there is a cure. The solutions, as experienced by this group of women, vary from being told they should see a psychologist to the extreme cases of corrective rape. These kinds of attitude can be addressed only through education – it is not, therefore, surprising that many of the contributors to this collection work within LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transsexual) organisations, awareness campaigns and support groups. The more one reads this collection, the more one becomes aware that these stories are not about getting the right to walk around proclaiming “what I am”; for many of these people being lesbian is just another facet of their personality, much like I do not define myself as primarily heterosexual. What this collection is ultimately about is the right to love – the right to love whomever we choose.