Why is The 21st Century Woman Angry?
The first time I heard Zena Edwards as a performance poet, I was a first year student at University. It turns out she had graduated from the same institution, Middlesex University, and studied on the same Creative Writing course I was on. One thing I remember vividly is the fact that as she was ‘spitting and weaving’ her words on the stage, she was also stringing her mbira, kalimba and marimba (thumb pianos) at different points during her performance. It was the first time I had seen someone do that and it was an “opulent delivery with a complex manipulation of her voice.” Her work was deep and powerful, rhythmic and every word had a melody to it though she was not singing.
Seven years on, Edwards as a performance poet, writer and musician, has travelled extensively across the UK, Europe, the US and Africa, sharing her poetry with the world, receiving international critical acclaim. She has shared the same stage with renowned poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Sonia Sanchez, Lemn Sissay, and Jean Binta Breeze, and recently performed in collaboration with the Senegalese musician Baaba Maal during Africa Utopia for BBC Proms 2012. Recognised as “one the most unique voices of performance poetry to come out of London” her vibrant and eclectic poetry is inspired by her experiences and the many/different journeys she has been on, in life.
Edwards returns to the London stage as part of the three-woman show, The Three Furies, described as a dynamic poetry in-performance film, which she co devised and performs with Mbali Vilakazi from South Africa and Clara Poku from The Netherlands. Together, they translate and embolden the energy of the Greek mythical legend of The Three Furies, said to be protectors of women and children and feared as the most terrifying spectres of vengeance in the ancient world. Known as The Eumenides – ‘The Solemn Ones’ or ‘The kindly Ones’, they bring balance to injustices done to the family, which the three poets have translated into a contemporary representation of womanhood and an exploration of women’s anger in the 21st century. I recently caught up with Edwards and in her own words, she explained what women are angry about in today’s modern world and why?
Belinda: You have had a busy year, from Travelling Light and now as part of AfroVibes, take us into your world and how poetry and the spoken word continues to help you shape and define your space with this manic world?
Zena Edwards: For years I have walked through life as if I’m watching a movie, where characters come and go, evolve or implode and the scenery, set, props and budget, in other words – circumstance has a profound effect on how people rise to the challenge and test their mettle in this one short life. I find these stories fascinating. Even mine. It’s been tough for me growing up in a single parent family, having a migrant status, being a woman of colour who has experienced serious racism and the paradoxes of sexism, racism and class-ism Reality is brutal in its treachery and beauty, and I feel I have a very strange ability to walk around the planet as a tourist. As a child writing helped me to have a human connection to what I saw and experienced. It’s interesting mentioning this because I recently heard someone say that a lot of young people are not apathetic to the world and its noise but are overwhelmed. You could call it a sort of paralysis. I think I suffered from that as a kid. As an adult, I feel I’ve developed the ability to be able to see the world from a very objective perspective. Framing emotion is and subjectivity with an acute sense of objectivity. Writing enables me to have a sense of wonder of the world and its dramas. Then I am able to inject a raw, true emotion into my writing because if I don’t feel like I have engaged, purged and processed the incredulous things that we as human beings are capable of I might implode. And I mean in terms of the incredible feats of strength and determination and creation of beautiful and wondrous things as well as globalisation and warring. Sometimes it really hurts, you know, both the treachery and the beauty, which proves there exist a proverbial fine line between love and hate. Writing brings order, writing poetry is like prospecting for gold, or being an archaeologist, it’s a meticulous job to mine for the gems of truth in all the superficialities which sometimes holds us to ransom. Poetry helps us to reconnect, remind and remember our humanity. I feel very blessed that poetry comes through me and feel it is a duty to share and tell the stories for others who would not have the space or permission to voice their stories. On a more selfish and grounded note, I also do not want to have my time wasted watching someone nor waste anyone time not doing this job. And that is no disrespect to other poets and spoken word artists out there. Everyone has a place and a role to play in the world. I prefer to define mine.
What was that experience of being a part of Travelling Light like for you and what new understanding of country and people did you develop while out there?
Travelling Light is an autobiographical one-woman show about 3 generations of women – my Grandmother, my Mother and I. My mother was separated and lost contact with her mum when she was 4 years old and found her again in 2009, 60 years later. It’s also about journeying into womanhood – how does a mother, mother a girl child into womanhood when she’s never had a mother herself. So it was interesting to share this unpacking of my personal narrative with a South African audience because I thought cultural references around race and gender challenges and triumphs would be completely different to mine. I adhere to calling myself Afri-Carib-British – as a woman of African descent, with a Caribbean heritage and all that entails with being part of the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and a British migrant settler experience. It is a diaspora experience and embraces so many possibilities revealing many potentialities of who I might possibly evolve into. However, what I found fascinating during the post show discussions was how many members of the audience could relate to the piece on an identity, bloodline, and gender explorative level. Audience members realised that where you are born as member of he African diaspora is almost irrelevant if you have had a colonial experience. I was blown away by the feedback and thirst to continue the dialogue around the issue, for example one young drama student who said he would be considered ‘coloured’ there in South Africa found he wanted to discover more about his bloodline after the show as he said there is a tendency for coloured people in South Africa not to delve further back in there bloodline than their grandparents.
Back in London with The Three Furies, which explores representations of womanhood and women’s anger in the 21st century, can you elaborate on the process of bringing this new contemporary understanding of the myth to life?
The Three Furies was born from pure vengeance. Their energy is tour-de-force. I like the idea that you don’t mess with the energy that cannot be tamed. We find in society female deities have been mainstreamed and co-opted. And the goddess’ defiant sides have been hidden or diminished over time because of a need to control women in the areas of folklore and myth also. Well, the purity of the Furies’ energy that intrigued me is the elemental. Although, in the story or Orestes, the Furies have to recognise their place in new civilisations and calm their fury, they always feel like they are on the edge of bursting and this is a tantalising thought too. Any injustice done to the family and in the eyes of the Furies humanity could unleash them again. But they are also called the Eumenides – The Kindly Ones – as they are also beacons and administers of justice. Their energy sort of keeps society in check. I found this quality of their myth appealing and appropriate when discussing women’s anger. MBali, Clara and I spent al lot of time talking about anger. We shared a few life experiences but we often talked about how we channelled our anger, or didn’t find opportunities to channel it and how that made us feels. The process of dialogue is the crucial if not the crux of the unpacking the phenomenon of women’s anger because it is one of our innate devices to deal with the world. We do not look to fix things with a definitive solution with the same immediacy that men do (and I’m aware I’m generalising). Persuasion and diplomacy are the gifts of the feminine and they should not be treated with suspicion but understood and maximised upon. The Furies are the last resort. You just don’t want to call them when you have been reasonable, flexible and fluid to changing circumstance but sometimes you are compelled to. All of this came out in our conversations.
What was working on The Furies with your South African and Dutch contemporaries like? What new understanding of and about women have you gained?
We communicated a lot though email and via Skype to begin with a couple of months before we got together in the Netherlands because we knew we would not have much time to rehearse. This was a way to get to know each others work. Clara is a mother of three and a resolute artist, an MC in a male dominated industry. She is perhaps one of the most sober people I have met. She has a quiet focus and awesome focus when it comes to pursuing her hearts desire, keeping children safe, nurtured and developing healthily as well maintaining sanity at the same time – An Inspirational woman. Nuff said. Mbali is the epitome of a wise woman based on life experiences. We all talked a lot and had some incredible stories to share and Mbali’s struggles and triumphs were so potent. She has a unique ability to take the energy from these experiences into herself and push them back into the world like a PlayStation or Xbox Tekkan character power move as ART floors me! She is wise beyond her years and her writing reflects this. We seemed to not make much reference to culture although Mbali shared a lot about the traditionalism and conservatism gender that pervades in South Africa. The race, power and gender issues for us as artists and women of African descent in general were pretty much universal between us. However, I have respect for women’s capacity to contain pressure. That has been a part of a bigger journey that Travelling Light is taking me on. It was an empowering experience and has encouraged me to continue to speak out.
What new questions do you hope the film pushes the audience to ask themselves about womanhood and the social issues that affect women in our society and world today?
The film serves to highlight the political in the personal story. The edits of the performances and the edits from Sharon Jane’s shorts films (a young woman of mixed heritage filmmaker and visual artist) focus on each of our experiences with how we grapple with fury and how it can have a transformative effect, like a fierce, intense, focused conflagration which humbles, purifies and fertilises. So we hope the film will throw up questions about HOW and how often the dialogue around women’s anger is engaged with beyond the symptoms of anger, into the rectifying the causes. In a recent Travelling Light blog post I wrote “Why is women’s anger portrayed as ugly, snarling and irrational or cute and sexy because it’s fiery? When will attitudes towards women’s anger grow up and be taken seriously? People, women, are dying because their fury is toyed with rather than acknowledged and engaged with.” For me, an example women engaging their fury when they march on the front-lines of protests for democracy with men folk like they used to – prepared for tear gas, beatings etc. Going into battle after ‘doing daily battle’ – it’s got to be respected. Also, I would love to see discussions where the generations reconnect and discuss womanhood, The Furies story is set in ancient Greece but at the turning of a new civilisation. The relationship between young women today in the digital and technological age and that of their mothers and grandmothers in the analogue era and their great grand mothers and their aspirations of what was achievable would be completely different in today’s world. I guess what I’m asking is how has our humanity kept up with the ‘progress’ of our external lives? The equalisation in the status and respect of women, 52 percent of the planet’s population, will clarify that.
Interesting hat you are using multi-media to bring the story to life, why go down this route and in what ways this will reach more audiences?
The film element was an Afrovibes Festival choice. Film is one of the most accessible storytelling devices. When it’s directed and edit well, you don’t even have to know the language those in the film are speaking to understand. Online presence is a part of every day life and promoting a film as a medium for conscious change through social media is a must in this day and age.
And what is it about being a woman in the 21st century that you appreciate as we see life evolve before us?
I was born in the UK, and I have been afforded many privileges women in other parts of the world won’t have had – free education, free healthcare and space to develop critical thought and a variety of platforms to voice my opinion. It’s not always appreciated because I can be perceived as too frank and honest in quite a reserved society (still). But I appreciate that I have the right to do that. However, measuring proclamations of ‘civilisation’ and ‘actual civilisation’ need to match. We’re still quite a long way away from it although we are on our way and I can choose to be a part of that through my work. I appreciate that Arts platforms such as the AfroVibes Festival commissioning this kind of work exists and that it’s women, the wonderful project developer, Michaela Waldren-Jones (UK Arts International), the producer, Jan Ryan (UK Arts International) and partners from the MC Theatre Netherlands, Marjorie Bekker and Joelle Raus are in positions to support it.
And what part of it gets under your skin and you wish you could change?
What gets under my skin is the impatience I feel around the under-developed language or syntax around Women’s Anger. Google anger and you get general anger management but no genderisation of anger. I’m advocating a sort of separatism but the different ways men and women express anger is real. I am generalising but on the whole, women tend to internalise and hurt themselves while men will externalise and hurt each other or destroy objects. Also, the lack of faith in positive change and low expectation gets under my skin, for example, more of the same non-acknowledgement of the power of women or respect for their ability to contribute to the world’s evolution beyond their sexuality. Its getting kind of old, you know. Tired. The scary thing is that girl children are no longer safe because of it.
What is the 21st Century Woman angry about? What should she be angry about and why?
There are plenty injustices on a micro and macro level that women are, could and should be angry about but, the war on their bodies is the most prevalent one. Whether it is child sex trafficking, eating disorders, body ‘enhancement’- such a manipulative word in that context – derived from media advertising and the hyper-sexualisation of women. The political leverage of women’s bodies in the US election campaign was pretty infuriating with Republican Todd Akin making that ridiculous “legitimate rape” comment. It opened a can of worms where abortion rights were affected by staunch conservatism. It makes a mockery of the concept of the personal as the political, and again we see women’s bodies as play things in the political realm. I get personally infuriated by rape as a weapon of war as it annihilates humanity as all involved, in the actuality of the rape is dehumanised, and the hard porn industry destroying the concept of healthy relating and intimacy for young people desperate to get any sexual and intimate encounters right. You would be shocked at how many girls cannot tell the difference between the intimacy of a kiss and that of a blow-job. On another note I think we should be concerned about women who collude with traditions that perpetuate the subjugation of women. The Female Genital Mutilation Campaign is moving forward and I’m glad for that.
What excites you about the women who are currently occupying artistic spaces in different parts of the world and how much more work do you think is needed to create a more balanced representation of women’s contribution to the arts in its various forms?
Equal representation excites me. More women in the arts world mean a balance of voices. More authors, more film makers, animator, performance artists even architects and urban planners need to bring a feminine voice to creativity. Then we can see what a more balanced vision of the future can be. I think where race and gender intersect is also crucial. When we have a legacy of women artists like Frida Khalo, it is also crucial to stand on the shoulders of her artistic presence in history. She was a painter and activist very much in tune with her culture. She enlivened it. She brought to bear women’s roles in major political revolutions and magnified the significance of women being the bearers of tradition. I now see so many young women performance poets from all over the globe who are fearless, tender as well as rousing in their truth telling. They are reinvigorating tradition and folklore but also creating new ones because of the epoch they have been born into and that is exciting.
Afrovibes brings a different cultural experience to London. How exciting is it to be part of the company and what new understanding about the value of cultural exchange that you have gained from your time as a poet who travelled through the UK, US and Europe, and was part of Travelling Light in South Africa, do you hope the audience/Londoners who see the various offerings AfroVibes also gain from the festival?
It’s exciting to be a part of Afrovibes because I’m experiencing being a part of the telling the story of the African diaspora continuum. Me as an Afri-Carib-British woman, I get to tell my story among the stories of celebration and upheaval from a part of the African continent renowned for its struggle. I hear AfroVibes will be opening up to other countries from the African continent next year so this will be excellent for contributing experience of Africa’s contemporary creative abundance and diversity for those who come to the festival.
I have observed that you use your voice and performance poet platform to speak out against injustice among other ills in society, why is it important to you to speak out and why do you think creative artists should speak out?
Speaking for myself, the stage space has an immediacy that is always up for exploitation. You can either do this to uplift, educate and provoke, or you can use it to self promote, to degrade or bore. It’s a neutral space and it is up to the poet to decide what they fill it with. Once you are on the stage there is a non-verbal contract that passes between them – you, poet, have my ear. With so many other mediums for telling stories such as TV, billboards, magazines and the radio of materialism and consumerism, dumbing-down, the behind the mic stage is one place where this doesn’t have to happen. I prefer to use the voice I endeavour to strengthen for positive change, to be the equal force pushing back against many of societies ills, to address the balance and inspire others to do so if I can, like foremothers who before me, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Billie Holliday. Strange Fruit was an incredible piece of political protest poetry to music. Creative artists are visionaries with the power to re-imagine the world through the messages in work. Audiences are receptors and carriers of messages. So its important for creative’s gifted with that sort of power to galvanise enough minds through their work to contribute to a newly imagined world that is just, peaceful and humane. I feel some conflict is inevitable for quite a few more generations to come but I believe a creative’s role is to be just that – be a tool for creation not destruction.
The Three Furies is part of Afrovibes 2012 Festival and is on at The Albany, London, on 3 October 2012.
For More information, go to: Afrovibes Festival @ The Albany