Her pain – but ours too

SOURCE CityPress 20 Oct 2019

AUTHOR Lethokuhle Msimang

Red Cotton by Vangile Gantsho

At this year’s SA Book Fair, activist and co-founder of Impepho Press, Vangile Gantsho read from her poetry collection Red Cotton (published last year), delivering a jaw-dropping and timely performance in line with the recent uproar on the issue of violence against women.

One could easily summarise Gantsho’s work as an exploration of what it means to be black, queer and a woman in modern South Africa. It is a non-conformist, liberal, genre-bender. It is a kind of female anarchism, a desperate cry to reclaim the tortured body and a struggle to remain within oneself while burdened with the longlasting shame of intergenerational trauma.

But reading through the poetry collection I was gripped by the use of fragmentation in the writing. It seemed indicative of madness – almost as if the writer was struggling to maintain a coherent flow of thought and presents us instead with a vivid, splintered array of moments.

Each section of the book transitions between various periods of time, shifting the perspective from the observed to the experienced. This discombobulating mode of storytelling seems to mirror the author’s own experience.

“I wake up to the sound of cockroaches plotting against me,” she writes. “All over my floors. Inside my cupboards. Building an army. I burn impepho locked up in my bathroom. A cockroach crawls out of my vagina.”

The writer has succeeded herer in depicting a strange pull towards the earth, which can easily be confused for a brief period of madness. But what she is writing about is the difficulty she undergoes in response to an ancestral calling and how it brings forth memories of rape – of her, her mother, a seven-year-old girl, a sister, an aunt. The calling towards her future as a healer, with the invasive memories of the past and the wounds inflicted on her body, seems to disorganise the writer’s process so that the story, quite like the narrator, appears fractured, or somewhat designed to provoke and disorientate. The story deals with the transcendental nature of insanity. Gantsho claims her role as a healer is to treat women who suffer from intergenerational sexual trauma. She proposes writing as healing and gives the reader a window into her “burning”.

“I am burning mama” she writes. “Mama I am burning in a box set on fire while I slept.” And as we witness her burning, we allow ourselves to heal.

The motif of burning is present throughout the text. Be it the burning of impepho (indigenous African plant used to call up the ancestors) as she prepares a cup of coffee, or burning a hut. The symbolism of fire is forever present. The narrator is either submerged in water or burning in flames.

Her transition from poetry to prose reads like a blanket of prayers for her unborn daughter. Gantsho not only takes us through her journey of madness, sexual abuse and insurmountable pain, but she details her spiritual transformation. She gives us a glimpse of what happens under the water.

“I’m told my grandmother was a woman of the spirit. That the wind carried her off a cliff, flung her straight into the water where I was born wrapped in the skin of a snake.” This is by far the most compelling aspect of the book. We venture into secret places, mystical worlds and return to the hard earth where a little girl’s hidden rage finds expression as she spits in her uncle’s plate and stirs it into the gravy. She confesses: “I used red cotton to sew the navy button on to his jacket.”

However, there are times where I find the novella simply provokes, and quite deliberately excludes the male audience. There are “women in green and black dancing. They throw their panties to fuel the fire. Offer their breasts and thighs as a singing sacrifice”, as well as images of “a 10-year-old boy who rapes a seven-year-old girl. The other children watch with their phones. No one will want to see when she washes the blood with calamine.”

These passages are some of the strongest in the book, but read like a sword pointed against the reception of men. Gantsho’s writing is unapologetic in this regard and, in a sense, her outrage speaks less to the defamation of men as it advocates the right of a woman to be outraged. She speaks of a woman’s bleeding body without censorship, without twists and turns or the use of other known devices easily employed to make her suffering palatable. As a reader, we are at liberty to close the book at any stage, just as one might cover their nose to the scent of a beggar. But Gantsho dares us to enter this uneasy space, to consider the flesh. It is her pain, but it is also ours.