Friday, October 12, 2012

3 Furies Interview with Belinada Otas

Every time I am asked to speak about the Furies project, I reach another level of understanding about why I am doing it. I'm grateful to Belinda Otas, freelance journalist and avid blogger, for sending me a group of questions that provoked more thoughts and points of note highlighting the need for more in-depth dialogue about women's anger.

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? 
For years I have walked through life as if I’m watching a movie, where characters come and go, evolve or implode, where the scenery, set, props and budget, in other words – circumstance - have 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 and class-ism. Reality is brutal in its treachery and it's 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 blamed for being apathetic to the world and all its noise but its not that at all. They are overwhelmed. You could call it a sort of paralysis, a numbness. 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 philosophical perspective by framing emotion and subjectivity with an acute sense of objectivity. Writing, however, enables me to still 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 at all, then I just might implode. And I mean processing the incredible feats of strength, determination and creation of beautiful and wondrous things as well as globalization and warring. Sometimes it really hurts, you know, both the treachery and the beauty, which proves there does exist that 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. 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. He said there is a tendency for coloured people in South Africa not to delve further back in there bloodline than their grandparents. Or maybe as far back as Great-Grandparents because.... and then he didn't or couldn't finish the sentence because the dialogue around that issue was never really had. It would be fascinating to unpack that.

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 an 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 realm of folklore and myth also.
Well, the purity of the Furies’ energy intrigued me as it is so elemental. Although, in the story or Orestes, the Furies have to recognise their place in a new civilisation - the had to temper their fury - you always feel like they are on the edge of bursting and this is a tantalising thought. Any injustice done to the family and humanity, in the eyes of the Furies, could unleash them again. But they are also called the Eumenides – The Kindly Ones. They are also beacons and administers of justice. Interestingly the Goddess of Justice is called 'Dike'. They might call on her for assistance also. But 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 a lot of time talking, sharing a few life experiences but we often talked about how we channelled our anger, or couldn’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 without having 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, awesome focus when it comes to pursuing her hearts desire, keeping her 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 carved by life experiences. We all had some incredible stories to share and Mbali’s struggles and triumphs were 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 and she does this as ART. It 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 her knowledge about the traditionalism and conservatism around 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 and women’s capacity to contain pressure should be admired and not taken for granted. Spending time with Clara and Mbali 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 filmmaker and visual artist of mixed heritage) focus on each of our experiences grappling 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 fury is engaged with beyond the symptoms of anger, thus addressing and 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 of women engaging their fury is when they march on the front-lines of protests for democracy with men folk like they used to – prepared for tear gas, beatings and in Egypt, virginity tests. They go 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. We should analyse the relationship between young women today in the digital and technological age; their mothers and grandmothers in the analogue era; and their great grand mothers. We should note and utilize the personal (and political) stories of their aspirations in relation to what was expected of them and what was achievable depending on social acceptance. I guess what I’m asking is how has womanhood and 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 that 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 don't 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 have to appreciate that Arts platforms - such as the AfroVibes Festival commissioning this kind of work - exist. And I have to appreciate that it’s women, like 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 to discuss Women’s Anger. Google anger and you get general anger management but no genderisation of anger. I’m not 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 our ability to contribute to the world’s evolution beyond our sexuality is a stagnant approach to progress and development. 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. A prime example of this is the political leverage of women’s bodies in the US election campaign. It was pretty infuriating when Republican Todd Akin made 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 because all involved, in the actuality of the rape is dehumanised. Also, the hard porn industry is 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. But what does that say about how young people are taught about what their bodies are for, especially young girls? On another note I think we should also 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 curatorial positions in the arts world mean a balance of voices. More women 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 her art with activism and tradition . 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 in contributing to experience 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 the poet and the audience: "You, poet, have my ear."
With so many other mediums telling stories advocating materialism and consumerism and promoting dumbing-down, (eg. TV, billboards, magazines and the radio), the 'behind-the-mic' medium 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 their work. Audiences are receptors and carriers of messages. So it's important for creative’s gifted with that sort of power to galvanise enough minds through their work, and 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 division and destruction.

Belinda Otas is a versatile journalist, writer, editor, cultural critic, and an independent blogger. She has a passionate interest in Africa: politics, social development, arts and culture, gender issues and the African diaspora. Currently working as a freelance journalist with various publications aimed at the international community – she has contributed to: Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC News Online, BBC Focus on Africa, The Africa Report, Think Africa Press, New African, Wings, Divascribe and Zam magazine (Holland),, The Atlanta Post, among others. 

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