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Monthly Archives: June 2013

This summer, I’ve invited my graduate students to submit blog posts to tellingtheflesh.com. Luckily, they’ve almost all expressed an interest. They’re a highly diverse bunch and I’m really looking forward to reading and posting their thoughts.

The first of these comes from Master of Gender Studies student, Pearl Sedziafa. Pearl came to MUN in 2012. She has an academic and professional background in Nursing and is currently working on a thesis proposal that considers the intersections of kinship and marital violence in Ghana. Pearl published this post on her blog as well.

Identity: Political Terrorization of Victoria Hama
by Pearl Sedziafa

Femininity involves subordination, calmness, politeness, passivity, modesty, sexiness, and physical attractiveness. The framework for femininity works to keep women in the private sphere, where female gender roles are confined to domesticity. When a woman subverts her traditional roles, she faces hostility, intimidation and terrorization, and this inherently culminates in violence towards the female body. In Ghana, there are quite a number of women who are actively engaged in the public sphere, but this subversion of traditional roles by women has come with its own gender politics. Indeed, the recent nomination of the Deputy Communications Minister, Ms. Victoria Hama, under the current government administration highlights 3 key areas of gender politics: the politics of the socio-cultural construction of women, the politics of difference in terms of femininity, and the politics of women’s involvement in the public and private sphere.

Ms. Victoria Hama was among the 26 listed candidates on March 26, 2013, for deputy ministerial positions in Ghana. Out of the 26 nominees, 5 persons were women (GhanaWeb, 2013). Although self-identified ‘Women’s Groups’ would have wanted more women in Parliament to serve as ministers and deputies, progress was said to have been made since Ghana began its journey on the road to national democracy (see African Women Development Fund’s congratulatory message for women politicians in Ghana). I was quite thrilled about the nominations, too, as an upcoming feminist, but my stance is not conservative. Yes, I do wish that more women would occupy the seats in Parliament to take a massive part in legislative decisions, but like many concerned Ghanaian citizens, I want to see women who have the ability to work towards women’s economic and social empowerment as well as gender equity. I want to have female leaders who can use power to remove the tentacles of oppression hanging around the neck of women and children, and also, work towards policies that make Ghana a better place in which to live (and this attention to developmental issues is what I demand from men in power too).

In that regard, one of such nominee who raised the eyebrows of many Ghanaians, especially those within our male-dominated media, was Victoria Hama. Victoria raised questions among many Ghanaians in relation to her ‘fit’ for a ministerial position. Ms. Hama is a young lady of 32, unmarried, very dark skinned, thick black hair and lips, about 6feet tall, practices Hinduism, and takes much space because of her ‘back-defense’. She is described in the media as the real ‘goddess of beauty’ (in the African context of beauty). To use a popular Ghanaian phrase, Victoria is often described as a type of woman with a ‘thick body’. In the media, it is noted that ‘the Deputy Communications Minister […], Victoria Hama, attracts so much attention with her looks’ (GhanaWeb, 2013). No doubt about it, it seems Victoria has ‘caught’ excessive attention within the male-dominated media unlike the other female nominees.

Instead of Ms. Hama concealing her body in much ‘bigger’ clothes and look ‘dull’ in order to wade off the male gaze a little, she is smart, and very fancy. Women who are closer to her body type will usually wear loose clothes that cover their entire bodies just to avoid excessive attention, or gaze in Ghana. On the contrary, Victoria has been spotted in skimpy and tight clothes all the time, thus, attracting much media attention, and her appearance in public spaces dominate discussions—she is ‘talked’ about as if she were not ‘present’—with the male-centered society throwing their wishful sexual desires in the air (see myjoyonline page for Victoria’s pictures and comments). She never shies away from the public space. Her biography shows that she has been involved in numerous political activities such as the Student’s Representative Council, the Women Commission and a National Women’s Organiser for National Union of Ghana Students during her time as a university student. She identifies as a ‘women’s activist’ and strongly demands the political, economic and social empowerment of women.

In the 2012 December polls in Ghana to elect a new president, including parliamentarians, in which Victoria stood as a parliamentarian on the ticket of the National Democratic Party, she lost flatly to her colleague, Ursula Owusu. Ms. Owusu has received so much attention for being ‘hard,’ and cutting her hair ‘flat’ like that of a man, and she has also earned the name ‘iron lady’ in media narratives (see GhanaWeb, 2010). Following this loss by Victoria to Ursula Owusu, Victoria Hama’s nomination as a deputy minister for communications came as a shock to many Ghanaians. To my surprise, critics dwelt on the ‘looks’ of Victoria Hama to disqualify her for the position of a deputy minister. Allegedly, media conversations about Victoria implied that she practices prostitution and so she is not ‘dignified’ enough to merit any position in a public office (see GhanaWeb). It was said also that Victoria ‘used her body’ to acquire the deputy ministerial position. With these piercing critics, one is tempted to ask why other female nominees are not receiving excessive media attention like Victoria Hama. Could it be that Victoria’s femininity is a threat in the public space? Or, is Victoria’s presence in the male-dominated space capable of preventing proper legislative decision-making? Why does Victoria seem to have a strong public presence in the media for her ‘looks’?

I will not deny that the presence of women in the public space attracts excessive news and blasphemy generally, but Victoria seems to have been attracting so much ‘news’. Victoria’s social critiques about her ‘looks’ have lasted more than that of any political female figure in history. Currently, while Victoria gets media coverage for her political duties, her ‘looks’ never escape the lens of the male-dominated media, especially with an emphasis on her ‘behind’ (see GhanaWeb). It is obvious that society is enacting true femininity through the male-dominated media. I suggest that society has a ‘perfect’ feminine image, or ideal, and this type of feminine image is desired in the private space. That is to say that the more beauty or physical attraction is inscribed on a particular female body (in the context of a specific culture), the more sexualized she becomes, and she is much more desired in the private space. This way of sexualizing a particular body could be uncomfortable in the public space. A female body is largely sexualized when she is particularly read through a socio-cultural feminine lens. Hence, such bodies are seen as least capable of handling power (in the public space). While there have been other women before Victoria in the public space, none have had such ‘gargantuan’ embodiment and media hype as Victoria. Victoria’s terrorization in the public space I suggest is due to her specific femininity, which is desired in the private space rather than in the public space. Clearly, Victoria’s body denotes the politics of women’s experiences with femininity and how society is largely a part in its being.

References
“Minister Victoria Hamah is a ‘goddess of beauty’” (2013; 2010). Retrieved May 25, 2013, fromhttp://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=271828

 

text copyright Pearl Sedziafa, 2013.

It’s been a summer of thinking and writing and thinking and revising and thinking some more. One of the things I’ve been working through is storytelling: if everything is a story, then how can those stories best be told?

Those of us working in academia can tell you that academics are not necessarily good storytellers; indeed, our bookshelves and ereaders are filled to capacity with unreadable tracts and desperately boring articles. The “publish or perish” approach increasingly valued by university administrators who value quantity as a measure of academic ‘excellence’ (values that trickle down into promotion and tenure committees) hasn’t done much for knowledge production; nor has it done much for the art of writing.

But writing itself, as many of us know, is part and parcel of knowledge production. Storytelling is an issue of methodological and theoretical concern. It is not just “what comes after the data has been collected and analyzed”; it is the heart of the research itself.  “Stories,” Thomas King reminds us, “are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” (The Truth About Stories, 9)

And this is where I’m at right now. I’m deeply committed to telling a meaningful story. I want the story to be critical and thoughtful. I want it to matter. But I also want it to be engaging. I want it to be compelling. And I want people to take pleasure in the act of reading itself.

My research is about stories. It’s about the stories people tell about their bodies and about the stories that bodies tell about their people. It’s about bodies become stories and it’s about how stories shape lives and subjectivities.

But what makes a compelling story? That’s the question that propels all my thinking and writing and revising. Why is it that some of these archival stories speak louder than others? What draws me into one particular thought world while turning me away from another? And as I write, how is it that I, myself, construct my own story about stories?

In a 2008 interview, the noted historian Natalie Zemon Davis observes that her research process includes reading stories:

I always have a novel, biography or autobiography going, and read a little every day, and I recommend that to others.  Often I read novels or autobiographies from the part of the world I’m working on at the moment, even though the time period may be very different.

I’ve got three different books on the go at the moment. As I considered them yesterday, I realized that none of them is directly related to my current research. Lisa Rosner’s The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes, with its focus on bodies, history and medicine might qualify (albeit only very slightly), the two others – Lorna Goodison’s From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People and Sara Paretsky’s 2010 Body Work, one of the more recent installments of her popular V.I. Warshawski series – have, apart from their focus on bodies, nothing at all to do with my current project.

But appearances can be deceiving.

All of these books are stories, in the finest sense of the word.

Lisa Rosner’s book has been lauded for its readability, for the way that she has chosen to bring the dry and dusty details of history to life. While, admittedly, the basic story itself has all the elements of the best detective fiction, what matters in Rosner’s telling are not just the sixteen murders, but how such murders could have happened; that is, what were the conditions that allowed them to occur. And so, she takes us into early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, down crowded streets, into medical training facilities, drawing us ever more deeply into a world so very unlike – and yet in other respects, so very similar – to our own. Rosner’s storytelling emerges in the details, details that are so vivid that they awaken all of my senses: touch, taste, hearing, sight… and, in this tale of dead bodies spirited across town from bedrooms to drawing rooms to medical anatomy theatres, smell. Oh, the smells.

Why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

I’ve also been revelling in the detailed descriptions in Lorna Goodison’s memoir. But while Rosner shares minute details, Goodison evokes a lush landscape of memory and myth, a literary landscape both inspired by and deeply embedded in the verdant succulence of the Jamaican physical landscape itself. Goodison doesn’t just make the story itself come alive, she makes words sing.

And here, too, I must ask: why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

I discovered Sara Paretsky’s work about twenty years ago. Actually, I lie. A good friend introduced me to SP and her private eye, V.I. Warshawski. It was love at first read and I devoured a number of her books in quick succession. I don’t read Paretsky for turns of phrase. I read her because I love V.I. and I love the stories themselves. V.I. isn’t a blithering wallflower of a woman; rather, she’s a tough as nails private eye with a keen and critical eye. She barks at people. She stares them down. She speaks her mind. She doesn’t take crap. (As an aside, these books would easily pass the Bechdel test…. but I digress).

But the stories themselves also draw me in. Each of her stories brings social justice to the fore. In a 2001 article, she observes that she doesn’t “sit down to write books of social or political commentary.” She isn’t necessarily interested in what she calls “social-political novels.” What she is interested in is stories, and she is particularly interested in telling the stories of those who have a hard time telling their own stories. In this, she likens her work to that of Charles Dickens:

Dickens romanticized the virtues of the poor, but he didn’t sentimentalize the circumstances of their poverty. His books are, as my letter-writer put it, “infested” with social politics—but people still lined up by the thousands on the wharves in Boston to wait for the ship that was bringing the next installment of his work.

A hundred fifty years later, we still live an affluent life with an array of homeless children suffering from malnutrition and mal-education under our noses — the elephant in the living room we all ignore. A century after my grandparents met walking a picket line for the ILGWU, we still have sweatshops in this great land of ours. We still have crime, homelessness, parents selling their children for a nickel bag, and a host of other ills. If a master storyteller like Dickens could find his most compelling stories within that landscape, who am I to turn away from it?

Paretsky may not have set out to write political commentaries, but her books – genre fiction in every sense of the word – are nonetheless, like Dickens’ “‘infused’ with social politics.” They are entertaining, absolutely. But in their subject matter, in their characters, in the way that the various threads of the story weave in, through and around one another, these are always political works.

And here, too, I ask: why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

In asking this question, I am also asking others: how can I write a book that brings senses to life, that makes words sing, that makes social justice not only meaningful, but part of the mainstream? What can I learn from Rosner, Goodison and Paretsky? What can reading these stories tell me about the art of storytelling? About the relationships between readers and writers? And about the words and ideas that unite them?

I read somewhere that genealogy is something that only becomes interesting in middle age. I don’t know that this holds true for someone who has always been fascinated by tombstones, old photographs and historical documents (particularly personal ones), but perhaps that’s just because I am not willing to claim the whiff of stodginess that accompanies the words, middle age.

Nevertheless, as more archival material has made its way online, courtesy of hardworking, underpaid archivists and several armies of committed volunteers, I’ve gone poking around myself.

One of my cousins in The Netherlands is doing a remarkable job tracing my maternal family history. With its complex web of voluntary and involuntary migration (that, over the last couple of centuries has come to encompass 5 continents), and the various restrictions placed on slaves (who didn’t have last names or shoes until emancipation, and who were likely only counted and named then so that their owners would qualify for compensation) and contract workers (otherwise known as indentured labourers), it’s a history filled with many blank spaces, silences where there should be names and stories.

So I went off to conduct an experiment.

Instead of digging through the muddy waters of India/Africa/China/Suriname/The Netherlands, perhaps it was simpler to start with my father’s family.

For the past 200+ years, they’ve stayed put. Not only have they stayed in the same country, but they were in the same region for over 150 years. God-fearing folk, they registered marriages, births and deaths. They all had last names. I expect that most, if not all, of them, wore some kind of footwear. And every single one of them was laden down with a good, Latin-inspired Catholic name. or at least, that’s how it seems.

Ferreting out this side of the family tree has, so far, been a piece of cake. Half an hour on one online local Dutch archive and a few minutes at another, and armed with the story that the eldest sons shared the same two or three names, in different combinations, over the generations, and I quickly pulled the family tree back to an ancestor born in Doesburg, The Netherlands, in 1790.

I have to confess that, as someone who loves to poke around old documents, this was almost too easy. Where’s the thrill of the hunt if the prey is caught in 45 minutes? Because really, as any good sleuth – from Sherlock Holmes to Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew – knows, it’s not ultimately about the prey at all, it’s about the journey.

I’m not yet sure what I will do with what are still relatively random bits of information, but I’m sure a plan will develop itself…….in the meantime, I will keep sniffing around. There are bound to be some treasures hidden in out of the way corners…

Madame la consultante, aged 40, possessed a relatively strong constitution. Sanguine in temperament, she had a vivacious and sensitive personality. Married at the age of 18, she was mother to 14 children born over a 17 to 18 year period….

STOP!

back up.

14 children. 17 years.

Quiver-full, much?

Madame later began to suffer from what her doctors refer to as delirium, a state which included worrying, agitation, sorrow, boredom, and indifference to anything in her environment.

I can fully appreciate the complexity of any kind of mental illness, but it strikes me that the psychic and somatic repercussions of being pregnant almost continuously over a 17 year period could be quite dramatic. Certainly this isn’t the only Tissot consultation of this type.

Fast forward 180 odd years…

It’s hard to believe that contraception of any kind was illegal in Canada until 1969. And even then, if I recall correctly, it was only for properly married couples….