Open Book 2017: “When I picked up a pen, I became dangerous”

29 Nov 2017
Open Book 2017: “When I picked up a pen, I became dangerous”

‘Women’s Manifesto’ was one of the two events presented by PEN South Africa at the 2017 Open Book Festival, the other was ‘The Sellout’ with Paul Beatty and Harry Garuba.

By Rachel Zadok

On Wednesday, 6 September 2017, PEN South Africa presented one of two events that kicked off the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. In her first public event as president of PEN South Africa, Nadia Davids, a South African writer and theatre-maker, facilitated the panel titled “Women’s Manifesto”. The event was held in the Fugard Studio, the more intimate of The Fugard’s two theatres. The turnout was impressive, despite being held on a weekday morning, when many Capetonians are at work. It is perhaps a little telling that, at a panel discussing issues fundamental to half the world’s population, the audience was comprised mainly of women.

The “Women’s Manifesto” was tabled and unanimously passed at the PEN International Congress on 21 September in Lviv, Ukraine. The document is the first of its kind and has been written by a host of women writers associated with PEN. “What we are asking for is a recognition that the lives of women operate in certain ways throughout the globe, and that there is a restriction and censorship around the ways in which women walk through the world that impacts on their writing,” Davids said in her introduction.

Davids was joined on the stage by the poet and academic Gabeba Baderoon (who is a PEN SA Board Member); Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese, an award-winning poet from Durban who is currently reading for her PHD at Stellenbosch University; and Buhle Ngaba, a South African actress, author and advocate for the rights of young black women.

“When I picked up a pen, I became dangerous.” – Buhle Ngaba

Davids opened the discussion by asking the panellists to share their experiences of the moment they recognised that there was a relationship between how they moved through the world, and how they were able to write. Ngaba made the observation that society is afraid of women who write. “People are scared of women who can put their voice down on the page. When I picked up a pen, I became dangerous,” she said.

Baderoon recalled how, as a child, she only wrote about herself as a boy. She turned to reading because she had no models on how to be a human being. The only interesting things happening in books were happening to boys, she said. “It’s illuminating that I only started my life as a writer when I was thirty, because as a women you couldn’t be the centre of a story.”

The discussion then moved on to the responsibilities of women writers, and how to balance those responsibilities with the freedom to write what one wants to write.

“Undoubtably, the ways in which women writers in particular have been writing and have been suppressed and pushed back and silenced is something that can never be underestimated or ignored,” said Busuku-Mathese. She went on to point out that it is the collective responsibility of women writers to write the stories they want to see, and not to blame others for not writing them.

“It’s incredible that it’s 2017 and the first time the Women’s Manifesto is being tabled.” – Nadia Davids

The discussion left no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto is a crucial document. In closing, Davids thanked the panellists and audience for their careful and thoughtful comments.

(Image courtesy of Open Book and City Varsity / Nicole Nik Jacobs)