Au­thor In­ter­view

“The world is burn­ing and we can­not be fod­der for its flames… There is no bet­ter time to be a fem­i­nist.” Jen Thorpe and other South Africans speak their truth on the F word

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - WORDS NANCY RICHARDS PIC­TURES SUP­PLIED

Face to face with Jen Thorpe

‘‘I’m nat­u­rally ar­gu­men­ta­tive, so study­ing pol­i­tics and phi­los­o­phy seemed like a good op­tion.” Any­one who ap­pears less ar­gu­men­ta­tive than Jen Thorpe would be hard to imag­ine.

She’s a gen­tle, self-defin­ing peace maker who cries eas­ily. “Yes, my grand­mother, my mother, my aunt, my sis­ter and I – we’re all feel­ers, we cry eas­ily.” At the Cape

Town launch of Fem­i­nism Is, a ques­tion un­ex­pect­edly touched a nerve and her eyes welled up. It’s far from de­lib­er­ate, but she de­fends what could be con­strued as wom­anly weak­ness, “My abil­ity to cry is as im­por­tant as my abil­ity to get an­gry.”

In­jus­tice in par­tic­u­lar makes her an­gry. She re­calls the march she was part of at Rhodes Univer­sity, when a stu­dent was gang raped at the Tri-Var­sity sports fes­ti­val. “I re­alised then how un­safe the world is for women and de­cided to do some­thing about it – it helped me grow my voice.” Iron­i­cally, her emo­tion has proved a pro­fes­sional as­set, “I write best when I feel some­thing very deeply,” to which her feisty opin­ion pieces in the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader and other on­line news out­lets at­test.

Her own vul­ner­a­bil­ity also has an up­side. “When you are able to be vul­ner­a­ble your­self, it gives you space to have a gen­uine re­la­tion­ship with oth­ers. For in­stance, when I was work­ing on the My First Time project [ini­tially a web­site, then a book of­fer­ing a space for women to anony­mously tell their sto­ries of sig­nif­i­cant first-time ex­pe­ri­ences of sex and sex­u­al­ity from which other women were able to draw strength], it helped enor­mously with trust is­sues be­tween me and the con­trib­u­tors.”

Of her­self she says, “If you had to put me in a box, I’m a fem­i­nist writer and re­searcher.” But the re­al­ity dis­plays lit­tle re­spect for pi­geon­hol­ing. Her reach is broad and busy. Fol­low­ing her Mas­ter’s de­gree at Rhodes, this Bal­ito girl went on to do a sec­ond Mas­ter’s in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Cape Town Univer­sity. Since then she’s pub­lished poetry, flash fic­tion, short sto­ries and a novel, The Pe­cu­liars, “a light-hearted tale of love and pho­bias in Cape Town”.

Re­cently, af­ter four years of work­ing in Par­lia­ment as a re­searcher on the gen­der agenda, she “stopped bang­ing her head against a wall”, and started with the UN Chil­dren’s Fund, up­dat­ing and re­view­ing the South African In­te­grated Pro­gramme of Ac­tion Ad­dress­ing Vi­o­lence Against Women and Chil­dren – a road map for the gov­ern­ment. “Last year I did two writ­ing re­treats in France and the US, work­ing on the Fem­i­nism Is col­lec­tion, some fic­tion and a new novel – then I came back and got mar­ried.” Her hus­band Sam Smout is also writ­ing a novel.

Fem­i­nism Is was in­spired by a panel dis­cus­sion she wit­nessed at the Open Book Fes­ti­val in 2016. “It re­minded me that fem­i­nism doesn’t mean the same thing to all peo­ple… that it’s changed its mean­ing and pur­pose through­out the ages.” What fol­lowed was a small step but gi­ant leap to ask a range of peo­ple di­verse in age, race and per­sua­sion what the word meant to them. The re­sult, a book of more than thirty thought­pro­vok­ing opin­ions that has blazed a trail like an Olympic flame.

On her own fem­i­nism, Jen cites those who lit her fire. “As a sin­gle par­ent, my mother mav­er­icked her way through self-train­ing to qual­ify in IT. She reaf­firmed for me that there’s no need to stay in a bad sit­u­a­tion – you de­serve the life you want for your­self.” She adds, “My ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of my mum read­ing to me and the won­der­ful let­ters she wrote – though some of my best ar­gu­ments have been with her.” But the spark that ig­nited the adult flame came from Larissa Klazinga (re­gional pol­icy and ad­vo­cacy man­ager for the South­ern Africa AIDS Health­care Foun­da­tion), “I met her at univer­sity. Her piece in the book, Front­line Fem­i­nism in the Twenty-First Cen­tury, speaks vol­umes.”

Fem­i­nism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth is pub­lished by Kwela (R250).

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