“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
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). www.kwela.com