Wild Women Don’t Wear No Blues.

The book Wild Women Don’t Wear No Blues: Black Women Writers on Love, Men and Sex is an empowering collection of essays written by black women writers and edited by Marita Golden. The collected is dedicated to the memory of the true wild woman Audre Lorde, who herself had contributed an essay in the collection, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Audre Lorde, in her life and in her legend has been a symbol of a powerful force, inspiring women (and men) to stand as their true selves – unafraid and unrestrained – for a true feminist revolution is as within as it is without.

Image result for Wild Women Don’t Wear No Blues: Black Women Writers on Love, Men and Sex
Wild Women Don’t Wear No Blues

Lorde calls this power, located in the “female and spiritual plane”, the erotic, which when tapped into, reveals one’s true purpose. The erotic, according to her, “is an internal sense of satisfaction”, which when it has been experienced, “we can require no less of ourselves”. This internal compass guides a woman in deciding for herself her pursuits – be it writing, painting, digging up the earth, making love, dancing to Nina Simone, raising children, or choosing a career – with a force that resonates at the level of the psyche, the emotional, the physical, and the spiritual.

But it is not only Lorde’s stimulating essay about the erotic which catches your attention, there are other essays written by women of colour – women who were unbecoming for their times but who lived and thrived, women who saw in their own lives valuable lessons, collected them, and hung them on the common clothesline to be shared with girls and women across milieu, and women who loved themselves and the men & women they encountered and together strew their feminine energy without shame, worry or fear, fighting for us, who would come after them, with their free opinions and free bodies.

There is the essay written by Tina McElroy Ansa, A New Shower Massage, Phone Sex, and Separation, which is one of my personal favourites, where she writes with unrelenting confidence how she had decided that she was going to take charge of her “first time”,

“For my first time, I was determined not to pick a backseat fumbler, but a more experienced, sensitive man. I was not about to be rushed. I owned the bed and paid the rent each month on the house in which it stood. I had gone to my gynecologist a while before for birth control. And I had all night.

That first time was nearly perfect, mostly, I figured, because it was what I wanted in the way I wanted it. And consciously and subconsciously, that first time set the pattern of my seminal sexual life.”

Image result for audre lorde
Audre Lorde

Then there is an essay called Sleeping with the Enemy, written by Audrey Edwards, which brings into light the courageous act of interracial love amidst the persecution of history, racism, and sexism. Edwards shares about the love she had held for white men, and how men, across races, regions, ages, and circumstances, are all the same. She writes,

“But the truth, I’ve found, is that race and sex are never quite so black and white. The enemy is often within, and the war between black men and white men is usually over what war tends to always be about: power and control, ego and honor, profits and privilege—not about us women, necessarily, but about men being men.”

Patrice Gaines, in her essay Tough Boyz and Trouble: Those Girls Waiting Outside D.C. Jail Remind Me of Myself, speaks about the constructed image of the “bad boys” who attract women toward them, much like a natural aphrodisiac. These men, exuding freedom, power and in control of their lives and livelihood, often found their way to incarceration. As a young girl Gaines herself had been in love with that image,

“When you’re a black child who believes she has no control over her life, you create your own definition of freedom. These men exuded freedom. They controlled their lives, working when they wanted to and at what they chose to work at.”

Unfortunately, as with any intimidating power, the kyriarchal system perpetuating reason, rationality, and objectivity, the non-rational erotic has been suppressed and misnamed, and along with women vilified into the negative. Not only is this erotic power turned against women in making her inferior, it is often directed “in the service of men”. Pornography is a direct result of this negation of the erotic energy, where the act of receiving and giving sensation is devoid of any true feeling, except for superficial and profit-producing pleasure. It seems only natural for the status quo to be this, for as Lorde writes, “we have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings.”

My own understanding of love, men, and sex has been superficial, dubious, and often inappropriate, owing to the upbringing that I had had. Not only did I visibly show disinterest in these taboo topics, I was unfortunately also surrounded by women and men, who themselves did not delve into the full extent that love and sex demanded and mattered. Culturally exposed to quaint notions about love, relationship, and sex, I did not giggle so much as much as I internally desired to understand these repeating words and acts. Love is still a fleeting arrangement and re-arrangement of words, a collage of images cut out from poor sources, and with menial information.

When I grew up and had more access to resources, my understanding was shaped by  the imagination of the white male, replicated in abundance through mainstream culture and media. From this source, my learning was particularly hampered, in that I was now aiming to become the ideal woman, in skin, in hair, in apparels, in tricks and cunning employed in pursuit of love and men, and in disposition.

This being the reason, I believe that women of colour, writing about love, men and sex becomes the epitome of erotic power, breaking apart ideals, monopoly, and desensitization. As Marita Golden writes in the introduction,

“And what were you talking about when you talked about men? Talking about men made it suddenly possible and safe to talk about love and sex. We didn’t know it then, but when we talk about men we are talking about power and powerlessness, about choices, fears, limits and boundaries. We are even talking about ourselves when we think we’re just talking about THEM. For we choose, when we choose a man, a psychic mirror we are sometimes afraid to look into.”

I know this much – whenever a woman, anywhere in time, anywhere in place, anywhere in age, when she is aware of her sexuality and has a right to choose her sex life, she becomes a radiant beacon for the ones who follow her. And, following such women or walking alongside them, as has been the case in history and in revolution is the way to claim back what is ours, and re-write it in a way that we want to read it. Because when we do that, we, as Lorde writes it well, “…touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and antierotic society.”

“How She Saw Me Was How I Saw Myself”: On Gaslighting, Identity, and Personal Narrative

This piece was first published on Feminism in India: Your Everyday Intersectional Indian Feminism


In the 1944 mystery-thriller Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman plays the role of a woman whose husband manipulates her shrewdly, falsifying or negative hard evidence (including the flickering gaslight), leaving her to deal with disorientation, self-doubts, and hysteria. The film made over four million at the box office, with Bergman winning an Academy Award, but the original play and its film adaptations are credited for contributing the term gaslighting, in psychological and clinical literature.

In their book, When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships (1998), Neil Jacobson and John Gottman define gaslighting as “the ultimate form of abuse [where the abuser] gain[s] control of the victim’s mind, to make her doubt herself so that she believes the abuser’s view of reality”. The abuser, in this case, known as the gaslighter manipulates by substituting the subjective narrative of the victim with theirs, causing the victim to doubt, and lose their personal interpretation of the reality.

THE GASLIGHTER MANIPULATES BY SUBSTITUTING THE SUBJECTIVE NARRATIVE OF THE VICTIM WITH THEIRS, CAUSING THE VICTIM TO DOUBT, AND LOSE THEIR PERSONAL INTERPRETATION OF THE REALITY.

Another definition, given by Kate Abramson highlights the emotional manipulation of the victim such that their perceptions, thoughts, or interpretations of events/actions are treated as misinformed, mistaken, and often as crazy. This implies that the victims cannot be trusted of their experiences, and hence need not be taken seriously.

Gaslighting, unlike its more dramatic portrayal in mainstream media, in reality, exists in most micro-level contexts including an abusive romantic relationship, an abusive parent-child relationship, an abusive boss-employee relationship, and in macro-level contexts such as can be observed among the countries with geopolitical supremacy over others. And although gaslighting has been mostly experienced by women, it goes without saying that the strategy is commonly used to keep the subaltern, in their rightful place within a household, in a workplace, or in history.

THE STRATEGY IS COMMONLY USED TO KEEP THE SUBALTERN, IN THEIR RIGHTFUL PLACE WITHIN A HOUSEHOLD, IN A WORKPLACE, OR IN HISTORY.

As a recovering victim of gaslighting, I have found that deconstructing my experiences in the light of new knowledge and literature has been redemptive. For the purpose of this essay, I rely upon those personal experiences, and while this may compromise the integrity of some individuals, my intention is not that at all.

Among the many memories from my formative years, one stands out to predominate. It is the memory of my mother, crying. Over the years, the reasons behind her tears have changed; but when I was growing up, it was because she suffered physical violence from her husband, a man she had chosen for herself.

On such occasions, my sister and I would gather around, holding our mother’s sari, in a vain attempt to shield her from our father. These violent episodes would come and pass, following the pattern of seasonal change. But I learned quite early that between my mother and my father, my mother needed our support and that, as my mother put it, “My life is ruined because of this man”.

However, it was not only my father, who was convicted of this fateful verdict. I learned soon enough from my mother that I shared it with him; that I was as responsible for ruining my mother’s life as my father had been. Although today I understand the circumstances under which my mother’s resentment of her husband projected itself onto me, yet, when I first heard her accusation, I was a mere six-year-old. That statement, “My life is ruined because of you”, devoid of any explanation/reason, has remained with me as my foundational identity, my definition of the self, over which other identities were later constructed.

The American linguistics scholar Stanton Wortham proposes that the self is a process, in which identity is formed within a conversational context. He theorised that if a particular narrative, within a conversation, becomes “repeated and becomes habitual”, it can form the victim’s identity for herself/himself. In the light of this theory, it appears that my mother’s [unintentional] characterisation of me as “bad”, “evil”, and “ruinous” became my internal monologue, and subsequently my shadow narrative.

Simply put, how she saw me was how I saw myself. The effects of the internalisation reflected through confused emotions of guilt, shame, and self-loathing, and in behaviours such as avoiding conflicts (including confrontation), a strong sense of morality, wanting to please, and emotional dysregulation.

Much like gaslighting in an abusive parent-child relationship, gaslighting in a emotionally abusive romantic relationship follows certain patterns. Traditional heteronormative relationships and social systems permit gaslighters to take advantage of women’s pre-defined status and nature; she being considered an infantile, when she finds herself in an abusive relationship/situation, it is her own doing, and hence, she need not be taken seriously.

TRADITIONAL HETERONORMATIVE RELATIONSHIPS AND SOCIAL SYSTEMS PERMIT GASLIGHTERS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WOMEN’S PRE-DEFINED STATUS AND NATURE

However, this is not the only predicament she experiences. Women have been alienated from their subjective narratives, these narratives often substituted by men’s narratives, stripping away in the process not just her agency, her faculty, but also her right to create an alternative.

The consequences of my gender and the earlier internalisation manifested themselves upon me, when I entered into a romantic relationship. On one occasion, while confiding about my sexual abuse in my teen years to my then-partner, I received another “misplaced” statement, “Maybe you misunderstood”. On another occasion, “Maybe you experienced it but you didn’t know”, this when I replied “No” to his question “Did you reach orgasm?

Of course, the relationship did not last long but it helped me see how gaslighting existed inside the heteronormative framework. With male knowledge presiding over female knowledge, her account will be discounted, on account of her fragile emotions, poor reasoning and analytical thinking. To this extent, I am glad that my mother had the tenacity and the forevision of placing the blame outside her, even if it was misplaced.

For this reason, postcolonial literature and feminist literature have become sacrosanct – they explain how power and responsibility get monopolised and how usurpation of peoples’ bodies, minds, and their narratives were absolved of it’s inherent political oppression, violence and denigration. More importantly, in them, exists the key to discard the oppressive narrative and build instead, a strong personal and communal narrative. We, the subaltern must take back the narrative, even if it takes time or as Audre Lorde says, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Reference:

  1. Gaslight, Wikipedia
  2. It’s (Not All) in Your Head: Gaslighting and the Colonized Intersubjective Space, Casey Krall, Academia.edu

Living ‘Relatively Visible’.

This piece was first published on Class Action: Building Bridges Across the Class Divide


I am born to a Tamil, working class, OBC (Other Backward Caste) couple who immigrated to North India to earn their livelihood in the mid-1980s.

My father had begun working with an American cultural agency, a full-time job that he would continue to do for the next three decades. My mother, by default, stayed at home, raising her two children, and managing the household with the skills and knowledge that she had learned.

My sister and I, for the first two years of schooling, went to a low-budget private school, which had rooms covered with tin sheets and no doors. My parents took us out after the second grade and enrolled us in a private school, which they could barely afford.

When my father was transferred to a new city in the late 1990s, we had to be enrolled in the best school again. The “best school” meant for them, higher tuition fees managed with a low income. It also meant trying to acquire for their children a social class different than theirs, so we would not suffer the humiliation that came for trying it. I remember my father recounting how the school’s administration questioned him whether he could pay the tuition fees of his two children in a timely manner – a question that he had no choice but to answer.

Upper-Middle-Class Snobbery

In 2007, my family moved again to Delhi, in order for us to go to college. By this time, my family was in a better financial position – my parents having invested in the necessities that were important for us, our education. My sister and I received our postgraduate degrees from premier universities and by 2014 were working in the nonprofit sector at managerial positions. But, we had one shortcoming. We were still living on rent.

I alternated between two class-realities at the same time: the working-class that I did not identify with and the middle-class that did not identify with me.”

The community that we live in is dominated by families owning businesses and holding public offices, and multiple real estate properties, cars and other assets. They call themselves “the upper-middle-class.” In this community, the working-class often suffers classism, racism, sexism and, not uncommon, xenophobic prejudice. It is liable to be treated without respect and humility. In my case, the systemic class and gender identity asserted itself when my house-owner casually asked me once, “Do you work as a receptionist*?”

Alternating between Class Realities

The question, although presumptuous, forced me to think how I alternated between two class-realities at the same time: the working-class that I did not identify with and the middle-class that did not identify with me, and how others perceived me from the vantage point of class. Unlike the permanent visibility afforded to an individual by a house or an SUV, an academic degree only offers relative visibility, which exposes the individual to disowning one’s achievements.

There is a chapter in Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth dedicated to Colonial War and Mental Disorders. Fanon delineates for the reader the sustained onslaught of colonialism on the mental health of the colonized individuals. I think classism has a similar effect.

Fanon writes,

“Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’”

The sad reality of classism is that I cannot compensate for my position in the society by only acquiring the relatively visible achievements such as an academic degree. Unless, I complement these with visible achievements, I will remain invisible. Or as my father says about himself, “[I am a failure because] I have not been able to buy a house even after 30 years of work.”


* The position is filled by the working-class population and more often by women in India, and is, thereby, considered low-status.