Barbara Boswell: Betrayal meets a fighting spirit


Barbara Boswell: Betrayal meets a fighting spirit

NADINE PETRICK spoke to a staunch feminist and gender activist who writes to heal herself and others.


PROFESSOR Barbara Boswell takes a while to open up. There is a reclusiveness; a timidity in her answers and demeanour. There's a shadow of the girl child of Belhar and Elsies who grew up in violence and survived thanks to familial love. A shy first-rate scholar who would rather read and write than do most other things because stories were her emotional salvation, her mental crutch. The nerdy introvert who was jealous of the sister who showed up eight years after her; Barbara suddenly kicked off her throne as an only child.

But like in Anita, the main character in her third novel, The Comrade's Wife, there is a silent force that manifests over time. You feel it; Barbara isn't going to take your nonsense, or anyone else's. But that doesn't make her hard. Just staggeringly determined.

One of the biggest similarities between Anita and Barbara is that both are black women in academia, working and writing about identity, an issue that will remain eternally controversial. And it's not easy, when you read between the lines of the book and our conversation.

To begin with, Barbara's path between papers and dusty university libraries did not begin until much later than most other students'. In the Nineties, in her 20s, she was a journalist for the anti-apartheid newspaper, South, where she honed her teeth as a writer. At the time already a feminist, without knowing and understanding its “language".

Work in a television station newsroom followed, and there she was fired for not being submissive enough. Sorry, huh? But it changed the course of her life, fortune in the misfortune, because there and then she decided to study again, and she came across gender studies. “It was a moment of incredible serendipity that I ended up there because it really changed my life in the most interesting and best ways."

At 30, she started her PhD. She was interested in women's stories and women's lives, even though for some time she had no idea what gender studies entailed and what her future in the field would hold. Violence in the street (after all, the Eighties were a brutal police state, lest we forget), violence in the house — all this helped shape her into the feminist she is today. A staunch one.

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She doesn’t hate men

Since gender is such a fragile construct these days, will feminism ever become redundant, I wonder wilfully. Of course not, she smiles. And she doesn't believe in postfeminism either, even though many people would like this to be the way things are. The test for postfeminism, according to her, will be when women can walk outside after midnight without being raped and murdered. Ah, and no, she doesn't hate men, she anticipates a tired question in advance with a sigh. She hates the patriarchy, because it is also harmful to men.

But what about the men in The Comrade's Wife? They're nasty, all of them. Is that patriarchy's fault? Her smile gets softer the longer we chat. Yes, like Anita, she was sexually harassed in the workplace. Like Anita, her work is in the social sciences, and if race and gender are your field of study in this country, your work is devalued. Simply because she is a black woman working in academia, like Anita, her work is devalued based on her identity. She's not exaggerating, it's the truth. All or mostly at the hand of men. She said it was hard, didn't she?

But the answer (and the solution) is never that simple, she says, harkening back to intersectionality. Various violent systems work together to cause harm, including to fictional characters in a book. “What do you identify as the most important evil — class, race or gender? Whatever your main form of oppression is, it will ultimately determine the remedy as well."

However, the book is about more than just patriarchy, feminism and gender politics.

A middle-aged lecturer meets a charming, suave politician (obviously based on several characters we are familiar with in this country) on an online platform for professional singles. Their relationship progresses quickly, his romantic gestures initially overshadowing suspicion, but before long the poor woman is gaslighted until not much remains of her. But, like our respected author, the main character is staggeringly determined. Her fighting spirit is her greatest weapon.

So, this is also a novel about love, betrayal and deceit, and taking a deeper look, in a sense also an allegory for the power relationship we have with this country. “I think as a citizen of South Africa I am not alone in saying I feel betrayed," she declares, “so much of what the novel addresses is this very public and private betrayal."

The idea for The Comrade's Wife took hold after she read a poem she covers each year in her English Literary Science classes at the University of Cape Town, Roshila Nair's aluta continua. She reads it to me. A kick in the stomach. What would she do if she had the type of political power she dissects in this book?

“I would create a gender studies curriculum from Grade 1 to Grade 12 which explains social power and social responsibility in the context of race and gender, so that children can learn who we are and how we see ourselves." She would try to create jobs, because people are desperate for the dignity that work provides. Her list of solutions is long and thoughtful.

It probably would have been easier to turn her back rather than try to help find solutions; there were more than enough opportunities to escape. She has worked at various overseas institutions, stayed in imposing places, but she has always wanted to come back. “I love South Africa, there is so much promise here and so much excellence." But alas, betrayal is never far away: “There's just so much disappointment; in leaders and people who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor."

Barbara, who works with students every day, sees what this breakdown of the social contract does to brilliant, wonderful young people. The unemployment and the hopelessness and the despair are shattering the dreams of people who should have a bright future here. “I fear for the younger people of today and what their South Africa will look like when we are no longer here."

Is writing therapeutic?

Is writing a way to make sense of all of this, I ask, because on her website she proclaims that she writes as a form of activism and healing.

“I don't know if I believe that any more," she admits. “Writing has been very therapeutic for me personally, but that doesn't necessarily mean it heals other people, even if they resonate with what I write. I've also written a lot of things that are much more activism than fiction."

She does believe representation is important. It's important for black or brown young women and girls to see themselves represented in fiction because she didn't have that growing up. “But yes," she admits, “writing is a subtle way one changes the culture, it's not an ‘out there' form of activism."

A fierce warrior, yet gentle and subtle. Compassionate and kind, she hopes. An introvert, yes, but fond of her people. Someone who doesn't shy away from fighting when she feels things are wrong or unfair.

Is she happy with who she is at 51, I wonder?

She laughs that shy laugh. “My life isn't extravagantly wonderful, but I do have a lovely life." She writes every day. She's evangelical about swimming, which she didn't learn to do until she was 50. Talk about determination. A daily dip in the tidal pool. Her son is grown up and she is waiting for grandchildren. “That sounds terrible, huh?" Again, the shy laugh.

But jokes aside, she is privileged to be able to do what she does. To be allowed to write, to be able to travel. She understands her own privilege and sometimes gets embarrassed by her own comfort when she looks at the unemployment rate. But she remembers the sacrifices it took to get to where she is. That her mother did everything in her power to get the girl from Belhar and Elsies educated; that many people paid a price for her education. Also, her own crossroads, because things could easily have turned out differently. Now, however, it's her turn to give back to the community.

And, of course, to write. Always, stories and writing.

The Comrade's Wife by Barbara Boswell was published by Jacana and costs R290 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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