Olivia Knight interviews the authors of Open: an erotic anthology
Open: open up to someone ~ be open about your sexuality ~ opening your heart ~ opening your legs ~ open the book ~ Open, The Book: an anthology of erotica from nineteen of South Africa’s best women writers.
Let’s put this in context for a moment. In South Africa….
* Only 15 years ago, entering customs with Heat or the Sun, you could be arrested for smuggling pornography. These magazines show ‘titties’. Ag sies man!
* Liberal men with liberal arts degrees will still argue, quite sincerely, that men are at the top of most fields because men are just a bit better at stuff – ja, women cook well, but the top chefs are men, right? It’s their noses, see. Biological difference.
* If you admit to having half as much sex as your men friends, you’re a slut.
* At a Johannesburg taxi rank recently, a woman had her clothes torn off by a baying crowd outraged by her sluttishness: she was wearing a mini-skirt.
… just by way of example. Violently sexist (emphasis on ‘violent’), with a history of grim censorship (almost 15 000 publications were banned in a forty-year period), South Africa’s ability to recreate itself stuns. It now has one of the world’s most liberal constitutions, whose limits have yet to be legally tested, and its first all-female erotic anthology has just been published. It is, says Nicole Whitton, ‘a beautiful, eclectic, fractured-but-healing, honest, self-conscious and, at times, exhausting country’.
South African writing has concentrated for years, understandably, on exploring the horrors of its so-recent apartheid past, but like much else that’s changing. ‘For so long,’ says Helen Moffet, South African writers ‘were forced to either confront or ignore politics in their work – a necessary choice, but a limiting one. Now we're all free to write what we like (with acknowledgements to Steve Biko).’ That new creative freedom is relished by all the authors in this anthology: ‘the lid has been taken off creativity in South Africa since 1994’ (the end of apartheid) says Dawn Garsch, and Helen adds, ‘The sky is at last the limit’. Lauren Beukes mentions the mood ‘of freedom, of playfulness’ now that South African literature ‘doesn't have to take itself so terribly seriously anymore as protest literature or the literature of guilt, although that's not to say that we don't have plenty of new demons to take on.’ New demons, perhaps, but taken on in that uniquely South African way: brilliantly, humourously, colourfully, sexually, with ‘gutsiness’ says Joanne Fedler, going on to explain how the strict laws and norms ‘concealed the richness of the South African sensibility and sensuality. South Africans are soulful, their cultures rich and vibrant which makes for a delicious, exciting brew of of sexual voices.’ It’s a country, according to Megan Kerr, that ‘shows the full splendour of change and how new possibilities open up – so it’s about time it turned that energy to changing the dynamics of the sexes.’
All this from an erotic anthology? Oh, yes. Because, as Sarah Lotz points out, ‘We're living in extraordinary times where everything is politicised and a lot remains uncertain.’ And it is exhausting, and delicious, and important, and uses up every adjective you have, just like the best sex you’ve ever had. Living through such change means you must re-examine every habitual thought, question your assumptions, explore the politics underlying everything, and discover yourself and the world afresh every day. Through sex? Of course! We need to ‘challenge outdated notions of sex and sensuality’ insists Palesa Mazamisa, and ‘we cannot leave sex and sexuality up to the advertisers and the pornographers’ adds Dawn Garisch. Writers do it better, making it real, making it breathless as a hot Karoo day or heart-crippling as the sight of Table Mountain, with ‘that lovely sense of freshness and adventure’ (Helen Moffett). ‘We are,’ says Megan Kerr, ‘free to recreate the world – all the entrapments of the past that the country fights against can melt away in a story like sea mist, and show a vision of how the world could, should, and will be.’ For the writers in this anthology, the future is bright: the future is sexy.
These writers are as open with themselves as they are with their fantasies: every single author in this anthology has agreed to be published under their own name. They’ve nailed their colours to the mast of openness and honesty. With that history of censorship, that persistent sexual double standard, and that furore over identity, such openness matters. ‘South Africans can be interrogative about the nature of identity,’ says Nicole Whitton – something of an understatement – ‘so it's brave for a group of women to contribute to such a close and, hopefully, fascinating examination of womanhood.’ The sexual double standard relies on shame, but its opposite is not shamelessness – it’s pride. ‘I’m proud to titillate,’ says Joanne Fedler and Nicole Whitton relishes reminding her mother that ‘the fundamental stuff doesn't change all that much between the generations’. Dawn Garisch sees it as taking back ‘the lost ground of erotic’ while for Megan Kerr ‘the story itself was centered so much around Edenic purity, that being truthful about my own identity felt important.’
That sense of Eden may be the key to these stories’ bright, hungry joy. Creating a new identity goes first through the stage of fighting against the old, arguing, defending, reacting, deliberately destroying – but then it enters the newness. Deliciousness. Discovery. Bliss. Excitement. Reclaiming sexuality may, ultimately, also be reclaiming innocence: to say, Yes – this is pure, this is perfect, this is gorgeous. And this is fun! This may be the most important book you read this year: it will certainly be the most provocative.