Wednesday, April 16, 2008

OPENing a new Eden

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.

Open is available from - a currency converter is here. The authors will be dipping in and out all day, today and tomorrow, to chat and answer questions.


Janine Ashbless said...

Wow. We forget so much of the time how lucky we are, here in parochial, grumbling, liberal ol' Britain.

Thanks for this Olivia. It sounds like a lovely collection.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Ditto here in American, where the puritanical right (a vocal minority) regularly outshouts the rest of us.

I've never been afraid to write what I do. I'm humbled by these women.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a wonderful book! Where do we get it? Is it only published in South Africa?

Anonymous said...

Olivia, thank you for this wonderful promotion (and thank you Karin Schimke for pulling it all together) - I am really proud to be part of this anthology and hope it will inspire me to be braver with my writing about sex. I guess finding our voice is like finding our G-spot. It feels goddamned glorious. Thanks for embracing our voices with such generosity.
Joanne Fedler

Janine Ashbless said...

I have a couple of questions which are probably crass - but hell, I ask the impolite questions. That's what I do.

Are the stories all written from the perspective of white South Africans?

Has AIDS had any impact on the content of the anthology?

No offense intended - I'm just curious.

Anonymous said...

I don't think those are crass questions at all! Judging by the names on the anthology, no, they're not all white ~ at least, I'm assuming Palesa Mazamisa, Lindiwe Nkutha, and Makhosazana Xaba definitely aren't, some of the others are harder to tell. As for AIDS - I can only speak for my own story here, where it had no influence. (And as mine was magical realist, it doesn't feature safe sex - which I would have done in a straightforwardly contemporary story.) Certainly, though, it can all be read against that backdrop...

Megan Kerr said...

Anon - yes, it is a wonderful book! It's only published in South Africa, but you can order it from anywhere in the world via (If you're not familiar with South African rands, there's a currency converter here - more or less, you divide by 15 to get UK pounds, or divide by 8 to get dollars.)

Joanne - it's an absolute pleasure, this book is a joy.

Nikki Magennis said...

Sounds like a fabulous anthology, Olivia et al.

I'm half South African, and it's a country that fascinates and scares me in equal measure. One thing that struck me most when I've visited is the courage of the people. That seems to shine through in the aims of this book.

Hats off, congratulations and good luck!

Portia Da Costa said...

Sounds like a very brave and wonderful collection! Bravo, all!

Vincent Copsey said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. Echoing Janine in that we easily forget here in the UK that the rest of the world isn't quite so liberal.

Jeremy Edwards said...

What a wonderful thing! My hat goes off to all concerned.

Learning, from half a world away, that apartheid was finally to be abolished was perhaps the most uplifting moment I've ever experienced at the level of global events. A decade earlier, I'd been one of those U.S. university students trudging around with petitions and signs and leaflets, not daring to hope that anything would ever really change.

Olivia, your post explains so well the relationships among the country's history; the status (past and present) of women in society; politics; art; freedom; sexuality; and self-expression. I learned a lot.

Jeremy Edwards said...

By the way, I should say that in alluding to college students with leaflets, I don't in any way mean to (a) sound like I'm crediting the residents of my U.S. dormitory with ending apartheid, or (b) sound like I'm putting protesters who operate from a position of safety and distance alongside the brave South Africans whose resistance endangered, and in some cases cost them, their lives.

Megan Kerr said...

Heh heh - welcome to political commentary in South Africa, Jeremy, where every word needs thirty subclauses to fully define it. Just speaking can be like trying to kill the hydra. That, I think, is what is such a relief about this book - a space to have such gleeful fun!

Of course, while South Africa is in parts still a deeply conservative society, it's also - well - not. It's one of those countries where journalists spend 2 hours trying to describe it and then retreat into saying "diverse" or "corncucopia of something" or "a smorgasbord of whatsit". Two different people's experience - not even very far apart geographically - can be as different as living on the moon. (Which of course, adds to the diversity, there's that word again, of the collection!)

Janine Ashbless said...

Thanks Megan!

My Blogger-word is "hahpow"! Does that make me a superhero?

Ok, ok, I'll go do some proper work...

Anonymous said...

I don't know if any of the other authors were aware of avoiding / confronting HIV and safe sex. Anyone want to comment?

The strangest thing for me was claiming my place in the book on the basis of my nationality. How could I write as a South African? Ironically, I had to put all thoughts of my identity away to write at all: my gender, nationality, age, everything. I slipped the surly bonds of the earth; and I think that's the only way to write.

Anonymous said...

This is marvellous news. Congratulations to everyone involved.


Anonymous said...

Sounds fantastic, was just looking where else i could get a copy and came across one of the authors doing a reading for this book on Youtube. Reading from her story live

Megan Kerr said...

In case that link's fallen off the page for anyone else, click here - Lauren Buekes reading from "Princess".

Unknown said...

On the issues of race, politics and AIDS, yep that's the backdrop South African writers have to work with, but I think that's what makes this collection refreshing - is that it doesn't get mired in that morass, although it may well be informed by it.

(I should say that my new novel, Moxyland does tackle all those things along with economic apartheid and branding and consumer culture and scary epidemics)

But I don't think erotica should have to carry socio-political baggage. It's about touch and taste and sense and smoking hot sex and women revelling in their bodies and some thoughtful and melancholy and whimsical pieces too. There's a great mix of writers in terms of race and sexual orientation.

If you do want a brilliant, startling, wonderful, tragic, hectic insightful book about AIDS in South Africa, the stigmas and myths and real social impact, I'd highly recommend Jonny Steinberg's riveting new non-fiction, Three Letter Plague (called Sizwe's Test overseas, about one man's hesitancy to get tested in a rural village in the Eastern Cape under a pilot ARV programme.
- Lauren Beukes

limecello said...

Oh this sounds like such a terrific book - thanks for posting about it, Olivia. I really enjoyed reading this post.

GLBT Promo said...

I am so looking forward to buying OPEN! I've stopped reading most American erotica anthologies because it is rare to find anything innovative or interesting. It's clear that the bottome line has a dollar sign on it, so we are forced to read more and more of the same.

Anonymous said...

Olivia, thanks for such generous commentary. I think one of the things I enjoyed most about contributing to this anthology was the sense that something as essential and intimate as sexuality was no longer constrained by race. Everyone who contributed is educated, almost invariably an indicator of class in South Africa, but other than that, we're a gloriously motley crew and a wonderful reminder that there is no white (or black or orange or green) perspective on sex in this breathtaking and breathless place we call home.

AIDS, on the other hand, has become part of our thinking about sex. And yet what's so wonderful about these stories is that they explore the vast terrain of sexuality beyond the kind of penetrative intercourse that requires condoms. I was tickled to see how many of the heroines in these stories found fulfilment between their ears, or through their eyes or all over their bodies. I hope readers find this as cheering as I do!

Angell said...

I can't wait to get my hands on this anthology. Bravo and hats off to the brave souls who participated in it.

I agree with Dayle. Never have I been afraid of what I write - I can't imagine how that must feel. Stifiling your creativity because it could get you killed...what a nightmare.

I applaud these writers.

Madeline Moore said...

Beautifully conceptualized, beautifully realised. Thank you Olivia. (I'm talking about the piece, now I'll talk about the book.)

Wow. The excerpts alone are stunning. Like many, I admired and despaired for the native people of South Africa. And when Nelson Mandela walked a free man again, my heart soared.

For a long time, during apartheid, I resisted Paul Simon's 'Graceland' but finally, I did it, I bought it, and (as he had intended) hearing that music made me ache for freedom of expression for the S.A. people.

As Jeremy said, there are great moments in our lives. We see so much ugliness, every day (Tibet?) that on those days when the right thing is done, it makes us remember that people can be and do good things.

Okay, so - I will read this book, finally, not because of what it is but because the quotes from it that are included in the blog are beautiful and I want to know how erotica is penned in South Africa.

Anonymous said...

I will read this book, finally, not because of what it is but because the quotes from it that are included in the blog are beautiful and I want to know how erotica is penned in South Africa.

Thanks, Madelynne! I think that's the artistic point to which we all aspire. The hope of all protest literature is that one day it won't be necessary anymore. (By the way, Angell - I don't think anyone's in danger of their lives since '94 for erotica, although that taxi-rank incident makes one wonder.) And the literature of guilt, one hopes, will eventually do its cathartic work and expiate the sins. And then, hopefully, one becomes free, not to ignore all of that but to move on from it.

By the way, I forgot to say earlier, there's an excerpt on my website - the opening paragraphs of "These things do happen".

Deanna said...

Sound very interesting and definitely makes you think.

Anonymous said...

thank you to everyone for the comments, and to Olivia for the wonderful post!

In terms of identity, in this instance - contributing to an anthology - I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller, and the validation this post, and the replies, has given me is enormous. I think this is crucial to coaxing out more voices and more stories, that in return might reflect on politics, race, gender, or just pure fun!

I hope everyone enjoys reading the anthology as much as I've been. I've felt really honoured to be included amongst so many talented voices.

thanks again! :-)

Anonymous said...

I don't think the writers are in danger of their lives for writing about sex, but it is a significant collection in a still quite verkrampte (conservative/ cramped) society.

And while I haven't finished reading it (SPOILER ALERT) there are at least two stories that riff off what could be considered socio-political subject matter, like Suzy Bell's portrait of a Moslem matriach in the historic district of Bo-Kaap, which is as much an ode to Cape Town as the object of her affections.

The other is Palesa Mazamisa's story, Kadra's Decree, about the collision of two worlds (and bodies); the cosmopolitan Cape Town modelling scene and a woman who finds her pleasure despite the female genital mutilation she suffered in Somalia.

Kristina Lloyd said...

*[SA's] first all-female erotic anthology has just been published. *

Heck, that's amazing and awful all at once. The collection really does sound wonderful - powerful and delicate and fresh. I've been following too many links and have slightly lost track. Forgive me. But whoever did the Dylan Thomas tale, please raise your hand! I love Dylan. Your spin on him was great.

Fab post, Olivia!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kristina

I wrote the Dylan Thomas piece. When I read Under Milkwood at the age of seventeen, I just fell in love, with language, with Dylan and wished I could meet him... this piece grew from that little wish.
I've posted the first few pages of my story on my blog at if you want to read more.
Helen Moffat points out, there is such imagination here - that's what struck me, the range, and - I think this is right - there isn't a single blowjob in this collection...
Joanne Fedler

Jeremy Edwards said...

I hear that all the double blowjobs are really well rendered, though.

Sorry, couldn't resist! ; )

Kristina Lloyd said...

Damn, no blowjobs! I'm kinda partial.

But thanks, Joanne. And thank you for the link. I think Dylan Thomas is intrinsically sexy. His language is so rollickingly (is that a word?) rude and full of life and rhythm, and I think you really captured that.

Sexiest line ever in the whole wide world (from Under Milkwood): Let me shipwreck in your thighs.


Isn't there a giveaway for this post? You're always doing giveaways on LB. Where is it? Can I win? Please.

Megan Kerr said...

I believe Jeremy is giving away double blow-jobs...? Actually, I wanted to arrange a giveaway of South African wine for this post, but apparently you're not allowed to send wine through the post. Blame Royal Mail, not me!

Jeremy Edwards said...

Actually, I was going to ask Kristina about those "partial" ones she delivers. (Is Royal Mail to blame for that, too?)

Kristina Lloyd said...

Ha, yes, it's Royal Mail's fault. They'll only let me lick their envelopes.

Unknown said...

congrats to all the authors. I'm also very interested to learn more about South Africa through these stories.

Alison Tyler said...

Ooh, lovely post, Olivia! I'd read a write-up on the book already (I think through Shanna)—and am interested to get my hands on it!


P.S. Jolie, are you reading the books I'm reading? I've found so many clever anthologies lately!

GLBT Promo said...

You can come to my house some day, Alison, and help me find a place to store the books I have no room for. So to answer your question, yes, I'm sure I have. There have been a few titles I've enjoyed. For example, I enjoyed Entangled Lives, edited by Marilyn Jaye Lewis, but that was a collection of memoirs.

American anthologies are dominated by the same publishers. It's nice to read a book that comes from somewhere else.

Olivia, I'm really looking forward to reading OPEN. Thank you for the information.

GLBT Promo said...

I just noticed your links, Alison. Stephen Elliott's book and Best American Erotica 2008 are excellent. Books like that are why I still bother with erotic short stories. (But I'm working on a novel now and a non-fiction proposal.)

Anonymous said...

I'm proud to say I was the publisher at Oshun who commissioned Karen to put together Open. I absolutely loved seeing this book come together. I was stunned by how joyful the stories were. We'd done anthologies before, but the subject matter of this one really inspired gloriously effervescent writing from all the women involved. Viva South Africans writing about sex!

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