Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Notes on the French Letter



Reader!

By now you know me well enough to understand that I could not resist the temptation to write about the appearance of an all-female authored French Letter.

I know I should be marking.
I know I should be preparing my lectures.
But it's impossible.

Instead, here I am, looking at the French Letter like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I feel guilty that I’m engaging in the wrong kind of writing but I'm trying not to care (much). That’s my motto for 2018.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too many French series on Netflix. Or maybe my high-school French teachers actually did a fine job. The truth is I was able to find my way through “Les Femmes libèrent une autre parole” and understand most of it.

The whole text is premised on one assumption: the #metoo movement coerces women to speak out in the name of puritanism, as the eternal victims, pauvres petites choses sous l’emprise de phallocrates demons, comme aux bon vieux temps de la sorcellerie”. According to the authors, the freedom to speak out has become its opposite. In other words, #metoo has gone too far: “La vague purificatoire ne semble connaître aucune limite.” It has crossed to the other side, and now the victims become those men who have been constrained to quit their jobs without being able to defend themselves:

En face, les hommes sont sommés de battre leur coulpe et de dénicher, au fin fond de leur conscience rétrospective, un « comportement déplacé » qu’ils auraient pu avoir voici dix, vingt, ou trente ans, et dont ils devraient se repentir. La confession publique, l’incursion de procureurs autoproclamés dans la sphère privée, voilà qui installe comme un climat de société totalitaire.
 
This situation, it is argued, has led to the entrenchment of a symbolic struggle that opposes women to men, a struggle that educated French women, in their sensuous, luscious and stylish way, have learned to overcome. As a French journalist speaking on the BBC radio 4 this morning (10 January 2018) explained to a gobsmacked British counterpart, and I paraphrase, she signed the letter because women in France are not monolithic like women in the UK and in America. Women in these other countries are black and white, which makes them very good at building computers, while women in France are more colourful and complex. They are not afraid of men and are able to stand up for themselves if they are the victims of an attack, without the need to rely on pre-established laws.

Never mind the clear white female upper-middle class viewpoint that is being expressed above. What really struck a chord was the manner in which the French Letter attempted to fit the whole #metoo movement in a “both sides of the Atlantic” argument (Miguel Vale de Almeida also finds it difficult to escape the expression in his blog post, although he prefers to write "both sides of the puddle"), as if the women who have been getting involved were simply British/American and French. While this is mostly true, it is not entirely true, as women in Russia, Egypt and China, to mention but a few other countries, have joined their voices to the outcry. The use of the word “puritanisme”, which appears in the second paragraph of the letter, and then again in the third paragraph (“purificatoire”), re-centres the #metoo movement on old Anglo-French disputes, and in doing so, reinstates feminist international hierarchies as it discusses the legitimacy of who can speak in the name of (which) women.

Allow me to unpack just a little. Women’s sexual empowerment has always depended on the circulation of ideas, and this is one good reason why national boundaries should never be discarded when discussing feminisms. Whoever has done research on this subject knows well that there are centres within centres, and margins within margins. In the case of the French Letter, this knowledge is literally swept under the carpet. Here, the stories that make up the #metoo movement are used – they are discarded, or meshed into a simplified group – in order to confirm, once more, the boundaries of the white French and Anglo-American viewpoints. In that sense, this French Letter is useful insofar as it allows a reflection to occur about important questions relating to femininity and feminism that have been hanging around since at least the early years of the Women’s Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. How can we subvert relations of domination in the world through the use of words? Who can legitimately speak up in the name of women? 


What I think the #metoo movement has achieved is this: a greater understanding of the importance of being taken seriously as a public speaker. However, this is unfortunately read as going too far by the authors of the French Letter. According to them, one way in which #metoo has gone too far is that it has allowed for the work of men to be confused with the men themselves: “dans la confusion absurde de l’homme et de l’œuvre, on demande l’interdiction de la rétrospective Roman Polanski à la Cinémathèque, (…) [et on juge] le film Blow Up de Michelangelo Antonioni « misogyne » et « inacceptable.”

In this context, it is interesting to note how the legitimacy of the writers of the letter has been sealed – in both the French and UK media and, I suspect, around the world too - by the signature of Catherine Deneuve as the icon of French sexual open-mindedness. A similar confusion between the femme and the oeuvre, which undergirds Anglo-French disseminations of the contents of the letter, namely with reference to Deneuve’s participation in Belle de Jour, is at the heart of the dissemination of the letter, and this does not seem to be upsetting anyone:
“The Oscar-nominated Deneuve, 74, is best known internationally for playing a bored housewife who spends her afternoons as a prostitute in Luis Buñuel’s classic 1967 film Belle de Jour.” (The Guardian)
By lending her symbolic capital to the French Letter’s purposes, Deneuve is not only providing the prestige that will guarantee great media coverage. She is also showing, perhaps inadvertently, that the question of who is a legitimate speaker, whether in film or in real life (or in both) is part and parcel of what engenders schemes of perception out there, in the world. Deneuve knows this as well as Buñuel, Antonioni or Polanski.

The #metoo movement is not about the shaming of men or the victimisation of women, but about their, both men and women’s, empowerment through the spoken word. Before #metoo, women (and some men) could speak and scream about harassment but most would not be taken seriously. With #metoo, they are being taken seriously as legitimate speakers. They are being heard. For most women out there, and I’m talking about women whose identity is partially defined not only by the geographical margins that they inhabit but also in relation to the dominant (Anglo-French) feminist discourses that circulate around the world, for those women, speaking out is not a way of enforcing female victimisation. In a culture that cherishes silence about sexual harassment, opening your mouth and speaking out is the ultimate act of empowerment.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The grant and the strawberry: a bundle of joy and strain (and so much joy!)


Hello reader,

It was week zero when news of the grant came. I was sitting at my desk in the office, alone, writing emails and shifting rapidly inside my head between the term’s teaching, research and admin. When the email dropped I literally started shaking. Once I opened it and read the news I was ecstatic. I had just landed a 2 year AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellows grant for research on memory and mobility in the Brown Atlantic. The title: “Women of the Brown Atlantic: Real and Imaginary Passages in Portuguese 1711-2011.” Three years of work and preparation had finally paid off.

But as I descended from the clouds of jubilation, I couldn’t even share the news on social media. I felt excited but also humbled, and mostly fearful of the task ahead of me. Going through the application documents I marvelled at the meaning(lessness) of what I had achieved. As I read the title of my grant, I did not particularly believe that I was a leader in the making. I felt leader-ish at best. How on earth was I going to deliver all this in two years? When were my partners and mentors going to find out that this is, indeed, an insane project and I’m not fit for the job? Yes, for the next two years, I didn’t have to worry about getting any funding for my research, and maybe this would even translate into more good news about a possible early promotion, which was very cool. For the next two years, I could take a deep breadth: everything would be alright. For two years. And then the chase would be on again, and the pressure to apply for new grants would come back with a vengeance.

I felt nauseous.

In fact, something was happening to me. To my body, that is. I can only describe it as a sort of mutation glimpsed daily through the corner of my eye. I was experiencing a lot of tiredness, like I had been hit by a horse tranquilizer. Term hadn’t even started and my body was already feeling like it was week 10. I initially attributed it to my mind’s inability to rise up to the Leadership Fellows challenge. But no, reader. This was something else entirely. Things were about to get even more, uh, interesting. Turns out I was not only a grant holder, I was a pregnant grant holder! Now I had to be both a productive and reproductive leader, all at the same time.

No pressure.





It was an interesting discovery, learning that, whilst my mind was totally focused on the perils of getting what you want from the AHRC, my body indifferently hosted a little strawberry (every week they call it a different fruit or veg) with limbs.

The strawberry, soon to become a prune and then a lime in my belly, according to the wisdom of the latest apps, is the most accomplished example of the force that I believe drives us: what my mother would call miracles, what I prefer to call luck. A single sperm, out of three hundred million, somehow found a passage through me and survived, while MILLIONS died trying to cross over, and, choosing the right corridor containing the fertilized prize, surged against motions without getting trapped, attaching itself to the prize, and somehow – SOMEHOW! – my body didn’t reject the resulting bean. What are the odds of that happening? To a 38 year old? So, you see, the strawberry is already teaching me important life lessons. 

Take your prize, recognise how lucky you got, and get on with it.

How can I put it into words? The whole situation suddenly felt, let me tell you, liberating. More exactly, the passages between the grant and the strawberry were liberating. Through them, a passage to Portugal was crystallising. Short term, I know. But long term has its perils. It’s the bridge I was looking for. Non-permanent, but real. A route transporting me elsewhere, inside my body and in my imagination, and outside it, through the ocean, through the skin, away from Brexit for a white. Expanding, like the universe.

But what if?

What if I end up only half-doing everything, once the little strawberry arrives? Until now, I thought my dedication to what I do was undying. Now the little one inside me, comfortably tucked away in the darkest regions of my belly, will soon be a totally helpless human being, demanding constant attention, and a lot more. I hold a permanent lectureship, so I am entitled to paid maternal leave, and most importantly, I don’t (think I) have to worry about losing my job. I have all the support in the world from my family and colleagues. But what about the rest? How will I be able to travel to conferences and archives with a little one? Have I got what it takes to be both a forward-moving Leadership Fellow and an academic and a mother? Will I have the energy? I could carry the child with me everywhere in the beginning. But how will my colleagues, project partners and students react to that? Will I be taken less seriously? The feminist inside cannot but conjure the image of an inevitably stalled career ahead.

These and other questions come to me usually just before I fall asleep, which totally defeats the purpose of enjoying every hour of my current childless life. I can still spend more than three hours writing a lecture on Virgem Margarida, read more than a few pages of fiction before going to sleep for 8 hours (though now with lots of trips to the loo), and attend conferences in London without having to worry about child-care. Once the little one arrives, all of this will be gone.




It’s an incredibly wonderful thing, being lucky. But I confess I feel a bit lost, despite all the wonder and excitement. Having strong academic role models who are also mothers is a great source of inspiration, but somehow it is not enough. Where are the babies and the children in academia? I see them only when I go to my colleagues’ family-friendly parties. At 9pm they vanish into thin air and become invisible to me, only to return surreptitiously in reading week, now much bigger, holding their parents’ hands, in student-less corridors. Where do they go, and why do they go, academic parents of the world? Where are the spaces for mothering and fathering in academia? Where are the crossings, the passageways?





Everything will change, they say. As I dive into the Brown Atlantic in search of the real and imaginary passages of women, my child will inevitably dive in with me, as we look for answers – and passages – together.



This is probably my first letter to you.

Monday, 13 November 2017

O cão que passou sem ladrar. #eutambém #metoo



Não vou falar aqui de todos os cães que ladraram ao passarem por mim: os piropos de todos os tipos, as perguntas retóricas porcas, os apalpões na discoteca e fora dela, as assobiadelas na rua e dentro dos portões da escola, as mãos desenvoltas a tocarem mais do que devem, os comportamentos e tiradas absurdas justificados pelo vinho em jantares de colégio britânico crème de la crème. Vou, pelo contrário, dedicar-me a contar o episódio de um cão que passou por mim sem ladrar, e desde já peço perdão aos animais a quem chamamos cães, cuja decência não está em causa.

Acho que era uma noite de primavera. Os dias cresciam e a calmia do lusco-fusco acontecia entre as 7h30 e as 8 da noite. Devia ter um doze ou treze anos. Saía das aulas de inglês, no cimo da vila, com um grupo de amigas. Sentíamo-nos grandes. Gostávamos de ir a pé para casa todas juntas, sem pais à espera em carros. Nessa noite, uma das amigas sugeriu que passássemos por uma rua diferente, para tentarmos criar um encontro “casual” com o rapaz mais velho por quem se apaixonara na escola. Talvez ele estivesse à janela, talvez estivesse a entrar em casa, venham lá, não demora nada, pá, vai ser divertido. Essa rua não tinha grande iluminação, ficava fora do caminho. Não gostei da ideia. Olha agora, ir atrás do rapaz, nem sequer sabes se ele está em casa, ou se gosta de ti, deixa-te de coisas, ainda o espantas. E decidi esperar por elas ali mesmo, no cruzamento da estrada que dá para a Câmara Municipal. Elas foram, entre risadas, e eu esperei, debaixo do poste da luz.

Passados uns minutos, aproxima-se um carro e pára a uns metros de mim. O condutor olha-me e sorri. Abre a porta do passageiro e chama-me. A minha primeira reação foi pensar que se tratava de alguém conhecido, esta vila é tão pequena, quem me diz a mim que não é um tio ou amigo dos meus pais a oferecer-me boleia. Aproximo-me com meio sorriso. Lembro-me do cabelo loiro penteado para trás e da pele baça. Lembro-me do sorriso nojento e das palavras, Entra, senta-te. Uma mão no volante, outra no assento do passageiro, a convidar-me. De repente, algo dentro de mim me diz: foge. E fechando a porta do carro, desatei a correr. Rua do Vale abaixo, passando pela ponte, até alcançar a Rua 25 de Abril. Parei apenas dentro do prédio, fechando a porta atrás de mim, sem fôlego. 

É aí, no vão da escada, que procuro restabelecer-me, controlar a respiração antes de entrar em casa. Ao abrirem a porta, os meus pais perguntam-me, Chegaste cedo, está tudo bem?, e eu, Sim, tudo bem. E as tuas amigas? Já foram para casa, mandam beijinhos. Vou para o meu quarto, e encerro dentro de mim um encontro que poderia ter mudado o rumo da minha vida e do meu corpo. Se o carro me tivesse perseguido, se o homem tivesse saído do carro, se....

Voltei a encontrar ocasionalmente esse homem pelas ruas da Sertã, e sempre que o via enchia-me de vergonha. Nunca percebi por que razão morria de vergonha sempre que ele passava. Uma vez, no carro com a minha mãe, ao saírmos da garagem, tivemos de dar passagem ao carro dele. Passou-nos pela frente como uma cena de filme em câmara lenta. Ele a olhar-nos com aquele sorriso nojento, o assento ao lado vago, para sempre a convidar, Entra, senta-te. E lembro-me de a minha mãe ter comentado o quanto aquele homem a incomodava. Fiz de conta que não ouvi, e tentei esconder a vermelhidão do rosto. Tenho a sensação de que a minha mãe também o odiava e temia, mas nunca falámos sobre isso. Havia a vergonha a preencher o espaço entre mim e a minha mãe. Aliás, nunca contei esta história a ninguém.


Pergunto-me quais terão sido as consequências deste meu silêncio, motivado pela vergonha. Sem ter cometido nada de errado, este episódio de tentativa de sedução de um homem mais velho contribuiu para incentivar em mim uma submissão silenciosa e cheia de vergonha no que diz respeito aos avanços agressivos dos cães que ladram, mas principalmente aos avanços dos que não ladram. Como se de certa forma eu, o meu corpo, fossemos culpados do que tantas vezes acontece quase sem acontecer. 

Eu escapei. Mas quantas crianças terão passado por aquele assento?


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A feminist gets married



(Sertã, 5th August 2017)

The day came when he proposed and I accepted, which led to a feminist getting married.

I was busy proposing something myself, that is, writing a grant proposal. We had come back from a bike ride, and I had gone back to the office to carry on with my study leave duties. Sitting down at my desk, which faces a window that opens to the knowledge of trees and green bushes, I didn’t understand, at first, why he’d put a ring on top of the book that was open to my left.  I almost asked him not to disturb me because I was having an idea and trying to put it into words. Then the penny dropped. I looked at him, then at the ring, then at him again. I smiled, and said “what?” a few times, and finally exclaimed “Yes, let’s get married!”

I confess there was some hesitation in my answer, as much as there was in his. But I saw this ring as the starting point of a journey into life as a team, and although I was and still am very much afraid of this journey, of what it may bring to someone who calls herself a feminist, I took it wholeheartedly, in my own utopian way.

In the six months that took us to organize the wedding, family interests and social expectations calibrated much of what we wanted to do. I had never thought much about weddings, but I knew well enough what I didn’t want to happen. I persisted as a feminist killjoy for as long as I possibly could, and I had my victories, some of which were big, many small. Can you name a feminist who doesn’t believe in the power of small victories? The person who married us was a cheerful woman who mentioned equality several times throughout the ceremony. The person who translated the ceremony into English was a renowned feminist male colleague and dear friend. After months of endless fighting, I ended up taking my husband's last name, but without renouncing any of my last names. I named our table after my favourite women writers. I bought a second-hand, inexpensive dress. I gave a speech alongside my husband. I prepared a video documentary that honoured my grandmothers and their bolos de boda tradition.


It was an effort from all sides, to fight for our joy and ideals on our day. But to pick our fights: that is, I think, the greatest lesson. To understand what tools we have to struggle, becoming aware of what we can do, how far we can go. How much we can let go. In the run-up to my wedding, everything I believe in became hyper-real, alive and urgent, and more personal than ever. I was happy, sad, shimmering, frustrated, loved, in love, touched, enraged, vulnerable and strong. Feminist identity was a site of struggle and negotiation like never before. Placing feminism on the grounds of my wedding venue, which was also my parent’s garden, felt like opening my body to the world for the first time. In an episode that my seven girlfriends from Sertã will love to find out, I inexplicably lost my bra as I was getting ready to jump into the wedding dress, which led to the ceremony being delayed by half an hour. But I did not forget to leave a book by a favourite woman writer under the tree where we got married. I married by silently disturbing the grounds that I had accepted, and by trying to forget about other people’s judgements of what the good daughter, the good bride and the good feminist look like. 

It was beautiful because it was tough and earned, and because our own mix and match of traditions and innovation was thought-through to the last detail and fully experienced. The greatest victory will be to be able to say in a few years’ time that my wedding year shines through my relation with my husband as much as through my writing on feminism and women. 

In the meantime, I'm still waiting to hear on that grant proposal. Fingers crossed! :) 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

How to become a study leave super hero (of sorts)



If you send me an email now you’ll find out that I’ve been officially on study leave since the 9th of January. Apart from formally applying for this a year ago by promising to accomplish this world and the next, writing a permanent out of the office response on my email was my main preparation for the six months ahead. Well, five now. Oh dear. When your business is a small language, there’s no way around it. You end up having to deal with post-term bits and bobs. December was dedicated to wrapping up a crazy teaching load, attending a conference and then going home for Christmas. January was swallowed up by family, a trip to South Africa, a research meeting in Portugal, and, well, marking. No wonder it went so fast.

Also, I never thought I would be writing this, but it hasn’t been easy to accept the idea that I’m not teaching. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But it has actually been quite hard to just let go. I have been spotted smiling sheepishly at my colleagues in the copy machine area. Several times. Please learn from me, future study leavers. Don't look back!

So, I’ve decided, for the sake of sanity, that the REAL start is going to be February 9th. January will be known from now on as my rather unproductive transition month. It’s allowed.

February is perfect, you see. I’m travelling to Birmingham on the 9th to take part in a conference, so I’ll be away from both my home office and my university office. I’ll be on my favourite public transport. I’ve written my best paragraphs on trains, cosily nestled near a power socket by the window, in the quiet coach. And before jumping on the train I’m going to buy a new notebook. Yes!



Speaking of traveling, many people relocate to another environment during their study leaves. Having closely considered this possibility, I have decided I’m not going to do it. You see, my writing likes routine and familiarity, so I’m mainly going to stay in my natural habitat, where I will set out not to do what I don’t like about my normal day.

The first thing I’m not going to do in the morning is to check my email. In fact, I’m going to add a note on my permanent out-of-office message to inform the world that from now on I’m checking it only on Fridays. There. Pow! I expect many good things to come out of this very simple resolution, such as doing only what I want to do, which boils down to writing as many hours as I can in the morning.

The second thing I’m not going to do is to postpone interesting readings. Say I come across a really interesting article whilst browsing about something completely different? Well, hello article! I vow to read a good academic article every other day. This serendipitous reading will happen in the afternoons, after I’ve been for a run and had a shower. Pow wow!

Third,  I refuse to work after hours. Absolutely no work allowed after 17h00 and during weekends. So, hello brand new stand mixer, hello scrapbooking, hello leisure reading, hello TV and silly season four of whatever, hello bike, hello fun!

Now, where did I put my cape?