Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Upending representations of violence against women

By Mary Corrigall

Of all the rape scenes depicted in cinematic products it is the infamous one in the 1972 American film Deliverance that the real horror of the act is driven home, proposes author Margie Orford.
So close was the line between fiction and reality that the actor, Ned Beatty, who played the victim of the rape in the "squeal like a pig" scene, suffered so many taunts after the movie, that he eventually felt he had been victimised.
This prompted him to pen a 1989 editorial in The New York Times, where he recognised his "own anxious desire to distance himself from the victimisation of the role".
The gritty rendering of that rape scene is directly related to the gender of the victim, suggests Orford. Violence against women in the realm of fiction (and perhaps in how it is reported in the press) is portrayed in quite a different manner; it is "so built into the aesthetics of pleasure and pornography which has bled into everything", says Orford. Certainly, it is a feature of crime writing.
"The genre is a misogynist genre, based on killing the femme fatale. Women must be shown their place," observes the Cape Town-based writer over a cup of tea at 54 on Bath. The genteel setting seems at odds with the dark subject matter.
The misogynist aspect to crime writing presents somewhat of a dilemma for Orford, who by all accounts (including her own) is pegged not only as a crime writer, but one of the most celebrated, both here and abroad - she recently signed a five-book deal with a UK publisher.
Water Music (Jonathan Ball) is the fifth novel in the Clare Hart series, but she admits that she hasn't quite worked out how to resolve the ethical dilemma that working with the crime genre entails.
"I wanted to disrupt (the model) and avoid the torture of women as spectacle and entertainment; you have to find a way to disrupt that visual pleasure cycle but it is really difficult."
It's a familiar refrain; Lauren Beukes struggled with a similar trope while writing Shining Girls, a sci-fi serial killer thriller that pointedly deals with femicide. There has been much discussion in literary circles around the value of the crime genre as an alternative model for the political novel - in fact, it was a review of Orford's last novel, Gallows Hill, that sparked the discussion. However, it can't be a coincidence that it has proved a vehicle for female writers interested in upturning the gender politics attached to genre literature. Can this be done without perpetuating the model they reject?

For starters it is difficult writing a crime novel without a female victim, says Orford.
"Crime against women is just more interesting. When men are killed it is usually because the perpetrator is drunk or it's over a squabble about money. That isn't very interesting."
Paraphrasing something the artist Marlene Dumas observed about painters recoiling from representations of violence that are not acceptable, Orford implies that it isn't helpful to overlook violence against women either, particularly when it is so prevalent in this country.
"All you can do is to try and disrupt the place from where it is written."
During an interview with Beukes, she seemed more certain than Orford that she had avoided falling into the traps that the genre sets out. Largely, her confidence was rooted in the idea that if she devoted parts of the narrative to fleshing out the life-stories of the victims before they meet their untimely deaths, they would be read as "individuals" rather than just passive objects at the centre of some gruesome tableaux.
She also avoided blow-by-blow accounts of murder scenes so as to "disrupt the visual pleasure", as Orford phrases it.
Orford has also embraced this approach. In her first novel, Like Clock Work (2006), violent acts were described in more detail, compared to how she approached these scenes in the novels that followed - Blood Rose, Daddy's Girl and Gallows Hill.
"I tried to evoke the fear of it (the violence) and the consequences, but not the spectacle of it."
As a "Clare Hart virgin", as she puts it, I have to take her word for it. In Water Music, she has abided by this ethos; it is the traces of violence on the body of a young emaciated girl found abandoned in a valley and streaks of blood inside an unoccupied townhouse complex that set Hart on the trail of a new case. In other words, the text doesn't evoke a striking visual scene of violence to the female body.
Naturally, by casting a female character as the de facto detective, Hart is a former journalist who now heads up a unit to investigate crimes committed against children, Orford quite obviously attempts to rewrite women's roles in the genre.
However, she doesn't sidestep the complications that come with occupying a role usually assigned to men. As Orford observes, Clare is quite emotionally detached. It is partly a consequence of encountering scenes of violence and trauma, but it also indicative of how many women operate in male dominated spheres.
"Many women function in two ways; they cut off from their bodies and advance their intellect and sense of control? Clare is very closed off and sealed in. She struggles with intimacy. A lot of ambitious and intelligent women do create a barrier around themselves to survive in a hostile working world."
Presenting a challenge to this outlook and overstating her biological profile, is Clare's unplanned pregnancy in Water Music. Her ambivalence to her condition and what it spells is obviously manifested in withholding the news from the father-to-be, her long-term cop boyfriend, Ridwaan Faizel.
"Motherhood presents a problem for women," says Orford, who faced an unplanned pregnancy of her own in her early 20s.
"From the beginning I knew I would have it, but I couldn't deal with what it meant. I remember this chasm between my body and my mind and what was possible. I didn't know how to bridge it."
To some degree Water Music presents Clare's journey or struggle to bridge that chasm and arrive at a solution. The violent climax of the story allows her to connect with her body - as violence would - and surviving the encounter, appears to reconfigure her mindset, though Orford has plans to set her on a path of the brand of unconventional motherhood that she embraced in her own life.
"I left my children for a year."
Orford offers up an array of female characters and models of mothers in Water Music, which she describes as a book about motherhood. None of them seem ideal.
There is a young pregnant teenager with a gangster for a boyfriend and then there is the nagging question around the identity of the mother of the young girl found in the valley at the opening of the book: who would do this to a child, abandon her here in this state?
The answer is a surprising one. The crimes at the heart of the novel are also a consequence of an unfulfilled motherhood - or what that might mean for a male identity that relies on fatherhood.
The nurturing characteristic that is attached to motherhood and traditional notions of femininity too are explored through female characters who are complicit in the abuse of other women, demonstrating that it is not an essential part of them. In contrast, while Clare Hart parades this hard exterior, her drive to solve crimes, and interest, in those committed against children and women implies that this characteristic is a part of her make-up - it possibly fuels the conflict she feels when she learns she is pregnant.
"Yes, she is the ultimate mother figure in some ways - she is the Athena; looking after the helpless and the weak."
On the surface of it, Water Music appears to conform to the crime genre; the novel opens with a helpless female victim and, in piecing together the events that have placed her in this condition, Clare must confront a heartless, chaotic world, working towards restoring at least some balance to it. The twists and turns in the novel might hold your attention but it is more satisfying to discover this female-centred discourse - feminist seems to be such an outdated or loaded term - embedded within this traditionally macho-genre, which is typically given form or substance via articulating the motivations driving its male characters; the complex male detective who has unparallelled insight into the human condition, making him an able match for the equally complex male perpetrator.
At first it is disconcerting that Orford doesn't allow you to get under the skin of the main perpetrator in Water Music. Interestingly, this was the case too in Beukes's Shining Girls.
But in doing so, perhaps Orford is able to further cause disruption to the crime novel, by reducing his importance in it.
Orford offers a number of practical reasons for her treatment of the main perpetrator, one of which is that during her research into similar kinds of crimes, she found that they seldom offered any substantial motivations.
"In reality the motivation is so shallow and small. That is what perhaps makes it so shocking. We seem to think that suffering of a victim can be compensated by the background information about the killer."
Ultimately, too, it is not the mechanics of crime that interest Orford as much as the psychological pay-off it delivers. I suspect she|didn't come to crime writing in an effort to challenge gender norms - in fact, Water Music might be unique in the extent to which she delves into issues relating to gender - this aspect to crime genre possibly revealed itself as she became more confident in subverting it.
It was her keen interest as a journalist, in trying to understand the excessive nature of violence in South Africa when she returned to the country in the early noughties after living for some time in Namibia and taking up a Fulbright scholarship in the US, that unwittingly brought her into the bosom of the blossoming krimi-scene in South Africa.
"I turned to fiction because I couldn't express certain truths in the confines of journalism. The bald facts seemed to tell us so little about what had brought people to these dramatic moments."
It was the excess, the rage and fury, that was acted out and scripted on to the bodies of children and women that perplexed and fascinated Orford. Violence had seemed like a logical response to the repressive and dehumanising apartheid state, but to Orford it made no sense in the post-apartheid era.
The truths that Orford has disinterred through her novels are not obviously articulated as they would be in a journalistic product; they are subtly communicated. In Water Music, Orford's observation that "we live in a predatory society" dovetails with the motherhood theme in the sense that both are related to the natural instinct to protect the young and innocent. In this way, the crime phenomenon is one that is directly related to a kind of repressed - or absent - form of mothering, so to speak.
"There is a carelessness about the lives of others; we don't slow down at pedestrian crossings like people do in other countries."
In Orford's hands the crime genre isn't an alternative vehicle for a political novel, though the political landscape forms an essential backdrop. Rather, she employs it as a tool to disinter the psychosocial character of our society, which may be related to political events.
"Violence has severely affected the shape of our society. It has shaped us all in very profound ways and impacts on how we relate to each other."
Certainly, as a journalist she remains plugged into what is occurring on a political level. The Marikana tragedy had a huge impact on her writer's psyche, causing her to question how she uses the crime model and where characters are placed.
After the massacre at Marikana she was unsure whether Clare's partner, Ridwaan, could continue working for the police, even though moral ambiguity surrounded this institution from the start.
"There is no ways I can locate my fiction within the state anymore. When I started writing the books, in 2005, 2006, we were 10 years into democracy, not everything was working fine, but things were being fixed. Things have changed. The police massacre, Phiyega (the national police commissioner) is the most morally vacuous person I have encountered. I can't write from that place anymore."  - published in The Sunday Independent, January 12, 2013.

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