Thursday 26 April 2012

The Light Bulb Moment: My chapter

The book launch of the Light Bulb Moment is only two weeks away (where has this year gone?) and so as a little taster I'm going to share with you my chapter from the anthology. 

The event features contributors to the book reading their chapters, followed by a panel discussion on the future of feminism, featuring Natasha Walter, Zohra Moosa, Chitra Nagarajan, Mara Clarke and Anna van Heesvijk. 

You can buy tickets here:

Anyway, here's the chapter:

Finding my sisters
Siân Norris

Considering it was my idea to put together this anthology telling the moment we became feminists, I have found it extremely difficult to discover and tell my own. Was it, as I often joke, the influence of watching Maid Marian and Her Merry Men on TV as a child, with its outspoken female lead who ruled the roost of men? Was it when I was 16, and my friend Nadia lent me The Whole Woman, a book I devoured and then parroted for years, until as I got older I began to question some of the things in my feminist bible (notably the transphobia and her comments on female genital mutilation). Was it my feminist teachers at school and university who encouraged me to write essays on Djuna Barnes, Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys whilst everyone else was doing Joyce and Milton. Was it my early activism in the anti-homophobia movement and the influence of having two mums, a dad and a step-mum?

It was, of course, all these things. As well as organising Ladyfest Bristol 2007, writing a feminist zine and blog and ultimately co-ordinating a feminist network of a few hundred women and men.

But the more I thought about it, the more I put my actual, lived and activist feminism down to a period in my life of depression; and the decision I took to stop it, to move forward and to be happy. And I think a big part of this for me was in learning about and discovering sisterhood.

In the anthology that inspired this book, Click, one of the writers says that feminism was her consolation prize for surviving an eating disorder. I feel the same way, except that my form of self destructive behaviour wasn’t around food, but self harm. Self harm is lonely. It is about struggling to deal with emotional pain, so turning that pain on to yourself to try and control it with a physical pain. I cut my arms and legs with shaving razors from the ages of 16 to 20, with a few gaps in between. I don’t know now if I could really articulate what the emotional pain was, if I even understand now what it was. But I know that it was real and it was big, even though now I can’t really name it. And the only way to make it manageable, to make it small, was to turn it into a physical pain.

During one of these bouts of depression I wrote the following story. I can still remember the anguish and the anger that fled out of my pen and into the A5 ringbound notebook on my lap, in that freezing cold room I lived in in Dalston (this was 2005 guys, before the hipsters moved in). I wrote it after having been sexually assaulted on a bus by a man who leaned over and grabbed me and tried to kiss me: 

“The bus is making me feel sick. Everyone is playing a game of musical chairs that they haven’t told me about. Every time it jolts to a stop, everyone seems to get up to swap seats, and I’m just left sitting here. The man behind me is talking about the weather.
This is the most awful bus journey. It is worse than the one with the woman talking to me about her boyfriend who used to beat her up, or the one where the man tried to kiss me and I had to push him away hard.
It jolts again to a stop and it is my turn to leave the game. I walk fast down the street, it’s dark, and each time my foot hits the pavement I jump that it is someone else’s. My whole life I have been afraid of the no one behind me on the street.
My key sticks in the lock, but I battle it open. The living room is crowded with lived in mess. There’s drinking, but I go to bed instead.

My body slides down, sinking into the valleyed mattress. The covers are heavy, but I’m not warm. I daydream about a mattress that I don’t sink into. That doesn’t collapse along with me. My room isn’t dark, but it’s peaceful. The water pipes gurgling remind me of my childhood. Being afraid of the witch that lived in the boiler cupboard.
Next door, I can hear my housemate having sex. She has thoughtfully turned the music up, but all it does is emphasise the fact that there is another noise to cover.
The mattress is swallowing me. My back is melting into it in a sticky mess and I can’t unglue myself. My legs have stopped working. I grab the top of my left thigh to see if it is still there. I think maybe it is. I imagine my hand is yours. Whichever one of you.
My fingernails are dirty.
It’s disgusting. I know I should clean them, but you can pretend they’re not.

Sometimes, when it starts to go this way, when it gets to feeling that my bones collapse; I can feel every filament in my body. I can feel my brain moving against my skull, it is creaking, and when I move my eyes, I can sense the scraping of them against the sockets. I feel it in my neck. I can see every little pore in my lungs open up. I can track the blood rushing to all the drought-ridden places in my body, I can hear it squealing. I can feel the cells’ pain when they split and break and crack into two parts. I can feel a tension under my breastplate every time my heart remembers to try and convulse.
It makes me wonder what my body looks like to an outsider. How it feels to the hands that grab it and to the tongues that smear it. What it is in my body that inspires such strength in another, that triggers that burst of love and steals that loss of control, and what it is in my body that defies all that, so the hands scuttle away like little crabs.
Slut body.
Sick body.
My body.
It belongs to all of you.

It isn’t that no one cares. It is that no one cares enough. And the hands that grab and touch, and the lips that grab and touch, push me away and I fall back on the mattress that swallows me up. Gulp.
Lying in bed, my body shrinks to the size of a pin. My legs retract and my head and my arms are pulled in and I lie there, a pin. I’ll prick your prick your prick pricks me.
But it’s changing. Now my body crumples in on itself, and I crinkle and crack and all that’s left is a piece of dirty newspaper, with two hands kneading it, and I can see my mouth in its folds. Or is it more than two?
The hands pull the paper flat, and suddenly I’m white and clean and smooth and plain. I lie there still and blank, and you can write me, as you will.

You draw me a face of the wide eyes of your ex, while You and You put on the big lips of the girl you’re in love with, and of course there’s You who paints on the cute smiling cheeks of the girl that You are in love with still, whilst You let me keep my nose, to remind you that it is me you’re using, but You lengthen my hair and give it a new shade to suit a generic fantasy. Then I’m ready for all of you. And I lie here for you all, I’m hidden, I’m curled under my flat stomach and I love you all and I love you all and I think yes this is it this is it this time surely one of you will stay. But then you collapse on my breasts and then you rumple my hair fondly and then you stand up. My eyes behind her wide eyes are blinded. You lift the white sheet with its attractive additions and go back to who they really belonged to all along. You leave me my nose and my flat stomach.

Anytime you want me to, I can make you happy.
There’s nothing I won’t do, just to make you happy.
And you all know it.
And you all know it.

So you can leave me with the safe knowledge that I won’t.
So you can go back to the real wide eyes and the real big lips and the real cute cheeks and the original better, bigger, brighter mix of parts, and know that you can always come back. Lay a clean sheet over the crushed blood and bone on my dark dark dirty sheets and re-draw me to make you happy.

It’s good to be here.
It’s some kind of bliss.

But you know and I know that my bed isn’t enough. You are all frightened to admit it, but I know that you all know. So although I lie here in wait, it is no surprise to me when you don’t come back.
I lie here in wait for the next time you need attention and flattery.
And for you, I lie in wait for the next time you argue with her and need some comfort.
Whilst you know I lie in wait for you for when you want to feel good about yourself and your power over me.

The longer I wait, the more changes you all need to make to the paper. Soon you must close your eyes when you come; to make sure you don’t catch sight of my real face behind what you paint over it and I fake it oh and I fake it ah and I fake it don’t stop and I fake it that’s right and I fake it harder and I fake it faster and I fake it yes!

Anytime you want me to, I can make you happy.
There’s nothing I won’t do, just to make you happy.”

I decided to use this piece of writing to tell my story because writing it was my light bulb moment. I think that despite having always called myself a feminist, despite reading Greer and writing academic essays on gender and mouthing off about all sorts of feminist subjects; despite all of this I hadn’t been acting like a feminist. I had been careless with myself and I had been careless of other women. I had let patriarchy in through the cracks of my book-ish armour and not only had the result left me unhappy and struggling; it had also left me silent on the subjects of how men were treating the women around me, as well as how they were treating me.

Years later, when I thought about this period of my life, I remembered a man I had slept with laughing about how he had pulled this woman, had sex with her and then left because he realised how ‘ugly’ she was. At the time I remember thinking this was awful, but not challenging it.

After I wrote that story, I realised that I couldn’t call myself a feminist if I continued to refuse to treat myself with respect and failed to treat other women with respect. So, a few months later, I stopped self harming. I stopped sleeping with people that I didn’t want to sleep with. I stopped reading celeb magazines and joining in their mocking of other women’s bodies. I stopped judging what other women were wearing, or saying or doing. I started to treat the women around me as sisters. I realised that I wasn’t going to like every woman I met, but that wasn’t what sisterhood meant. Sisterhood, in a feminist sense, meant seeing a commonality with women, and a commonality in the way patriarchy harms us.

This didn’t happen over night of course. It was a process of years more consciousness-raising. But it started then.
Some say that the concept of sisterhood is an outdated one. But I disagree. Sisterhood was my saviour. Now, many years later, I am surrounded by sisters in the feminist movement. Of course I owe my change in confidence and happiness to lots of other things too, including counselling, friends, family, boyfriend. But my feminism, my strength in my sense of sisterhood and community – that’s what started the change. I saw that I had to wake up to how women were being treated, and how I was complicit in patriarchy’s project. And that feminism and sisterhood could make my world a better place. So, slowly, I started working within this feminist sisterhood to ensure that the pressures of patriarchy that hurt me would not be around to hurt my one-day daughters.

Now that I am a fully-fledged feminist activist, sisterhood is even more important to me. As I learn more about global inequality and how patriarchy impacts on women and men in so many destructive ways, the need to reach out to women across the world has become vital. The fight against patriarchy isn’t just about fighting the ways in which it hurt me. Being part of this global community, this global network, gives me the strength and enthusiasm to keep going, to keep fighting. Together, a better world is possible.

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