Monday, March 20, 2017

Jane Eaton Hamilton on Ntozake Shange

Booth Theatre. A January 1977 matinee when I was attending plays like a fiend because I was leaving NY, moving myself out to San Francisco. I saw all the shows, getting tickets in the way New Yorkers got tickets, by osmosis. My dance teacher, who was appearing in Pippin, knew this guy, Kevin, who’d broken up with his boyfriend, Sam, and had a singleton. You want it, Tuesday matinee? Or my prof—the one I’d always talked to about the white rats we lured through mazes, the rats with the coloured marker on their tails so we could tell them apart—she had a ticket because a friend of hers was an understudy. If all my connections failed, I’d go down to the half-price ticket booth in Times Square—when Times Square was the Times Square from Taxi Driver—right before the show.

I could smell pretzels on me that day, still had the paper from one stuffed in my jeans pocket, was licking salt and grease off my fingers. I had a blister on the back of my right foot because I’d hoofed from the upper west side to 45th Street instead of grabbing the train. I could still feel the vibration of the wolf whistles and the leering honeys and baby girls. What men said clung to my skin, a hundred men kissing their fingertips, rubbing their crotches, damn, girl, you’re so hot, the way the occasional one slunk along behind me like I just had to be leading him to my room. Smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, they said. You want your face to freeze like that? The relief of the theatre, the safety, the anonymity, the darkness. I shrugged out of my coat, my mittens, my hat. But I could smell my own sweat, my period, and also what I was doing in order that men would leave me alone: sanitizing with FDS—Feminine Deodorant Spray, spraying it in the general vicinity of my twat, naked, and a second time outside my clothes for good measure.
You know how few times in life there’s a before and an after? That day was one of mine.

The curtain went up on Ntozake Shange’s ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide but the rainbow was enuf.’

On stage inside the most minimal set were women in tights and leotards, each character only identified by colour, such as “lady in red” or “lady in yellow.” Red orange yellow green blue purple brown. The characters wove in and out of each other’s poems and stories, swaying or dancing on the stage as each stepped forward to recite one of Shange’s choreopoems. It was simple—I had never seen such a simple set before—but it was electrifying.

These were not easy poems. These were poetries forged out of the sizzling, eclipsing pains of love and music, battering and racism, rape and motherhood and abortion. Some of these things had nothing to do with my life, and some of them had everything to do with things that had happened to me. But that was irrelevant. But what happened on that stage proclaimed that the personal was political. Ntozake’s poems coiled in me like veins, leading  me to the social justice issues I’d be fighting the rest of my life.

When I walked into the Booth Theatre, I was one hundred and six pounds and I joked I had thunder thighs. I thought that needing to spray FDS was a condition of my womanhood, and my only hope that I wouldn’t be found offensive, because I believed I was essentially wrong and ugly in a way that could never, never, never be fixed, no matter my mascara or my ironed shirts, no matter how carefully I shaved my legs. Just by who I was, I called down all the violence the world has for a woman. Yes, I had absorbed all the lessons from a lifetime of lessons in how to behave, how to carve off bits of myself so I could become agreeable and so stupid that I wouldn’t notice. I did not question insults and assaults, the anti-women messages of ads and the billboards, the messages that told me I was less worthy than a man, that I was not even worthy of the space that I took up, that I took it up only by the dint of a man’s assent. Go smaller, said life. No. Smaller, said life.

Be less and less. And still less.

Here’s the remarkable thing about Ntozake Shange’s writing. It gave me back my brain, the brain that had been turned out as a Stepford Wife, mashed into a pea-size pellet that could only receive instructions and obey them.

She gave me feminism. She gave me resistance.

Shange, a black feminist, won an Obie for “for colored girls.” She has continued writing and publishing even as illness claimed much of her energy. “for colored girls” was made into a movie and remounted many times.

I lived in NY in the 70s. I went to school in the Village. I walked out of “for colored girls…” a thinker and a writer, passionately engaged with the particular world that is the world for women, and I never looked back. I threw out my NY clothes. I stopped spraying myself with anti-stink products. I stopped shaving my legs and armpits. I didn’t move to San Francisco to reunite with a man I didn’t want to be with. I was a lesbian. I was a woman roaring with power and words, and now I knew it.

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of 9 books of cnf, fiction and poetry, including the 2016 novel WEEKEND. The Vancouver Sun called WEEKEND a “tour de force. Remarkable.” Publishers Weekly called it “propulsive.”

Jane’s books have been shortlisted for the MIND Book Award, the BC Book Prize, the VanCity Award, the Pat Lowther Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award. Her memoir was one of the UK Guardian’s Best Books of the Year and a Sunday Times bestseller. She is the two-time winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award for fiction (2003/2014). She’s had a notable in BASS and BAE (2016) and has appeared in The Journey Prize, Best Canadian Short Stories and Best Canadian Poetry. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review and was published this week at the NY Times. She has been the recipient of numerous Canada Council grants.

Jane edits for Many Gendered Mothers and is a frequent jury member for literature awards. She is working on her second novel SNOW with the help of BC Arts Council and Canada Council grants.

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