Grace Mutandwa: “Literature can shape our trend of thought and must be used to build not destroy women”

Interviewed and edited by Edinah Masanga

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Grace Mutandwa is a Zimbabwean journalist-turned-author. She is the past Lifestyle and Arts Editor of one of the biggest newspapers in Zimbabwe, The Financial Gazette, where she also ran a weekly social column, Chilling Out. After 17 years in the media, she joined the British Embassy as Press and Public Affairs Officer and later became Deputy Director Communications. In 2013, she was recognised by the United States of America Embassy and the Humanitarian Information Centre (HIFC) for exemplary conduct and dedication in the promotion of gender equity in the media. She has written many books including; Africans on Africa 2000 (Contributed a chapter on Zimbabwe), Sui Generis – Zimbabwe’s Genetic Inheritance 2002, Visions of Zimbabwe – Manchester Gallery exhibition on Zimbabwe 2004, Oh Daniel a novel on Gender and HIV/AIDS – (now on Amazon), The Power and The Glory – a media book that discusses the permanent realities of journalism -2011 published by MISA (now on Amazon)

Your latest work is fiction so let’s start with that, what role do you think literature plays in the portrayal of women?

Literature is a tool of power that if not wielded carefully can destroy women’s development and advancement.

Literature immortalizes words. It can be used to perpetuate misogyny, celebrate subjugation of women but channeled the right way literature can be the bedrock of women’s total emancipation and can be used to portray women positively as fair-minded, capable and ambitious.

The works of female writers like Maya Angelou and Jane Austen have had a great impact on many women in terms of how they also perceive themselves. I read the late Nigerian author, Buchi Emecheta, at a young age and found out how much pain women were subjected to, how much their sacrifices were never appreciated and how abuse and violence were tolerated as long as they were directed at a woman. I knew in Jane Austen’s era I would be a rebel and that I could never be the kind of wife Buchi tried to be before she eventually walked away. Our literature must build and not destroy women. Strong, intelligent and witty female characters will send a positive message to our children. Literature is a part of our lives that can shape our trend of thought and female writers should tailor their writing to address issues of women’s relevance in a world where women are mostly portrayed as bedroom playmates, housekeepers or mere childminders.

The journalist in me wants to know from you as a seasoned journalist, what role do you think media content (news, images, adverts) has also played in informing the conversation on women or female hood? Stereotypes and all?

Media content, advertisements, and images are important messaging tools but journalists are not in control of how they are deployed. They help formulate and perpetuate varied sentiment. Advertising can reinforce traditional roles that subjugate women.

Images that commercialise the woman’s body do not impart the right message to our boy children who might grow up believing that women’s bodies are there purely for the amusement of men.

There are also images of women in roles that do not show them as ambitious and competitive but merely as caregivers or objects of commercial value. We have many female top bankers and women who run successful companies but they are rarely featured. Some of our news also take a negative narrative that only seeks comment from men even on issues that directly affect women. News spin almost always has male DNA written all over it. Even where journalists may want to proffer news and images that show women in a positive light and as strong and capable the journalists do not have the final say on what gets published. The media pushes copy and images that sell. Advertising too is geared towards bringing in more money. Both journalists and editors work within the parameters prescribed by their employers who own the media outlets. There are not many organisations that cover purely women’s issues or insist on advertising and images that portray women in good light. I have found release and freedom in blogging because I make my own rules and write about matters I feel strongly about. The most a newspaper, online media or electronic media can get to featuring women-friendly news or images is when an agency such as UNIFEM pays for space. Images, advertising, and news slant carry the power to perpetuate stereotypes of women as helpless dependents, or as only good at peasant farming, as domestic workers, sex workers or as desperate women hungry for male attention.

I like that you say journalists are not in control – it’s the owners who call the shots. However, we cannot absolve journalists completely and that brings me to my own time in the newsroom. It was hard, I had to deal with sexism inside the newsroom and sexual harassment in the field. What can you say to that, do you relate to experiences like these?

I was the only woman in the newsroom when I started. Sexual harassment existed and it still does to this day. I learned to present a tough exterior and that carried me through different newsrooms. I was in there to work and make a name for myself and I made a decision to focus on that and also ensured that whatever was thrown at me would be thrown right back. I relate in my book The Power and The Glory how I almost did not take up my first job offer because of sexual advances made by a senior member of staff. I got off to a rocky start but it determined how I would handle any such advances if they were to occur in the future. When the book was published a former editor attacked me for mentioning that incident. To me this was not an insignificant issue, it was big in fact so big that I almost didn’t take up the job. Sexual harassment is dehumanising and it is worse when you report it and you are made to feel like you invited it

What I also found disheartening as a young journalist was the way a case of sexual harassment of a colleague was handled. She was ridiculed and had no support from her female colleagues in the newsroom. When it comes to issues of sexual harassment and misogyny some newsrooms in Zimbabwe are still very much a jungle. For some men in the newsroom, this is their hunting ground and they have a sense of entitlement when it comes to asking female colleagues for sexual favours. That experience taught me to erect walls around me. I stood up to it but some female journalists could not and ended up leaving the media.

Let’s turn to women’s advancement. I think the phrase glass ceiling has become really cliché, but it’s real isn’t it, why are we still talking about glass ceilings in 2017, everything else seems to be evolving except archaic beliefs about women’s bodies and their capabilities. What do we need to do more as women to advance our own cause?

We are still talking about glass ceilings and if all things were equal we really shouldn’t. Sometimes we are trapped by that phrase because we fail to see the power we wield as women – the immense power we have to step on that ladder and keep going no matter how harsh the climate. I have always believed that glass ceilings were invented by people who were determined to control how far women could go and I have resisted nurturing the idea of a glass ceiling. It is a negative space that if you are not determined can stop you from defining your own destiny. This is not to say that I am unaware of how some work environments can stifle and kill the spirit of a woman whose only desire is to reach for the stars. What I would hate is for any woman to remain locked up in stasis because of the glass ceiling phenomenon. Take control, shatter the glass and kick away whatever obstacles are thrown in your way. You will be called aggressive or abrasive in the process but this is only because there are still people who believe only men deserve to be ambitious. I am a mother of a daughter whom I raised to never say “no” to herself and to never let the storm to disillusion her or stop her from achieving her heart’s desires. The road is long and tortuous and only those willing to take the pain with the glory will survive.

Our daughters whom we should inspire and spur on should be aware of the realities of the invisible barriers in some work places but they should seek never to lean on glass ceilings as an excuse not to scale the barriers no matter how strong.

I learned from a very young age to battle it out, take every fall as a win and an opportunity to learn and get right back into the thick of things. I have seen women who are resilient in saving troubled marriages but do not put the same energy into achieving personal goals. It is important to stay focused and give your best at everything you set out to do. Use your skills, education and God-given talent to re-route yourself towards your desired destination because sometimes you might need to switch roads. We need to start seeing ourselves as a vital cog in the value chain of everything in the workplace, in development, in economics or in politics. Every woman should learn to set achievable goals, work hard, face challenges head on. Most women who have tasted the joys and pride of success and power have known the brutality of life, faced spirit crushing obstacles and have been pummelled by life but they chose to die on their feet and eventually made it. People might still be talking of glass ceilings in 2017 but I am encouraged by the young women around me who are persistently giving the glass ceiling “the middle finger”. Until we see our worth as women no one else will see or acknowledge it.

Tell me about your book let’s go back to your latest book. How do you find the transition from news (facts, objectivity bla bla) to fiction (the flexibility of using your imagination)?

I read mostly fiction from a very young age and transitioned to non-fiction when I became an adolescent. Facts and objectivity will always be an intrinsic part of who I am but I also possess a vivid sense of imagination. I inherited the power of story-telling from my paternal grandmother. I have always been a flexible writer which is why I could swing from politics to the arts. I have great respect for the sanctity of facts because they are sacred but I also greatly value my creative side. When I go into a place I see more than other people see, even a salt shaker can trigger something funny that I can re-tell. I listen to what people say as well as what remains unsaid and that helps when I am writing fiction. My book, Oh Daniel, is an Epistolary about poisoned love, making or failure to make choices because sometimes as women we cede our decision-making powers to the spouse, the extended family, in-laws or the community. Even when I employ my powers of imagination I find that fiction always mimics real life. Every day I learn from my environment and the people around me and sometimes that turns into a story or poetry. There are women out there in the mould of my protagonist Taurai – women who are beautiful souls, good mothers, decent wives, Christians, brilliant daughters-in-law but they are in tragic marital unions. Oh Daniel is sentimental and written in simple English.

It is a heartrending insight into a woman’s cathartic struggle in a maze of social constrictions and a tribute to the strength of the human spirit. It is a book many women can relate to in so many ways.

Most of my published work is non-fiction. My memoirs The Power and the Glory was first published by MISA-Zimbabwe. Both books are now on Amazon. The Power and the Glory discusses the permanent realities of journalism in a world dominated by men. I share not just my personal experiences but make a historical study of Zimbabwe.

About mentoring other women, do you feel we can create strong women out of each other by holding hands or does each woman need to find herself on her own?

When I started out as a young journalist all I wanted was to be the best at what I did. I was lucky to have women like the late journalist Simomo Mubi whom I could bounce off ideas and Sekai Holland who never stopped pushing me. I started mentoring young female journalists through a United States Embassy programme but now continue to do so on a personal level. No matter how busy I am, I always have time for the young women I mentor. They call or write to me to bounce off story ideas, personal development goals or discuss possible career changes. Mentoring is an important part of my life because I strongly believe in giving back as well as in just the idea of walking with someone on their developmental journey. We need to develop the skill to pull others up, acknowledge each other’s strengths and believe more in each other as women. We need more female mentors.

Any advice for women?

We are not there yet. But while we are fighting for gender parity in the media it is important that we ceaselessly continue to develop ourselves. I always encourage the young women I mentor to apply for scholarships on offer and to take advantage of every opportunity to take that leap of faith and rest in the comfort of knowing that whatever they set their minds on whatever the outcome they will always be winners because they dared to take a chance. The older you grow the fewer scholarship opportunities are available for most African women.

My hope is that one day all women who want to study can do so even if they have no political or civil society connections and that it becomes easier for all women irrespective of age to get educational funding.

What else would you wish us to know about you?

I trained as a print journalist and worked for various local, regional and international media organisations. I am a versatile writer who can effortlessly move from writing politics to reviewing food or erotica.  If my nose is not buried in a book I am writing poetry and listening to music. I am a feminist and defined not by a man but what I do and who I am in my own right. I currently work as a freelance media consultant and I am working on my second novel as well as a non-fiction book.

Thank you.

#AllWomenAreRoleModels