Books

‘New Daughters of Africa’ Spotlight: Diana Ferrus

Throughout Black History Month and beyond, I’ll be posting about the contributors to the New Daughters of Africa anthology, edited by Margaret Busby. This amazing book was released earlier this year, and is a collection of over 200 female authors all over the world the from the African diaspora, the majority of whom I’ve never heard of. As you can imagine, at over 800 pages long, this is a massive text, and not one you can approach traditionally! So, I thought this would be a cool way to make myself read it, and also explore some of authors who contributed to it.

I don’t really have a set system of how I’m going to approach it yet…  I think I’ll try and mix it up in terms of the ages, nationalities, styles, etc. of authors included – this week I just wanted to read some poetry, so I opened it up on a random page and stopped when I found one! But, we’ll see how things progress.

A bit about the book

New Daughters of Africa was released in 2019, and follows the first anthology, Daughters of Africa, which was published in 1992 (and sadly isn’t in print anymore!), featuring completely new writers. There’s all sorts of literature in here, from poetry, to letters, to short stories and excerpts from essays and speeches. The themes discussed vary endlessly – as Busby relays herself in the introduction – covering:

“custom, tradition, friendships, mentor/mentee relationships, romance, sister-hood, inspiration, encouragement, sexuality, intersectional feminism, the politics of gender, race and identity – within these pages is an extensive spectrum of possibilities”

-page xxi

The anthology is organised chronologically. First, there is a collection of works written before the 1900s. From there, they’re arranged by order of the authors’ decade of birth.

Diana Ferrus, Sarah Baartman and Home

As is widely documented, Sarah (or Sara, or Saartjie) Baartman was a Khoikhoi South African woman, who was orphaned and enslaved in her late teens, during the Dutch colonial expansion. She was infamously coerced into travelling to Europe and was featured in several freak shows in London and Paris during her young adulthood, until her death at age 26. These shows were wildly popular during the 1800s, in which spectators would ogle at people with physical rarities, which at the time included the adornments and phenotypes found in those from different ethnic groups.  Given the stage name ‘Hottentot Venus’, her ‘attraction’ was her body, specifically a large, protruding bum. After her death, her dissected remains  – including her genitalia – were retained by a French scientist and displayed in the Musée de l’Homme until the 1970s. They weren’t returned to South Africa until 2002. There are so many intersections at the heart of this story – race, imperialism, colonialism, gender, etc.

Diana Ferrus is a South African poet, also of Khoikhoi descent. She was born in the 1950s – to put that into some context, this means she was in her 40s when apartheid ended. If you have the anthology, you’ll find her on page 151. Her poem, I’ve come to take you home, appears to be her best known work – according to her NDOA biography, it was instrumental in the return of Baartman’s remains.  

Ferrus radiates warmth in her poem, speaking directly to Baartman, like a long lost friend or sister, reassuring her with the titular refrain, ‘I have come to take you home’. The main motif is this idea of home being sanctuary. A glowing portrait is painted of their home, as a place of comfort and healing; the hills become a bed to lie on, and medicinal herbs line her blankets. Its depiction conjures up fairy-tale scenes – ‘the water in the stream chuckles sing-songs as it hobbles along over little stones’ – beautiful, right?

I’m sure this anthology contains plenty of discussions around ‘home’, relating to women in the diaspora, and how complex that can be. It’s refreshing that here, Ferrus solidly identifies home as a place of protection, familiarity and comfort. In sharp contrast, you can almost hear the disgust in her words as she promises to ‘wrench’ Baartman away from ‘the poking eyes of the man-made monster’. Unlike her imperialist oppressors, part of the system that ‘dissects’ her body, her homeland promises to restore her.

The idea of reclaiming rings through the poem – Ferrus clearly wants to reclaim not only  Baartman’s body, but her legacy and identity from the white, European, male, imperialist gaze which dominated her brief adult life. She details how she will ‘feast’ her ‘eyes on the beauty of you’ – importantly framing her as beautiful, when she was long characterised as a primitive spectacle, used for novelty and shock value. Ferrus is lovingly humanising a figure who was relentlessly fetishized, and treated like a sexual object. It’s also interesting that these women stand on either side of South Africa’s colonial history –  the poem was written in 1998, four years after the official end of apartheid, with a very full scope of the horrors that plagued their homeland. In a way, Baartman can be seen here as a symbol of South Africa itself, having been acquired and used, but eventually retrieved.

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