Friday, 24 August 2007

Women, socialism and language

“ Taking part is not enough, you have to express your opinion.”

I found this quote on a card from Puntos de Encuentros
the leading women’s advocacy organisation in Nicaragua. What they say is true, but I know it’s not easy because it took me a long time to find my own voice as a writer. And like many other women I have found blogging a creative and empowering means of expressing my opinions and at the same time helping to raise other women’s voices.

I blogged live from the World Social Forum in Nairobi in January, and from the G8 alternative summit in Rostock in June. Now I’m grounded for a while in north Wales experiencing withdrawal symptoms. But fortunately the world keeps on spinning and the social movement keeps on moving. So in August musicians and political activists from the Americas and Europe descended on the tiny Welsh town of Machynlleth, home to the Centre for Alternative Technology for a Latino-Welsh extravaganza. They came to celebrate the living inspiration of the Chilean musician Victor Jara and discuss common environmental concerns – thus proving yet again that the sweet old-fashioned dream of socialism succeeds in eluding eradication and can be found bringing people together happily in what may seem the most unlikely of locations.

In fact, for me, the event is not surprising because there is a tradition of connection between Wales and Latin America which goes back to the first Welsh settlers to Patagonia in Argentina in 1865. More recently, solidarity groups in Wales have regularly exchanged visitors with Nicaragua and organised bilateral conferences on Cuba . This is the second Victor Jara festival in Machynlleth, and now links are being developed with Venezuela, since Cesar Aponte from the ministry for the environment was at the festival to talk about oil, equity and biosphere.

The reason for today’s connections, of course, is the common experience of oppression: Wales by the English kings, landlords, law, church and language; Latin American countries by dictators at home supported by successive greedy US regimes equally violating human rights including the right of free expression. The connection means that both Welsh civil society and politicians are active in LA solidarity: Jane Davidson, minister for education in the Wales Assembly, has visited Cuba on official business and Eluned Morgan (now Labour MEP) worked on the Nicaraguan coffee harvest. LA links are particularly strong among members of the Welsh Language Society : poets, musicians, writers like Angharad Tomos or educationalists like Branwen Niclas who have in their time been held in English prisons over Welsh language rights.

Mother tongue

Language was one of several themes of commonality in a cross-cultural initiative between women in Wales and women in Nicaragua last century (1995-6). This was a particular link with the multilingual Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, where, as in Wales, it is women who have been instrumental in maintaining indigenous language in the face of oppression by conquistadores, government, society or husbands. They have kept the mother tongue alive at home, in community life (especially Sunday school) in bringing up their own children, through stories, oral history, shared childcare and the development of a bilingual education programme.

At the conference in Bangor we discussed the paradox that while women are keepers of the language we are not always encouraged to use it ourselves in public. For this reason some researchers suggest that women’s speech is associated with powerlessness and can be characterised by over-politeness, hedging and hyper-correct grammar. Jennifer Coates has argued that these features do not actually correlate with the sex of the speaker but with social status, linked to previous experience and confidence in the context. “Powerless language has been confused with women’s language because in societies like ours women are usually less powerful than men.”

In mixed communication men are observed to interrupt three times as often as women, thus violating the rules of turn-taking. Conversely, women tend to act as facilitators, doing more of the interactive work and respecting others’ turns. Coates points out that “both men and women are disadvantaged by the existence of these two different models of conversation: women because their style leads to their being dominated (by men) in mixed groups and men because they lack competence in co-operative interaction.”

Angelica Brown, then councillor for the southern Atlantic coast region of Nicaragua highlighted: “Problems arise when it is a question of women taking on a public role because we underestimate our abilities of management and communication. For women in bilingual communities there is the additional worry of having to speak in public in your second or even third language.”

I have to keep on fighting

“Pay attention to the way you construct the present. It should look like the future that you dream of” (Alice Walker) is the message on another card from Puntos de Encuentro. Although the socialist experiment hasn’t always been so good for women, it has only been made possible by their active participation. While the reality may not live up to the dream, socialism in different Latin American contexts has opened up a space where women can raise their voice, take part in decision-making and are able to move, influence or inspire others. And, as Amanda Hopkinson says, ‘If you want to make a protest in Central America, you write a poem.’ The following two poems are not new but their writers’ dreams live on.

Firstly, the Creole painter Joan Beer, who died in 1984 not long after writing Love Poem, talks about the reality of personal relationships at a time when the Sandinistas (named after the anti-US-imperialism fighter, Sandino) were working for a greater love - for the sunrise, as the liberation of Nicaragua was called. The poignancy of ‘trying to keep back the night from falling’ is even greater in retrospect, given the World Bank’s dismantling of developments in health, education and equality during the 1990s.

Oscar, yuh surprise me
assin for a love poem

Ah sing a song a love fa meh contry
small contry, big lite
Hope for de po’, big headache fa de rich
Mo’ po’ dan rich in de worl
mo’ people love fah meh contry

Fa meh contry name Nicaragua
Fa meh people ah love dem all
Black, Miskito, Sumo, Rama, Mestizo
So yuh see fa me, love poem complete
‘cause ah love you too.

Dat no mek me erase de moon
an de star fran de firmament.

Only somehow wen ah rememba
how you bussin yo ass
To defend dis sunrise, an keep back
de night fran falling
Ah know dat tomara we will have time
fa walk under de moon an stars
Dignify an free, sovereign
children a Sandino.

In the conclusion of the second poem, the recently deceased Claribel Alegria expresses her choice more starkly:

Because I want peace and not war
I want to keep on fighting.
Because there are liberated territories
Where people learn to read
And the sick are cured
And the fruits of the earth belong to all,
I have to keep on fighting.

Creole is one of the languages used in Bluefields on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. As a community they were socialised to believe that Creole is just ‘bad’ English, not a real language, especially by the powerful Moravian church and its schools. Comments from afro-caribbean activists:

“The church teaches us women to be humble – that is, stupid!” Marjorie McKenzie.

‘When my husband is at home, we all speak Spanish. When he’s away, we speak bad Creole.’ Shorlaine Howard.

Further links

OpenDreams live on blog

El sueno existe

History is a weapon, Joan Jara (downloadable)

Lovers and Comrades, Women’s resistance poetry, edited by Amanda Hopkinson, The Women’s Press, 1989
Welsh Writing 1960-1985, Ned Thomas, 1996

We share the same struggle, edited by Patricia Daniel, 1996 (downloadable)

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