My name is Vuyo. Just Vuyo to most people. In full, it’s Vuyolwethu. On a daily basis, I interact with strangers via email, and I get mistaken for a man. Growing up, people told me that “Vuyo” is a boy’s name, even Vuyolwethu. Furthermore, my name is not preceded by No-, or followed by –kazi which informs people that you are a female, not a male. Why this matters? I don’t know. I used to reply to messages mistaking me for a man, correcting the misconception and then I started signing off emails with Miss in brackets next to my name. Now, all I need to do is add a sexy picture.
I wonder if I am taken less seriously on the other end of an email with a potential client, publisher or funder who has just found out that I am a woman and not a man. In recent years, gender marking in the workplace has become a topic of discussion and this had me thinking about terms that crop up in creative circles like poetess, or femcee (female emcee), even actress… why should our gender be at the forefront of our work? Why are we constantly reacting and responding to male domination, even in our titles and explaining that we are women by stating that we are a “Miss”.
For a long time, I felt pessimistic about being a female writer and having to foreground the fact that I’m Ms. Vuyo. After all, this is not the 1800s where women writers were subject to scrutiny and double standards upon site of their names.
English Writer, Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans (1819-80) had to publish her first fiction under the male pseudonym George Eliot, and she managed to publish many more after that using this name that could be associated with middle-aged white man.
While Mary Anne Evans chose to portray herself as a man, South African author, Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), would reject gender roles by the age of 15; at the dawn of the 20th century she was already a feminist, and political and social critic of the time. “The manuscript for The Story of An African Farm was accepted by the English publishers, Chapman and Hall, in 1882 and was published under a pseudonym the following year.” According to an article in SA History, “The chosen pseudonym, ‘Ralph Irons,’ was a deliberate move because of the prejudice that women writers faced at the time. The book’s depiction of life in South Africa won it international acclaim as there had been no works like it previously.”
Fast forward to 2006, where women can claim their roles as successful writers, Zukiswa Wanner, a journalist and novelist who also identifies as a feminist, published The Madams which was shortlisted for the Sello K. Duiker Award in 2007. Without having to disguise herself as a man, or confine herself to a gender role, she has received critical acclaim for her work and this gives me hope that in Africa, we have always been able to look beyond gender roles in literature. As a feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tackles experiences and representations of women and she has also gained critical acclaim and was even successfully inducted into the BeyHive after Beyonce featured in hit single, Flawless.
Gender doesn’t define our abilities as writers and this continent is teeming with writers who write important stories. We need to be defined by our abilities, not our gender. We need to speak about writers and authors of all gender – with equal measure. We do not need to qualify the gender of an author, writer or an artist just because they are women. We have to appreciate or criticise them on the merit of their work, not on the basis of their gender. That is so 1800. Stop it!