Monday, October 10, 2011

Interview on LitNet

Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards: Janet van Eeden is the Columnist winner for 2011 (Northern/Southern region) by Naomi Meyer on 2011-10-05

Favourite quotes
“The only people who succeed are those who don’t give up.” No idea who said it, but it keeps me going through hundreds of rejections a year.

My own personal favourite and the inspiration for my play The Savage Sisters, from Jane Austen’s Persuasion: Anne Elliot defends Captain Harville’s attack on women’s constancy by saying: “... no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. The pen has been in their hands.” This quote made me title my Masters thesis “Putting the Pen into their Own Hands”. The thesis was based on writing the play The Savage Sisters. This is what I aim to do in my own work in its every incarnation: to put the pen into the hands of women.

Favourite book
So many! Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea for lessons in perseverance and not focusing on outcomes.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet for writing about my own psyche 400 years before I was born.

Jane Austen for Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, for being the first woman to write wittily about the enduring nature of love.

All Lyndall Gordon’s exceptional literary biographies, most recently of Emily Dickinson and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Every book I’ve read for LitNet over the past few years has had merit of some kind. And I look forward to the millions of books I’ve still to read.

Congratulations on winning Vodacom’s prestigious journalism award with your blog. Your various pieces of writing cover a multitude of topics and genres – writing for LitNet, poems, reviews, scripts. In one of your previous blogs, written in August this year , you wrote about ideas being “meat” to you and that this is what “gets you up in the morning”. Which impetus inspired this specific article and did you think of it as more fresh or relevant than any of your other projects at the time?

Naomi, if I’m not compelled by a very specific idea to write something, a work becomes quite tedious to me. I’m not too sure why that is. I could get airy-fairy about it and say that I am an “artist” and need to be inspired. But in reality so much of what I’ve done has been to apply my bum to the seat and to meet the deadlines required of me using all the skills I’ve acquired as a writer along the way. A film script which I was asked to “turn around” in two weeks and which I delivered yesterday is a perfect case in point. I had to fix a wildlife film using my experience gained by writing the screenplay for the feature film White Lion. So this job required me to utilise scriptwriting skills and knowledge of good story-writing. Hopefully I’d get inspired along the way while I wrote. (I did get a few inspirational gifts, thank goodness!) But it wasn’t my impetus or idea which started me writing it. This is my daily work.

When it comes to the columns, my own scripts which I’ve written either as plays or films, the impetus behind those is the idea, the inspiration, which “gets me up in the morning”. I quoted the artist Delacroix in one of my Savage plays. He said that “men of genius are inspired not by new ideas but by their obsession that what has already been said is still not enough”. I’d like to amend that comment and say that people who are artists have an obsession that what has been already said is still not enough.

I’ve been writing opinion columns for some years now for both The Witness and The Sunday Independent. I’m often struck by the absurdities of life, and when these strike, I’m compelled to write about them. Sometimes the columns are about things which amuse me and I try to write them in an entertaining way. Sometimes they’re about trying to survive in a world when everything goes wrong. This particular column, however, was ignited when my teenage daughter and I drove past a huge billboard with a semi-naked girl spread-eagled on it. My daughter asked what the billboard was advertising. It was hard to see the tiny company logo in the bottom corner. Her dismay that a near-naked woman was used to advertise a mobile phone made me think about the number of times women are discussed or portrayed as gratuitous sexual objects in the media. In a country that has one of the highest rape statistics in the world and where the crimes against women and children are at epidemic proportions, I felt outraged that advertisers continue to bombard us with images and words that reduce women to mere objects for gratification. And I had to write this column.

In your article you refer to the Sex and the City generation, and raise such an important point: that this programme was written by men, like the openly gay Michael Patrick King. This verified the nagging little problem I had with the television programme. At the time there was sometimes ground-breaking dialogue, but at other times it felt altogether false. In a programme aimed at mostly female viewers, we always saw so many naked boobies and one or two male buttocks. But is this really the way female sexuality works? Was Sex and the City a television series about gay men played by female actresses, maybe? Or do you find this altogether too stereotypical – the fact that men react to physical stimuli when it comes to sex and women prefer the mind or the psyche to be turned on? When you write that society should get over itself, do you actually mean that men, women, or both should stop making such a big fuss about sex?

This is such a difficult question, Naomi. I agree that Sex and the City portrays women as wildly promiscuous and their relationships are all about the physical, but I don’t want to generalise or stereotype gay men. That’s a dangerous road! I do believe that most women aren’t turned on only by the physical, but by so much more to do with emotional connections. Perhaps because of the bombardment of programmes like the above, as well as the almost commonplaceness of porn, young women have begun to think that physicality is all there is. I may be in the minority here, but I’ve always felt that sex is so much more than just a physical attraction between two people. That attraction can carry you a long way, make no mistake, but in the end, that burns itself out quite quickly. What worries me is that people are encouraged by the media to go from one person to the next, looking for the physical spark, moving on as soon as someone else more attractive appears on the horizon. This is not conducive to good mental health, never mind anything else. Granted, there are probably a few years when we all have a bit of a wild time, experimenting with sexual freedom, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to longevity of relationships, though, the physical approach is very risky. But this isn’t really what I was getting at in the column.

The point I wanted to make in this column is that there is so much more to life than just sex, and somehow popular culture has reduced life to a complete preoccupation with just this one thing. Just spend a morning watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians if you don’t believe me. For my sins I’ve done it as a penance! Also, the portrayal of women in the media is so demeaning much of the time. The DJs on the radio I was referring to are just one example. The tawdry jokes about female body parts are deemed completely acceptable for public airing. Those two male DJs are on the East Coast Radio Breakfast Show and the few times I’ve caught their programme their jokes have been in a similar vein. And women in this country are just supposed to accept this kind of treatment? This is not okay. This country’s rape statistics are a result of women being treated as men’s rightful “playthings”. The crimes against women, and usually female children, show that some men regard women and children as their rightful property and the lack of respect for women as intelligent human beings in the media reinforces this approach. That’s the point I was trying to make. And when you get down to it, especially after I’ve written and judged and edited many wildlife films, sex isn’t such a big deal in the complete scheme of things.

Your thought-provoking article made me think for the umpteenth time how much people (men and women) love to talk about sex (indeed, the act of having sex, all the graphic stuff) but never really about the methods of construction behind all the sex people are talking about or are (not) having. A couple of weeks ago somebody wrote a letter on LitNet regarding gender stereotypes, incorporating quotes from Naomi Wolf and the thoughts behind advertising. Nobody responded to this letter. Your own article, which won an important award, did not get many comments. Why is there such a huge big silence surrounding a real engagement in conversation about men using women as “recreational figures ... to relax with”?

Yes, I love the letter you’ve referred to above, Naomi. Especially when she quotes from Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth: “The last thing the consumer index wants men and women to do is to figure out how to love each other. The $1,5 trillion retail sales-industry depends on sexual estrangement between men and women, and is fuelled by sexual dissatisfaction. Ads do not sell sex – that would be counterproductive, if it meant that heterosexual women and men turned to one another and were gratified. What they sell is sexual discontent.”

This is very true. Regarding my column, the response was very mixed online. Women generally applauded its sentiments on Facebook, but when I asked a few people on Twitter to re-tweet the column, one man refused on the grounds that it was “too political”. As you can see, the only comment made on the blog site is from a man who says he thought that Rousseau was right and that women should be used by men to “relax themselves”. I didn’t think it warranted a reply. Perhaps some men are threatened by the fact that their stereotypes are being challenged. On the other hand, there are wonderful men out there who welcomed this debate. They tend to be more silent, though.

My column isn’t meant to polarise the sexes into “good down-trodden women” and “bad abusing men”. This is putting women’s liberation back by a couple of decades too. There are many men in my life who deserve love and admiration, not least my two wonderful sons. My middle son is an exceptional artist and his work often confronts gender stereotypes. He is also quite proud of the fact that one of his favourite words in matric was “misogyny”. But when it comes to talking about crimes against women in general, I find men polarise themselves. There are the sensitive souls who can hardly bear to think that men could do such horrendous things to women and feel personally responsible and guilty on behalf of their sex. Then there are the less-evolved people who think they have the right to do whatever they want to women. I may sound harsh here, but I had a student argue in one of my classes some years ago that rape should be legalised. He actually meant it. Those horrifying men are out there and our rape stats and crimes against women and children prove that they are.

I think I still haven’t answered your question, Naomi. Perhaps the media don’t think it’s cool to talk about emotional love, as the magazines such as FHM and Cosmopolitan, for example, are all about “Getting her to Orgasm in Three Easy Steps” and “How to Give Him His Sexual Fantasy”. I don’t think they’d sell as well if their covers bleated stories about “Emotional Intimacy. Do You Measure Up?”!

Your website,, elaborates on all the writing you have done or are busy doing. How does all the writing feed into your blogs – is it very different to write a play, or a blog or a review for LitNet?

You do ask difficult questions, Naomi! Writing a play is such a delightful experience as it relies on saying what I want to, in the way I want to, in a format which I just loved, using a character I’m drawn to as a vehicle. I went to Rhodes to study journalism, but was disillusioned by the heavily intense political writing I was supposed to do as a journ student. I’m so pleased I dropped the subject after six months, as I’m not a political person per se. My writing may make political points, but I am driven by the artistic and creative impulse – call it a muse if you like – to say what I have to say. I studied drama and English and psychology after dropping journalism, and the minute I walked on to the Rhodes Theatre stage I felt like I’d come home. I just love the dramatic format. Another joy of playwriting is that the possibility of getting your work out there is so much greater than it is with a film, a medium I’ve grown to love too over the past fifteen years. I was funded by the National Arts Council (blessed be they forever!) for every one of my plays and this gave me the freedom to take them to the Grahamstown Arts Festival and beyond.

I love the short, sharp impact of the columns, though. They give me the freedom to make points I’d like to make about the craziness of the world as I see it in a very accessible format. I also like meeting deadlines and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to meet a deadline so easily with a column.

My work for LitNet came about when I read wonderful work by South African writers and poets and felt so inspired that I had to write about them. I began to contribute to LitNet years ago because I felt it was so important to share how strongly I felt about our growing South African literati. This writing has now become more regular and, at its best, it’s a joy to read an inspired work and then to find out more about why the author or poet created that work. I love knowing the writer’s back story. I think this springs from my love of theatre and film, where the dialogue reveals only part of the character’s subtext. I love to know what motivates people and I tend to take that approach in my journalistic work too.

You received a journalism award for this blog. How is journalism different on the internet from old-fashioned printed-on-paper journalism, and would receiving an award for writing this blog make it feel more real to you?

The blog is an extension of my print work, Naomi. I usually post columns that have been published in the newspaper on to the blog, except for my posts about film issues, as I’ve been doing more recently. So the award wasn’t exactly for the blog, but for the column as it appeared in The Sunday Independent. I’m of the generation that really values print. And even though I’m a complete internet junkie, I have folders full of all my print articles too. When I finally get a Kindle, as I’d love to sometime, I’ll never remove the enormous mountain of books which surrounds my life.

What makes Janet van Eeden tick?

Family has always been paramount to me. My three children gave me the will to live again when I’d lost both my brothers and my father. My two sons and my daughter are wonderful human beings in spite of life being quite hard lately for all of us. My work keeps me going too, even when all else fails. There have been only a few times in my life when I haven’t been able to write. In the past three years there have been a few long spells of these barren patches. When life has been at its very hardest, though, I’ve learned my deepest truths. And I’m one of those rather sad searchers after truth, which I need to express through my writing.

I also love animals and find the more I know about human nature, the more I love my own animals. That’s why I loved writing the screenplay for White Lion so much.

You are very active on Twitter. You just received an award for an online journalism piece. But, as is also clear from all your writing on LitNet, you are a book lover as well. Will the printed word ever be something of the past?

As I said earlier, Naomi, the award was for the printed word. I’d be extremely honoured to receive an award for my online work, though. I think the internet is the new sidewalk cafĂ©. I love the interactions I have on Twitter and as I live in a bit of a backwater as far as screenwriting is concerned, I’ve made the best screenwriting group in the world online. It’s literally the best in the world as we have members from Estonia, UK, USA, Germany and South Africa. We Skype when we have scripts to discuss and have group discussions on Sunday night #Scriptchats on Twitter. I also wrote a column about the amazing support I received for my stepfather when he had a heart operation earlier this year. It’s really the most powerful social support platform and can be used for good or ill. In my life, it’s a great way to “be” with like-minded people.

I really hope the printed word never loses its popularity. I wrote about the e-book for LitNet here and think I’ll never, ever stop loving my real books. When I travelled around the world when I was first married, I was happy as long as I had my children, my animals (yes I really took my two cats and a dog with me across a few continents) and all my books. My husband was obviously also included in my list of essentials. Everything else was optional.