WHAT IT IS – Arinda Daphine’s Poetry Series on Sexuality and Womanhood
“The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.”
-Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic
I had a feeling
that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of women’s sensuality,
so different from man’s and for which man’s language was
-Anais Nin, Preface to The Delta of Venus
It’s a difficult time to be a woman in Kampala. Ever since the passing of the anti-pornography bill in 2014, acts of violence against women have become more frequent and severe. From the stripping and beating of women because of their outfits, to the serial killings of over 40 women between 2017 and 2018. It’s a difficult time to be a woman in East Africa. Across the border, in Kenya, over 40 women have been murdered since the beginning of 2019. Many of these murders were argued as justifiable by people who believed these women had it coming because they were “gold diggers” or “unfaithful” or “promiscuous”. Labels which would not inspire the same vindication if they were applied to men.
It seems to me then that there is still a profound misunderstanding of women and womanhood. What else could explain why society feels so threatened by women’s sexuality, whether it is expressed openly, or not?
In her poetry series, “What it is”, Arinda Daphine, a writer, performance poet, and lawyer, traces the journey from girlhood to womanhood. She is one of the few poets in Uganda to explore erotica, a genre that is challenging, sensitive, and often politicised. It is easy to dismiss erotica as a genre. It is easy to assume it has no power or deep social and political influence because it is pornographic.
In a 2017 interview for This is Africa, Dr. Stella Nyanzi – who is currently imprisoned for her political texts – rose to the defence of her erotic writing, saying, “There is tasteful pornography, erotica that is beautiful to read, and then there are people just writing about the Kandahar without it having any import to their writing. It’s just gut-level writing. There is nothing more – no symbolism, nothing under there, no beauty, no message. The political erotica that I do is an art.”
In this series Arinda writes with purpose and with the symbolism to elevate her work to an art form. She uses erotica as a tool to express female sexuality with unflinching imagery. In the poem “Loose”, she satirises the term used to describe women who are comfortable expressing their sexual desires. A woman who dresses sexy, dances wildly, enjoys sexual encounters is labelled “loose”. She is more of a threat because she does this for herself. Arinda claims this word for a positive use, aligning it to its other meaning, one akin to freedom. The woman in this poem becomes one who is free to enjoy her sexuality, saying, “But dignity and self-respect are MINE/ mine to lose.”
In the poem, “Behind Closed Doors”, Arinda tells the story of infidelity from a woman’s perspective. Her blend of ecstatic imagery and repellent imagery, “Black filth under my nails/ from scratching your back,” paints an honest scene. It is an act owned by the man and the woman, a woman who possesses herself. She is not anyone’s property, “You walk my city/ with the freedom of a sure foot/ inch and inch of sacred land.”
Perhaps the most bold and challenging of her poems is Rebel Queen, which follows a lesbian relationship but does not shy away from describing the erotic embrace. Arinda expressed her surprise over how well Ugandan audiences receive this poem when she recites it, considering how homophobic this country is in its public persona. Though the poem first explores the erotic relationship, it later turns inward when the narrator questions her own courage in comparison to her partner, the “Rebel Queen”, who we assume is more open about her sexual orientation. The poem raises questions about convention, conformity, and “goodness”. It only missteps in naming the open and honest woman as the “wild one”, the rebel, making the act of being true to yourself seem like an untamed, rebellious act. But the narrator, “look(s) to the wild one,” who seems to live a more fulfilling life as a result of her honesty.
In her essay, Uses of the Erotic, Audre Lorde speaks to the ideas expressed in Rebel Queen. Lorde defines the erotic as a power flowing within every aspect of our life. A power sustained by honesty. It requires us to be honest in our desires, to face our experiences head on and be fully present in the moment. The erotic is present when we work, not to pursue profit or fulfil social expectations, but to create as we feel we need to create. Most importantly, Lorde separates the erotic from the pornographic, defining the pornographic as “sensation without feeling”. The pornographic is cheap and leaves one or all parties feeling used and discarded. The erotic honours feeling and acknowledges all those involved in the experience as well as all the sensations and emotions that are part of the feeling. This awareness and acknowledgment can be present in daily activities, interactions, in work, in spiritual practice, in fun, in friendship, and in sex.
In Rebel Queen, the narrator draws close to this same conclusion, recognising their need to live their truth.
The other three poems in this series, “Pink Niceties”, “Embraces at Bedtime”, and “What it is”, explore the more painful experiences of girlhood and womanhood. In “Pink Niceties” and “Embraces”, there is a conversation or interaction between mother (we assume) and daughter. In both interactions, the mother sees potential dangers or reflects on their own pain but does not know how to protect their child from that pain or fear. The reader is swallowed into the feelings of helplessness the parent experiences when confronted with their child’s vulnerability. The frustrating conclusion of “Pink Niceties” raises questions about how sex education is approached in Uganda. The repetitive phrases in “Embraces at Bedtime” call to mind the intimacy and comfort lost between a mother and her daughter when the mother is scarred by sexual abuse from their own childhood. The underlying narrative casts a sinister shadow over the childlike rhyme of its structure.
“What it is” returns to this theme of abuse and traces the cycles of violence, pain, and (internalised) patriarchy from formative experiences of girlhood to relate them to womanhood as Ugandan women may experience it now. What lifts this bleak outlook is the celebration and confirmation of sexuality in her other poems in the series. Though Arinda’s poems are not the most masterful in terms of craft, they have important things to say. And they say them loud and certain.
When I first read through this series and Arinda’s other works, I experienced the discomfort some of you will experience reading such intimate and erotic work. But to look away would be a disservice to her and to other women in Uganda. It would mean denying women’s experiences and the right to their sexuality. It would mean I am either pitying them or threatened by them. There is no reason for either, and therefore, no reason to look away.
This series tells it like it is. It will demand something from you. It will ask you to agree and disagree. To feel disgust and to feel ecstasy. The multitude of experiences Arinda explores are hardly a chapter in the experience of being a woman. This is only a glimpse into womanhood. Don’t look away.
WHAT IT IS is the first poetry series to appear on SJ. Arinda Daphine’s series comprises of
six poems published weekly and accompanied by illustrations by Dianah Bwengye.
Arinda Daphine is a writer, performance poet and lawyer who uses art as a tool for social transformation.
Dianah Bwengye is a graphics designer and illustrator currently working with Mango Tree.
Gloria Kiconco is a poet, essayist, arts writer, and zine-maker based in Kampala.