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by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo


The Montréal Review, February 2011


"Callie" (12 x 8 3/4, Oil on Canvas) by Steven Assael. ( Galerie de Bellefeuille, 1367 Greene Avenue Montreal, Quebec, H3Z 2A8)




I'm going straight to the subway. I'm just going to ride the trains until my brain settles down because right now, I am too upset. My memory is set to spinning, tugging my brain unwillingly back again into that other Before. The one I shared with him and her. And even though the D train is chugging to Coney Island, it's one of those days when I am here but my life is happening there, in that way when time is doubled, or tripled, or it runs parallel. That's how B.J. describes it, when all of a sudden, you are living in two heres, in two times, in two spaces. Here it is cold and windy; here, there, the world is warm and the air thick with dust, so when the sun sets, it glows blood in the twilight. And I am talking to you and what you are saying is making absolute sense. One word in front of the other, like feet following a straight line. You are telling me that you have fallen.

But when I try to reply, my thoughts are all amuddle, and I can only express myself in abstractions. I tell you that English is a language without gendered articles, unlike French, in which every noun is either feminine or masculine. Gender has supposedly been lost in the English language but I explain that this is not true. Words themselves are heavily gendered. Like slut. Slut is a word which bears the weight of misogyny and speaks centuries of controlling women's sexuality. There is no equivalent word in English which can be applied to a man.

A womanizer, a Casanova, a Don Juan, a ladies' man, a lady-killer, a Romeo. There are so many words in the English language that express this concept: a man who sleeps with many women, but all of them conjure up the image of a dashing, debonair James Bond-type figure.

Slut, whore, trollop, slattern, harlot, hooker, prostitute, cocotte, strumpet, tart, a loose woman, a fallen woman.

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are so many more nouns, gendered feminine, which can be shot like a gun. Slut can so easily blur into slur, more than a smear or a stain or a slander on a bloodless reputation, it is one of those words that snakes inside because it is a stigma. It is a shame. And I am so angry with myself for letting it matter but that's the nature of words. They are like landmines buried in the bush.

I am telling her all of this in an effort to explain why it is that spinster is an insult, while bachelor is a compliment. A young woman who is called a spinster automatically becomes old but a bachelor of whatever age is eternally youthful. English is such a treacherous language because it pretends to be a plain and simple tool of gender neutral communication. (She is still learning English; her language is Japanese which can express meanings that require whole sentences in English in one complex word. It is a language more obviously gendered, certain words reserved for men and women. She is still learning to hear how full of resonances and gender English is but she barely knows pronouns yet.) A gigolo is not the same as a prostitute. Calling someone a dick or a prick is a casual insult; the word cunt contaminates with its odor of vilification.

The word virgin only really applies to women.

At least in Wolof in West Africa, I tell her, the word sai sai is gender neutral. It can be used for a man or a woman. It can be spoken with affection, in jest, or in seriousness, with rancor. But still, it is only the word which gives the illusion of equality; it is the same word, but it doesn't resonate the same when applied to a man or a woman. Most Senegalese are Muslims: a man may have four wives; a woman may have one husband.

The mistake I made was thinking that these were adolescent words. I didn't know that society was stitched together by the gender of the noun. I didn't know yet that calling a woman a slut in a court of law can allow a rapist to go free. If a man rapes me when I am on my night club journeys, will Azul swear under oath that I am a slut? Will no one believe me because I am a fallen woman? Even though I don't lie anymore. Well, at least to people who matter. Like B.J. When I get the urge, I go out to a club by myself. People aren't used to it. A single woman entering a nightclub. They assume I'm there to pick up somebody and that's exactly what I'm there to do. I'm not looking for one I don't want to let go or someone to love. I'm just looking for a mirror of myself, trying to glean from the stories I tell them who it is I would like to be. And then sifting through the pieces, I throw out what I could never be and try to incorporate what I may be able to become.

I have never been in love. I can't even imagine being in love. It is true that I am a virgin in love. That's why I find most Hollywood flicks so incredibly boring. The majority of songs that I hear on the radio mean nothing to me. Of course, like most other girls, I've been eagerly awaiting my "first love", that fairytale romance which will allow me to understand what everyone is singing about and watching at the cinema. Like so many other experiences that the majority of "normal" people seem to have, I have no way to access it.

I think for me to fall in love, I would have to find someone to whom I would be unable to lie.Someone who would catch me out if I tripped up and fell back into my old ways.but it's easy to fib because most people don't pay much attention and there are too many languages I speak which allow me to lie without feeling accountable.

In what language would I have to say "I love you" to make it real? B.J. of course says I'm too scared to fall in love, tomber amoreuse de quelqu'un. What a horrible way to say it. As if anything about falling is ever pleasant or nice. From what I understand of this disease, it seems to demand that one relinquishes a certain self-sufficiency: we are trained from birth to become independent, only to lose it all in one fell swoop. It seems like such a painful loss of self. To fall: to capitulate, to collapse, to give in, to give up, to trip, to stumble, to succumb, to surrender, to drop.

Tomber amoreuse de quelqu'un: the French is almost a direct translation. A womanizer, a Casanova, a Don Juan is known in French as a tombeur. How would one translate that? A faller, a man who makes women fall, as in tomber une femme? A tombeur has another meaning: wrestler/fighter. Inscribed in the word is the notion of violence, the violence of causing a fall, a capitulation, a collapse.

If you have fallen in love, are you a fallen woman?

And I am back to here again, time is doubled, time is tripled: I am explaining all of this to you because you have fallen pregnant.


Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is the author of Jacaranda Journals (Macmillan South Africa, 2004: www.jacarandajournals.com), a collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe. Her work has also been published in Prick of the Spindle, The Journal of African Travel Writing, 34 th Parallel and Opening Spaces: an anthology of contemporary African women's writing.


Illustration: Steven Assael

Steven Assael was born in New York, New York in 1957. He attended Pratt Institute and presently teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York. Mr. Assael balances naturalism with a romanticism that permeates the figures and surroundings of his paintings and drawings. The focus of his work is the human figure, either individually or in a group, rendered in glowing relief by gentle beams of warm and cool light. Steven Assael's classical talents are as rare as they are essential to the diverse art world of the late Twentieth Century.


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