WomenSpeak talks to Debra Providence about her poem While Walking Up Back Street
WS: It feels like this poem is based on a real incident that happened to you? What made you decide to write about it?
DP : Yes it is based on a real incident, of course, without the blood and mucas. I decided to write about it because in the moment I felt reduced to a piece of my anatomy. I felt that the comments in essence placed more value on the breasts than the person and writing the poem was my way of confronting being objectified in that way.
WS: Your poem is quite graphic, even violent. Do you feel that sexual harassment in public spaces is a kind of violence against women?
DP: The incident triggered a strong emotional response and I wanted to write in a way that captured my state of mind. On a level I do feel that sexual harrassment, street or office, is a kind of violence. It strips away your wholeness as a person, your layers and complexities and reduces you to a thing. It is something women experience every day, but that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting when it happens, for me at least.
Added to this is the fact that I have a keen interest in the Science Fiction and Speculative (SF) ficiton genres which often depticts the human body as being capable of trancsending pre-given limitations.I love the “What if?” aspect of SF. I thought, what if the persona could give the copper exactly what he asked, and at the same time demonstrate that she was more than what he asked? How would that be received? What if the logical extremes of objectification of the female body were to be realised in that moment, dredging the graphic undertones of the request? He only wanted the breasts. My emotional response to the incident, coupled with an interest in SF, produced the poem.
WS: Well, unlike the heroine in the poem, women can’t actually cut off body parts when men hurl crude comments towards us. Is street harassment something women just have to endure or is there something that can be done/ should be done about it?
DP: What can be done? I could say that teaching younger children the importance of mutual respect for individuals, boys and girls might help. Public sensitivity campaigns, perhaps. I could say that women could train their boys to be more repsectful of girls and later women (not to put all of the responsibility at the feet of mothers). But to be honest, I am a bit of a pessimist here. The thing is, if by making a crude comment a guy feels that he is paying a woman a compliment then you see where changing these attitudes could be challenging. I am not sure what can be done. Perhaps a DNA re-write that erases the instinct to objectify, (falling back into SF again). Women would just have to keep tackling these experiences with the sense that they are more than whatever body part is “praised” while walking in these streets.
Debra Providence is a Vincentian writer, teacher, Sci Fi nerd and lover of Caribbean literature. You can read more of her poems at her blog Writing “D” at http://debraprovidence.wordpress.com/