“Reclaiming Vaginas” in Jasper Magazine

I’ve had the good fortune of receiving a tremendous amount of support from Jasper Magazine this Vagina Monologues season.  It seems that good things happen where social issues and art meet!

Find out more about The Vagina Monologues at USC and my journey from a somewhat uncomfortable actress (my first year in the production) to a “cunt”-yelling co-director in my essay “Reclaiming Vaginas,” found in the newest issue of Jasper Magazine.

The Vagina Monologues at USC, 2013 Style

The Vagina Monologues at USC, 2013 Style


When: Fri., Jan. 18 and Sat. Jan. 19, 6:00-8:00 p.m. (just plan to come for an hour), or by appointment

Where: Wardlaw 126 (USC, at the corner of Sumter and College St.)

Who: All students, faculty, staff, and community members are welcome, regardless of age, major, and/or background. Although no experience is necessary and you need not prepare anything, sources say that having a vagina (and/or identifying in some way as a “woman” or “female”) will definitely work in your favor.

Questions or appointments? E-mail co-directors Leia K. Cain and/or Alexis Stratton at vmonologuesusc [at] gmail.com.

About the Production
The award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues, is based on V-Day Founder/playwright Eve Ensler’s interviews with more than 200 women. With humor and grace, the piece celebrates women’s sexuality and strength. Through this play and the liberation of this one word, countless women throughout the world have taken control of their bodies and their lives. For almost two decades, The Vagina Monologues has given voice to experiences and feelings not previously exposed in public.

Rehearsals for USC’s production are scheduled for T/Th from 8-10 p.m., with dress rehearsal on the night of Wed., Feb. 13.

Show dates:
Friday, Feb. 15 @ 8 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 16 @ 8 p.m.
Sun, Feb. 17 @ 8 p.m.

Our beneficiary this year will be Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands (www.stsm.org/)

Find us on Facebook!
VM Auditions 2013: https://www.facebook.com/groups/299689240144708/
VM at USC: https://www.facebook.com/VagMonUSC

Twitter: @vmonologuesusc

Arts in BLOOM

BLOOM just announced the winners of its 2012 fiction and nonfiction chapbook contest, and I’m fortunate enough to have been selected as the fiction winner for my short story, “Fratricide.”  This is a great honor, and I look forward to working with BLOOM in the months to come!  (Congrats also to Julie Marie Wade, the nonfiction winner.)

Check out the BLOOM website for more about the contest and (eventually) about how to get yourself a copy!

And the South Carolina MFA program seems to be rolling in winners these days–congrats to Lauren Allen and Lauren Eyler for their Pushcart nominations.  Keep up the good work, Gamecocks.

In Defense of the MFA

This is a little old now, but a post on Facebook reminded me of its relevance, especially now that I’ve just finished my MFA.  While I’ve been a proponent of MFA programs for awhile now, if just because of the time it allows one to write and live among a community of writers, in this Chronicle of Higher Education article, Elise Blackwell (MFA in Creative Writing director at the Univ. of South Carolina) brings up some important points about MFA programs’ abilities to tap into/nourish writers beyond the scope of the publishing mecca that is New York City (and other giant metropolises).  So, I thought it worth sharing/recirculating: http://chronicle.com/blogs/arts/blackwell-on-writing-a-geography-of-fiction/28714

Domestic Violence is a Social Crime–Korea Women’s Hotline

After my experiences volunteering in South Korea last summer with the Korea Women’s Hotline and my work this semester with the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, I put together a newletter for USC’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program.  While I don’t think I’ll be able to return to Korea this summer, I hope to go back some time soon to continue my work with KWHL and my research on these important topics.  Kudos to Ranhee Song, KWHL, and all the activists I met in Korea who continue to fight against injustices.

[Update: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 version of USC’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program newsletter, however, the link I had appears to no longer work. I’ve included the article below.]

Domestic Violence is a Social Crime / By Alexis Stratton

“Most people think domestic violence happens to other people,” Ranhee Song says, sitting across from me in one of the small counseling rooms of the Korea Women’s Hotline (KWHL) office building in Seoul.

I’m in the seat usually reserved for clients needing crisis counseling, and the midday light shines in through the window behind behind Song.  I imagine the people who have sat there before me, across from someone like Song, perhaps feeling afraid or alone, or maybe feeling like they can finally begin to see a way out.

She tells me that the people who come to KWHL often don’t recognize their experiences as “domestic violence,” since such “violence” can take many forms, from physical to emotional to psychological.  They tell their stories and then, according to Song, they ask, “Is this really violence?”

Song and I met early in May 2011 when first I wandered into the KWHL office, tucked away on a hill somewhere in what seemed to be the very outskirts of the sprawling Seoul metropolis (but is really somewhere still nearish the middle).  Before I arrived in Korea, I’d e-mailed with her a few times, and we’d spoken once over the phone, our conversations a mix of English and Korean.  I told her I’m a writer studying Women’s and Gender Studies, and I asked her if I could work with KWHL to research gender and violence in South Korea for a short story collection.  I was surprised to find she was immediately on board and, when I arrived, she welcomed me into the KWHL family and took me under her wing.

Founded in 1983, the Korea Women’s Hotline is one of the largest and oldest women’s movement organizations in Korea.  It supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence with a crisis hotline, counseling services, and shelters both in Seoul and throughout Korea’s provinces.  It also actively conducts human rights and violence prevention campaigns and monitors governmental policies and activities.  Song is the Director of the Human Rights Policy Department.

Song is in her thirties and has been working at KWHL since 2003 after completing her graduate degree in Women’s Studies at a university in Korea.  “I didn’t think I would work here more than one year,” she admits.  But after she realized how serious, complex, and difficult the issue of violence against women is, she decided that “one year is too short—how about three years?  But then, I still understood little.”  Thus, it became five years, and now almost ten.

As it is in many countries, the issue of violence against women in Korea is indeed complex and perplexing.  Across from her in the counseling room, I think about the fear and hope of the women, men, and families who come to KWHL to get help.  But I think most about the women, who make up the bulk of the NGO’s clients.  I think of the courage it takes to go against a culture that is still pervaded by an intense patriarchal ideology and ideas about the sanctity of the (private) family—a culture in which over fifty percent of marriages experience domestic violence, according a 2010 national survey on domestic violence by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (Korea Women’s Association United).

Song notes that the term “domestic” makes working against domestic violence difficult, particularly in Korea.  “Domestic” conjures family, home, and in Korea, such institutions are strongly patriarchal and private.  Even though the marital domestic violence rate might top fifty percent, a report submitted to the United Nations by Korea Women’s Association United (an affiliated group of NGOs in which KWHL participates) explains that “victims requested help from the police in only 8.3% of instances ,” and when respondents recorded their reasons for not reporting, “29.1% answered that ‘violence by their spouse was not serious enough,’ 26.1% ‘felt embarrassed to disclose domestic affairs,’ 14.1% were ‘unable to report one’s spouse to the police,’ and 10.9% did not report ‘for their children’s sake.’ The majority of reasons were related to social norms, but 9.3% of the responses answered that ‘reporting to the police would be useless,’ indicating distrust in the judicial system.” (KWAU).

This concept of the private or “domestic” being a space in which one cannot interfere is problematic, both in Korea and in other countries, especially when one seeks outside help from judicial or other support systems.  If police come to the home and consider a domestic dispute simply a private matter, what options do domestic violence victims have?  And what layers of problems does this type of neglect create?  According to the Korea Women’s Association United report, this is just the situation that Korea currently faces, as “50.5% of [survey] participants indicated that ‘the police just returned after visiting [their houses], saying that domestic disputes should be resolved within [the family],’ and 17.7% of the responses stated that ‘the police did not even bother to come to the crime scene, saying that domestic disputes should be resolved by themselves.’”

According to Song, in Korea, this kind of thinking is exactly what needs to change if she and other activists are to make a difference regarding issues of domestic violence and its prevention.  “We want to dismantle this idea,” Song says, noting that changing these sorts of socio-cultural attitudes is one of the most difficult challenges “to me—to every feminist.”

Because after all, she says, “Domestic violence is a social crime.”  And she would say it again and again during my month volunteering with KWHL.  This is what the world needs to understand.  Domestic violence is not about a single family, or a single disagreement, an argument gone too far.  It’s not a private matter, and it’s not justifiable by ingrained ideologies or a lack of presumed “seriousness.”  Every instance of domestic violence is serious; every instance of domestic violence is ours.

For more information about the Korea Women’s Hotline, visit their webpage.

Film Review: Life, Above All

Life, Above All (dir. Oliver Schmitz, 105 min., 2010, Drama) — http://www.sonyclassics.com/lifeaboveall/

Set in a small town in South Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Life, Above All is a rich and vibrant film that grapples with the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS and the effects of prejudice on individuals and communities. Realistically gritty and yet beautifully shot, the film offers a glimpse into the frenzy of fear that the HIV/AIDS epidemic brought on a number of communities and the portrait of one girl’s courage in the face of that fear.

Though focused on important human rights issues, Life, Above All is much more than just an “issue film.” At the heart of the work stands the story of a family—a mother and daughter, in particular—and a young girl’s struggle to stand up to the pressures of society. The film opens with a death, which begins to sow the seeds of doubt in twelve-year-old Chanda’s mind about the health of her family, especially her mother, who is already showing signs of illness. Unfortunately, the same suspicions grow among their neighbors as well, and whether the family’s troubles are regarded as physical or spiritual, they are slowly stigmatized and ostracized.

Yet, what ultimately drives the film has little to do with disease. The open-hearted and open-minded Chanda cares for her friends and family above all, regardless of their health status or any other rumors that circulate about them, founded or not. She is a girl who sees beyond what others see and is brave enough to stand up for others. In the end, the film is about a struggle against cultural norms and attitudes and one girl’s inspiring ability and willingness to stand against a crowd in the name of love.

While the film excels in filling out these narrative brushstrokes, drawing the viewer into the pain and intensity of a daughter’s love for her mother and her fight against the prejudices of her neighbors, this type of vivid storytelling would not be possible without the incredible performances of the two leading child actresses—Khomotso Manyaka, who carries the film in the role of Chanda, and Keaobaka Makanyane, who plays Chanda’s best friend Esther, a girl whom everyone has given up on. Both put on stunning, beautifully delivered performances with subtle emotion and captivating interactions with each other and the other cast members. In fact, their performances were so stunning that I was surprised to learn during the question-and-answer session with director Oliver Schmitz that neither had been professionally trained. Schmitz said Manyaka’s only previous stage work was singing in the choir; now, according to the director, both girls are enrolled at a school in which they can (and intend to) specialize in the performing arts.

The film is further driven by sophisticated and moving performances by the leading adult actresses Lerato Mvelase, who plays Chanda’s mother, Lillian, and Harriet Lenabe, who takes on the complicated role of Mrs. Tafa, Lillian’s friend and neighbor who attempts to protect Lillian’s family but must also grapple her own prejudices and past.

As the final film of New York’s 2011 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, Life, Above All served as the capstone for two weeks’ worth of human-rights-based film screenings. Notably, it is the only existing film in Sepedi, a local language in South Africa, and was an official selection for the Cannes Film Festival. The film is based on an award-winning novel by Alan Stratton (no relation) called Chanda’s Secrets.

Though a fictional account, Life, Above All stands as a telling testament to the stigma and shame surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic (both historically and contemporarily) as well as the power of individuals and communities to stand up to fear, ignorance, prejudice, and injustice. Chanda becomes an inspiration to us all and an icon of the transformative power of love. If only we all could be so brave.

(According to Schmitz, the film is set to be released in cities throughout the U.S. starting this summer. For more information, please visit: http://www.sonyclassics.com/lifeaboveall/)