Fear of the Feminine: On Tlotlo Tsamaase’s “Womb City”
By Jenna N. HancheyJanuary 23, 2024
Womb City by Tlotlo Tsamaase
The problem with these perspectives is that misogyny arises from the fear of the feminine in any and every possible form. “[G]irl stuff is dangerous,” poet Julia Serano writes. “[A]s long as most men are deathly afraid of it / they will continue to take it out / on the rest of us.” The fear of “girl stuff”—and the attendant menace of violence that accompanies this fear—threatens gender-expansive victims, including nonbinary and transgender people (and many more), rather than just those who have been assigned female at birth. This means that policing an artificially narrow category of “women,” as Atwood and Adichie do, obscures how a gender-expansive framework is vital for feminist struggle—in part because it can help catalyze the rage that arises once we realize how intimately misogyny has structured all of our lives.
Tlotlo Tsamaase’s Womb City (2024) pulsates with this gender-expansive feminist rage, propelling a narrative at breakneck speed—sometimes literally, for the characters—that leaves no one exempt from misogyny’s horrifying control. Womb City throws us into a near-future Botswana where “everyone lives forever” through technologies of body-hopping that allow souls to be reimplanted into bodies after death, once they become available. If your horror intuition is well honed, you might be wondering: how is it, exactly, that bodies become available? Some bodies, predominantly women’s, are microchipped. These are bodies demonstrated, by their previous owners, to be somehow “impure,” or prone to “criminal activities.” Waking up in a microchipped body means being constantly surveilled until such time as it proves its purity. In addition, the microchip acts as a remote control—a body’s movements may be halted, the body may be electrocuted for its transgressions, or the soul may even be evicted from the body to be held in eternal cyberprison and afflicted with nightmares. In this case, the microchipped body becomes available for the next soul in queue.
The plot may be fast-paced, but the dread builds with disquieting slowness as it moves us deeper, layer by layer, into the ways misogyny underlies and imbues every aspect of the body-hopping machine. The main character, Nelah, is in her third lifespan, and she’s just trying to follow the cultural rules: keep her husband happy (though he is emotionally abusive), have a child (though she both does not want one and is unable to carry one physically to term), and be part of a loving family (though this body comes from an anti-body-hopping minority sect). But since she’s living in a microchipped body that, due to mysterious past violences, has a bionic arm and whose last occupant was evicted for untold crimes, she must pass daily evaluations and have her data closely monitored by the authorities—not least her husband, the assistant commissioner of police. One little slip and the slight agency that Nelah retains over her own body will be utterly taken away.
The feminine in Womb City is tightly controlled. It must be, in order for the men in power to avoid its touch, driven as they are by fear: “[S]haring power means loss of power to them, a form of weakness—if we give them space, where will we sit? What will we do? Who are we, then?” Their staggering anxiety incites staggering violences to avoid facing that final question: who are we, if the feminine may touch us, even us?
Throughout the novel, Tsamaase deftly demonstrates how misogyny’s fear of the feminine is connected to the possibility that the feminine can move. Nelah is a woman, but she also exceeds this gendered characterization. She has no interest in pregnancy, although she desperately wishes to raise a child. She daydreams about owning three bodies, “that of a man, that of a woman, and that of a liminal gender” so she “could decide which to wear every day.” And even though she knows “this is who [she is], this is the gender [she aligns] with,” her certainty rests “with all its femininity,” making it clear that she would claim this gender “with or without the vagina and breasts.” At the same time that she situates her gender in femininity, there is something about being a woman within her cultural context that doesn’t fit: “I kept quiet and pretended to love this womanhood that was not mine to wear, that only fit too tightly, leaving me breathless.” Tsamaase portrays Nelah as simultaneously a woman and someone who is gender-expansive, implicitly rooting feminist struggle in a trans-affirming coalitional space: the shared potential to be transformed by the feminine.
It is this shared potential for transformation that misogyny fears. Nelah’s brother, Limbani, hates her for taking over the body that used to be his sister’s, seeing her as a monstrous intruder. But more than that, he hates her for the gendered ambiguity she displays. “There’s a man trapped inside my little sister’s body, he’d say to his relatives,” and when she is unable to carry a child to term, he sees that as another reason for “interrogating [her] true gender.” The slipperiness of the feminine bothers him, the possibility that it might slither its way into anyone’s life. For if Nelah can be a man who became a woman, then looking at her constantly reminds Limbani that the same potential exists for himself, that anyone can be transformed by the feminine. He is an “alpha male that sees an alpha male in me, perhaps,” Nelah says. “It scares him, I see that fear flicker in his eyes.” She sees him trying “to prove something, although what [she doesn’t] know.” Perhaps Limbani’s reactive masculinity is a foolish attempt to prove that he is more alpha than Nelah, more alpha than anyone, alpha enough to rise above even the feminine’s reaching grasp. Perhaps that is what most misogynistic violence is foolishly attempting to prove.
Tsamaase’s work is deeply situated within Botswanan culture and requires what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o refers to in his book Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012) as a “globalectical reading,” where the profound cultural contextualization of a work and readings of it are what allow for its broadest impact. Every nation has body-hopping, but the laws and regulations that guide its operation in those specific contexts are attuned to their own spiritualities, culture, and traditions. In the Botswanan context of Womb City, body-hopping stems from the pools of Matsieng, an ancient deity. Matsieng is similar to Nelah in being both feminine and gender-expansive: Matsieng uses Xe/Xer/Xem pronouns (much like the novel’s author) but is also narrated in feminine ways, as when Nelah reflects on Xer being buried for millennia: “Why must women—even powerful ones—always live out our existences buried?”
But in horror novels, the buried rarely stay that way. And this is particularly true in African horror when there have been transgressions against the spiritual world. In a recent interview on the podcast Griots & Galaxies, Nigerian horror writer Tobi Ogundiran discussed how African horror diverges from white, Western narratives based in a fear of Otherness, instead focusing on the dread of being caught in a transgression against community, land, or spirit. The people of Womb City have transgressed against all three. As circumstances spin violently out of control, Nelah begins to realize Matsieng’s imbrication means that “the government has interfered with the order of things and that there are devastating consequences.” The horror of misogyny here is its transgression not only in terms of a human-built system designed to subjugate other humans but also in how it works against the god Xemself.
When an entire system is built on transgression against a deity, only its destruction can rebalance the scales. Tsamaase’s book sears with feminist rage against the systems that misogyny has built, but importantly, it does so in a way that opens possibilities for gender-expansive coalitions. While maintaining a steady gaze on the horrors disproportionately visited upon women and femmes, xe nonetheless makes it clear that misogyny harms everyone. If even Matsieng, the gender-expansive deity from which humanity emerged, can be subjected to it, who could be exempt from its violences? Womb City is a searing feminist indictment of how misogyny, by coming for the feminine, is truly coming for us all.
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