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Live Literature

Occasionally we cover live literature events which we feel may be of interest to Fringe theatregoers.
Here Demelza Craze kicks off our coverage.
An evening with Naomi Wolf by Demelza Craze
The Brighton Dome
Friday 7th September 2012
Reviews, news and radio are chattering (not always kindly) to the theme of Naomi Wolf’s new novel Vagina: a Biography, which focuses on the neuroscience and physiology supporting a brain-vagina link, and reflects on cultural and historical studies around female sexuality. Wolf has explored in great deal, cultural attitudes towards women, their vaginas and their sexuality as well as new findings from scientists and physicians specialising in female sexuality and women’s health. She has acknowledged the limitations of her research, focusing mainly on western cultures. Any more would have diluted her findings if she had expanded further afield, for this same reason she focused on heterosexual relationships and on women only, feeling they deserved equal careful study. 
I attended an evening at The Brighton Dome aiming to promote and discuss the topics in Wolf’s new book. The audience was an interesting mix of Brighton artists, writers and academics, as well as midwives and even men! The atmosphere was charged and the audience were open to and responsive to Naomi – a clearly experienced speaker who connected well with the crowd. After a couple of pleadings with the bemused venue organisers to let some air in, as she felt she was going to faint, she gave up in good humour and jumped  off the stage and moved out of the glaring stage lights, which lent itself to a more intimate conversation. She has a sparkle and an openness, which draws the listener in sympathy with the heartfelt intention behind her research.
Although Wolf clearly presents her research as cutting edge scientific fact, she didn’t balance this out with the premise that other perspectives might not view the medical paradigm as the superior source of knowledge. It would have been interesting if she had challenged her own theories as it felt as if she was telling the audience this was scientific ‘fact’ and therefore it was true. It also felt as if she was limiting the human experience to her and him, my vagina and your penis, ‘look at how different we are’ – rather than making connections and recognising complex overlaps such as making more of the lovely image she discussed when the men responded to the women who were more sexually satisfied. Men’s levels of oxytocin rise for example when women give birth and when they hold their own babies promoting nurturing behaviours, which in turn affect women positively. It felt at times that this research was fragmenting and disconnecting women from a humanistic or spiritual viewpoint even though she was arguing that respect for the vagina and for female sexuality increased a sense of the ‘transcendent’. Wolf strongly pushed the ideal that women can only be truly self actualised if this ‘brain-vagina’ connection is healthy and whole, which again doesn’t resonate fully with the human condition as some might view it. Does creative or spiritual development really depend on perfectly functioning physical sexuality? However the intention of her work and her obvious desire to empower women to reclaim their beauty, sacredness and divine feminine is very needed in an age where Pornography is desensitising and limiting the human sexual experience as well as causing measurable damage to, ironically, sexual desire and gratification. I’m keen to read her research in more detail and apply it in my own work with women.
It would have also been interesting if Wolf had let down the fourth wall even more and interacted more with the audience – she told us how in her lectures of sexuality she would read excerpts from Anais Nin and ask women to explore how that felt – this might have been a meaningful experience for this audience as well.  It might have been useful to have more personal narrative or more structure to the lecture to thread it together. I would have loved to have heard much more about her personal experiences. Overall however it was an engaging and lively evening that myself and my companions enjoyed, stimulating important discussions on sexuality in context with our own lives as women, girlfriends and mothers.
A final comment on the organisation of the book promotion. As we waited excitedly hoping to ask Naomi a few questions that we didn’t have time for in the Q and A – the PR person took our books from us – opening it out at the page that was ‘meant’ to be signed (what if I didn’t want it signed on this page?) and even tried to direct how we held our books in order to ‘avoid any delay’. She tried to take away my companions book in order to give to Naomi ‘more quickly’ – my friend politely refused.  Naomi looked up at us with a rushed smile, scribbled her greetings, speedily moving on to the next. We stumbled outside into the clear night evening thinking we would sit down with our drinks and chat about all the ideas that had come up in the evening and realised the venue had cleared away all the tables and chairs. The evening was over it would seem, at 9:30. Audience members drifted away and that was that. 
The didactic layout of the room, the traditional lecture and Q and A format and the marketing push made it feel a little bland and commercial. Naomi said she was so excited to be in Brighton, known for its radical attitudes but this was a missed opportunity. Come back again Naomi please but this time lets really push some boundaries and organisational traditions. The changes that need to take place won’t be achieved by just reading great books or listening to passionate lectures, society needs to get involved as well as be mirrored and people need to be empowered not passive participants.
Quotes from Vagina: A new Biography by Naomi Wolf
‘If a woman hears about her vagina as ‘gash’ or ‘slit’ all her life then her perception of her vagina will become neurally encoded in her brain’…whereas if she hears about it, for example as ‘the jade gate’, her brain shapes itself and her perceptions around that sensibility.
‘The sexual threats encoded in hostile language do more than trigger stress reactions in our bodies…These triggers also affect women’s confidence and sense of hope.’
List of other terms for vagina from other cultures (read by Naomi Wolf to women in her lectures on female sexuality)
Mysterious gate
Hidden Place
Golden Lotus
Heavenly Gate
Chitrini-yoni (the yoni of a fancy woman)
Scented bower
Gates of paradise
Wolf asks“What if it were always like that? What if the words you heard as a girl and young woman made you think of yourself – in the most intimate, sexual sense – as a source of wisdom, as precious, fragrant, a treasure? To be surrounded by comparably reverent or appreciative language about one’s sexuality would make women not only more open sexually, but it would also make them function in the world in ways that increased their creativity, strength and sense of connection.”
More to come.