Living a Feminist Life demonstrates how feminist theory grows out of daily life. Examining how taking the words of daily life, lifting them up and inspecting them from all sides, we find deeper understanding of how the world is structured, how oppression is given force through expectations and demands to be happy, accommodating, kind, willing and helpful. How being feminist requires us to be assert our will, for example, to be willful in truth. But willful is pejorative while strong-willed is not…and you are reminded of all the ways what is good in a man is unwelcome in a woman.
Sara Ahmed spinning the fabric of feminism reminded me of my grandmother who grew her own flax, harvested it, spun it into thread, wove it into fabric and made her own linens. Like my grandmother, Ahmed harvest her personal experiences, spins them into understandings and weaves them into theory. There is something organic in her approach, drawing from her experiences as a woman, as a woman of color, as a queer woman of color.
Reading Living a Feminist Life was timely. Just this week, the local NAACP rescinded its endorsement of the Portland Women’s March on January 28th because the organizers said that talking about the issues affecting immigrant women, Muslim women, queer women, and women of color is “too political” and took to deleting the comments on the Facebook organizing page demanding inclusion. Reaction has been what one expects with white defensiveness and anger such as “it wasn’t YOUR march to begin with.” Again and again, Ahmed’s perspective deepened my understanding of what was happening right here, right now. When Ahmed wrote that perceiving women of color contributions as interruptions defines feminism as centered on white women, a conversation that is not theirs. When Ahmed wrote about willfulness, that was so obvious what is happening here, being unwilling to be excluded is perceived as being willful. When new organizers were brought in after the NAACP voted, Ahmed’s writing about how appointments can be about appearances, that being willing to appoint someone is not the same as being willing to be transformed. Reading Living a Feminist Life has been like a commentary on this local issue.
I think this book is important and insightful enough to merit five stars, but I offer some caveats. I am a straight, white woman who is not overly defensive about my whiteness. I believe that just as I can’t swim in a pool without getting wet, I cannot grow up white in America without getting a little bit racist–and I accept my job is to limit the damage and work to counter racism as much as I can. But still, I felt uncomfortable from time to time, wondering where is my place in feminism if my presence makes it so difficult for women of color to express their feminism. There’s a lot of stepping aside we need to be doing while stepping up in support of women of color and queer women and others who experience sexist oppression through more than one lens. We know this, but knowing does not make it easy to do.
Ahmed is not here to make us comfortable, but to make us think, to make us go beyond thinking to acting to becoming what she calls a killjoy. We need to be willing to kill some joy. OK. Believe me, it makes sense when you read it.
The one thing I found most difficult about Living a Feminist Life is Ahmed’s love of chiasmus. Sometimes it was to good effect, sometimes it just was silly. Since I read an advance galley which could be changed in the final copy, I can’t quote directly, but when she wrote about affect aliens and alien affects I just said, “huh?” What is an affect alien? I still don’t know. Most of the time, her chiasmus are less bizarre, sometimes they are even profound, but I found it often would interrupt my reading and I would note that yet again, a figure of speech was performing as theory, as insight, and it was disappointing. She has much to say that is original and valuable and this writing tic detracts from her effectiveness.
I appreciated Ahmed’s transforming everyday words that we don’t think about, words like willful, arm, wall, and snap and making us think more deeply and see them as something profound, something activist and powerful. But this is a book that demands a lot of the reader, active engagement, an open mind, a lack of defensiveness, a willingness (oh my!) to be poked a few times, to be taken to uncomfortable places. It is, I think, going to be much more meaningful to women of color and to queer women of color in particular, but white women should read it, too, because sometimes we are the problem and we need to hear it and do better.
Living a Feminist Life will be released February 3rd, 2017. I was provided an advance e-galley by the publisher through NetGalley.