Notes on Feminist Survival

I am sharing some words I gave recently at a vigil. There are no notes or references; these are spoken words. I will have more to share soon.

Solidarity with my fellow killjoys, with those marching for a different life.

Notes on Feminist Survival, On the Occasion of the Reclaim the Night March, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, March 11 2018.

As I am speaking to you in a chapel it seems right to begin with Lorde. She is often where I begin. Audre Lorde in her extraordinary poem “A Litany of Survival,” speaks of those who were “never meant to survive,” those for whom survival requires creativity and work, those for whom survival is politically ambitious. Let me share a few lines from this poem:

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going in the hours between dawns

Through the art of light description Lorde evokes for us a “those of us,” a those of us who live and love on the edges, in doorways, shadows, those of us who fall like shadows fall; the fallen; those for whom coming into full view would be dangerous, those for whom survival might require not coming out in the full light of day.

We can begin to hear a claim: that survival for some requires crafting a life from shattering experiences, the kind of experiences that might leave you fragile, close to the edge, “at the shoreline.” It is because we are fragile that we have to fight – sometimes for life. Lorde insists that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” She is speaking from her own experience of battling with cancer, of being given a prognosis that her cancer had spread to her liver.  She compares battling cancer to living with anti-black racism, a comparison that is deeply effective, teaching us how racism can be experienced as an attack on the body. Lorde refused not to fight for life.

It is rebellious to fight for life when you have been given a deadly assignment.

Feminism: we are fighting for our lives. And we are fighting against a system. A system can be upheld by violence. It might be the violence that follows being seen as a girl or woman, why are you not smiling love, comments thrown out as how you are thrown out; or physical or sexual violence at home or on the streets. The violence does things; you might retreat from the world, taking up less and less space, you might feel less, that you worth less. It might be the violence that follows not being legible as woman: are you a boy or a girl, the question that drips with hostility; the violence that insists you must be legible as one or the other. It might be the violence that follows not getting it right, not acting like you should, not walking right, not speaking right; not liking the right things because that is not what girl or a boy is supposed to like, or to be or to do, a violence that punishes deviation from a norm.

Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Violence hovers around the deviant. You stand out from what is around and about.

When you are black or brown in a sea of whiteness; you become noticeable.

It might be the violence of having insults thrown at you or being asked, again and again, and questions can be wearing, for some to be is to be in question: Where are you from? Where are you really from? The questions are assertions in disguise: as if to say brown, black, is not from here, not here, not.

It might the violence that follows being seen as women together, lesbians, as if by not being in relation to men you are not being at all. It might be the violence of how you become understood as causing the violence directed against you as if by being who you are you have provoked that reaction. It might be the violence of how when you point out violence you are understood as causing the loss of something, harmony or peace, the way when women of colour point our racism we are heard as being divisive. It might be the violence of having to point out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible, of having to fight just to enter a room. It might be the violence of how much work you have to do to make it possible to exist, until you feel your existence is nothing but work.  It might be the violence of not being able to turn to anyone to escape violence, because you are poor, or because you fear they will take away your children; or that you would be forced to leave because do not have the right papers. Intersectionality can mean this: how structures intersect; how vulnerability to violence is distributed unequally. bell hooks calls it what it is “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

Those who experience the violence of a system are those who know that system most intimately. We know so much from when we stopped, from what we are not allowed to do or be. Those who are enabled by a system often will and do deny its very existence. So much of our struggle is a struggle to expose the violence of the system. I want to think of that struggle to expose violence as snap, what I call simply feminist snap. We probably all have had experiences of snapping; snapping is an everyday experience even if we do not snap every day. Feminism too is everyday; feminism is what we are doing by living our lives in a feminist way. A snap often comes from what is wearing. Maybe you are trying to put up with it, the constant belittling of your existence, sexist jokes, racist jokes, they are not funny, so we do not laugh. We cannot always afford to express ourselves: sexism and racism can make it costly to name sexism and racism. But it is constant and you are getting tired, annoyed, frustrated, not snapping can be hard work; not challenging what undermines your existence can undermine your existence. But then you reach a point, when you just can’t take it anymore, you have had enough, in the end it can be something small that is too much and you snap.

Snapping can be what comes out when you have had enough but it can also how you are heard. In my work I have explored, reclaimed, and affirmed the figure of the feminist killjoy, the one who gets in the way of happiness or who just gets in the way. The feminist killjoy is snappy: she is heard as shouting however she speaks, because of the point she makes, the words she uses, words like sexism, words like racism, just to make these points, use these words, is to be heard as shouting, abrasive, as if by opening your mouth you are breaking something. If pointing out racism and sexism is to cause unhappiness, we are quite willing to cause unhappiness. We become mouthy when they don’t like what comes out of our mouths.

And sometimes, we do need to break something, an idea of who we are, or who we will be, in order to make our lives possible.  We might have to break a bond, it might be a family bond or a bond to a person or some we or another. A bond can be violent. What can make living with violence hard is how hard it is even to imagine or think the possibility of its overcoming; you might be isolated; you might be materially dependent; you might be down, made to think and feel you are beneath that person; you might be attached to that person, or believe that person when they say they will change; you might have become part of that person, have your life so interwoven with that person that it is hard to imagine what would be left of you if you left. And in spite of all of that, there can be a point, a breaking point, when it is “too much” and what did not seem possible becomes necessary. She fights back; she speaks out. She has places to go because other women have been there.

A bond of fate, a fatal bond. Gender can be a fatal bond.

No wonder that leaving a situation of violence can feel like snap: a bond of fate has indeed been broken.

She has places to go; we have places to go because others have been there. It is important when we gather together as women and non-binary people to think of the history that precedes us and that make it possible for us to be here; to keep up the fight, to reclaim the night. I think of Black feminists and feminists of colour scholar-activists working in the UK who made it possible for me to be here, Gail Lewis, Avtar Brah, Heidi Mirza, Ann Phoenix, to name a few, there are so many more because so many came before, I think of my mother Maureen, my sisters Tanya and Tamina, my auntie Gulzar Bano, a Muslim feminist who was the first woman who talked to me about feminism, she was also a poet who taught me what you could do with words; my partner Sarah and my dog Poppy. All of us: we all bring others with us. We bring our histories with us, each of us, different histories that have allowed us to be in this room, and a room can be what you inhabit but it can also be an activity; to make room with each other, for each other. There are so many who are not with us. It is right for us to mourn our losses, to count our losses, to express our grief for those who did not make it; who were taken too soon, far too soon.  I think of Saba Mahmood, who died yesterday; a feminist of colour academic, a comrade. I thank you for all you gave us, all you left for us: I thank you for your words, wisdom and warmth. Feminists of colour working in the academy; we have paths to follow because of what you created.

A vigil: to stay awake with a person who is dying; to mark or to mourn, to make a protest, to pray; to count our losses, to count her as loss, or, to borrow the name of a recent campaign in response to police violence against black women, can I acknowledge here the important work of Kimberle Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie, to say her name.

To say her name; to say their name. We have to fight to bring violence to attention. Feminist snap can also be thought of as an alternative communication system. Sometimes it is too risky to expose the violence of the system. It can be hard, for instance to speak out about violence that happens in Universities. I left my own post at a university because I was not willing to be silent about sexual harassment, because I did not want to reproduce what was not being addressed. When you are precarious it can be even harder to make a complaint about violence; you might not feel you have a secure enough footing. When speaking out is too risky, we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist and queer history to draw upon; you can write names of harassers on books; graffiti on walls, turn bodies into art. Or to evoke a recent action by feminist direction group Sisters Uncut, we can put red ink in the water so that the centre of a city seems flooded by blood. They cut, we bleed. The riskier it is to snap, the more inventive we become. We have to occupy the building, stop the traffic; point out how business is usual is violence as usual.

Snap to it: a gathering can be snap. Feminism, queer and trans histories are histories of those who have combined forces, gathered in protest, just as we are doing; we are part of that history. We keep a history alive by gathering in this way; we receive energy from others, those who came before us. I think of the Stonewall riots. An interview with Sylvia Rivera has been recently released in which she discusses what happened on that day. Say her name: Sylvia Rivera as a trans woman of colour tends not to be remembered in how those events are remembered. In her account, snap comes up.  It was a day like other days for those who gathered at the bar, gays, dykes, sex workers, drag queens; a racially diverse army of the willingly perverse; an army that is used to living with police violence; an army for whom violence is usual. Rivera says: “This is what we learned to live with at that time. We had to live with it.” But something happens on that day. “We had to live with it until that day.  And then, I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. It just [snaps fingers], everything clicked.”  The snapping of fingers, that sound, snap, snap, allows Rivera to convey the sensation of things falling into place, when suddenly, or it seems sudden but it took a long time, a collective comes out with a “no,” a collective that is fragile, fabulous, full, furious:  “Everybody just like, Why the fuck are we doing all this for?   Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, Wow, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re fucking their nerves.”

A snap can be catchy, igniting a crowd, all those years of frustration, pain, all that is wearing, coming out, getting out, claiming the freedom to be what they have tried to stop you from being. It is electric, snap, snap; sizzle, so much comes out when you tip something over. To make snap a part of how we tell the story of political movements is to show how exhaustion and rebellion can come from the same place; how those who are exhausted by the violence of a system come to revolt against that violence, how even when snap comes from sap, from being tired out, from being depleted, snap can reboot; snap can boost.

Snapping, that moment when the pressure has built up and tipped over, can be the basis of a revolt, a revolt against what we are asked to put up with. We fight for what is necessary.  If we started with Lorde, we can end with her too. Audre Lorde often spoke of what is necessary. Poetry she suggests is not a luxury but necessary; as necessary as bread. Possibilities are necessary. Audre Lorde often spoke of how she started writing because of a need to create what is not there. She said “what I leave behind has a life of its own.”  Writing was for Lorde an unflinchingly optimistic gesture, an optimism that comes out of rather than at the expense of a profound recognition of the difficulty of survival. She also spoke of motherhood as a kind of black feminist optimism: raising Black children “in the mouth of a racist, sexist suicidal dragon,” raising children with the hope that their dreams “will not reflect the death of ours.”

So that their dreams will not reflect the death of ours: we have to fight not to reproduce an inheritance, but that fight might also be how we keep holding onto a dream, passing it on so that it lives after we are gone.  We fight because we dream for a more just world. Perhaps then it is the very struggle against injustice that gives us the resources we need to build more just worlds. These resources might include a certain willingness to cause trouble, to kill joy, yes, to be misfits and warriors, but they also involve humour, laughter, dance, eating and drinking, all the ways we have to nourish ourselves and each other. We have to do what we can, when we can, to use Lorde’s words again, to be “vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a change.” A vigil can be vigilance, observant, attentive; vigilance as persistence. By asking us to be “vigilant for the smallest opportunity for change” Lorde is addressing you directly: do what you can, when you can, where you can.

We are addressing each other too. When we speak to someone, we open the possibility of a return address; to and fro. Feminism: to and fro, a dialogue, a dance, a chance, what we have to do to be.

Thank you.




About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Notes on Feminist Survival

  1. Thank you, Sara.

  2. Thank you for posting this!

    It is imperative to ‘snap’. In those moments we fully take responsibility for the telling of our own autobiography. In those moments we take control of our bodies by saying that we will not allow another to act as a narrator in our lives. I ‘snap’ by speaking up about my own experiences, especially those that involve being both the victim and survivor of numerous sexual assaults and battery. I ‘snap’ by recalling how these traumas impacted or impaired the formation of my queer identity, I ‘snap’ by recalling how studying the brain while working towards my M.A. (a journey I am still on) helped me to heal, by allowing me to further display how deeply I understood the severity of my experience and how the system had yet to fully unravel the potentially life-long impacts of such traumas. I snapped by studying ‘displacements of body ownership’. I snapped by doing this on the weekends instead of going about my old routine because I was not going to let the instinctive, nearly uncontrollable desire to avoid specific persons and places to crush me completely! I am very lucky to have never encountered a professor who disrespected my boundaries, which, at one point, made me feel as if academia was the only place where I felt ‘safe’.

    Thank you for the work you do!


Leave a Reply