A book can be a thank you note

Yesterday we launched Complaint! 

I want to express my deep appreciation for all you who are doing the work of complaint, chipping away at the walls of the institution, knocking on the doors, causing disturbance; unburying, rebuilding.

My apologies for those who could not make that time. We did not record the launch because we know how hard it can be to bring histories of violence and trauma into the room.

Thank you to everyone who came along, and to Chandra Frank, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Sirma Bilge and Heidi Mirza for your beautiful and wise and moving contributions.

I am sharing the words I prepared and read out.  There are more thanks to follow.


We launch this book, Complaint! an ode to complaint collectives, as a complaint collective. Let me introduce myself as a member of this collective by giving a you a complaint bio. As a feminist killjoy, to give a full complaint bio, would be to tell too many too long stories. So, I summarise: to be a feminist killjoy, to be willing to receive this assignment, is to become a complainer, heard as negative for not wanting to reproduce the same thing, heard as destructive for the same reason. When I was a PhD student, I often complained about how critical theory was being taught around a very narrow body of work (all white men, basically), though not by using formal complaints procedures, but rather informally in what I said in seminars and out of them. I am still complaining about that! In my first job, I complained about how race was being talked about, or not being talked about. One time I sent an email to the Dean after he had said during a meeting that race was too difficult to deal with, an email that led to my name being put forward for a new race equality group that was formed to write a new race equality policy. A complaint, whether made formally or not, can lead you to become a diversity worker. I wasn’t until my second and last job as an academic that I participated in a formal complaint, and that, well that led me here.

Now that we are here, I want to say thank you. I want to thank all of you who have shaped this book. I think of this book as a thank you note. This book was only possible because of how many of you shared with me your stories of complaint, and in sharing stories, shared  so much wisdom, institutional wisdom, hard worn wisdom. I want to thank all of you who engaged with this work on complaint, becoming part of a virtual complaint collective, whether by chatting in person to me after I gave talks or by sending emails, or by tweeting to me and with me, sometimes using my project hashtag, #complaintasfeministpedagogy, by sharing with me informally anecdotes and stories, some of which are in the book, all of which are in the work. I want to thank my publisher Duke for providing yet again a home for my work although I would also like to use this moment to say to Duke that you need to recognise the Duke Workers Union. I want to thank Joje and the team in Critical Gender Studies at UC San Diego for hosting this event, for the time and the care, so we can share the work, again, creating another complaint collective. Thanks to all of you who are listening, and to all the people we bring with us when we are listening. Thank you: Chandra, Leila, Tiffany, Sirma and Heidi, for being on this panel, for being part of this complaint collective. And I want to thank my queer family, Sarah, Poppy and Bluebell, this in order of size and age, but not importance, I promise you Bluebell, for the good hap of being together, for the love and the care in living our feminist lives. Sarah, you have taught me so much about what it means to hammer away at institutions, to try and rebuild them by changing their meaning and purpose, what they are for, who they are for.

A book can be a thank you note. This book is the first I began as an independent scholar. That I had left my post made it possible for me to do this work at least in the way I did it. To receive these stories, to be a feminist ear, I needed to be somewhere else, not in the institution even if I am still on it and not fully out of it. I suspect even if I had not left the institution, I would have had to find support for this research somewhere else. A complaint collective can be that somewhere else, how we find the support to confront institutions that often work by withdrawing support from those who confront them. So many of those whose stories I share in the book were led, sometimes by making a formal complaint, sometimes not, into a direct confrontation with institutions, and by institutions I include not just senior administrators and managers but also colleagues and peers. In the research, I thus needed to guarantee the anonymity of all participants. In sharing these stories, they had to be separated from those who gave them. I think of this separation as a limitation. I say this not with regret, there are always limits, we decide what to give up when we make decisions. But I wanted to acknowledge it here.

It was important that the story of the complaint that led to the research was not told by me. I mentioned earlier that my first involvement in a formal complaint process led to this research. I supported a group of PhD students who had already made a collective complaint. I joined their group, their group became ours, ours, that promising feminist word, not a possession, but an invitation. It was important that the students themselves, some of who are now early career academics, others who are lighting feminist fires elsewhere, to tell their story in their own terms. I was just so honoured that the first conclusion of the book was written by Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble with support from Heidi Hasbrouck and Chryssa Sdrolia and others.


Thank you so much Heidi, Sirma, Leila, Tiffany, Chandra, for being here, for being part of this complaint collective, and to all of you in the audience, listening, for being here, for being part of this collective. I want to share some thoughts about how the book is itself a complaint collective. And to do that I am going to read two paragraphs from my conclusion:

I think of the first time I presented this material. I was standing on a stage, and the lights were out. I could hear an audience, the sounds, the groans, sometimes laughter, but I could not see anyone. The words: they were so heavy. I was conscious of the weight of them, of the pain in them. And as I read the words that had been shared with me, knowing the words were also behind me, lit up as text, I had a strong sense, a shivering feeling, of the person who shared those words saying them to me, of you as you said them, of you being there to say them. I felt you there, all of you, because you were there, helping me withstand the pressure I felt to do the best I could, to share the words so they could be picked up, heard by others who might have been there, in that painful place, that difficult place (complaint can be a place), so your words could do something, so your words could go somewhere. And each time I have presented this work, the feeling has been the same, of you being there with me. Maybe to keep doing it, to keep saying it, that is what I needed, for you to be there with me.  

 I am aware that if these stories have been hard to share (to share an experience that is hard is hard), this book might have been hard to read, hard on you, readers. I know some of you will have picked this book up because of experiences you have had that are hard, experiences that led you to complain, experiences of complaint. You might have had moments of recognition, painful and profound, as I did when I listened to these testimonies. It can help to share something painful, although not always, and not only. One academic said to me at the end of our dialogue, “It’s really helpful talking to you. It reminds me that I am not alone.” It was helpful for me to talk to you too. A complaint collective: how we remind ourselves we are not alone. We need reminders. My hope is that this book can be a reminder: we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder.

I have chosen to read these words from my conclusion because they are about how being part of a complaint collective made it possible for me to do this work, to keep doing it, to keep sharing it. When I say this book is a complaint collective it might sound like I am talking about the collectivity as being in it. And I am not “not” talking about that. The book is a collection of stories, to collect is to create a collective. I am talking about complaint collectives as much to point to the process as to what it brings into effect. I am pointing to what it takes to get here, to get to it, this, what it takes, who it takes, the time, the labour, the listening, the learning, the meeting up, the going back, the checking in, the speaking, the hearing, the encountering, the reencountering. This is why complaint never felt like a research object. I was in it. And I was in it with you, those who shared your stories with me. And that helped me so much. I felt part of something, at a time when I might otherwise have felt very alone. I am so grateful.

In my conclusion to the book, I suggest that “complaint offers a fresh lens, which is also an old and weathered lens, on collectivity itself.” I just want to say a little more about what I mean by that. I talk in the book about the queer temporality of complaint, we are going back over something because it is not over, we are trying to deal with something because it has not been dealt with. To complain is to be willing to look afresh at something with which we are already familiar, too familiar even, something we have had to endure. You might have to keep complaining because they keep booking inaccessible rooms. You have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. But if you keep saying it, you become an institutional killjoy, getting in the way, standing out, becoming the problem, all over again. Having the eye of the institution land on you, being under scrutiny, treated as suspicious, can be very frightening. So many of the stories shared in this book are stories of institutional violence, that is the violence that comes back at you when you complain about violence. We need a collective to witness this violence, to say, yes, this is happening, this is wrong. We also need a collective to withstand the violence because so often the point of it is to make it hard to hold your ground.

The harder it is to get through, the more we have to do. The harder it is to get through, the more we need more.

To witness, to withstand. As I was listening to testimonies, bearing witness, witnessing your witnessing, I was given energy, even hope. I call it a weary hope, a hope that is close to what is wearing, to what wears us down, to what we have to withstand. I came to feel in my bones what it takes, what it will take, to lift the weight, the weight of a history, how so many of us have to do so much, risk so much, to build more just or less hostile worlds. It is so important that we honour that work, to value it, recognise it. So much of that work is happening behind closed doors. And that is where so much harassment also happens: behind closed doors. When harassment is a structure more than an event, how some are worn down or work out by what they have to do to be somewhere, or what they have to put up with to stay somewhere, a structure is how you close something, a possibility, an opening, or how you stop someone, without needing a damn door.  The more you try to bring that out, the violence of how some are stopped, the more doors are shut, nay slammed, in your face. In other words, we encounter what we complain about because we complain. Complaints, that history of harsh encounters, can end up hidden by the same structures they attempt to redress.

I think of where complaints end up, behind those doors, in those files, in that complaint graveyard. I think of all that is also there with them. So much is there. We too can be there. The places that complaints are buried, are holders of many histories, histories of profound pain and loss, of violence, yes, but also histories of struggle, or refusal, those who say no to it, who won’t go along with it, who won’t take any more of it. It is not surprising then that to complain is to find out so much, you put yourself in touch with a history, you find stuff out about yourself, what you will and won’t take, but also other people, about institutions, about power. You might find out about other complaints, earlier complaints. In the book you will read about secret letters in post-boxes, file mysteriously appearing on fax machines, graffiti on books left by one to be picked up later by another. To complain can also be how you learn to notice a burial in a story, a story you might have been told before about someone who had complained before. The more complaints are contained, the more inventive we need to become to get them out. We might turn a complaint that is treated as hostile, perhaps by being perceived as a threat to free speech or academic freedom, into a protest against hostile environments. Transphobia is a hostile environment. I express my solidarity to all students protesting hostile environments.

A complaint in the present can unsettle past complaints, if they are dusty, they are not done. Even complaints that have been buried can come out. To complain can be how we keep not just our own complaints alive but other people’s complaints. An old and weathered lens: we can be a collective without being in the same time or in the same place. An old and weathered lens: we meet in an action without meeting in a person. I think of Audre Lorde. I always think of Lorde. I think of how Lorde describes poetry, in a poem, Power, how poetry is about not letting our power “lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire.”  Perhaps complaint can be connected wire, allowing something to pass between us, like electricity, snap, snap, sizzle, a complaint as how we keep a connection alive. It might not always feel like that. You might feel like you did not get very far. You might feel disconnected. But you know what; we know what. You said no, you had a go. Who knows what you stirred up? Who knows who can pick that no up? We pick each other up. Piece by piece, a shattering can become a movement. A sharp piece, an illumination. A complaint can be clarifying; it can be how you clarify your project and your politics. It can be how you find your people. It is how I found my people. Thank you.


I feel so moved to have brought Complaint! to the world by creating a complaint collective. Thank you to everyone who was there, who shared thoughts and feelings on the chat, stories on our shared document, as well as responses during and after the panel. I was so touched to hear and read responses from participants in the research, for the tenderness of your testimonies. I am glad of how if we hand our stories to each other, they can come back to us.

Thanks to everyone for bearing witness, for withstanding, for being the more we need.

We enact what we aim for. Nothing less will do. We share our pain, our fury, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We can do that only when we trust each other, when we promise each other to learn from each other, when we create room for each other, giving each other permission to enter and also to leave, to try and also to retreat, to express ourselves when we can or not when we cannot. We become part of each other’s survival.

I am empowered to have been on this journey with you.

A feminist life can be a thank you note.

With love

Sara xxx


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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