I am writing this post to express my gratitude to Ama Ata Aidoo. Ama Ata Aidoo died on May 31, 2023.
Gratitude can be grief.
I am deeply indebted to Ama Ata Aidoo for how she repurposed the figure of the killjoy. Her novel, Our Sister Killjoy, published in 1977, was the first text to give a killjoy her own voice.
In The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, I acknowledge my debt to Aidoo in the following way.
“To Ama Ata Aidoo thanks for the gift that is Our Sister Killjoy. It is a joyous killjoy debt that I have to you.”
A joyous killjoy debt.
Our Sister Killjoy was my travelling companion in writing the handbook, which also meant that Sissie, the narrator of the novel, our sister killjoy, was also my companion.
I wrote the handbook in the very best of company.
I had written about Sissie before. She appears, albeit rather briefly, in The Promise of Happiness. In that book, the feminist killjoy was herself rather contained – I gave her a chapter. I don’t think she was too happy about that! Over time, feminist killjoys have spilled out of that container, taken over even, roaming more freely in my life and my work. Over time: the time it took for me to realise my debt to Aidoo.
I recently listened to a panel with Ama Ata Aidoo, “Five Decades of Killjoy Feminism.” Thank you so much to the Radical Book Collective, as well as Bhakti Shringarpure, Ainehi Edoro, Esther Armah, Meg Arenberg, Otoniya Julianne Okot Bitek as well as Ama Ata Aidoo for their beautiful and warm contributions to this panel.
I learnt so much from how Aidoo spoke about the writing of Our Sister Killjoy in the panel. She says, “Some critics have told me it is an experimental book…when I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking it was experimental. It was the way it came out; my words came out.” I was reminded of how Audre Lorde spoke of writing her poem, “Power.” Lorde writes, “I was driving in the car and heard the news about the cop being acquitted. I was really sickening with fury, and I decided to pull over and just jot some things down in my note book to enable me to cross town without an accident, to continue functioning because I felt so sick and so enraged. And I wrote those lines down, I was just writing—and that poem came out without craft.”
Writing: how words come out.
Writing can feel like something coming to you rather than from you.
Perhaps the writing comes to us especially when we are writing from the killjoy; when what we are writing about is what we write against, the ongoing and structural violences of colonialism and racism.
The violence that takes our breath away can sometimes give us the words for it.
In the panel on killjoy feminism, Aidoo also discusses how she came to the word killjoy. She says, “I didn’t sit down and say Sissie is a killjoy…it just came to me, like titles and characters come to other writers.” The word killjoy came to Aidoo perhaps because of how Sissie acquired her shape or character, as somebody who is a trouble maker, who is anti-colonial, but also who is sharp, witty, funny, fierce, someone who can cut the atmosphere. Aidoo describes Sissie as “an elephant in a China shop.” Such a precise description! Some of us become killjoys because of how we refuse to talk, by passing over difficult topics, speaking delicately. You become a killjoy because you are perceived as such by others, too much, too big, clumsy, breaking what is of value, not taking care. Aidoo comments on how Sissie is seen: “they think she is going to say something to embarrass them.” The killjoy comes out with it, she says it, what is there, lurking in the background, but so often remains unsaid, the violence of colonialism, that violence of who gets to speak, who gets to be judged as worth something, as being human.
The killjoy comes to us as a word for the work as we are doing it.
I have been thinking about how I came to that word killjoy, too. When I first began working on happiness, I did not begin with the figure of the feminist killjoy (or any other kind of killjoy). I became interested in writing about happiness (as an extension in a way of my earlier work on the cultural politics of emotion) because I wanted to explore what happiness was doing as well as saying, how happiness can be a polite speech. It was researching the uses of diversity that led me to happiness – how diversity can create a happy impression. A practitioner described diversity as “a big shiny apple…it all looks wonderful but the inequalities are not being addressed.” I can’t quite remember how I came to the figure of the feminist killjoy, but I suspect politeness was the thread. It came to me, she came to me, as a memory of being that person around the family table, failing to be delicate in the face of what I found so painful and problematic, my father’s sexism, his patriarchal reasoning.
The words feminist killjoy came to me because she was already out there, a recognizable figure, a stereotype of feminists, those miserable feminists who make misery their mission. Misery is not our mission. But still if misery is what we cause in saying what we say, doing what we do, we are willing to cause it.
Even when a word, a figure, a stereotype is out there, we still have to pick it up. I picked the feminist killjoy up rather slowly. And it took me time to pick up Our Sister Killjoy. I remember when I first heard of this book. I was giving a lecture on the promise of happiness at the University of Kent back in 2006. The feminist killjoy appeared in the middle of that lecture. When someone in the audience asked me a question, she mentioned Our Sister Killjoy.
I don’t remember her question. I remember Our Sister Killjoy.
The feminist killjoy led me to you.
A feminist killjoy, a sister killjoy, a live connection, an electric connection: snap, snap, sizzle. I heard that in Sissie.
I have been thinking more about how we come to writing, and how writing brings us to other writers, to words that capture something, about ourselves, about each other.
For me, the feminist killjoy did not arrive fully formed. I did not hear her smile brightly and say hello or frown and say no. She was, in many senses, an impression, a vague one at that. She became sharper in time. How sharp she became!
In the first paper I published from my happiness research (in 2007), I did not even use the term “the feminist killjoy.” She appears but as “the kill joy feminist” (“Take the figure of the kill joy feminist. She appears alongside the happy housewife” – yes, I made kill joy two words). And, the kill joy feminist is then turned into a series of questions in a discussion of affect and atmosphere:
Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way?
The feminist killjoy began to acquire more of a status as a figure as an answer to this question about what she is doing (or what she, by saying something, teaches us about what others are doing). There was more to firm up. And, when I firmed them up, giving them a book of their own, a handbook, I came to understand my joyous killjoy debt to Ama Ata Aidoo. I am sure there is more to understand. I know there is.
I might yet write more love letters to Sissie.
I love how Our Sister Killjoy is a catalogue of killjoy encounters. Sissie’s story is written like a travel diary; she travels from Africa to Europe, from Ghana to Germany to England. Her killjoy story begins before she even gets to Europe. On a plane, a white flight attendant invites her to sit at the back with “her friends,” two Black people she does not know. She is about to say that she does not know them, and hesitates. “But to have refused to join them would have created an awkward situation, wouldn’t it? Considering too that apart from the air hostess’s obviously civilized upbringing, she had been trained to see to the comfort of all her passengers.” Sissie’s hesitation speaks volumes. Not to go to the back of the plane or to say she does not know the other Black people would be to refuse the place she had been assigned. If the flight attendant is trained “to see to the comfort of all,” not to follow her instruction would be to cause the discomfort “of all.” At this point Sissie goes along with it. But she can see what is wrong with it. And because she can, we can.
Aidoo (and also Sissie) shows us how being a sister killjoy or feminist killjoy is to be conscious of what we create, “an awkward situation.” To create an awkward situation is to be judged as being awkward. That judgement is how we hear ourselves in history. And, this is why becoming conscious of what we create can be a world consciousness.
In Germany, Sissie wanders around a market. She sees “polished steel. Polished tin. Polished brass.” Sissie “saw their shine and their glitter.” Something becomes shiny because of what is not seen. Sissie sees what is not seen. She then sees how she is seen: “Suddenly, she realized a woman was telling a young girl who must have been her daughter: ‘Ja, das Schwartze Mädchen.’ From the little German that she had been advised to study for the trip, she knew that ‘das Schwartze Mädchen’ meant ‘black girl.’ She was somewhat puzzled. Black girl? Black girl? So, she looked around her, really well this time.” When she is addressed as the Black girl, she is puzzled. But then she sees that it is she they see. Reading this passage, I was reminded of Frantz Fanon’s discussion of being seen as a Black man by a white child. Fanon shows that to be seen as Black is to be made fearsome in the present and to be given a history. He describes how the white man had “woven [him] out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.” A history can make it hard to breathe, a circle “drawing a bit tighter.”
When Sissie sees herself seen as a Black girl, she looks around. It is then that she sees whiteness, “She looked around her, really well this time.” She regrets it: “when she was made to notice differences in human colouring.”
For Sissie, seeing whiteness is about refusing to be drawn into it.
And then Sissie becomes more herself, more of a killjoy, in conversations she has with other Black people about why they stay in Europe. Sissie listens to an eminent doctor who said he stayed in Europe “to educate them to recognize our worth.” Sissie asks if by “them” he means “white people,” and he says, “Well, yes.” Sissie can hear the violence of that yes of having to demonstrate one’s worth to those who have denied it. Sissie’s critique of the injunction to be positive is a critique of what those who have been colonized have to do in order to be recognized by the colonizer as being worthy, what they have to remove from themselves. The implication is that some end up having to polish themselves, make themselves more palatable, appearing grateful, smiling, as shiny as the commodities that Sissie sees in that marketplace.
I recognise that smile. That shine. That sheen.
And so, along the way, you helped me to circle back to another starting point, diversity as polite speech. You helped me to appreciate why the project of killing joy, that world making project, is about seeing whiteness, seeing how you are seen, seeing what is not seen, who too, who is not seen, however much we regret what we have learnt to notice.
I turned what I learnt from you into a killjoy equation:
Noticing = A Feminist Killjoy’s Hammer
We hammer away at the world by noticing it. A hammer is a rather blunt instrument. Noticing can also be a pen or a key board, writing as fine tuning, how we rearrange the world, moving words around so things appear differently. There is wisdom here. I use the word strangerwise for this wisdom. It is an odd word for an old wisdom, the wisdom of strangers, those who in being estranged from worlds, notice them.
Sissie’s wisdom, also, yours.
Perhaps writing is another kind of circling, how we learn not being drawn into it, that narrow picture of the human, whiteness as worth, as a project of becoming worthy, etched into the ground by colonialism.
I have been wondering too if that is why writing matters so much, writing ourselves out of their stories by writing our own. In considering the feminist killjoy as poet, I wrote about how Aidoo wrote about writing (as I wrote about bell hooks writing about writing in that chapter as well as an earlier post on this blog). In an interview, Aidoo give us her answer to a question:
At the age of 15, a teacher had asked me what I wanted to do for a career, and without knowing why or even how I replied that I wanted to be a poet. About four years later I won a short story competition but learned about it only when I opened the newspaper that had organised it, and saw the story had been published on its centre pages and realised the name of the author of that story in print was mine. I believe these moments were crucial for me because . . . I had articulated a dream. . . . It was a major affirmation for me as a writer, to see my name in print.
The poet can be claimed in a reply to a question of what you want to be, who you want to be. You can claim to be one before you are one. A poet can claim you, and in claiming you, a poet can be how your name and your words end up in print.
I think again of Sissie, our sister killjoy, how by travelling she gets her words out and about. Sissie gives serious speeches. She writes an unsent letter to her lover, addressed as “my Precious Something.” She begins by restating his instructions to her, “Yes I remember that I was going to be positive about everything. Since you reminded me that the negative is so corrosive.” But when she reflects on his reminder of the corrosion of negativity, which he compares to cancer, she makes an analogy with the West: “I nodded agreement, my eyes lighting up at how professionally clear you always are. But I remember too when I attempted to grasp your point better by suggesting a political parallel, that negativism then must be like the expansion of western civilization in modern times, because it chokes all life and even eliminates whole races of people in its path of growth, you said laughing: ‘There you go again, Sissie, you are so serious.’”
The feminist killjoy or sister killjoy is often caught by that word serious. Alice Walker describes a “womanist” in the following way: “A black feminist or feminist of color. . . . Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behaviour. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one. . . . Responsible. In charge. Serious.” We can be willful because we know too much, say too much, because we exceed other people’s expectations of what will do us good. Walker highlights both the words willful and serious. We are willful when we will for ourselves, know for ourselves, seriously. A judgment can be a negative charge. We turn the judgment into a project. We are willing to be charged. We are charged up. It can be electric; we are back to that snap, snap, sizzle.
Snap, snap; Sissie.
Sissie accepts that charge. She becomes a sister killjoy poet even if she appears in novel form. Sissie is not given a linear story. Some sentences appear all alone, finding their companions on other pages. Some pages appear like poems with jagged edges, allowing words to be sharper, clearer, more illuminating. A chapter turns out to be a letter she has written but not sent. As readers we become the recipient of the unsent letter. The thoughts she has, killjoy thoughts, spill onto the pages. Perhaps a killjoy character needs another kind of book. Perhaps she writes one.
Another kind of book: we read them because we need them. From Our Sister Killjoy we receive so much; snap, energy, defiance, will. I think of how Michele Cliff describes how she was inflamed by reading Our Sister Killjoy. She writes, “In her pellucid rage, Aidoo’s prose breaks apart into staccato poetry—direct, short, brilliantly bitter—as if measured prose would disintegrate under her fury.” Cliff shows how Aidoo’s story of our sister killjoy, Sissie, with its “rage against colonialism,” freed her to “direct rage outward into creativity,” so that if she could write in fire, she would.
And so, she did.
To write in fire is to write fire. Audre Lorde describes her own commitment to writing fire as she was dying: “I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my nose holes—everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!”
And so, she did.
Writing fire can be how you go out.
Writing fire can be how you go on.
I know so many fires are being lit, will be lit, because of what you wrote, sent out, put about.
It is a joyous killjoy debt we have to you.
Thank you Ama Ata Aidoo.
Your feminist killjoy
Aidoo, Ama Ata (1977). Our Sister Killjoy: Or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. Harlow: Longman.
Cliff, Michelle (2008). If I Could Write This in Fire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Fanon, Frantz. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Lorde, A (1978). The Black Unicorn. New York: Norton.
Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.
Walker, Alice (2005). In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Phoenix: New Edition.