For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.
—Audre Lorde (1985)
Sara Ahmed wrote Living a Feminist Life just after leaving the academy. She resigned from her position at Goldsmith’s to protest the university’s failure to redress sexual harassment and assault. On her website she explains, “Resignation is a feminist issue. . . . Wherever I am, I will be a feminist. I will be doing feminism. I will be living a feminist life.”1 Living a Feminist Life was born of a feminist politic that is willing to make sacrifices in the name of care.2 Ahmed suggests that feminist theory is not merely a skill or speculative indulgence; it is a political act that gives life where institutions attempt to choke it out. We might think of Audre Lorde’s work and say that feminism, and I would add womanism, makes way for life where there is violence and despair. Living a feminist life is for Ahmed’s survival as much as it is an act of political protest.
Ahmed’s book, then, is not only an invaluable contribution to feminist scholarship—it is a lifeline for all her readers to persevere in the face of injustice. For the scholar familiar with her corpus, Ahmed references rich theoretical concepts nuanced in her prior publications.3 For general audiences, she articulates the racist and sexist experiences so many of us suffer, and she offers practical tools for how to resist succumbing to them. It is a survival book for the budding feminist and the seasoned scholar.
In the first section of Ahmed’s book, “Becoming a Feminist,” she returns to her image of the dining room table, where the feminist embodies willfulness, killjoy, and snap. Next, she looks to the image of the brick wall that feminists come up against in “Diversity Work.” Last, Ahmed paints a sober image of what “Living the Consequences” entails, closing with A Killjoy Survival Kit and Manifesto.
In this series, we will first hear from “writing doula” Kimberly George, who outlines the three sections of Ahmed’s book before articulating its value for her teaching and scholarship:
As both a writing teacher and a feminist scholar myself, I celebrate in this text not only a feminist research methodology, but also a temporality, an affective resonance, and a writing process to emulate and teach. It’s a writing process that nourishes embodied feminist labor, and draws our attention to the kinds of knowledges feminists are already living. Importantly, it’s also a book that honors ways of knowing of earlier generations of women of color writers. I believe one possible next step is thinking together more about why and how institutional life alienates us from these kinds of writing practices, which are also our kinship practices.
Second, Ali Na explores how the arm of the willful child in Ahmed’s work is out of joint. Though uncomfortable with engaging the personal in her scholarship, Na describes the ways in which her racial identity is cast as not belonging—there is the misrecognition and demand to account for oneself. She finds in Ahmed’s work the language to articulate discrimination in academia.
Ahmed describes the impetus to become a feminist as an accumulation, in which the experiences of sexist subjugation function as a “gathering like things in a bag, but the bag is your body” (23). So through the experiences of my own life and those closest to me, I understand the influence of the personal in feminist theories. The hard thing for me is writing feminism through my personal life.
Next, Danai Mupotsa crafts her response in the form of five love letters themed: fragility, companions, feminism as pedagogy, manifestos, and a dedication. She describes her situation in the academy as a feminist killjoy:
I am tired of deadlines and journal articles and performance management—and colleagues that ask students if I am “fuckable” and the ways that I am made to feel that I am the problem when I bring that up. I am tired of administrative work, I am tired of drafting emails. I am tired of people thinking that I have a personal problem when I react/overreact to our beloved African/global misogynist scholars and all of the tomfoolery that supports and celebrates them. I am tired of institutional structures that are deliberate in their support for non-transformative relations and practices. I am tired of staff meetings where I play “spot the other black person” to pass the time. I am tired of feeling like I am the mean one.
Then, Gail Hamner describes Ahmed’s use of phenomenology, “affect economy,” and eye rolling, before addressing her experience of anti-maternal institutions and practices in academy. She values in Ahmed’s work that
feminists can assess what supports exclusion and dismissal without positing a utopia in which everyone is equally included. The walls are real, even if the task of justly or successfully eradicating them eludes us. Such restraint is crucial for trying to speak pregnancy in the increasingly neoliberal academy, and in a world saturated with misogyny. How much does it help to “extend the tenure clock” when tenure is vanishing? How much does it help to institute parental leave in a culture that still places the bulk of the labors of childcare on the formerly pregnant body?
Finally, theologians Marvin Wickware and Amy Barbour explore feminist killjoys according to their “liberationist view of the Christian evangelist.” As seminary students years ago, Wickware and Barbour felt, “We were killjoys who killed others’ theological joy, as well as each other’s. . . . We each experience the world as (theological) killjoys and are personally invested in contributing to the discussion of just what it is to be a killjoy.”
The panelists featured on this Syndicate symposium inhabit Ahmed’s feminist method. Unlike scholarship invested in performing mastery of knowledge, these contributors articulate the significance of Living a Feminist Life for their labor by taking her words into their bodies. Personal and professional lives intertwine with frightful candor. Readers might experience shock and wonder while reading, because we are trained to silence and erase ourselves in the production of scholarship. Shirking this convention, the contributors offer hope to the weary. Readers suffering discrimination and mistreatment in the academy, state, and home will find here a community of feminist scholars living a feminist life together. Their aims are not to dominate or shame one another. Instead, each comes alongside Ahmed in facing “the brick wall.” We find companions in the feminist classroom, in books like Living a Feminist Life, in discourses such as this, and on the streets protesting injustice. We are not alone. The struggle to survive is a collective, feminist effort.
Everyone should read this book.
—bell hooks (2017)
The Center for LGBTQ Studies (CLAGS) awarded Living a Feminist Life the 2017 Kessler Award, which is given to scholars who over the course of their careers have produced a substantive body of work that has made a significant impact on the field of LGBTQ studies. The National Women’s Studies Association gave Living a Feminist Life an honorable mention for their Gloria E. Anzaldúa book award.
These include Willful Subjects, On Being Included, The Promise of Happiness, and Queer Phenomenology.↩