Sara Ahmed: If those who have had the power to decide what we are to do and how we are to be are threatened, it is often because they sense they can no longer take their power for granted.
Self-proclaimed feminist killjoy Sara Ahmed’s new book Living a Feminist Life is both exciting and gratifying. It is like a friend who comes to the rescue just at the nick of time. In the book, Ahmed who calls herself “a brown, queer feminist”, invites the reader to an open-hearted conversation. She reminds us that feminist writing can directly talk to the reader and in so doing shares with us one by one the books that speak to her. By embracing this poetic-theoretical form of adopted by her predecessors in feminist history, she embarks on feminist discussion accessible to everyone by telling stories about her own experience.
Claiming that “the personal is the theoretical”, Sara Ahmed as a feminist scholar and writer shares the problems of living a feminist life. But she also shares from her own experience the methods to survive and to continue the struggle come what may. While gender equality and intersectionality have become political platforms in many parts of the world, Ahmed explores why power groups have no patience to even hear the word “feminist” and why they resistance against it.
Corresponding via email, we discussed with Sara Ahmed what it is to be a feminist; the relation between being a killjoy and being happy; the internal conflicts within feminism(s) and the practical suggestions, on the occasion of her new book “Living a Feminist Life” in reference with her previous books (translated to Turkish by Sel Publishing House) The Promise of Happiness and The Cultural Politics of Emotion.
It is still quite hard for so many people to call themselves a feminist and you explore the roots of this difficulty by discussing the possible reasons. Also, to pass beyond this fear you explain how feminist theory and feminist political action is deeply related with the lived experiences of each person, which then become collective. Do you think that the trouble with calling oneself a feminist is also related to the fact that individual life stories of many people such as women of color, trans women, lesbians, queers which do not have the same resonance with the assumption that there shall be one and only feminist story and history, are being discarded for so long?
I think the difficulty of a word can be how we learn something about a world. The figure of the feminist killjoy picks up from this difficulty: this figure reminds us how feminists are judged as getting in the way of happiness but also how often feminists critiques are dismissed by being judged as motivated by personal unhappiness, as if she says what she says, does what she does, because she suffers from disappointment. We have to wade through that negativity in order to claim feminism.
And yes for many feminists – women of colour, trans women, lesbians and queers – the negativity attached to feminism might also be because too often feminist work has not foregrounded our experiences, so we have to wade through feminism to get to ourselves. One understands why some Black women in the US for instance adopted a different term – womanism – because the word feminism was too associated with white women’s experiences and projects. And we often become killjoys when we point out these associations! I think that word feminism in its travels has kept a certain promise because of the negativity: feminism as saying no to something, feminism as refusing to accept something, feminism as not being willing to adjust to an unjust world; feminism too as not accepting that feminism belongs to some women and not others.
So for me the difficulty of the term feminism is why I embrace it.
Your work on happiness allows a refreshing approach to the subject in the context of feminist critiques of happiness. You say that “to be a feminist is to be in a different world”, so in that different world how can we interpret the happiness of feminist killjoy if we are to “get involved in a struggle against happiness”? What is your stance about the relation of living a feminist life and living a happy life when being a feminist is considered a threat to happiness?
I first wrote on happiness quite some time ago. And when I wrote about happiness I was struck by how consistently feminists have offered strong critiques of how happiness can be used to justify norms. I think of Simone de Beauvoir who stated that it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place others; or Betty Friedan who critiqued the image of the happy housewife; or Audre Lorde who showed that the presumption that we are responsible for our own happiness is how we might turn away from what (and who) compromises that happiness. All of these critiques were of how happiness can be used, almost like a tool. And that tool is employed by governments and organisations as well as families: diversity for example is often used as a happy image, and can easily become a means of not attending to inequalities. I think challenging happiness becomes part of what we do if we are questioning existing familial and social arrangements. So I don’t think living a feminist life should be about living a happy life, which is not to say we have to be unhappy! I think of a feminist life as being about working out how to live and that might mean suspending our belief that happiness is a good thing, or that happiness is what we should aim for, or what we should get as a reward for living in accordance with an idea of what is good.
The English word happiness derives from hap, meaning chance. So for me, a feminist life might be about putting the hap back into happiness, if happiness happens, we are happy. But we are not happy with the world and we accept unhappiness as part of the world.
As you clearly state in the book that living a feminist life is full of challenges, including many intense encounters that take can place everywhere (even at a dinner table that is supposed to allow a happy gathering of acquaintances). Then as the feminist killjoy appears in the scene, she is conceived as the problem itself as you show this logic by saying “when you expose the problem you pose a problem”. This logic is repeated also within the feminist movement when the “others” expose the violence towards them such as in the form of transphobia or homophobia. You expose this logic throughout the book and there is a chapter specifically on lesbian feminism. Why do you think that this kind of othering still continues within feminist politics, and could we say that like the “white men”, “white cis hetero women “becomes an institution” that we need to call an end to it (in order to remove the white imperial project from feminism)?
I think it is important to think about why it might be useful to describe “white men” as an institution and not just about a group of individuals. An institution is made or built out of a series of repeated norms – a pattern that you can get used to that it is no longer even noticed. I called “white men” an institution in an attempt to make that pattern more noticeable: the pattern that assumes you have to be this kind of subject, with this body, this history, to be the author, the one who knows, the expert, to be rational, to be civilized, to be a leader. I called “white men” an institution because I wanted to address how this pattern gets reproduced; we need to know how something works if we are to transform it. And I think “white women” (also cis, also hetero) can also operate like an institution: even if she is made the other, the woman as not man, it is still assumed that some women represent all women, as the norm against which other women appear as deviations. We do want to bring an end to how the world is built to enable some to exist. Within feminism this means an ongoing commitment to challenging the centering of white western women as the proper subjects of feminism.
In discussing the feminist frustration and snap, you provide a refreshing point of view in reclaiming all the sensations of being a feminist. For so long, the angry feminist figure was considered as an image to be avoided which then left so many people’s feelings and experiences unspoken and kept them silenced. You clearly note that “feminists are not calling for violence”; in this sense, how can we understand the feminist snap as a way of non-violent exposure of frustration and anger?
I think for me snap came to matter as a way of connecting energy and exhaustion. When we snap it can seem like a burst or a bolt of energy: you reach a breaking point. But you snap often from being under pressure, because you are tired, there is a certain point when you just can’t take it anymore. Snap can come from the exhaustion, just how much you have had to put up with, but it can reboot, it can give you energy because of how much you had held in. So much can come out when we let our frustration out. Maybe some emotions are judged as negative or destructive (and that includes anger) because of how they let us spill out what we are supposed to contain.
Snap has more to teach us. Snap teaches us how reactions to violence are often assumed to cause violence. Say you are seated around a family table, and your father says negative things about women or about lesbians, many of us are used to violent commentary from patriarchal fathers, and you react: too often your reaction becomes the problem rather what he has been saying. So snap teaches us to be cautious about who is perceived as violent (and who is not). Snap teaches us too how much violence remains hidden, how much we expected to keep taking it. It is not if you snap that you are breaking a family tie rather you are exposing how it was already broken. So much violence is reproduced by not coming into a view. So in a way to contest that violence, to bring it into view as violence, is often to be judged as being violent. For me, those who challenge the ordinary violence in families and communities; nations too, by snapping, are those who teaching us how to live in a kinder and more inclusive and generous way.
At the end of the book there are two conclusions; a killjoy manifesto and a killjoy survival kit. These chapters can be read as providing the necessary tools for the beginning of a new wave of feminist thought and political action. Do you think that now we are in a new feminist era that could be considered as intersectional and theoretically more accessible?
I am not sure if we are living in a new feminist era as such. I think there have always been diverse feminisms some more accessible and intersectional than others.
We need accessible books and accessible theories, without question, because political movements need to be accessible to as many people as possible, feminism needs to reach those who would be enabled by feminism. But we will probably always have some feminist theories that are less accessible, less easy to take up, and those theories are not without value. We need lots of different kinds of feminism, and different routes to feminism.
Without question words like “intersectionality” have become part of our shared feminist vocabularies in part because of a widening of access – social media has something to do with that. And that’s great: a term that was first used in an academic article by Kimberlé Crenshaw can end up all over the place, and that’s because the term did not simply create something but picked up or picked up on what was already there in feminism and in Black feminism specifically. Intersectionality was being done before it became a word because however much white middle-class feminism has been centered, there were always other feminist voices that pointed out how we cannot understand gender oppression without also referring to race and class, who asked what would feminism looks like if we think from the experience of enslaved women, or women from colonized countries. So today we might ask: what would feminism look like if we think from the experience of refugee women, or migrant women who are care workers, women for whom gender violence cannot be separated from state racism and state violence? To ask these kinds of questions is to be part of a long feminist history.
Before the word, we did the work. But I like to think of how words and concepts like intersectionality can travel, be shared and become sources of connection.
In Turkey, the politicians in power relentlessly call feminism a threat to social values and also openly target feminists. Even under such serious attacks, the feminist struggle is getting stronger day by day. Considering this actual situation, what would you like to tell your readers in Turkey?
When you are under attack it is often a sign you are getting somewhere. The more visible you are, the louder you are; the more they come after you. When those who have had the power to decide what we are to do and how we are to be are threatened, it is often because they sense they cannot take their power for granted. Our strength can be evidenced by their fear. But it is hard being under attack. It can be dangerous to be perceived as a danger to social values. And so: the more we are attacked, the more we need each other, to help each other. For me feminism and LGBTQI politics requires building support systems so that when we are under attack, we have somewhere to go.