Sara Ahmed: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy

Sara Ahmed: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy

The feminist scholar on bridging theory and ordinary life, and the pervasive myth that feminism originated in white culture.

Feminism is a sensible reaction to the injustices of the world,” writes Sara Ahmed, self-described feminist killjoy. In Living a Feminist Life, her latest work, Ahmed considers how her own understanding of feminism has developed as a way of “making sense of what doesn’t make sense.” At a time when public scholarship seems to be a thing of the past, she offers a model for what its modern incarnation might look like. The book, while grounded in theory, is also her most personal to date, filled with stories from Ahmed’s everyday, her experience of being “a feminist at work.” “Theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin,” she reminds her readers, demonstrating that good theory, useful theory, is generated from and should be relevant to ordinary life.

For Ahmed, a scholar of feminist theory and a queer woman of color, the personal is institutional; one year ago, she resigned from her position at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she had been the inaugural director of the Centre for Feminist Research. Her leaving was in protest of what she felt was the university’s failure to address the problem of sexual harassment on campus. Sharing the details of the decision on her blog,—“You have had hundreds of meetings, with students, with academics, with administrators. You have written blogs about the problem of sexual harassment and the silence that surrounds it. And still there is silence”—served to move her work further into the lived world.

It was through her blog posts that the idea for Living a Feminist Life was born; the blog’s name,“feminist killjoys,” refers back to a cultural trope that Ahmed examined in her 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness. In it, she examines the idea of that figure—along with the unhappy queer, the angry black woman, and the melancholic migrant—to demonstrate how our Western obsession with acquiring and maintaining happiness can be problematic for those whose experience interrupts the happiness narrative. “To kill joy,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance.” This reclamation of the term “killjoy” struck a cultural nerve; Ahmed now has over 24,000 followers on Twitter.

Reading Living a Feminist Life felt like having aspects of my own experience explained to me—interactions with male colleagues, the dynamics of being brown and queer in academic spaces—while also being instructed in how to resist and interrupt those structures at work in the future. The book ends with two refreshingly practical tools: a killjoy survival kit, which suggests categories of items one might collect to help sustain one’s feminism, and a killjoy manifesto, a kind of mission statement for intersectional feminism. These pages are eminently shareable; I have already copied and passed them to friends, colleagues, and students, and I suspect I am not the only one.

Corresponding via email, Ahmed was gracious and generous in engaging my sprawling questions. We discussed the sometimes bumpy process of becoming a feminist, the persistent myth of feminism as a white imperial gift, the continued relevance of the term “queer,” and Ahmed’s new project on the “uses of use.”

Nishta J. Mehra for Guernica

Guernica: You write that “feminism is homework,” which made me think immediately about my students. Last year, a group of young women at the high school where I teach founded a Feminist Club, carving out space for themselves to learn, vent, and take action. They grapple with what it means to be a practicing feminist, to cultivate what you refer to as “feminist tendencies.” One subject that often arises is the question of consumption—should they still listen to music that motivates them to run faster at soccer practice if they object to the lyrics? Can they still love films from their childhood once they notice the problematic gender tropes that run through them?

Sara Ahmed: I describe the process of becoming a feminist as a bumpy process; you bump into a world as you begin to realize that it does not accommodate you. You become conscious over time of how things are not what they seem; how stories that you are told for your own enjoyment narrow down what is possible, especially, but not only, for girls.

Once you are a feminist, once you come to identify that word as your own, it is as though you are “switched on,” such that being “on” is your default position, and all that you encounter, all that you consume, that you do, becomes something to be challenged, questioned, resisted. It can be exciting—to become attuned to how things have taken a shape in the way that a story is a shape, how things are not necessary or inevitable, how they are open to being challenged, how we can create alternative stories. But it can be tiring, always being “on,” and there is no doubt that sometimes we wish we could just switch off and watch a movie! In a way you could use permission notes—I put some in my killjoy survival kit. You can give yourself permission to turn off when being on is too hard. This does not always work, mind you. Sometimes, you might be tired, and you just want to watch a feel-good movie, when the killjoy comes up again, which is to say, you become her. You can find yourself questioning and critiquing things again.

Since sexism and racism are in the world, we need to engage with the world—know it, understand it—if we are to transform it. We cannot withdraw from sexism and racism.  And we can be engaged and even enjoy what we challenge.

Sometimes being a feminist killjoy can feel like you are getting in the way of your own happiness; and if happiness means not noticing the injustices around us, so be it. But that’s not the only way of telling a feminist story, because apprehending the world from a feminist point of view is apprehending more, not less. Living a feminist life helps to create a more complete picture because we try not to turn away from what compromises our happiness. Of course sometimes it can be tiring being unhappy about so many things! But I find joy in the fullness of living a feminist life, though not only, and not always.

Guernica: In Living a Feminist Life, you refer often to your “killjoy survival kit,” which includes texts that have agency in your life and propel you forward. Are there texts or works of art that you’ve discarded along the way because they didn’t fit into the survival kit?

Sara Ahmed: I do think survival kits are what we assemble as we go along. We work out what helps pick us up, what gives us energy to go on. I certainly remember the books in my kit from the impact they had on me. So by virtue of the nature of my own feminist memory, what makes it into the kit is what has left the strongest impression. As a teacher I have shared [those] texts. I taught Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider every year I was an academic, every year for twenty-three years! It has been a joy to witness how her words reach those who pick up her books, especially black women and women of color. Lorde shows us what is painfully familiar and yet can somehow remain obscure. I think of how she calls racism and sexism grown-up words, and I think, yes: we experience something before we have the words for it, and once we have the words, we become attuned to what it was that we experienced.

Thinking from the point of view of my journey as a feminist academic, I guess there were some texts that are part of what we might call “feminist theory” that I found disappointing. These might be the texts that bracketed the questions I thought were important—for example texts that did not engage with the questions of racism and sexism within the academy, and even implied that questioning racism and sexism is an overly negative or knee-jerk response to bodies of work. Those kinds of texts do not make it into my kit. But I am not going to name them. Not here, not now! One of my very small premises is that sexism and racism are philosophically interesting. We generate knowledge from working out the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, including within the academy.

All feminists are students in one way or another. We have to study the world in order to transform it. We will all assemble different survival kits. I encourage each student to assemble their own. I have a lot of books in mine; other feminists might find companionship elsewhere. For those of us who found feminist company in books, I think it is helpful to ask ourselves what we want from those books. We can want different things, of course, and we do not always know what we want until we find it. Sometimes it is a matter of what finds you. I think of companion books as those books that make me feel less lonely, and also those that allow me to meet myself in a different way.

Guernica: As someone whose parents emigrated from India, I appreciate that you call out the pervasive mythology that feminism originated in white culture. My parents were the first feminists I knew; my father was probably the first person I ever heard articulating feminist ideas. Can you talk more about how you see the narrative of feminism as an “imperial gift,” as you put it in the book’s introduction, playing out in contemporary feminist theory and spaces? What are the ways you see this notion being perpetuated, and how can we interrupt it?

Sara Ahmed: I have learned a lot from reading feminist work on the role of white women in empire. At Lancaster, I used to teach on white women missionaries in India. We need to understand how feminism was historically used, and is thus usable, as an imperial project, saving brown women from their culture and/or patriarchy. Gayatri Spivak’s diagnosis of the imperial mission [in her 1988 essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”] as “white men saving brown women from brown men” remains precise. Additionally, imperial feminism can take the form of “white women saving brown women from brown men.”

We still witness all around us how feminism is narrated as an imperial project. Even anti-racism can become a discourse of white feminist pride: what white women can give us by overcoming their whiteness. If feminist agency is found in whiteness, then the passivity and helplessness of women of color becomes the occasion to demonstrate this agency. As we know too well, Muslim women are assumed as passive, oppressed, and in need of being saved by feminists who seem curiously more concerned with other women’s liberation than their own. Coming from a mixed religious as well as mixed racial background, I have come across this assumption, because it was often used as an explanation of my own feminist story: that I was lucky to have lived in the West, otherwise I would not have become a feminist, or that my feminism came from my mother’s (English) side. Exposing what’s wrong about this case reveals the problem with assumptions.

My Pakistani auntie, a brown, Muslim woman, was my first feminist teacher. It is her voice I hear when I hear the word “feminism.” She did not need to be saved. She was one of the most strong-willed women I have ever known. This is not just my personal revelation. This is about showing how racism works as an assumption of who is passive and who is active. The binary passive/active is racialized as well as gendered. If we challenge the distinction, we change the script.

The assumption that feminism travels from the West to the rest can mean that you just do not notice the transit that moves in the other direction. We have to interrupt the feminist story by changing how we start a conversation, by starting with those who found feminism in a different way.

Guernica: I felt personally convicted by your examination of the intersection of queerness and brownness; I have certainly been guilty, as a queer, brown woman, of ascribing to the notion that happiness comes only in proximity to whiteness, that to have a “happy” queer life is to model oneself after the behavior of queer whites. It’s a double-whammy of heteronormativity and white normativity.

In my mind, this has much to do with the push for marriage equality, what it has and hasn’t done for queer people, how it can be used as a pacifying response to obstruction. I’m curious about your choice not to speak about marriage in the book.

Sara Ahmed: I think marriage comes up occasionally in the text. But you are quite right: the book does not offer a sustained critique of gay marriage. That the book doesn’t offer a sustained critique of gay marriage is probably a way of imposing a critique. I do not wish to make marriage the horizon of my life or my politics. And yet I understand how and why for some queer people, access to marriage might matter the way access to other institutions matters.

I do think we need to fight to transform structures that have been oppressive and not just try and be included within them. Having said this, I think we can differentiate between forms of inclusion. Sometimes inclusion is about identifying with a norm— saying, for instance, that gay marriage strengthens marriage, a project that rests on queers straightening themselves out and distancing themselves from those who refuse that project. But sometimes, we can aim to transform institutions through the attempt  to make them more accommodating. When we think of “queer families,” we are thinking how we queers can be inventive with the family form by not allowing it to assume the same old form.

Guernica: At the end of the book, you call for a revival of lesbian feminism, “in order to build worlds from the shattered places.” You insist on the continued relevance and utility of the term “queer,” and point to the importance of “wiggle room”—predominantly queer spaces like bars, coffee shops, etc.—for those of us so often constrained by society. What does it now mean to occupy queer spaces?

Sara Ahmed: I always think of toes when I think of wiggle room—a little toe with no room at the end of the shoe because the shoe is too tight. A world can be tight; norms can be felt as tight and restricted when they do not accommodate your desires or your being, and loose and free when they do. I think of how it feels to be cramped, when you have no room, and sometimes we create room by wiggling about.

It does not always work; no amount of wiggling will create more space in some instances. If we have many feminist stories to tell as feminists, no doubt we have many queer stories to tell as queers: stories of how we found ourselves and each other. Queer pubs and clubs have been really important for me in the past, sometimes because after spending time with family, I can just feel so constrained by the presumption of heterosexuality, however well-meaning my family are, however much I love them. And then any old gay bar will do; it is like a tonic.

I like the old gay bars. My favorite place when I first came out was a bar in Lancaster called The Albert, where my girlfriend and I would just go and hang out and dance to Kylie Minogue. I used to like how tattered and scruffy it was. But that bar disappeared, as many gay bars tend to do. There are bars that I can still go to in my mind, even if they don’t exist anymore. Queer can then become like a pocket in your old tattered coat that you can crawl into when you feel those norms tighten.

I think wiggle rooms matter because—or when—you do not feel at home in norms, however much those norms have been extended, however much you have been invited to hang out in them. So talking about wiggle rooms is a way of not telling the queer story from the point of view of those who are trying to be more normal. Gentrification can mean the loss of the spaces, without question, and a loss of a feeling. For me, a queer feeling is harder to find in shiny bright venues. And we don’t all have access to venues of our own, shiny or not. I have been lucky to live in London, and attend queer nights, like at Club Wotever, until quite recently. But these days I live in the country, and for me wiggle room is as much a walk with my dog Poppy as it is a night out with friends. Wiggle rooms change as we do.

I think as well of the work we do to create queer and feminist spaces in the academy. The Centre for Feminist Research that we created at Goldsmiths felt like that; we repopulated the university with bodies for whom it was not intended, different bodies, not the same old, same old. Much of the time we create our own spaces and shelters even if that is at each other’s houses or on each other’s Facebook walls. The kitchen table can become a publishing house.

Guernica: In the book, you examine various aspects of the power of fragility, from the way it reifies and recreates problematic relationships to the way it could potentially be reclaimed in order to rebuild those relationships on different terms. I read this as a nod to Lorde’s assertion that we can never dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools; is fragility, perhaps, a tool that doesn’t exist in the master’s toolbox?

My own experiences with grief have taught me to think about brokenness differently, and I wonder if you see a correlation between the experience of grief and the ability to relate to breakage without rushing to restore what has been broken. How might we think differently about these concepts if, as you put it, “a shattering can be an affinity?”

Sara Ahmed: It is interesting which words we pick up, which words we follow, which words become the tools with which we do something. I always think it is helpful to work out howwe pick things up. The word “fragility,” I think, came from my reading of George Eliot in my book Willful Subjects (2014). I was reading Mill on the Floss because I was so captivated by Eliot’s depiction of Maggie Tulliver, and how Maggie’s problems were narrated as a problem of will. A will that is a problem is often called a willful will. And as I turned to other work by Eliot, I began to notice all the fragments of broken things in her work. I began to realize how willfulness comes up so often in scenes of breakage, as what is behind something. The girl and the jug both “fly off the handle.” So really it was willful girls who led me to fragility. I think we should follow the lead of willful girls.

A more popular word in current academic literature is “precarity.” I think fragility and precarity can be side-by-side, different accounts of related phenomena. If you think of a jug that is precarious, you might be referring to its position. Maybe it is too near the edge of the mantelpiece. Just a little push and it would fall right off. Precarity can be a generalized position; when we say a population is precarious we would refer to how much work has to be done just to maintain a position, how easy it is, because of how hard life is, for some to fall right off.

I became interested in how some become understood as being fragile, in fragility as an expression of their qualities. Today, from the use of expressions such as “snowflake,” we know how the image of an overly fragile group can work; critique or protest becomes expressive of an internal weakness, pointing out damage as a sign of being damaged. So here fragility can be a frame, a way of framing a situation so that what is being said is deflected.

Fragility can also be an expectation that you live with. When you are told you can’t do something, you don’t have to agree, but it is hard not to be affected or concerned. And if you do not manage to confront it, that concern can be confirmed. I call this an “internal wall,” when we internalize other people’s judgments about what we are like, drawing on Iris Marion Young’s important work Throwing Like a Girl (1980).

Clumsiness can also work like this. I don’t think of clumsiness so much as fragility but as what threatens the fragility of objects and others. I was a clumsy, as well as willful, child—I think they go together!—always in trouble for breaking things. The more I tried not to break things the more I seemed to break things. We know how this works: the more anxious you are about doing something the more likely you are to do something. This is how an idea becomes generative. Once you have then broken that thing, the idea of you, which is an idea that you too have of you, as being clumsy becomes even more solid. I wanted to treat these ordinary bumps, these ups and downs, as part of living a feminist life. But I also wanted to try to find in breakages a different approach to being in a body as well as a world.

When I follow a word such as “fragility,” I am not ever trying to say the word, or a concept, is a solution. I am not trying to suggest our task is to affirm the word itself. I do engage with problem of white fragility, for instance, and how so much can be stopped by the anticipationof breakage. I explored in my book On Being Included (2012) how racism is heard as damaging to whiteness. Fragility can be used to stop something from being expressed. In a way, then, fragility is used to preserve the right of some not to be broken by others; fragile whiteness is also a fantasy of a whiteness that should or would be whole.

Critical disability studies and feminist and queer studies allow us, I think, to attend to brokenness differently. Through them we think of fragility not as a weakness that can be overcome, or what we should try to overcome, but as a responsiveness to a world. In my new project on uses of use, I describe fragility as a “record of a life.”

In Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, Eli Clare describes how once a bone has broken, even after it has healed it is not the same bone as it was before. Once we break something, once we lose somebody, we find ways to live on, which is not about going back. It can take time. The expectation that mending oneself is about returning to what one was before can create even more anguish. I wrote in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) about the idea that a “good scar” is hard to see and how we need a different idea. A lumpy, bumpy scar can be an important reminder of an injury or a loss. A loss is part of us; what and who we lose remain part of us.

I think there are many ways we are asked to rush over things that are hard—in politics and in life—and the writers who have taught me most, including Audre Lorde, especially Audre Lorde, have taught me to stay with what hurts however much it hurts, until you have worked something out about yourself and the world.  Audre Lorde also says that sometimes to survive we have to become stone. Sometimes to survive the weather you have to harden yourself. She invites us to embrace our imperfect broken bodies with bits and pieces missing. I think when the project is to survive heavy, hard histories, we do need multiple tactics; sometimes they are in tension with each other. Sometimes we need to lighten our loads, to laugh. Sometimes we need to be weighed down, to stop under the weight.

We are not going to get it right when we are living with wrongs. We are not going to build a house that is light enough to accommodate everyone. It is an ongoing, unfinished project because it is a question: how to build a feminist world when the world we oppose is the world we still inhabit.

Guernica: In an interview you did with Migrazine in 2013, you spoke about your interest in the political dimension of emotions and the way emotions can work in social encounters. You said that emotions are “a crucial technology for governing people.” Can you expand on that, especially in light of our current political reality? As debate rages in the United States regarding the removal of Confederate monuments in the South, your observation that “emotion is performed to imply that that history is behind us” seems more relevant than ever.

Sara Ahmed: You could write a whole book to answer this question! I think we can witness how fear is used by governments both as a feeling—a sense of crisis or emergency—but also as an explanation, a way of explaining damage or disappointment as the consequence of such-and-such groups of people—immigrants, Muslims, queers, trans people. And this use of emotions is not simply about the use of “bad feeling.” I would argue that ideas of happiness are central to the management of populations—that such-and-such group has deprived you, the legitimate citizen, of the happiness that would or should be yours—as well as love—that we have to restrict or eliminate such-and-such group out of love for the nation. We have an important body of work on how emotions work in these ways, and we need more of that work as we collect more and more data.

I was very shaped by growing up in Australia, a white-settler colonial country where the occupiers did not leave. Even when apologies came up as something that should be given in recognition of the injustice of the stolen generation, it was often as if the apology would be a way of getting over it, of moving beyond the history that was being apologized for. I have learned a great deal from indigenous scholars and writers such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Tony Birch about these mechanisms. And working in the UK today, so often you hear this idea: that colonialism was in the past and the problem is with those who are not over it, who are not willing to put that history behind them. So everywhere “getting over it” has become an injunction. We need to refuse that injunction. It is not the time to be over it because it is not over.