Living a Feminist Life, by Sara Ahmed

Book of the Week: Emma Rees praises an effort to show how to turn personal traumas into political resistance

February 16, 2017
A montage of female writers
Source: Alamy/iStock montage

Work was and is produced in the academy that is oftentimes visionary,” wrote bell hooks in her influential book Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000), adding – crucially – that “these insights rarely reach many people”. She’s right: the opacity and elitism that characterise much “academic” feminist writing threaten to undermine the political effectiveness of an already besieged movement. It seems only right, then, that hooks has championed Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, writing that it is “a brilliant, witty, visionary new way to think about feminist theory”, and that “everyone should read this book”. At the core of Ahmed’s book is her own desire to “reach many people”; to “bring feminist theory home by generating feminist theory out of ordinary experiences of being a feminist”.

Ahmed’s resignation in the summer of 2016 from her post as director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London had an impact beyond the academy. She articulated her position on her blog, feministkilljoys, in a remarkable post called “Resignation is a Feminist Issue”. “We are not having the conversations” about sexual harassment on university campuses, wrote Ahmed, “because they would get in the way of our happiness. If our happiness depends on turning away from violence, our happiness is violence.”

The admixture of sex, power, young people and feminism that characterised the story of Ahmed’s principled stance proved irresistible to the British press. “Sex cover-up row: Feminism professor quits university post over claims drunk staff groped students”, bellowed The Sun, and the Daily Mail, never a publication to bypass an opportunity to foment moral panic (or, it appears, to eliminate syntactical ambiguity), reported on how “students had become pregnant by academics, and staff had groped and ‘forced themselves’ on students while drunk”.

This is the cultural climate in which feminist academics must work. To preach not only to the choir, but to a far wider congregation, too, is to engage repeatedly in socially and institutionally uncomfortable acts that have sometimes life-changing consequences. Ahmed has shown us this. In a deliberate echo of her blog’s name, she dedicates Living a Feminist Life to “the many feminist killjoys out there doing your thing”, and the book’s two conclusions, “A Killjoy Survival Kit” and “A Killjoy Manifesto”, show “how we create principles from an experience of what we come up against, from how we live a feminist life”.

To live a feminist life entails embracing the roles of agitator, misfit, pest and killjoy. It involves never giving up on exposing the flimsiness and vulnerability of power, “normality” or “tradition”. And it means, as Ahmed so brilliantly demonstrates, recognising how “feminism” is “what we need to handle the consequences of being feminist”. She explicitly acknowledges the feminists on whose shoulders she stands, making reference to hooks, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Shulamith Firestone, Judith Butler and other writers who have made an impact on her.

Living a Feminist Life is perhaps the most accessible and important of Ahmed’s works to date. Its debt to her earlier books such as Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) and, more explicitly, to 2014’s brilliant Willful Subjects is clear, and “accessibility” can really work only if, as is the case with Ahmed, it’s securely underpinned with years of engaging with feminist theory and living a feminist life. “In this book, I do use academic language,” she writes. “But I also aim to keep my words as close to the world as I can.”

Ahmed’s writing style has always been quirky, and this quirkiness is ramped up in Living a Feminist Life. Those years of academic apprenticeship have equipped her to write in a variety of styles, from the confessional to the anecdotal to the deadly serious (her discussion here of the murder in 2012 of Trayvon Martin is superb), and also to the very funny (“In my killjoy survival kit I would have a bag of fresh chilies; I tend to add chilies to most things. I am not saying chilies are little feminists.”).

Like an accomplished musician, Ahmed can riff on the same theme in a number of ways, returning to, and reinventing, refrains, making them at once new and familiar. A black-and-white illustration of a brick wall, for example, appears more than once in the book. In one chapter it’s labelled “A job description”; in another it’s a “Life description”. And the “bricks” themselves are important. “Citations”, she writes, are “academic bricks”. When there is a lack of diversity on a reading list or a conference panel or a senior management team, it becomes incumbent upon the feminist “to create a crisis around citation, even just a hesitation, a wondering, that might help us not to follow the well-trodden citational paths”.

“This is the first time I have written a book alongside a blog,” Ahmed writes early on. And the narrative style of Living a Feminist Life is variable, perhaps because of this parallel. It is, at times, a quite dazzlingly lively, angry and urgent call to arms. But in some sections the material is more laboured. The “companion texts” that Ahmed uses, “feminist classics” including Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and films such as Marleen Gorris’ A Question of Silence, are intended to “spark a moment of revelation in the midst of an overwhelming proximity”. Instead, they interrupt the flow of the book’s otherwise engaging project of the feminist making her “own experience into a resource, my experiences as a brown woman, lesbian, daughter”. In other words, the book’s core project of showing how the personal is political – of how an individual’s crises and traumas can be reconfigured as springboards into resistance and renewal – loses momentum.

But when that momentum is given free rein, Ahmed’s writing is glorious: poetic and inspiring. Feminism becomes “that which infects a body with a desire to speak in ways other than how you have been commanded to speak”; “diversity work” is described as taking “the form of repeated encounters with what does not and will not move”; and to critique racism in the academy is to “become a threat to the easing of a progression when you point out how a progression is eased”.

This is still a book with its gaze very firmly fixed on the academy. It doesn’t “bring feminist theory home” in quite the way Ahmed hopes. It will not have the broad appeal of hooks’ own Feminism Is for Everybody, or of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists (2014).

To return to the Daily Mail, as someone desperate for a cup of tea might return to a carton of milk she strongly suspects has gone off, and to read the online comments on its coverage of Ahmed’s resignation is, unsurprisingly, unedifying. “Director of Feminist Research?” writes Mark from Whitehaven: “Is this where we are in Higher Education these days? What exactly is the point?” And the comment from “RumPULL” of York, which reads “Feminism Professor? HAHAHAAHAHHAA” has had 255 “likes” to date. Such vitriol and vaunted ignorance serve as reminders of how utterly pervasive misogyny is. They also make hooks’ plea for everyone to read this book more important than ever. In short, everybody should read Ahmed’s book precisely because not everybody will.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.

Living a Feminist Life
By Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press, 312pp, £82.00 and £22.99
ISBN 9780822363040 and 3194
Published 3 February 2017

The author

Author Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed, until recently professor of race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, says that opting to leave her post in 2016 “was also a decision to leave the university system. The future is unpredictable, but at this point I am not expecting to take up another position. I will be continuing my work as a full-time writer and independent scholar.”

She was born in Salford and emigrated with her family to Australia when she was five. “My experiences of moving and also of being mixed heritage have shaped me in so many ways: not being from where you live (and being seen as a stranger because of how you look) means you see things quite differently. Much of my political consciousness, and wilful ways, come from my early experiences of whiteness as a brown child. Whiteness is a wall.”

As a child, she was “an avid reader… but I am not so sure about studious. Although in this book I call feminist killjoys ‘studious’, so maybe I was! I do remember one of my English literature teachers telling me to read the Communist Manifesto. I think I had a couple of teachers who inspired me to study because they linked studying things with changing things. Many of my teachers were books.” 

Ahmed took an undergraduate degree in arts at the University of Adelaide. “I was a very serious student, and very hard-working. I came to the UK for my PhD in 1991 at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University. I found the environment of ‘critical theory’, as it was then and there, rather stifling. I had a very different idea of what I wanted theory to do and ideas can lead to collisions. I describe these experiences a little in the book. But I made some amazing friends at Cardiff.” But by then, she adds, “I was rather a less serious student. I learned a lot from both ways of being a student!”

Her blog feministkilljoys began in 2013. “Writing a blog and being on Twitter as well has changed my writing considerably. I am much more conscious now about who I am writing for, and I feel less constrained by academic conventions, although I do use them for the projects they work for (I have just finished a draft of another book on ‘the uses of use’ which is written in a more conventional way, although it develops my rather queer method of following words around). So many people have sent me their own feminist killjoy stories since I began my blog. I am inspired by them; this book came out of that inspiration.”

She adds that “the figure of the feminist killjoy speaks to how feminists are judged as causing unhappiness. You are often assumed to be complaining because you are unhappy. When you point out sexism or racism, you get in the way of happiness. We learn about happiness from those who get in the way!”

Returning to her departure from Goldsmiths, Ahmed says that “the decision to leave was made quite quickly. I had what I call a ‘snap moment’, when I realised I just couldn't take it any more.

“But snap has a history. I was exhausted from the struggle to get the college to take the problem of sexual harassment more seriously. So really the lead-up to the decision was slow. Once I made the decision, it was such a relief. It is one of the best decisions I have made. I have much work to do, and I miss very much being part of the Centre for Feminist Research (which was a real feminist shelter for many and will remain so) but I need to do my feminist work somewhere else. And it was also energising to witness how making public the reasons for my resignation had an impact on others fighting similar battles in their respective institutions. We need to keep naming the problem even if it means becoming a problem.”

Asked to name some early career scholars whose work she has found valuable, Ahmed replies: “I have been inspired by the students (some of whom are now early career academics) I worked with on sexual harassment, including Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page. I look forward to reading their feminist outputs. Our energy does generate its own outputs!

“I am also inspired by early career scholars who are willing to be troublemakers, who are using radical citational policies, and who are experimenting with writing. I think here especially of Alexis Pauline Gumbs: her recent book Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, also published by Duke, is fantastic.”

Who gives her hope? “Feminist and anti-racist activisms. Killjoys. People who put their lives on the line to fight for a more just world.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: Killjoys, it’s time to create a crisis

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