Another week means another book review – this one from one of my very favorite authors and thinkers, the original #killjoy herself, Sara Ahmed. On to the review!
Living a Feminist Life
Duke University Press © 2017
As I mentioned above, I have been a long-time admirer of Sara Ahmed’s work. In fact, I think there is just one book of hers that I have yet to read (something I am planning on rectifying soon, no doubt), and her books and blogs show up on my course syllabi quite frequently. I also firmly believe her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life should be required reading for all higher education administrators. So, it should come as no surprise that I was eagerly anticipating Living a Feminist Life.
If you have never read anything by Ahmed (no judgments!), Living a Feminist Life serves as a beautiful omnibus of her work. One of the main strengths of the text is Ahmed’s ability to (re)work much of her previous scholarship, tying concepts and experiences together to create a cohesive sense of her complete oeuvre. However, lest you get the sense that she is rehashing old work, it should be stated that Ahmed does a lovely job extending her thinking and developing new thinking. For example, while she has previously used the metaphor of the brick wall in On Being Included, she does some new work with the metaphor in Chapter 6 of Living a Feminist Life. She also writes beautifully on questions, specifically what it means to be made into a question, to have one’s existence questioned, and, as a result, to question one’s own existence (Chapter 5); details the importance of the oft-dismissed positionality of lesbian feminism—a positionality she rightly reclaims as being trans*-affirming (Chapter 9)—and begins the book in Chapter 1 with an extended, visceral description of feminism as embodied, felt, and, to use her word, “sensational.” So yes, there is a lot of newness here, and much of it is a result of Ahmed’s revisiting and working through previous thinking. In this sense, I read her book as very connected to Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (which I reviewed last week) in that “past” thinking would be better understood as “the past that is not yet past” thinking, and that such thinking is always already with us, spurring us to redevelop new ideas and craft deeper understandings.
One of the most noticeable things about Living a Feminist Life, however, is that it is quite a different style of read than Ahmed’s previous work. Her previous books have traded quite heavily in theory and theoretical analysis. This is not a critique at all; in fact, this is one of the reasons I have come to love reading Ahmed. She requires her readers to work, and I, for one, like to dig into that kind of work. Living a Feminist Life, however, is a bit different. In her Introduction, Ahmed discusses the notion of bringing feminist theory home, and of understanding how feminism is embedded in our everyday lives. Thus, she signals a shift from writing a theory-laden text to writing an embodied text, one that is laden with the experiences and fragility of her life/our lives as (a) feminist(s).
This is not to say the text is “theory light,” or that it is “atheoretical.” Quite to the contrary, Living a Feminist Life still has a strong backbone of theory, particularly theory written by women of color. However, the theoretical and conceptual lifting that Ahmed required her readers to do in previous texts was backgrounded a bit, and instead, lives, experiences, and discussions of how feminism manifested in her/our everyday realities was foregrounded. In this way, Ahmed expanded her reach for who could read, understand, and interact with her text. As an academic who has been consumed lately with worries of how to bring my research into more public venues, Ahmed’s book serves as a delightful example of just that (as does Sara Goldrick-Rab’s book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream – but I’ll save that for a later book review).
The embodied nature of Ahmed’s book struck me throughout the book. Right from the beginning, Ahmed discussed her desire to have this text be closer to her and her experiences. However, she also was transparent in saying that she found ways to get in her own way. For example, she used the word “you” when describing some painful experiences of being a feminist killjoy rather than “I” or “me.” She discussed this choice as she wrote, creating a sense of intimacy and connection for me as a reader. I could both understand these experiences as hers and as mine in some senses. For, although she was talking about her own life, there were moments at which I kept thinking, “Yes, I too have had this happen.” There were moments when I was moved to tears, when I was undone by her story-telling, and when I was reminded of the importance of continuing, despite the potential costs of doing so. This book, as I think it was intended to do, got me in the gut, and reminded me of my own fragility as a trans* killjoy.
I was also very pleased to read both of Ahmed’s conclusions in Living a Feminist Life. That’s right – she wrote two conclusions; one a killjoy survival kit and the other a killjoy manifesto. Immediately, I put her killjoy manifesto on my syllabus for my summer Gender & Higher Education course, as I found it to be a wonderful example of how we must commit to our values in public.
So what can educators take from Living a Feminist Life? There are many answers to this question, but I will try to pare down my comments so this post doesn’t go too long. Here’s a bit of a list:
Overall, I would certainly agree that Living a Feminist Life is quite an important book. Even if you have read Ahmed’s previous work, or have read her blogposts or heard her talk, Living a Feminist Life still has a sense of newness and clarity of voice that is remarkable. As bell hooks is quoted saying on the cover of Living a Feminist Life, “Everyone should read this book.”
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.