Race, Place, and Feminist Space
A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about my recent trip to Liverpool for Writing on the Wall, the experience of being in this city, and the thoughts it shaped in me.
Content warning: this essay explores themes of violence against women & girls, including rape and FGM.
This year I’ve said no to a lot of things. Girls aren’t typically taught to say no, and women are discouraged from setting boundaries, so getting into the habit of saying no not only felt like some much needed character development but a way of unpicking the threads of gendered socialisation that tie women to the role of pleasing others at the expense of our own needs. This year I decided to prioritise two things: my writing and my mental health, which mostly complement one another but can be in conflict as deadlines draw in. And I’ve said no to everything likely to compromise either or both of those things, including a few panels. I think a couple of people have felt slighted by my no, cushioned as it was in politeness, but ultimately that’s their issue. Leaving my home to speak before people can cost quite a lot of energy, especially if it involves long hours of travel and an overnight stay away from home. The mental and physical resources aren’t always mine to spare.
Still, there are times when saying yes is impossible to resist – when the cost -benefit analysis balances out. Last week I was part of Glasgow International for After Dark, a creative conversation between LGBT artists of colour. I’d never been called an artist before, and still don’t see myself as one. Writer, yes – I feel that in my bones, and have external validation from the publishing industry. But, artist? Funnily enough, another participant questioned his own right to the label of writer because of the way Black people go largely unrecognised as ‘legitimate’ cultural critics. Or not so funny. A recurring theme, whatever the medium we worked with, was that none of us had been encouraged to think of ourselves, our work, our voices as having authority. But it was satisfying to connect, to talk about our work and the lives that inform it. Opportunities to meet other creatives who are both LGBT and people of colour are a rare, exquisite thing.
As a girl I’d never have imagined a future where I’d enter the Gallery of Modern Art under the label of artist. The GoMA is a beloved part of Glasgow’s cultural landscape. But, like so many of the city’s architectural wonders, the building was funded by the labour of enslaved Black people. Growing up amidst the tensions created by that repressed history, it was impossible for me to develop a sense of belonging. When Blackness and Scottishness are often treated as two mutually exclusive identities (a seemingly endless number of white Scots can’t get their head around Black people being born ‘here’, raised ‘here’, from ‘here’), how could it be otherwise? It felt powerful to sit and talk and eat and drink in the Gallery, to claim a space that was never meant for us.
Another event I couldn’t resist saying yes to is Beyond #MeToo, a panel at Writing on the Wall – Liverpool’s longest running literary festival. I like the North of England: it has a higher Black population density than Scotland, and is cheaper and less affected than the South. And, like a great many feminists, I’m passionate about talk of women’s rights, bodies, and boundaries. The other panellists – Winnie Li, Hibo Wardere, and Vanessa Olorenshaw – are all women I’ve been keen to meet. Going felt instinctively right. So I did.
Usually my journeys to unfamiliar places involve a constant companion that goes by the name of anxiety, but getting to Liverpool is actually alright. I crochet a few rounds of a blanket and listen to St. Vincent (since taking up white gay Twitter’s recommendation, I’ve been hooked). Even through delay and disruption, it is possible to hold onto a sense of calm – which is uncharacteristic, but feels like a good omen. I’m getting there; getting there in the literal sense, physically approaching Liverpool on the third and final train of the journey; getting there in my head, too. When I’ve been struggling with mental health problems and am starting to reach a place of wellbeing, “getting there” is the answer I give when anybody asks how I am. It’s not a bullshit answer the way “fine” is, but the fine layer of euphemism coating the honesty makes it feel safe.
I get to Liverpool later than planned, but still with enough time to drop off my bag and draw on my brows before the event. In the hotel lobby I meet Vanessa, and we immediately click. Her vision of maternal feminism and no-nonsense approach to sexual politics grab my attention, and I make a mental note to track down a copy of her book. There’s something deeply enriching about engaging with feminist perspectives coming from a standpoint that’s different to your own, learning about women’s experiences and politics that don’t necessarily mirror what you have lived or known. Then Winnie joins us, and she’s even more of a badass than Twitter has led me to believe – I say badass, because speaking openly in public about your experiences of sexual violence the way she does takes serious guts. She has a self-possessed quality, a way of occupying public space, that I can’t help admiring. Much like saying no, a woman carrying herself in this way is not an intended outcome of female socialisation. We talk, during the taxi journey to the Women’s Organisation, about everything from our writing habits to the FiLiA conference. Their company is galvanising in a way that’s unique to space shared between women.
Hibo, the last remaining panellist, is waiting for us at the Women’s Organisation – or maybe that should be first, because she was at the venue before us. But Hibo is the last of the women I meet in person. She is every bit as resolute in her opposition to violence against women and girls, every bit as resplendent, as she appears on Twitter. When we compliment her, Hibo laughs and says “I am a rainbow walking. Always in colours.” During the panel Hibo reveals that for years after undergoing female genital mutilation she hid herself away, and wearing bold colours was a way of celebrating being in her body. To my thinking, it is an act of resistance for any woman whose body has been made into a site of trauma to reclaim herself; to find ways of being fully present and perhaps even taking delight in her physical self.
We get to know each other over pizza (which should be mandatory in every green room), sharing bits of our lives without glossing over trauma. So much is possible when women come together and talk openly about violence. When you have the support of feminist women, and are free from the worry of whether your disclosure will be shamed or disbelieved, it is much easier to get to the root of how and why violence against women happens. There is also a lot of joy in those connections.
The panel goes well. Maggie O’Carroll, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Organisation, has a gift for chairing – an unaffected warmth that stops the event from feeling too formal. It’s also worth pointing out that one advantage of doing panels without men is you are much less likely to be spoken over. Women, especially those who are part of the feminist movement, tend to be good at holding space for one another to speak. And speak we do, about our writing and activism and everything in between.
Winnie reveals that she loved writing as a child, but never anticipated that her first book – Dark Chapter – would be based on the story of her own rape. The perpetrator left her with 39 separate injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Winnie quit her job, went about the business of putting herself back together, and rebuilt her life. Her writing perfectly captures the reality of experiencing sexual violence. In an interview with the Guardian she said that “it’s like you’ve been gutted like a fish – it was like somebody had gouged the Winnie out of me,” words which have stayed with me ever since. Winnie talks about the layer of silence that surrounds sexual violence, even between female friends, and her determination to break it. Winnie’s point about that silence resonates. Before I started spending time in feminist spaces, building friendships with feminist women, it would have been unthinkable to talk about my experiences of male violence.
Rather poignantly, Winnie says she was “‘lucky’ to be a victim of stranger rape”, believed by those around her and the criminal justice system because she met society’s standards of a perfect victim. It’s a terrible indictment of this world that any woman would feel fortunate to experience one type of violence over another. But the reality is the majority of women who are raped fall into the category of imperfect victims. At least 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Most of us knew and perhaps even liked or trusted our rapists beforehand, meaning that – despite this being a common pattern of sexual violence – it is easier not to believe us, the imperfect victims. Believing that only strangers are rapists means you don’t have to confront the full extent of the problem, the reality that male violence against women and girls is endemic. It means you don’t have to sit with the difficult knowledge that rapists are not shady monsters, but average men: men we know socially or professionally, men who are husbands or boyfriends or fathers. This is the ugly truth of life under patriarchy: women & girls are at risk of sexual violence – overwhelmingly committed by men – and the few of us who get believed are comparatively lucky.
Hibo recounted her experience of FGM and how it has influenced the trajectory of her life. She said “I can remember every little detail of that day, the smell of my blood in the room.” A procedure that took 45 minutes would have repercussions for the rest of her life. Hibo underwent type three FGM, which she wrote about in her memoir Cut. Of this experience, Hibo says “you don’t heal from it, you learn to cope with it.” During her work in schools, Hibo was compelled to start challenging FGM when she realised young girls were at risk. Explaining her advocacy, Hibo says “I used my trauma as a tool for education.” Her work has changed how the education system, the British government, and even the FBI approach the issue of FGM. Hibo is proud of how attitudes have begun to shift against FGM in recent years, a change to which her work has greatly contributed, but is adamant there’s still a long way to go before this particular battle is won. Every 11 seconds a girl is cut. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but nobody has yet been prosecuted for carrying the procedure out on a girl.
Next it’s my turn to speak. I have boundless respect for the other women on this panel and feel honoured to sit alongside them. Yet there are no pangs of imposter syndrome, which is another recent positive step. I tell the audience about the context that shaped my work, the isolation of growing up Black in Scotland, the ways in which gas-lighting is used to cover up racism – which the country has long since struggled to acknowledge as a social, political reality. It’s easy enough: there’s no scarcity of women of colour in the room. I talk about the importance of having found feminist community in digital spaces; that it felt natural to raise a dissenting voice online in a way that it didn’t in person, offline. I share my motivation in creating a learning resource for women trying to engage with feminist politics, how it’s done with the goal of helping build a truly anti-racist feminist movement that really is committed to the liberation of all women. And then I turn to Vanessa.
In her own words, Vanessa advocates for “women’s rights, as mothers, in the public sphere.” Before having children she was a barrister, which shows in how she forms an argument. As a new mother, no longer practicing her profession, she was conscious that “my political power was gone, my economic power was gone, my body had changed.” She struggled against the idea mothers are not political, a misconception “which Mumsnet prove wrong.” To Vanessa there is no doubt that women’s bodies exist as the site of oppression in patriarchal society. She calls for an embodied feminist politics that recognise the significance of sex in determining how we experience the world. Vanessa points out that boys begin assaulting girls from a young age, highlighting the patterns of violence that emerge through gendered socialisation.
In particular, Vanessa calls for greater recognition of care work and models beyond outsourcing domestic tasks – often to women who are working class and/or of colour. Despite being vital to the continuation of humanity, care work is devalued as feminised labour and made invisible through essentialist claims that nurturing is a natural part of being female. When her first child was born, Vanessa was asked relentlessly when she planned to go “back to work” – nobody who asked recognised that she was constantly working to look after a new baby, as she wasn’t getting paid to do it. Ideas of what counts as ‘real’ work are upheld by the pillars of patriarchy and capitalism. Vanessa cites Adrienne Rich as an inspiration for her work, crediting Of Woman Born as an essential read on motherhood and feminism.
The Q&A is as interesting as it is challenging. Mandy Vere, a bookseller at News From Nowhere, asked our thoughts on the relationship between shifts in language and feminist politics. Winnie felt this most keenly in the difference between ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ in discussions of sexual violence. She thinks the shift towards ‘survivor’ is a “push to use the word less full of horror and trauma”, that ‘survivor’ offers a more positive and media-friendly spin. Most importantly, Winnie points out that surviving sexual violence is not a linear experience. Ten years on, she sees herself as a survivor, but is conscious that she could struggle again and identify more with the term ‘victim.’ “Trauma can return.” Hibo talks about vagina – specifically, the stigma attached to the word and the sexism in making it unspeakable. She is quite right in observing that without vagina none of us would have been born, so a bit more appreciation is due.
I pick up on the shift from ‘lesbian’ to ‘queer’ in recent years. While it’s a positive thing that more people are finding language that fits them, lesbian gets dismissed as “old fashioned” in a way that’s deeply harmful and ultimately lesbophobic. For hundreds of years, lesbian lives and loves have been erased or broken apart, often with violence. Lesbian is a less palatable word than queer because it is a sexual boundary that explicitly excludes men from women’s desire, whereas queer is ambiguous – and so less threatening to the status quo. Patriarchy depends on men having access to women’s sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour. Lesbian says no to all of that. Lesbian is women directing our love and energy towards women. It’s a powerful word, and an important one to use. Vanessa critiques the term “gender based violence” on the grounds that it obscures the power dynamic typically in action. She says “we don’t commit violence with our gender, but with our bodies” – often male bodies against female bodies.
People ask about everything from ethics to the implications of self-identification. But the comment that most stands out comes from a woman, let’s call her Valerie, who shares that she is a survivor of sexual violence. She speaks up because she doesn’t want Winnie alone to carry that burden of being ‘out’, and because she is conscious that many women in the room will be in the same boat. Valerie’s courage is powerful to witness. Her voice shakes, and mine does too as I clutch the microphone and tell her she’s not alone. After the event, Valerie approaches me. She says that being Black was a huge factor in why the police didn’t support her when she went to tell them about being raped. I tell her that knowing how I’d be seen as a young Black woman was a huge factor in why I never alerted the authorities. Ultimately neither of us could heal the other, but throughout our conversation we could hear and understand one another – which made a world of difference.
I do not feel obliged to disclose my experiences of sexual violence. I do not owe those details to anybody – not as a woman or a feminist or a writer. And it’s entirely possible that I won’t ever write or speak publicly about this subject in any greater detail. But it’s there: me too.
Afterwards, we each grab a slice of leftover pizza and head off for dinner and drinks. On our way out of the Women’s Organisation, Winnie and I notice a poster for the panel on the bathroom door: fame at last. Being something of an introvert I had initially planned to spend my evening in the bath, reading a book, looking out at the lights across Liverpool from the vantage of my hotel room. But I’m enjoying spending time with these women and want to share their company for a bit longer. We sit down in a bar and begin the lengthy process of setting the world to rights. It is in here that I make an important discovery: Liverpool has a quality gin scene. Mine comes in a glass that looks like an infinitely fancier variation of the fishbowls that were popular to drink from when I was an undergrad, complete with pomegranate seeds and blueberries. I could grow to like Liverpool very much.
I’ve known Mandy (the radical bookseller) online for what feels like forever, but this is the first time we’ve been together in person. We get to know one another better. She tells me about what it’s like to be part of a radical collective of booksellers (spoiler alert: pretty damn cool), what drew her to Liverpool, and her family. At a few points through the evening, the nature of my accent is queried. It’s exhausting to have a Scottishness that is never assumed and always in need of explanation. Even without malice, as in this context, it must be qualified in a way that invariably leaves me feeling like an outsider looking in on Scottishness. Still, there is belonging to be found in this group of women – transitory though our meeting is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in patriarchy female friendships are always framed as being of secondary importance to relationships with men, when talking and connecting with women is what enables us to spot the traps gender has laid for us, and for every other woman too. What is gender but a series of restrictions imposed upon a girl, until she learns to restrict herself?
In the morning I have a delicious vegetarian breakfast that fuels my upcoming adventures. It even includes vegetarian black pudding. Never having tasted black pudding before, vegetarian or otherwise, it was a masterclass in creative use of beans and pulses. At the table beside mine, conversation mainly seems to consist of a man talking at his wife, pontificating about everything from Kim Jong-un to the merits of scrambled eggs. I feel sorry for her, until she finally does offer an opinion: that it’s refreshing to see a hotel staffed only by the indigenous population. Indigenous, native, Briton, from here ‘originally’ – there are so many coded ways of saying white, but the racism behind them never varies. A world away from last night, when having a panel that was majority women of colour was a cause for celebration.
I shoulder my backpack and set off to News From Nowhere. Having followed the bookshop on Twitter for years, I am desperate to see it in person. Getting there is easy. For once, I don’t struggle with the map. Above the door is a gay pride flag, and in the window display – alongside the books – is a cardboard cut-out of Theresa May in a police uniform. Yes, I have found News From Nowhere. The shop smells like homemade candles and books – heaven, in short. There’s fiction, feminist theory, biography, zines… There are books on disability rights, sexual politics, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh history, a whole shelf devoted to Liverpool’s own Black community. When I arrive, they’re in the process of changing the display table from books about anti-racist activism to mental health. This is my kind of place. I browse, dreamy and happy, and chat with the booksellers.
Winnie meets me in the bookshop. We talk, lingering by the Women’s Prize for Fiction display, and I recommend Meena Kandasamy’s book When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. Like Winnie, her writing gives voice to deep truths about violence against women, addressing the link between gender and power. It’s a devastating read, but this book burns with resistance and is exquisitely crafted. It would have been great to talk to Winnie more, but we’ll both be at Bare Lit fest at the end of the month. The booksellers very kindly offer to watch out bags, and we each head out to explore the city.
I walk to the International Slavery Museum, taking in Liverpool as I go. The architecture is striking against the blue sky, and cherry blossoms line a walkway towards the dock. It’s a beautiful city in spring. There are a number of art spaces and cafés I could happily delve into but this mission, I feel, is important. So many of Scotland’s ongoing problems with racism are rooted in an unwillingness to examine the country’s history with race, a refusal to acknowledge how that past shaped the present reality. Earlier this year I visited Berlin, and there are public monuments to the victims of World War 2 placed throughout the city. Each monument included explanations of how and why these people died, giving history to provide context. It was deeply emotional, but there was something healing in giving public space over to recognising those atrocities. Repressing a history only adds to the trauma – which is why I am determined to visit the Slavery Museum.
The Slavery Museum is “the first museum in the world to deal with transatlantic slavery and its legacies”, exploring not only the past but how it has informed life in modern day Britain. Beside the entrance is an invitation for people to write about the thoughts and feelings evoked, and stick their postcard on a wall. I like that people are given the space and encouragement needed to try and grapple with the painful knowledge held here. The realities of the slave trade were horrifying. Black people were beaten and raped and killed and worked to death for the profit of white people. Denying it doesn’t help the African people who were forcibly removed from their homes, and it doesn’t help anybody now either.
On display are chains once used to shackle people, brands that once glowed white and burnt into human flesh. A model plantation shows the horrifying living conditions of the enslaved people, and explains that a group of escapees committed mass suicide rather than going back when capture was imminent. The sound of waves plays on loop, clashing with the testimonies of enslaved people being read. I feel overwhelmed. It is explained in detail that enslaved people were dehumanised to legitimise the violence inflicted upon them by their white owners, to justify that ownership in the first place. And this tactic of dehumanisation continues to influence the ways Black people are racialised today.
There are interactive maps of popular routes for transporting enslaved people, explanations of where they were taken and why (always to the place that would bring white people the biggest profit), and ledgers recording the sale of human beings. Generations of enslaved people lived and died without ever tasting freedom or human dignity. The display I found hardest showed samples of cloth that were traded for African people. With a scrap of material, it was once possible to purchase a human being and have them work beyond the limits of endurance for the rest of his or her life. This horror cuts deep.
On my way out of the museum, I am caught by a stream of schoolchildren on a trip. All of the kids I spot are white. Some of them mess around, the way children do, but I hope that what they see here today plants a seed of awareness that will grow over time. I take a minute to breathe, and then head back to the bookshop. On my way I see a monument to Melusine, the river goddess, and spend a moment by her side to find a sense of peace. It works. I say goodbye to the booksellers, News From Nowhere, and finally the city itself.
I liked Liverpool very much, and also the person I felt myself to be here – capable and calm. A return visit is definitely on the cards, next time with a bigger bag for more books and zines. Travel makes life seem full of possibilities, or rather it highlights the possibilities we are liable to forget in the course of everyday life. When Mandy asked about my life in Scotland, I had told her the truth – there are things I deeply love about my home country, but it isn’t a place I can live indefinitely. I’m tired of living in a country where my body, my hair texture, my voice, my presence in public life, must all be justified. It would be nice to walk around with some kind of disclaimer that says “Yes, I’m Black. And my accent – like the rest of me – is Scottish. Those two things can co-exist.” But, in the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, the body is not an apology. And folding my body into the confines of an apology over and over again is not a price that I’m prepared to keep on paying.
Meena Kandasamy. (2017). When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife
Winnie M. Li. (2017). Dark Chapter
Heather McDaid & Laura Jones (eds.). (2017). Nasty Women
Vanessa Olorenshaw. (2016). Liberating Motherhood: Birthing the Purplestockings Movement
Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today