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.


 

Getting There

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 IMG_-ki1vps.jpganalysis 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,IMG_20180515_101715.jpg 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.

Beyond #MeToo

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.

IMG_20180510_001036.jpgWe 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.

Dark-Chapter-by-Winnie-M-Li-_-Legend-PressWinnie 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 cut-one-womans-fight-against-fgm-in-britain-today-9781471153983_lgroom.” 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.

IMG_-c2bx6e.jpgNext 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 Liberating Motherhoodsphere.” 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

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.

20180518_151742.jpgI 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 20180510_124136.jpgand 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.

20180510_121502.jpg

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.


Bibliography

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

5 Books for White Women to Read About Race and Feminism

A brief foreword: I hope this list helps women, in ways big and small. And while I hope it contributes to the education of white women and assists the unlearning of racism, it’s important to point out that my main motivation in writing this list was to help create a feminist movement that is not hostile – but instead nurturing – towards women of colour. My decision to undertake this labour was driven by the politics of necessity rather than political principle. Here’s the thing: we should be beyond lists like this. It’s not a comfortable truth, but there it is. That being said, should often requires us to divorce theory from practice and has limited use in movement building.

All the same, it’s necessary to observe that I can only afford to undertake educational projects geared towards white women from a place of well-being, when I have the mental and emotional energy to spare – which isn’t always the case. Don’t read these words and feel bad: that’s not productive in either direction. Instead, think about what it costs women of colour to reach out to and try building trust with white women; do your best to minimise that cost, and work out ways to carry it yourself. Happy reading, and may these books take your mind to interesting places.


 

White women often approach me in feminist spaces or get in touch to say that my writing was the first time they considered that race politics and feminist politics were related. What this makes me feel is complicated and, at points, conflicted. On one level there is an appreciation that these women have accepted my invitation to begin practicing radical honesty about race and the feminist movement. It’s affirming to see that they’ve started doing the work of unpicking their own racism, figuring out exactly how it manifests (including within feminist contexts), and trying to improve. I also find it moving that this work stays with them, and has changed their way of being. Yet there is also an acute pinch of something between pain and frustration as I am made to look directly at the extent to which racism is the norm within feminist spaces, so unexceptional that it’s invisible. It’s a bit like being set on fire and then being told by the woman holding a can of gasoline and a smoking match that she hadn’t noticed the flames.

Still, it’s impossible – or at least I find it impossible – to be cynical in response to someone making a wholehearted effort to change and do better. From birth, we breathe in the values that define the society around us; internalising the logic of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy is all but inevitable. And so we all fail at points. Failure is inevitable, even and especially when it comes to practicing feminist values. The only question is whether or not a woman is prepared to get back up, dust herself off, and try again.

So I curated this list of book recommendations for white women who want to learn more about race politics, how they integrate with feminist politics, and the requirements for interracial solidarity between women. It’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not a definitive list. But these are all texts which articulated certain truths that ought to be brought from the margin to the centre of the feminist movement.

I have quite deliberately chosen books by writers living in Britain, because conversations about race politics tend to become Americentric unless we consciously resist it – which enables that old excuse of racism being an American problem, not something we need to worry about in the UK. Writers of colour are doing revolutionary things in Britain, and deserve more recognition for work that deals with ongoing socio-political problems.

  1. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

Why I'mThis book is the place to start. It explores Black British history, connects that history with the present, and provides highly relevant insights about what it’s like to be a Black woman in contemporary British society. A substantial portion of Why I’m is devoted to the thorny issue of feminism and race politics. In a chapter called The Feminism Question, Eddo-Lodge writes candidly about her love for the feminist movement and the sense of alienation created by white women’s racism.

If you don’t understand why the hierarchy of race creates tension between women of colour and white women, this is an excellent introduction to the surrounding politics. It’s written in straightforward language, expressing difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to engage with. If I had pots of money, I’d buy enough copies of this book to hand out to almost every white woman that I know.

If feminism can understand the patriarchy, it’s important to question why so many feminists struggle to understand whiteness as a political structure in the very same way.

Why I’m is so important because it contains a wealth of truths that are often repressed. The book holds the kind of truths that are apparent to most people of colour as a result of our lived realities, and there comes a certain relief in hearing them acknowledged when whiteness is so invested in covering them up. The truths found here are also what many white people consider to be a revelation – never having thought about how people of colour experience certain aspects of life, and not having encountered enough of our perspectives for them to seem like a standard part of human experience, white readers might encounter ideas totally new to them. And that’s ultimately a positive thing.

  1. The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (2016)

The Good Immigrant is an extraordinary collection of essays written by people of colour TGIabout their experiences of British life. The combined insight of the writers will blow your mind. More than half of the contributors are women, though I would encourage you to be open to the essays that are not. Think about it this way. Within the canon of books and ideas we are taught to think of as being central to feminist thought, white women’s experiences are often treated like the normative standard of female experience. There is an underlying assumption that what holds true for white women will have universal relevance for all women. And while all women do experience oppression through the hierarchy of gender, gender is inextricably linked with race in women of colour’s lived experiences. It’s not a case of deciding which one is worse or trying to separate the two: that luxury isn’t available to us, although it’s something white women seem happy enough to speculate about when trying to convince women of colour to pick ‘a side’ in the false binary of feminism or anti-racism.

What makes The Good Immigrant such a powerful book is that is doesn’t try and separate forms of oppression into their own distinct boxes, but instead acknowledges they have a common root: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. None of the writers try to split themselves into one camp or another for the sake of one-dimensional political analysis. It’s honest, relevant, and – at times – really funny.

There’s something white women can be quite resistant to hearing, from me or anyone else: women of colour have just as much in common with men of colour as we do white women. The similarities and differences we share with each group effectively balance out. Sometimes, one set of commonalities looks like a negative image of the other. So if you don’t immediately see the value of reading every essay in The Good Immigrant to better understand women of colour’s experiences, remember that we share an experience of race with men of colour to the same extent we share an experience of gender with white women.

  1. Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection, ed. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (2018)

sistaOften we turn to the words of lesbian women for valuable feminist insights, which makes a lot of sense. Who better to learn about loving, centring, and prioritising women from than lesbians? But white is often treated as the default standard of womanhood – including lesbian womanhood. So I’d like to direct your attention towards Sista!, a mind-blowing collection of writing from lesbian and bi Black women.

I can already feel some women bristling at the phrase “same gender loving” in the title, and do think there is a critique to be made somewhere down the line. However, and far more pressingly, there is an unfortunate pattern of white women seeing the differences between their ways of practicing feminism and Black women’s ways of practicing feminism as proof that Black women are somehow insufficiently radical. White women can be very quick to act as feminist gatekeepers on the assumption that those differences exist because women of colour are less informed, and with a bit of educating we’ll catch up. And so I invite you to read Sista! before criticising.

This book is a kaleidoscope of amazing perspectives about women’s art, women’s community organising, women’s dating practices outside of heterosexuality, women’s bodies, women’s politics, and women’s inner-lives. It contains a wealth of truth on what it’s like to be a Black woman in Britain, and some of the writers – like Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the Director of UK Black Pride – share a lot of valuable information about lesbian feminist organising that doesn’t centre whiteness. Sista! absolutely deserves to be recognised as a significant work of British feminist writing.

  1. Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch

Aside from the genius title, you should read Brit(ish) because Afua Hirsh manages to Britishexpress a lot of topical truths about what it’s like to be constantly in the position of outsider because of your race. She makes deft connections between the personal and the political by unpacking Britain’s complicated and – more often than not – ugly history with race and linking it with the realities of being a person of colour in modern day Britain. It’s a striking blend of memoir and cultural criticism, which works well because of the extent to which Black people have been erased from British history. If l’ecriture féminine is your thing, if you enjoy books where women find ways to articulate their own experiences in ways that don’t fit into the masculine logic of genres, this is definitely one for you to read.

Brit(ish) shines a light on a kind of female experience that isn’t always acknowledged as relevant to British culture or the feminist movement. Hirsch addresses issues like colourism and class privilege in a really straightforward way, showing how they manifest in everyday life – that they’re not abstract, and have very real material consequences.

What else makes this book shine is the way Hirsch demonstrates that you can be privileged on one count and marginalised on another at the same time. Drawing from her own life for examples, she conveys how it’s possible for someone to benefit from the hierarchy of class while simultaneously being oppressed as Black and female. (Full disclosure: I’m also a Bougie Black girl.) If you’re uncertain about how intersectionality works, this book does a great job of illustrating how power can flow in multiple and – at points – opposite directions.

  1. Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, ed. Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis, Pratibha Parmar (1988)

Charting the JourneySome truly extraordinary feminist writing emerged in Britain during the 1980s – though overshadowed by the seventies, it was a decade when a number of pivotal feminist perspectives were first published. And while I don’t dispute the lasting importance of any woman’s writing, and the worth of continuing to cite our foremothers, there is a problem with how they are remembered. As is so often the case, white women’s contributions to the feminist movement are enshrined as part of the canon and the words spoken or written by women of colour are treated as having limited relevance or forgotten altogether.

Charting the Journey is one of the boldest and most urgent books British feminism has ever produced. And yet it’s out of print, largely unrecognised. This book challenges misogyny, imperialism, racism, classism, heterosexism – just about every ‘ism’ going – and was pioneering in its criticism of how dominant structures of power acted against women.

A mixture of essays, poems, and interviews from women of colour, reading this book now is useful not only because it uplifts the spirit, but also because it fills in some of the gaps about women of colour’s political organising that exist as a consequence of the selective feminist memory. If you think it’s at all important to know about the feminism that unfolded before the present day, the women’s work that paved the way for what we have now, Charting the Journey is an essential read. There are some dazzling moments. Maud Sulter, a trailblazing artist and Black Scottish feminist, interviews Alice Walker. Women overlooked and underappreciated shine, and they do so unapologetically.

This book also takes an international perspective on the feminism, so if you’re uncertain about how the movement functions globally or want to learn more about how the lives of women are connected around the world, Charting the Journey is a worthwhile starting point.

 

Dear Shappi: An Open Letter on the Jhalak Prize

jhalak-2016

Dear Shappi,

I am looking forward to reading Nina is Not OK. I like your comedy very much, and am of the view that comedians have a gift for addressing the darker elements of life, so am keen to see how you highlight issues surrounding addiction and sexual assault through Nina’s story. Until the Jhalak Prize longlist was released, I hadn’t known about your novel but am very glad to have discovered it. Since last February – for almost an entire year – I have been anticipating that list and the selection books it would introduce me to. You see, I love nothing more than a good book. And the list has not disappointed!

chasing-the-starsMalorie Blackman is Children’s Laureate for very good reason – her books are impossible to put down and, for all the lessons they contain, never verge on moralising. After David Olusoga’s Black and British documentary series, which was rigorously researched and so full of heart, I can’t wait to read his book on the history of Black people living in Britain. Speak Gigantular had been on my wish list since friends raved about the beauty of Irenosen Okojie’s writing – I downloaded it as soon as the Jhalak Prize longlist was announced, and it is a delightful book. Then there is the treat of new books by unfamiliar authors: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Kei Miller, you.

The longlists of book prizes are like manna from heaven for bookworms. The quality of the books assured by the panel of judges, a great reading experience is pretty much guaranteed. For bookworms, prizes are like the literary equivalent of being gifted an all-inclusive holiday at a five star hotel. We know that these are books with the power to move, to provoke thought, to inspire feeling. These are books that will capture our hearts and quite possibly break them. These are books that will captivate our minds, stay in our heads long after the last page has been turned. The Man Booker, the Costa, the Bailey’s – each year, we bookworms look forward to those lists the same way we look forward to birthdays or bank holidays.

bare-litI was there at the Betsey Trotwood when the Jhalak Prize was announced. It was the launch party for Bare Lit Fest, Britain’s first literary festival centred entirely around the writing of Black and Asian authors. It was a weekend filled with brilliant books and the politics of liberation. Instead of the same old talk about change or resignation to the flaws of the publishing industry, this was action that promised results. Media Diversified and the founders of the Jhalak Prize had put their money where their mouth was. So had we, the people who bought tickets to attend and books once we were there. And that was really exciting to be part of.

What stayed with me about Bare Lit was that not one single person of colour apologised for or questioned their seat on a panel, the legitimacy of their work being showcased. Along with new friendships and a suitcase full of books, I took a piece of that confidence back home to Glasgow. As people of colour we are forever expected to justify our successes, our voices, and even our very presence. We’re forever fighting this assumption (on the part of white people) that anything we achieve is down to the colour of our skin and not the merit of our work. The spectre of tokenism casts a shadow over the accomplishments we earn. And I’m really sad to hear that this concern over giving “ammunition” to racists caused you to withdraw from the Jhalak Prize. Being longlisted was a huge achievement and you deserved to own it. That Nina is Not OK is your first novel made it all the more impressive.

The tokenism/merit binary has a lot to answer for. It plays a key role in upholding racism in society. When people of colour don’t get ahead, it’s because we don’t work hard enough or just aren’t good enough. When people of colour do get ahead, it’s all down to positive discrimination. How hard we graft, the barriers we face with our work – these are never given the same scrutiny. Due to your stand-up I know you have come up against those barriers too, lost a role in a sitcom because the production team decided against casting an Iranian woman for the part of a nanny in a British series, and so I don’t blame you for how you handled being caught in a situation that has so many difficult layers.

nina-is-not-okThe reason given for your withdrawal from the longlist was fear of alienating your audience. This is difficult to understand because surely, like all the other people who found your book through the Jhalak Prize, I am part of that audience. If anything, being shortlisted for a literary award broadens your audience by encouraging more people to read your books. Why reject the grounds for our interest in your novel? If the Jhalak Prize amounts to tokenism, our interest in the books listed is tokenistic too – a reductive view to take, given the superlatively high standard of the books on offer.

Appreciation of good literature is what the Jhalak Prize is all about. And books by writers of colour – no matter how brilliant – are far less likely to get the appreciation they deserve. Men named Dave are statistically more likely to make it onto a best-seller list than any man or woman of colour. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, with under 1 in 10 of its employees identifying as people of colour – this impacts not only on whose stories are told, but the extent to which their promotion is prioritised and their authors supported.

The only audience likely to be alienated by Nina is Not OK being longlisted for the Jhalak Prize are white people who feel threatened by any direct celebration of the talents of people of colour – the sort of white people who reduce people of colour succeeding to tokenism rather than acknowledge the grounds on which that success is deserved. You worried that a white girl reading your book might think “oh right, so you’re not with me” because of your book being among nominations for the Jhalak Prize. But being with that white girl – having words with the potential to speak to her – is not and should not be at odds with any acknowledgement of your Iranian heritage. Good stories have universal value. “Should a reader be aware of someone’s ethnicity?” The alternative is that the reader assumes you are a white woman.

Obscuring your ethnicity might enable readers to pick up your book open to the idea that its content will be relatable, but it does nothing to unpick the perception that books written by white people speak universal truths and books written by people of colour are of limited relevance. If a reader picks up Nina is Not OK because they are intrigued by the premise, but puts it back down again because the author is Iranian, that amounts to racism.

good-immigrantYou spoke of the limitations imposed on immigrants in explaining your withdrawal, the hostility that immigrants face in Britain today. Nikesh Shukla, co-founder of the Jhalak Prize, edited an anthology on that very theme: The Good Immigrant. In that collection Darren Chetty’s essay draws from his experience as a primary school teacher, recalling a conversation in which two young pupils explain to one another that stories are only about white people. He analyses the prevalence of the idea that books are by and about white people, the implications of internalised racism in determining how Black and Asian children understand their position in the world. It is powerful stuff, and I highly recommend The Good Immigrant if you haven’t yet read it. By challenging the notion that a story must be by or about whiteness to be legitimate, we also challenge the underlying logic that dictates ownership of stories is white: the assumption that we are Other.

In spite of rather than because of your withdrawal from the Jhalak Prize longlist, I remain a part of your audience. However, as both a passionate bookworm and a Black woman, I now feel alienated because this decision makes it seem as though you value the comfort of your white audience above the engagement of Black and Asian readership. I do not feel as though you value me as a reader, or anybody else the Jhalak Prize has brought to your novel. Leaving the longlist was not a neutral act. It carried the potential to discourage just as surely as you imagined being present on the longlist might.

Your work is your property, under your control as creator. And that’s fine. I wish you every future success, Shappi, and hope that your writing continues to receive critical acclaim. And I leave you one final question about audience: is reaching white people who engage with your work in spite of their racism really more important than reaching people of colour who engage with your work from a place of solidarity?

Yours in sisterhood,
Claire

In 2016 I will exclusively read books by women – here’s why

This year I will read books by women. I do not say “only”, which implies that my choice of reading material will be somehow limited or insufficient, but rather exclusively. I’m not the first to try this experiment  – Maddie Crum and Rachel Perkins both found it enlightening – and I probably won’t be the last. Every novel, every autobiography, every collection of poetry, every play that I read this year will have been written by a woman. Every anthology that I read will have been edited by a woman. Why not do a 50/50 gender split? some among you ask. But – as the more observant among you will have noticed – we don’t live in an equal society. Under a third of our MPs are female, men in full-time work still earn 14% more than women in full-time work, and in Britain a woman dies from male violence every 2.98 days. Even the arts, assumed to be liberal, still have a long way to go.

During my time at school, the curriculum for English was almost entirely male and certainly all white. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was haunted by the cruelties of institutionalised mental health care as exposed by Ken Kesey. I read Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust and marvelled over Evelyn Waugh’s dry take on the English upper-classes as surely as Charles Ryder marvelled over the architecture of the Marchmain family’s ancestral home. I read Brian Friel’s plays and was awakened to the magic of stagecraft, the important role played by language in shaping identity. I read Fergal Keane’s Letter to Daniel, the significance of which was largely wasted on my 14 year-old self. I read Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, over which I fumed and developed an ongoing horror of marriage. And so on. Carol Ann Duffy was the token woman on the English reading list – I suppose ignoring the Poet Laureate would have been pretty hard to justify.

Though I am glad to have read each and every one of these texts, at no point did I see myself reflected in any of them. Every valuable lesson these books taught me was accompanied by the tacit message that ‘male’ and ‘white’ were characteristics key to the production of truly great literature – that the male was standard, an objective interpretation of the world, whereas the female gaze was subjective, and somehow less worthy of serious consideration. When I went on to study Politics & Journalism at undergraduate level, regular all-male lists of required reading only compounded this message.

Fortunately, during my first year of university I started to read much more widely. I began actively pursuing books by women upon realising that I had, perhaps, been undervaluing women’s contributions to literature. As well as providing me with endless hours of enjoyment, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, the Brontë sisters, Jackie Kay, and Daphne DuMaurier also forced me to confront the assumption I had been harbouring about women’s writing – that, secretly, it was the soft option. And Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was like a white, liberal gateway book to harder feminist texts. These women’s insights into human nature taught me just as much about the world, arguably more, than any of the theoretical frameworks covered in my Politics classes. Their writing fascinated me – so much so that it was often a distraction from writing assignments or studying for exams – but, overall, I suspect their books did more for my critical development than that module on Non-Governmental Organisations.

Doubtless someone is getting ready to cry misandry by this point. Don’t you care about male writers? Certainly, I care about male writers. (If Neil Gaiman is reading this: Congrats on the new baby! ILY and we’ll definitely catch up in 2017.) If George R. R. Martin finally drops The Winds of Winter – and that ‘if’ is bigger than Balerion, the Black Dread – it will be the biggest struggle of this personal challenge. Having parted ways with Game of Thrones on account of the gratuitous and non-canon rape scenes, I will simply need to wait until a minute past midnight on the first of January 2017 to find out which (if any…) of my favourite characters are still alive.

Are you saying that male writers aren’t important too? Nobody is saying that male contributions to literature aren’t important. In fact, it is because male voices are often celebrated, studied, and centred to the extent that female voices are marginalised that I am carrying out this experiment.

Why not go on reading female writers and male writers?, you ask. That’s a fair point. I will do exactly that from 2017 onwards. For years of my education, I prioritised books my men under the illusion that this made me a Serious Reader who read Serious Books. Despite having read voraciously from a young age, there were long stretches of time when I would go without reading books by women and not give it a second thought. Female authors are so often dismissed by marketing and critics alike as producing “beach reads” and “chick lit” that it inevitably misshaped my perception of what the term “women’s writing” actually means.  So, armed with determination and a borrower’s card for Glasgow Women’s Library, I’m going to challenge myself and my understanding of literature.

Reading women in 2016 is an experiment of sorts. It seems the best way to redress an imbalance, and if it dislodges any gendered misconceptions then so much the better. After all, how can any reader survive on a diet of the trivial?