Sara Ahmed: “Once We Find Each Other, So Much Else Becomes Possible”
The Living a Feminist Life author on Borders, Care, and "Being Diversity"
Adam Fitzgerald: In the introduction “Bringing Feminism Theory Home” to your new book Living a Feminist Life, you foreground an immediate positioning that exceeds academic writing and critical theory as they are popularly understood and located. You write: “In this book I want to think of feminist theory too as homework, as a way of rethinking how feminist theory originates and where it ends up. What is this thing called feminist theory? We might at first assume that feminist theory is what feminists working within the academy generate. I want to suggest that feminist theory is something we do at home,” and just above, you clarify, “homework is work on as well as at our homes. We do housework. Feminist housework does not simply clean and maintain a house. Feminist housework aims to transform the house, to rebuild the master’s residence.”
I wanted to thank you for the opportunity to interview you, first; then begin by asking you, could you tell me a little bit about your work inside and outside the academy during the writing and now publishing of this book?
Sara Ahmed: I first thought of the title “Living a Feminist Life” for a book that would be a collection of essays that I had already written—on whiteness, on willfulness, on strangerness. I think that was in early 2013. But then later that year, the title acquired a quite different meaning for me. The title became a handle for something else. I heard from a colleague about students who had been sexual harassed by members of staff at the college. Once I heard what had been happening in my own work place, everything changed. I began writing a book about how living a feminist life is being a feminist work, and what they really means when you are confronting sexual harassment as well as other abuses of power where you work. Whilst I was writing the book I was supporting a number of students who testified in multiple inquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. It was an overwhelming experience—coming up against wall after wall: walls of silence; walls of indifference. We were also building a new Center for Feminist Research at the time, and I became even more aware of how feminist centers, or feminist shelters, are needed if we are to challenge these forms of power were we are (here not over there); the harder it is, the more we need places to go. Writing the book allowed me to connect my experiences of sexism and racism in everyday life, those walls that get in the way of being at home in the world, to the walls that come up in the academy.
AF: For readers who may not already know, you’ve been a professor, both academic and diversity worker, have published several foundational academic monographs, and have maintained the blog feministkilljoys for the past three years. On it, you talk about a “companion text,” and one can’t help seeing both your blog and book as such.
SA: I know this is not exactly a question, but I have also thought of the book and the blog like this—as in companion with each other. Sometimes I wrote a blog post that was then expanded into a chapter (eg. Feminism is Sensational). Other times, parts of a chapter were turned into a blog post (eg. Killjoys in Crisis). It really helped me, because of course blogs are not only written more quickly, but they enable you to reach people and get feedback, so that the conversations you have can get into the book as you are writing it. Of course, we have other ways of enabling this to happen. But I like what blogs enable to happen.
I also found that the “feminist killjoy” herself became a communication device, a way of reaching people who recognized in her something of their own experience. Having the blog as a companion was crucial I think to a shift in my style of writing. Sentences began arranging themselves on the page differently. I became even more aware of sound, how words sound, how we need to do things with words by rearranging them improperly.
AF: I’m also wondering if the academy is still a place you call home, if in any of the senses that you use the word excerpted above, assuming it ever was?
SA: This is a harder question for me. I have loved being an academic—especially being a feminist academic. I have learnt so much from teaching, researching, even administrating! It has been a profound joy to be involved in education. I am at home there in so many ways. But I think some of the experiences I wrote about in On Being Included (2012), relating to the difficulties of challenging the whiteness of the academy, the difficulties of being assumed to “be” diversity as a woman of color, followed by the experiences of trying to redress the culture that enabled sexual harassment and bullying that I wrote about in Living a Feminist Life (2017), has made me more aware of how the academy is not a home to many, and how it works to stay that way, how it works to stop those of us who are trying to open it up from opening it up. And that “it” needs to be qualified.
There are many ways things stay put. I have realized that even some feminists end up not trying to dismantle the master’s house; they might want some of the problems to be resolved “in house,” rather than talked about them openly or publicly; or they might feel they have too much to lose, and that if the reputation of their university is damaged (by allegations of sexism, of racism), then feminist projects that are “in house” will also be damaged. We all make decisions that are compromised in a world that is compromising. I don’t want to be at home in an institution that is organized around enabling some to be; others not. So I am thinking of myself now as a “post-academic” or “post-institutional” feminist. These posts are probably optimistic. They could even be pessimistic. I will still be there, chipping away, one way or another.
AF: I’d love to linger longer within On Being Included and talk to you about the continuity Living a Feminist Life forms with your prior work, as well as the turn of style that may relate to your post-academic or post-institutional thought. On Being Included remains a timely, explosive look at the “sea of whiteness” that is the academy as a system and institution since it began. You write that to be a scholar or student of color is to “be” diversity, but also to be seen always already as a guest, where hospitality is conditional and therefore to confront whiteness is to make one ungrateful, other, estranged. Even so, I’m curious how the intensive research you did as a diversity worker prepared for and extends the kind of hearing and feminist work you practice on your blog and in your new book. There seems to be a epistemological distinction in anecdote and testimony of this memory-work that may be altogether different from the epistemological dominant modes of academic research and scholarship.
SA: Doing the research that became On Being Included, and then writing the book a few years later, felt like a big departure from what I had done before. It was not until I became head of Women’s Studies at Lancaster (in 2001—so I was still quite junior even though I was taking on a senior position, something that often happens in Women’s Studies) and began to attend faculty meetings that involved Deans and other heads of department that I began to realize how being a feminist at work required working on and not just at the university. And it was whiteness that I first became aware of, as what you needed to work on, as something that had been built into the system. Before then I had already known that universities were white spaces: I had experienced this from giving papers on race, and the kind of defensive responses I would routinely receive, from attending conferences with all white speakers. At Lancaster, it was all around, whiteness was a surround, and you tend to notice what does not reflect you. But suddenly I was at meetings where I began to hear how whiteness was an achievement, how whiteness was justified and reproduced. I still remember one member of a committee saying Lancaster’s whiteness was just a matter of geography!
“I now think of being a woman of color academic as being an ethnographer; we know so much about how institutions work because even when we participate in them, we are somehow always strangers to them.”
I ended up on a race equality committee because I responded to how the problem of race was not being addressed. I won’t go into exactly how a humanities trained researcher like me, used to giving her ear to texts, ended up doing a qualitative study of diversity work, and listening to the stories of diversity practitioners (it is shared in the introduction to On Being Included). But I do think it is important that the transitional moment was not simply because of what I said (not wanting to go along with whiteness makes you stand out), but because of what I could hear in what was being said. I could hear how whiteness was at work. From that point on, I was asked to be on numerous diversity committees, as you often are, if you are seen to embody diversity, which meant gathering more and more data. And in that process of ending up where diversity is, I was able to revisit my own institutional history, and come to understand it differently. I now think of being a woman of color academic as being an ethnographer; we know so much about how institutions work because even when we participate in them, we are somehow always strangers to them.
AF: Did the stories you collected transform not only your thinking but also the very style and structure of your practice? This mode of listening feels central to your approach towards narrative, even in texts that populate Living a Feminist Life. You cite Audre Lorde very early on as a continuing foundational touchstone. The scholar Mina Madga reminds me that this reflects a mode of brown and black womanist understanding the white-dominant academic complex still does not often speak in nor fully accept.
SA: It was important to me that I returned in the book to the data I had collected for On Being Included—though one of the reviewers of the first draft I sent to Duke did suggest the whole middle section could be dropped. I had come to realize that even if the research had felt like leaping sideways, it was part of a trajectory, a series of steps that I had taken to get somewhere. It was important to me, I think, to return to those stories I had collected and to take care of them, as part of what it means to be a feminist at work, and to live a feminist life. I am so indebted to black feminists and feminists of color—I mention in the introduction Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa—for how they embody the fragility of their archives. I began to think of our archives as built from our experiences of walls, what we come up against, but also as built out of the creativity and inventiveness that is behind us, that is part of a survival story.
It is something I will to return to—the work we have to do to give an ear to those who are often not heard because of the walls that come up—in my next project on complaint.
AF: I wonder today, do white academic institutions know themselves as white academic institutions?
SA: I don’t think so! Diversity, creativity, equality: they often are used all the more because they screen out the whiteness that is already there. I think this is the hardest thing about being diversity workers: knowing how useful you can be; how your work can be used as evidence that what you struggle against has been overcome.
AF: Is such knowing possible if the climate of diversity is supplementary, conditional, within a vast hierarchy of white trustees, university presidents and deans, admissions offices and faculties? I’m curious if the reparative work of your research sees as an intended audience the white power across university and collegiate systems.
Ahmed: I can’t even imagine “white power” as a reader! I don’t think white power would get it!
My intended audience is other feminists. I would say I was writing for feminist students in particular: I have deep admiration for the feminist student movements, so often disparaged and dismissed by my generation of feminists. I love the combination of fragility and fierceness, of being willing to name problems, whilst struggling with them, whilst not being solutions.
I think sometimes we do have to try to reach those who have learned not to listen to those who are trying to transform something. This is part of the work of chip, chip, chip, chipping away at the walls; and I have done that work, though more often as an administrative activity than in terms of whom I have addressed in my writing and research. But sometimes the effort to do that work involves losing energy and animation. It can even end up redirecting your attention away from those who are also participating in this activity, those for whom keeping going can be too much. So in this book I was trying to address those who are trying to survive hostile institutions not the institutions themselves.
AF: One of the core images you return to is that of the wall: that when feminists get to work, they are presented with walls—at home, at work, in the countries and spaces they inhabit. Do you imagine and practice feminism as something that is not site-specific, or restrictedly geographically determined? Or is it important to you, in the UK, in Australia, and elsewhere, to see your work as rooted in these particular geopolitical spaces, in relationship to these (their) very specific walls?
I ask this thinking that as much as I want to think of feminism as without borders, as an international revolutionary force decidedly not draped in the language and power of state internationalism, it might be key to consider the ways in which feminism demands we forgo universalism, the privilege of moving freely. This feels very important I believe to reading of your work as a feminist of color who moves through world across—against?—borders.
SA: I do think of myself as a site-specific worker, working on and from where I am. I guess coming from a mixed background, “where” has always been a lively question. I grew up in a white suburb in a small city in Australia, a settler colonial country, a country that remains occupied. I was a brown settler, as I now think of that experience. But when I was there, I was often elsewhere, with an English mother and a Pakistani father, with my aunties from Pakistan, turning up every now and then. To be with family who are from all over the place, is to be with their memories, their memories become textures of your present, which for me meant I was living the after-life of colonialism and of Partition; that there was here.
I talk in the chapter “Being in Question” about how it feels to be assumed as not being from where you are brought up, being asked that question where are you from, which is such a familiar question for many of us. It’s one of these questions that is really an assertion in disguise—which is really saying you are not from here. But it is also a question you can ask yourself, because being mixed, maybe even mixed-up, can make you feel not quite at home anywhere. It is not always a sad feeling, though it can be sad as well as difficult. It can about possibility, about realizing there are different ways to be. I had more in the first draft of the book on being mixed. I took it out for complicated reasons, but I know I will return to it.
I guess sometimes when we think of “where,” we think of the national context. I have no doubt that much of my own work has been directly informed by having become used to the political discourses that are exercised in Australia, especially around reconciliation, around the will to recover from the past, which was really a covering over of the past. Academic worlds can be shaped by the exercising of these same vocabularies. As a young scholar working in the UK in the 1990s (I hadn’t planned to end up here, but after studying one job led to another, and then I realized I was here!), I felt deeply alienated from Australian feminism—lets calls it white Australian feminism and its affective grammars: the constant emphasis on love and hope. I still remember going to a conference on Australian feminism in the UK, which had all white plenary speakers, all non-indigenous speakers, where native title was referenced but only in relation to white European philosophy. It was deeply alienating, and I had some of my early academic killjoy experiences at that event.
Coming to the UK was significant. This was not because I was in suddenly in a brown and black anti-racist utopia—obviously not, as British universities are very white, and are very much in denial of that whiteness. It was because I found a space to be less of a stranger, a space that was then called Black British feminism. My wonderful colleague Heidi Mirza edited a book with that name which came out 20 years ago this year. To become part of that book—it was one of my first publications—felt like becoming part of a collective as well as a collection. It was, it is, a fragile collective; one created from struggles and the solidarities of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women (they often abbreviate us as BAME), many of whom have family histories entangled with the history of British colonialism. It was such a life-line to become part of that collective, which really meant to create a space by finding each other. And it was a life-line because sometimes we can miss each other in the sea of whiteness, despite how it might appear that we stand out. Once we find each other, so much else becomes possible. You get to share wall stories. It is so important to share these stories, of coming up against the same things. Our frustration is a historical record! To share your experience of how whiteness is a wall does not bring the wall down, but it does help you to keep going.
“Sometimes we can miss each other in the sea of whiteness, despite how it might appear that we stand out. Once we find each other, so much else becomes possible.”
I do need to add here that I have since spent time in Australia. In 1999 I had a sabbatical in the university I did my first degree, Adelaide University. There I met Fiona Nicoll and Aileen Moreton-Robinson, and we hung out together and chatted about everything: indigenous sovereignty, sorry whiteness; the politics of reconciliation. The friendship and alliance I formed with them has shaped my work since. They were both crucial to the setting up of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association (ACRAWSA). This Association has made a huge difference, in my view. I gave a paper at one of their conferences in 2007. I listened to indigenous academics Tony Birch and Irene Watson give keynotes. And I did not face a sea of whiteness. It was such an incredible experience.
But going back again to that earlier period—the late 1990s and early 2000s—I began to have many conversations about whiteness with black feminists and feminists of color, which were also, for me, about making sense of my own past. It was not until I came to the UK that I began the process of working through the racism that had been part of my growing up. I was just not ready until I left Australia. Sometimes we have to leave before we can hone in on our own experiences. We can then return home and find something quite different. Living a Feminist Life has been more of a return home than anything I have written before. I describe it as putting a sponge to the past. Who knows what you will mop up.
Feminism: we also put a sponge to the world, we listen, we mop, we mess. We bring to our messy conversations the many histories that come with us. I think of transnational feminism as being about work: we work together across national boundaries; but we also work together on those boundaries, since their very existence means some of us cannot turn up. Some can travel; some not. You can be slowed down by traveling with a Muslim name. You can be stopped and asked questions. Sometimes you have to stop working, or you have to refuse to travel. Sometimes you have to become inventive: you have to find other ways of doing the work. I think of transnational feminism through the lens of Audre Lorde’s legacies. In response to seeing a film about Audre Lorde, The Berlin Years, I once wrote:
We get a sense from the film of transnational as an actual lived space populated by real bodies, not a glossy word in a brochure but a word that requires work. We have to work to learn from others who do not share our language. We have to travel away from our comfort zones; to listen, to open our ears. We learn especially of the importance of a transnational black feminist politics: of what can happen when African-American and Afro-German women speak to each other, when women of color across the diasporas speak to each other; between generations, across time as well as space. We learn from differences about differences. We learn also that the national is transnational: that Germanness or Britishness is shaped by histories of empire and colonialism, which affect the very grounds upon which we live; migrants who in staying leave bits and pieces of ourselves all over the place.
This is, I know, quite a hopeful statement about transnational feminism despite the emphasis on work. It is not a hope predicated on freedom of movement, or freedom from restriction. For me transnational feminism is about the hope of doing the work: working on where we are; working where we are, which is working with and working under restriction.
AF: Finally, I wanted to ask you about how one stays engaged in feminist work and stays well, balances reparative responsibilities across communities with self-care for the body—in the context of queer families as well as those of us without families. As public intellectual and itinerant speaker, working in the context of capitalistic labor, can feminism help us re-imagine the practice of, the division of work and rest? Are there living examples of elders, colleagues or friends that provide you with any crucial advice?
SA: I often pause on the word “balance,” which they use a lot over here: work-life balance. I never feel that well balanced, in anything I do! I think a queer way in is to find in the moments of losing our balance, an opportunity to throw other things up in the air.
There are so many ways I could respond to this question. One of the ideas in Living a Feminist Life is to think from the following: that those of us who arrive into institutions that were not built for us bring with us not only other knowledges but other worlds. It is so important that we keep those connections to other worlds alive. The wisdom of our elders is worldly.
Working for institutions, and coming up against walls, can be exhausting; we can feel depleted, be depleted. We do need to know when to stop. I have always had a strong commitment to taking time out and time off. One of my first suggestions I would made to incoming students would be to take long breaks! And this was not so they could come back and be more productive: that instrumental use of time out is not time out. It is just because we need to have wiggle room; to be reminded of other things; that there is more to life than your work, however much you love your work.
“Those of us who arrive into institutions that were not built for us bring with us not only other knowledges but other worlds.”
Support systems really do matter, and some have less support by virtue of how they arrive into the world or what happened once they came into the world. Creating our own support systems—ways of holding up those who are precarious, who have less to fall back upon—is central to living a feminist as well as queer life. Because as we know too well: those who need the most support are those who are less supported.
I suspect most of my advisors have been books. And I am inspired by black feminist writings on self-care, and built my own Killjoy Survival Kit around the wisdom of Audre Lorde, especially her extraordinary text, A Burst of Light. I think self-care gets dismissed too quickly as neo-liberalism and individualism. In the hands of Lorde, caring for one’s self is about how we inhabit our fragile bodies that have capacities that can be exhausted; it is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing. Caring for oneself is also about caring for others, that important work, often painful, that practical and domestic work, of maintaining the conditions for each other’s existence.
I am not fond of the word repair: in race politics it can be used to imply recovery in a way that re-covers or covers over injuries and injustices. But I think it does help to think of repair as an ordinary activity, as what we need to do to keep things going, given the wear and tear that is part of living a life. Words can be worn, bodies too, from how much they are asked to do. I might even say that one way that feminism can help us to reimagine the division between work and rest is the profound emphasis many feminists have given to the ordinary, not on transcendence, being above and beyond, but on being immersed in ordinary life. The work of care is that.
I think of the kitchen table, where we might eat, meet, greet; and how women of color transformed the kitchen table into a publishing house. It seems right to end with tables; they do matter.