Reading as a Way to Refuel: Being a Feminist in a Dumpster Fire World
In Sara Ahmed’s latest book, Living a Feminist Life, she writes about a feminist survival toolkit. Ahmed would know all about that: when confronted with the impossibility of materially tackling the sexual harassment of students at Goldsmiths University in London, she quit her professor position in protest. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, she writes, but living a feminist life hardly is, as practicing feminism can be something that is necessary because of shattering moments in our own lives.
I definitely relate to what Ahmed writes; it’s been extremely difficult to continue to practice feminism in a world that seems to be leaping backwards any time progress is made. It can be exhausting, and activist burn out is certainly a thing we must watch out for, but Ahmed’s idea of having a feminist toolkit to help fight the good fight is new to me and I absolutely love it. It’s a type of self-care, she explains; drawing on the writings of Audre Lorde on feminist self-care, Ahmed writes:
“[…] In A Burst of Light (1988), [Lorde] defends caring for oneself as not about self-indulgence but self-preservation. She is making for us a distinction. She is sharpening a tool. This kind of caring for oneself is not about caring for ones happiness, it is about finding ways to exist in a world that makes it difficult to exist. This is why, this is how: those who do not have to struggle for their own survival can very easily and rather quickly dismiss those who attend to their own survival as being self-indulgent. They do not need to attend to themselves: the world does it for them.” (emphasis mine)
The idea of feminist self-care is obviously not new, and Ahmed explains that self-care becomes survival for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to an identity that is in line with the status quo–straight, white, cisgender and male. What strikes me about Ahmed’s idea of a feminist toolkit is that she includes feminist books as one of the tools feminists should turn to when it gets difficult to practice feminism. She explains:
“You need your favorite feminist books close to hand; your feminist books need to be handy. You need to take them with you; make them with you. Words can pick you up when you are down. And note: it is often books that name the problem that help us handle the problem. Kick-ass feminist books have a special agency, all of their own. I feel propelled by their kick.” (emphasis mine)
While I’ve always thought of reading as a type of self-care, it had never occurred to me that feminist books might pick me up when I’m down. I’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon myself. Reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera has given me life in the past. bell hooks’s The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love has given me ways to name patriarchy and how it is conceptualized and represented in media like I hadn’t been able to before. This very book by Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, has energized me in a way I had not expected: Ahmed really gives a wonderful lesson in feminism, by writing about her privilege and her oppression in a balanced and easy way that suggests we are all capable of doing the same. Intersectional feminism is difficult, but it is possible. And feeling left out by the leftist movement is something Ahmed has felt, so it’s okay that I feel it too.
With this in mind, I am beginning to assemble my own collection of feminist books for refueling. The books mentioned above are already included, and this is a preliminary list of other books I am considering:
- Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi, for a lesson on building a community of women that is a safe space
- Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, so I can be reminded that the best feminists can sometimes be bad feminists just like me
- Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, for when I need to check my cisgender privilege and affirm femininity as an asset, not a weakness
- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, for when I feel lost and need to be reminded we all feel this way sometimes
These are book I have already read. I also want to read new books with the objective of considering them as part of my refueling feminist kit. There’s tons of books out there that could be a perfect fit (and, as I always say, not nearly enough time to read them all), and I’m determined to find them. In the meantime, I am curious to hear from you: What books give you life? What books replenish your energies? Why and how? Please let me know in the comments; one of Ahmed’s central advice to living a feminist life is that building a feminist community is essential, and what better way to start than with books?