Shameless Book Club: Shameless Book Club: ‘Feminism For Real’!
Our first episode of the Shameless Book Club podcast features anthology ‘Feminism for Real’ edited by Jessica Yee.
This text asks big questions about the relationship between feminist theory and practice, and discusses the frustrations of trying to relate to ideas about feminism that don’t fit no matter how much we sometimes squeeze and unbutton to make them.
In this podcast you’ll hear Shameless contributors and staff rolling around questions the book has posed, and talking about where they look to find answers in themselves. Take a listen here:
For a transcription of this episode read on here:
(Shameless Book Club intro jingle - written and recorded by Jo Snyder)
Sarah Feldbloom – Hi, I’m Sarah Feldbloom, Shameless magazine’s web producer. Welcome to the first episode of our book club. For our first installment, a team of Shameless staff and writers came together to talk about their reactions to Feminism for Real, a collection of stories of what feminism means in theory and in life. Editor Jessica Yee is a self-described two-spirit, multiracial, Indigenous, feminist, hip-hop reproductive justice freedom fighter. She is the executive director and founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. Profits from her book, Feminism for Real, go toward a scholarship fund for the kids of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. You can find it at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and other independent vendors. To start us off, here’s Sheila, the moderator of this episode’s discussion.
(Sound up on the round table discussion)
Sheila Sampath – I’m Sheila Sampath, the Art and Editorial Director of Shameless. I’ve been to the academy, but not for women’s studies. I studied sociology and psychology at U of T, and then graphic design at George Brown. Laura Krahn – I’m Laura. I’m also an academically trained feminist although, again, not in women’s studies. I have degrees in critical theory, and my areas were feminist and queer theory and also in English, and I am a reviewer for Shameless magazine.
Naz Afsahi – Hi, I’m Naz Afsahi. I’m a blogger at Shameless. I too was once a member of the academy. I went to Queen’s University for my undergrad. It was not in women’s studies; it was in film studies slash religious studies, and I also received my Masters from the University of Western Ontario in media studies.
Ronak Ghorbani – Hi, I’m Ronak Ghorbani. I’m the arts editor for Shameless. I have an undergraduate degree in journalism with a minor in sociology, and I’m pursuing a master’s in communication and culture at Ryerson and York University.
Julia Horel-O’Brien – I’m Julia Horel O’Brien. I’m the web director and blog and community manager at Shameless magazine. I have an undergraduate degree in English Literature from Trent University and a Masters in Publishing from Simon Fraser. I have never taken a women’s studies course.
SS – So we’re going to start off with some general questions. The first is really general: What were your impressions of the book?
RG – I was really jazzed when I got the call out in my email to submit, because in the email, Jessica Yee had said that she was looking for contributions by youth and for people who haven’t studied women’s studies necessarily, and I really like that kind of non-academic approach to the book. And as someone who reads a lot of academic theory, I get really frustrated because it’s not always grounded in reality or examples aren’t given of how you can apply theory to real life. It was really refreshing and awesome to read a feminist text that is grounded in reality, grounded in people’s experience and giving agency for people to talk about their own experiences and acknowledging that people know about themselves and people want to talk about themselves. I don’t know if I’m saying that right, like people are their own experts, that’s it. You don’t get that in a lot of academia. And it’s really frustrating.
LK– I was really excited going into it because I had been following a lot of the buzz surrounding the collection. I had really high hopes for it, and those hopes are a little disappointed and I had some concerns coming out of the book. I wanted it to take that extra step and be really clear and explicit about so what can we do? So here are some options. Or, it’s up to you to figure it out. So I wanted it to go the extra mile, to push the boundaries of what such an anthology could achieve. Or be explicit about the fact that we are the ones to push those boundaries.
SS – So everybody got something different out of it or was looking for something different from the book. I am just wondering, just for clarity, what everybody’s expectations were, like personal expectations going into reading the book.
JH – I wanted to hear voices that didn’t sound like mine, actually. Being a white, straight, cis-gendered, upper-middle-class brought up person who went through school without any financial hardships. I am the person who academia was designed for and so I wanted to hear people that weren’t me and people that I didn’t consider when I was in university, and I really want to correct that now.
NA – I wanted to hear more voices that I think were similar to mine as someone who does identify as a woman of colour. So I was very excited to hear more voices speak out instead of the traditional voices that we read in the academy. And I didn’t go through women’s studies, but I have read a lot of feminist theory in grad school, so I was super excited to hear from those outside the quote, unquote “pedestals” of feminist theory.
LK - I was looking for that radical intervention, that for an academically trained feminist would slap me upside the face and teach me something so new I had never even conceived of it before. Did I get that? Not quite. But I think that this discussion leads towards giving me some of the things I was looking for, and hopefully this discussion will continue to all of you who are now listening. And also, I wanted it to be in my face so that, as a former women’s studies TA, it was something that I could maybe think back to my experience and have some sort of hip radical women’s studies professor bring to their classroom and have the same kind of intervention within their classroom. That this book could perform that work of revolution. I had high hopes, I had really high hopes, those blogs were praising this like you wouldn’t believe, so that’s where I got that from.
RG – I was expecting a really bad-ass book that was really different from Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti, which was really problematic. I was really frustrated while reading Full Frontal Feminism, because it’s a mainstream feminist text and I felt like this book is the complete opposite of what Full Frontal Feminism is and it is the type of feminism that I want, that I want to work towards and I want to be a part of. A feminism that is literally, because it’s a book, inclusive of many different voices, and that just its existence is a radical intervention because it is so presented in a way that is so not traditionally academic. What I didn’t expect was for it to hit me so emotionally. Because it was like, the only other academic stuff that I have read that has gotten to me really personally has been anything by bell hooks - because of the way that she envisions education, graduate school and university is a type of education that I wasn’t having. I didn’t expect to reflect on my own … I didn’t expect to have my feelings about class reflected so well in this book. Because even as a TA, to talk about class with students - it’s really hard because - it’s hard to acknowledge what class you’re from or to talk about class privilege. Having that chapter in here about class being mobile and stuff was really really good, and I was also really happy to learn more about Indigenous feminism, and hear more Indigenous feminist voices. Yeah.
SS – I had a question: at the beginning of the anthology, Jessica talks a little bit about discomfort, and when I read the anthology, I felt quite uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, and I felt that was a really powerful thing for me personally. And I’m just curious about your personal experiences while reading the book. Did you feel a lot of discomfort? And how did that discomfort affect you?
LK – Absolutely. I think that one of the things that this book accomplishes is that it calls out the reader. I felt very called out, to be like “no, I am an academically trained feminist but I’m not a women’s studies major, and this is not what I experienced,” so it forces you to take a position, which I think is a really great thing, because then you have to reflect about it, and it really got me thinking about the types of privilege that I experienced and to look back on my academic experience and to wonder if there were certain things that I was capitulating to that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. So I think that was a really positive thing, and also to value my affect response to this experience and maybe reflect on what that might say, especially coming out of years of university and grad school - and this is not an experience that encourages you to feel in any way - and that was great.
JH – I was uncomfortable in lots of different ways in reading lots of different sections. Partly because I realized that I hadn’t thought about a lot of things that I thought that I had thought about, and then I read it and I thought, “oh, I hadn’t really thought about that before.” There was one piece that really hit a light bulb moment for me, and that was Megan Lee’s piece called “Maybe I’m not class mobile, maybe I’m class queer.” There’s one particular line where she mentions that university is a classist institution and I had always thought like: yes, it is inaccessible to many people because of various financial barriers, and that is sort of where my financial analysis of it ended. There’s a line where it says, “the culture of university imposes a homogenous set of classist values, including dangerous delusions of meritocracy” - and I went, “oh my God” - because I had always sort of subscribed to this idea that if you are smart enough and work hard enough then you are going to get what you deserve in university, that you will be able to advance and move through. It made me really uncomfortable to realize that that thought in itself is hugely privileged and I really need to unpack that.
RG – it’s really interesting that you brought in that part about Megan Lee and meritocracy, because when I saw that, I highlighted and wrote it down because that’s one of the things that I am experiencing in grad school is that, if you work hard of you will be one of the privileged students who gets a grant, then you can live on your grants, and you can - well, you can’t survive, right? - and so it’s like that idea of working hard, but it’s so untrue because of multiple reasons of why she outlines the rest of it. But I felt uncomfortable in some parts, but I felt really challenged throughout it all. One part, going back to resistance to Indigenous feminism, Erin Konsmo writes - is it ok if I read like a segment?
SS – Please do.
RG – “One crucial element that non-Indigenous academia needs to accept is that no matter how much you read the journals of Columbus, a native chief, or through interviews made of people, you do not have the blood memory that we have within us. Sorry if this ruins your PhD on native people, but you don’t have the blood memory experiences that I do, so the internal “validity” of your research will never compare.” And what I wrote was like, “whoa,” cause that spoke to me. Besides studying Indigenous issues, studying anything that’s not Iranian, like studying any other ethnicity, I have thought about doing and that really spoke to me. Especially that part: I don’t have the blood memory of those experiences. And then I wrote, “whoa,” and then, “Ronak, get used to feeling uncomfortable,” cause this is stuff that, you know, we’re not encouraged to explore in research methods. What I take in research methods, they don’t tell you: “well, if you’re not from the community and you’re not from the bloodline, you may never understand anything.” You might dedicate your whole life to studying a group or even a subculture and you’ll never truly understand it, and no one’s ever written that. That to me was really big, reading it brought a lot of clarity to me.
And just one more piece that I wanted to talk about. Even though I really like Louis Esme Cruz’s piece on medicine bundle of contradictions, I found it really challenging because I’m not, I don’t know a lot of the language so when there’s one part at the end, he writes that “my medicine is bound with this knowledge being many things all at once assisting me to grieve what I and we have lost in getting here while we grow something new together, I’m hopeful for this process of unsettling things again.” So he talks about decolonization, he talks about being 2-spirited, and just a set of languages that is very new to me, like I don’t necessarily know what medicine references and what I was hoping to have was like a glossary of terms.
But then, when I thought that, it brought me back to an Iranian anthology that I read which was called “a world between” where distinctly the editors write, “there are words in here in Farsi and we’re not translating them because that’s an act of resistance - because we want to challenge the reader who’s not from our community to challenge what they know.” And so to me, reading how Louis is talking about medicine is to me very different from my Western ideal of what medicine is. I thought that was really important because it meant that it was challenging everything I knew about what one word was. And I sat on my bed thinking about it for a really long time and it made me want to know more.
JH – I think that’s a really important example. It’s something that the book does really well. That it shows various people’s experiences without sort of necessarily breaking them down and trying to make them accessible to people who have not experienced them - because that is the way that people feel when they go into academia and they’re hit with all of these theories and all of this stuff. So it’s actually a way of flipping it on its head and saying to those of us who are academically trained people: “yeah, sometimes you’re not going to understand the words that are being used, and you’re going to have to go and do the extra work to read up on it and find the sources or whatever,” and that’s the experience of people who come to academia and are just expected to know the language.
LK– I want to go back to something Ronak said, about the blood memory in Krysta and Erin’s piece. This was actually the piece that made me the most uncomfortable, and I’m still trying to work through what it was exactly that brought those feelings to the surface and I’m not quite sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but it is interesting that you brought that, that you read that paragraph because I circled “blood memory” and put a question mark and kind of wrote “potentially problematic” in the margin of my book. Because I wasn’t entirely sure what was meant by blood memory. And I think that’s part of what Julia was saying, that you have to go out and do beyond just what is provided for us in the book, so I just wanted to share that.
NA – Our discussion is bringing to mind some thoughts about responsibility as well, because in some ways it’s our responsibility to pick up where the book leaves off or to fill in some of the gaps ourselves. To be go-getters and to self-educate, and there are cases where the book gives us the tools to do that and where we have to find those tools for ourselves. But in the same way, can we translate this into the academy wherein our women’s studies classrooms we should be doing exactly the same thing? So I am wary of the potential of the book setting up this kind of divide, and I’m happy our discussion isn’t doing this, of “oh, the academy is over there and that’s them over there,” when I think that collaborative discourse is so much more productive and useful. So it’s just one way to translate our experiences with this book into other spaces.
RG – One thing that I really like about the book is that it’s presented in a way that it’s not necessarily on how to fix the academy. Right, it’s like a space on how to cope and heal. And how the academy has hurt you in different ways. For me, above everything, it really showed me about how I’m in grad school - yeah I am, I’m very privileged to be in grad school. I feel very strange about that privilege because I’m from a very working class family, I’m the first in my family to have a full university degree - but, yeah, it made me realize, I’m applying for PhDs in January and I’m hopefully going to be able to pursue school. It made me realize that if I want to stay in the institution, I can’t just stay within the academy. I have to do the community work that I’ve started since I’ve been integrated in, since I was a child, my parents and my Iranian diaspora community on how I need to not only stay within this one realm of the academy - how lived experiences are really important and for you to live experiences.
But also, one part, one poem that I re-read like hundreds of times is by Shaunga Tagore - she is an editor at Shameless and she is super awesome - and she wrote a slam on feminism in academia and this poem just spoke so much to me because when I wanted to go into grad school , I never thought I would want to do a PhD, I never thought I would want to be a teacher. It’s just I really wanted to go into school so I could learn theory and I could apply it to my life and work that I do.
One part of the poem that she writes that I want to read: so she says, and she is talking to, I think, a professor. I feel like she’s talking to a professor in this part: “What is it about your knowledge and education that prevents you from imagining? All the different reasons that someone may be in graduate school or feel the need to study gender/race/sexuality and class. Some of us are not here to one day soullessly recite the entire canon of queer theory development with our hearts and minds closed. Some of us do not wish to compete to be the newest biggest baddest radical faculty hire. Some of us need to engage with feminist theory so we can ground it in our community activist work, our creative work, our personal relationships to our families communities, histories, for our own fucking deserved piece of mind.”
And when I read this, it made me cry. Because neither of my - my dad had to drop out of, I think he was in grade six or seven, when in Iran, so he could drop out and support his family. My mother was expelled from high school because she was an activist, and when they came to Canada, neither of them were able to finish their degrees. My mom actually started a women’s studies degree, then dropped out after 2 years because she had to get a job to support me. And my dad never finished any of his degrees. And so, for me, wanting to pursue a PhD, it’s because I want to learn more. I want to try to understand things I don’t understand. Like, I don’t understand like things like my parents can never go back to Iran, I don’t understand that. I don’t understand neocolonial structures and things like that and I want just for my own piece of mind to figure it out and my own identity of being Iranian-Canadian and things like that, and unfortunately, I haven’t had a space outside of the academy to do that. If I did, I would love to have a space outside of the academy to questions these things, and become minded with this theory, but I don’t, and so going to school for all the reasons that Shaunga listed out really resonated with me, because I have no desire to be like a tenured academic. But I want to do a PhD; I want to stay in grad school because I want to learn more.
SS – Is there anything else before I ask another question?
JH – I feel the same way!
SS – So, Naz, you had mentioned something that I wanted to come back to a little bit, you talked a little about the book and you also mentioned the term traditional texts, and I guess things that you generally tend to read in graduate school, and so my question to everyone is sort of around this binary, or this dichotomy that is being set up between community-based work, between activism and action and theory. So before and after reading the book, do you feel that there is a disconnect between the theory of feminism, and feminism being whatever it means to you, and the practice of feminism?
LK– Well, I have a critical theory degree, so this is a dichotomy that I am very used to grappling with, and it’s one that frustrates me because it doesn’t exist. We need theory, theory comes out of everyday life. Language, I know, isn’t always accessible, but that’s why we have academics. And a lot of the feminist theory that I read throughout my degree was poetry, it was poetical, it did have different languages in it so I was coming at it being like, yeah, this is the same old story again, I guess. I mean, I get so frustrated with this dichotomy; theory is important, and it provides this certain function as well as the activism, and I don’t - I’m confused about still why theory, writing theory in itself and having that critical response isn’t considered a form of activism, and I guess that’s the way the academy is positioned in the world we live.
RG – Can I make a response?
RG – I think I would disagree, because in the book they do talk about how like being a professor and writing theory, writing articles is a form of activism. It isn’t the be and all of activism, it is an important part of it, but I think one of the problems that it identifies something that I would disagree with you about when it comes to theory, is that it isn’t accessible, and then you said that some of it isn’t accessible, that’s why we have academics. I think the point that the book is trying to raise, at least for me, is that we shouldn’t need academics, right? We shouldn’t have academics theorizing about people’s lived experiences. Theory should be presented in a way that is accessible. And I feel like the book does present that in a lot of different ways. But I agree, I think that theory is really really important, but something that I am trying to work really hard to do as a TA working with first years is to make theory accessible and relevant to their lives, and from the students that I have heard back from, that I have made it relevant to their lives, specifically around popular culture and stuff. But there’s one piece in here that Latoya Peterson - I’m just gonna - sorry, I’m taking up a lot of time.
JH - Don’t apologize
RG - Yeah, don’t apologize. I’m just gonna try to find it, does anyone know what page Latoya Peterson’s thing is?
JH - It starts at page 43
RG – 43, Okay, Latoya Peterson is a really awesome writer at Racialicious. And so, right now, I just said that I’m really happy that the students that I’m working with are making theory relevant to their lives - what they’ve told me - I don’t want to toot my own horn because working with students who are in university is not really the community that I want to work with. In her piece, “The Feminist Existential Crisis, Dark Child Remix,” Latoya writes that “when, somewhere along the way, people started acknowledging me as a feminist writer, and then as a feminist, and then inviting me to speak at women-focused events and feminist conferences. Somehow that became my identity for a while, yet, underneath my skin I was always chaffing, I felt like I was constantly explaining class and race in relation to feminism. Even with those who didn’t want to hear it, I started seeing the same hierarchies play out, time and time again. I stopped feeling so connected to the women and girls I wanted to speak to, and started to feel like I was being pulled into a very different world.” And when I’m up there as like a tutorial leader, this describes how I feel. Like I’m very excited that I’m able to make things understandable, but is this necessarily the community that I want to work with?
(Ending of round table discussion, sound up on extro monologue)
Sarah Feldbloom– I’m Shameless Magazine’s web producer, Sarah Feldbloom and you have been listening to the first installment of our book club podcast featuring Jessica Yee’s Feminism For Real. What you’ve heard here is the beginning of an awesome dialogue, one that’s important for Shameless staff, readers, and our listeners to continue. If you have comments or ideas about this episode, or for future podcasts, send me a note at email@example.com, or for some shameless advice on how to start your own book club, take a look at our spring 2011 issue for a DIY guide. And for those of you who are hankering to get your hands on a copy of Feminism for Real, you can order it online, directly from the publisher at www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/bookstore . That’s all for now! Talk to you again soon and thanks for joining us.
(Shameless Book Club extro jingle - written and recorded by Jo Snyder)