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Are you a feminist? Do you believe women are human beings and that they deserve to be treated as such? That women deserve all the same rights and liberties bestowed upon men? If so, then you are a feminist . . . or so the feminists keep insisting. But somewhere along the way, the movement for female liberation sacrificed meaning for acceptance, and left us with a banal, polite, ineffectual pose that barely challenges the status quo. In this bracing, fiercely intelligent manifesto, Jessa Crispin demands more.
Why I Am Not A Feminist is a radical, fearless call for revolution. It accuses the feminist movement of obliviousness, irrelevance, and cowardice—and demands nothing less than the total dismantling of a system of oppression.
Why I Am Not A Feminist is an immediately gripping title, especially with Jessa Crispin’s chosen subtitle: A Feminist Manifesto. A feminist manifesto from someone who says they are not a feminist? That’s a fascinating idea, and the interviews and coverage around the book really intrigued me, so I picked up the volume…
Crispin’s title is explained in the introduction to the book, and is a theme she returns to throughout the book as a touchpoint: Why I Am Not A Feminist sets up a model of “universal feminism”, to use Crispin’s term, that she says is embodied by people like Laurie Penny: unthreatening to the capitalist kyriarchic system, narcissistic in its focus on individual choice, and losing all meaning by attempting to appeal to everyone (or at least, all women). Having set up this strawman (an interesting one, given the rise of feminists protesting capitalism on feminist grounds, including one Laurie Penny), Crispin sets out a radical feminist (again, her term) manifesto for the rest of the book, consistently centring the discussion on women, and how women take part in their own oppression.
The actual programme Crispin lays out is an interesting one; Why I Am Not A Feminist is very much focused on the role of women in not only dismantling the present patriarchal status quo, but the whole heirarchical and kyriarchic nature of society. Crispin looks at multiple different vectors of the way women are, themselves, complicit in the oppressive nature of society, and the way much modern feminism fails to challenge that: rather than calling for more women in the boardroom, she says, we should be tearing the whole boardroom down. This is especially important when she talks about women as engaging in kyriarchic discrimination against other marginalised groups: she consistently points out racism, homophobia, and an unnamed poverty-hatred as relevant here. It’s a powerful and effective argument that she marshalls strong evidence for, with a series of pointed chapters each focusing on one way “universal feminism” fails to do that.
However, this also reveals one of the flaws of this manifesto: Crispin’s insistence of doing this is very much also about emphasising the rehabilitation of second-wave feminism, and specifically Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin. Why I Am Not A Feminist fails to engage with significant modern issues in feminism around gender diversity, and specifically trans issues; trans people are never mentioned throughout the whole book, and the “universal feminism” movement is supposedly attacking second wave feminism purely because of its anger, rather than because it has continued to try to exclude, attack, and rip down trans people.
Why I Am Not A Feminist has an interesting three-page section at the start of its seventh chapter addressing men; this is the only time, throughout the whole book, that Crispin addresses men. Here, she, like Laurie Penny in Bitch Doctrine, talks about the discomfort men may feel reading feminist theory – and states that it is not women’s responsibility to reassure them, or do the emotional labour of helping men through that discomfort. It’s one of the most powerful parts of the book, and strikes an interesting contrast with the rest of that chapter, which is about not making an enemy of men. Crispin has some very fascinating things to say about the importance of not idealising women or demonising men, and the importance of feminism as opening up space for everyone by dismantling the capitalist kyriarchic structures of society.
In the end, Why I Am Not A Feminist would be an absolutely fantastic book, were it not for Crispin’s failure to engage with the trans-exclusionary tendencies of radical feminism and the second wave in particular, which make it a hard book to talk about.
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What does it mean to be transgender? How do we discuss the subject? In this eye-opening book, CN Lester, academic and activist, takes us on a journey through some of the most pressing issues concerning the trans debate: from pronouns to Caitlyn Jenner; from feminist and LGBTQ activists, to the rise in referrals for gender variant children – all by way of insightful and moving passages about the author’s own experience. Trans Like Me shows us how to strive for authenticity in a world which often seeks to limit us by way of labels.
At this ‘trans tipping point’ (thank you, Time), a lot of people still don’t know anything about trans people outside a famous few: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock. All of them are beautiful, and identify as women. CN Lester doesn’t: like me, they are genderqueer, and want to open up the discussion about trans issues to a more diverse array of genders. Trans Like Me is their book-length attempt to do that.
Trans Like Me is written very much for a cis audience. That is, it’s written with the intention of educating a cis audience about trans issues and trans lives, and the reality, complexity, and diversity of those lives, rather than to a trans audience as a rallying cry or political manifesto. Lester certainly has a political agenda, but it’s one that involves getting cis people to sign up to trans rights; hence, explanations of how dysphoria can feel from the inside, discussions of the reality of discrimination against trans people on an everyday basis, and explanation of the medical and legal obstacles trans people face in getting recognition as ourselves. They lay these things out excellently, while also combining them with calls for change in how the world handles trans people: Trans Like Me suggests how the medical and legal professions can handle trans people better, with concrete ideas for recognition.
Lester’s marshalling of evidence is an interesting combination of scientific data and personal anecdote; much of their argument about gender diversity not being a mental health condition comes from their own personal experiences of having mental health conditions, rather than discussions of psychologists’ research. Trans Like Me does use scientific evidence and historical evidence in other areas though; for instance, Lester makes a very strong argument using historical evidence from a broad swathe of the past to demonstrate that gender diverse people have always existed and been part of (Western) society in varying ways.
One of the key elements of Trans Like Me that distinguishes it from most volumes on trans issues is the way Lester engages with gender diverse people who are not, like themself, binary trans people. Trans Like Me talks about a range of gender expression, from genderfluidity to nonbinary, and how they fit into the discussions of trans issues that we usually see; thus, they open up a space for nonbinary people in the discussion of trans issues and of what needs to be done for a more trans-inclusive society. They are also very clear on the importance of allowing flexibility and change in one’s gender over the course of one’s life; this includes discussion of raising children who are gender diverse, through to late-life transition.
There are weaknesses and gaps in Trans Like Me; Lester unfortunately doesn’t discuss agender people at all, assuming gender is something everyone has, and their discussion of intersexuality (as distinct from the range of trans identities) is both brief and focused largely on undermining the idea of a biological binary of sexes. Lester also at times tends towards the defensive; while necessary when trans people are under attack from a variety of fronts, it would have been nice to see them put forward a stronger argument of itself, rather than strong arguments against trans-exclusionary positions. I would also have liked to see a more clear set of proposals for change: Lester does have some policy ideas, but they don’t really have much of a programme for social reform, or concrete suggestions for action.
Those weaknesses are relatively minor, though; Trans Like Me is an absolutely fantastic book for educating a cis audience about trans issues, as well as opening up the world of nonbinary issues for binary trans people, and I heartily recommend it.
Disclaimer: I am hosting an event with CN Lester and Kaite Welsh at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street on August 17th. Please join us!
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With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.
People, politics, pressure, punk. From working class experience to sexual assault, being an immigrant, divides in Trump’s America, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, Repeal the 8th, identity, family, finding a voice, punk, role models, fetishisation, power – this timely book covers a vast range of being a woman today.
Nasty Women is a phrase that, of course, became popularised by now-President Trump during the election campaign, referencing Hillary Clinton, his (more qualified, more honest, BETTER) opponent in the Presidential election; in the wake of the horrifying election of the Misogynist-In-Chief, new Scottish independent press 404Ink decided to put together a collection of essays by “nasty women”.
It’s an interesting collection; Nasty Women consists of 22 essays (although the ARC I’m reviewing only included 20), by a mix of authors from different backgrounds – women of colour, a woman with disabilities, women talking about a variety of religious experiences, and a trans woman (namely, punk rock icon and Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace). As a whole collection therefore, it’s usefully intersectional; rather than focusing on a specifically cis, white, Scottish, Christian/nonreligious experience of being a woman, it contains a variety of different ways of being a woman.
It’s also got a variety of different approaches to essay in it; Laura Lam’s essay, for instance, is genealogical, looking at the history of the women on her side of the family, while Elise Hines’ essay is autobiographical, about her own experiences and history, and Alice Tarbuck’s essay is a historical survey of witchcraft and foraging as feminist praxis. Nasty Women, by taking in all these approaches, creates a more interesting and varied collection than any one form alone would, and allows for a variety of answers to the implied question of the title: what is a nasty woman?
There are some essays I want to single out for specific comment, but with 20 in the book, that obviously can’t be all of them. The one I found most interesting and engaging was Ren Aldridge’s ‘Touch Me Again And I Will Fucking Kill You’, a look at gendered sexual harrassment in the punk community, both the music and activist sides; taking a broad look at sexual harrassment as it is manifested on a community that often hails itself as progressive, and how the perpetrators of it are protected, and how that is changing slowly, it is a fascinating essay on a particular manifestation of a gendered heirarchy. It is also notable for being the essay most concerned with inclusivity; Aldridge puts an asterisk by “woman” throughout to demand the reader considers what the category means, explicitly invokes nonbinary people and trans women, and talks about issues of cisnormative and ciscentric thinking as well as misogyny.
A second essay I really want to pull out for its excellence is that of Claire L. Heuchan, ‘Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space’. A mix of personal autobiography and discussion of racism and misogynoir in online (feminist) discourse, it really brings into stark relief the way so much of feminist discourse is centred around, and assumes, whiteness; and the way misogyny aimed at black women, online especially but hardly absent in the offline world, differs from that aimed at white women. It’s an interesting piece that also talks about carving out a space for oneself; Heuchan talks about the way she came to be a blogger and online presence, to the extent that she is known now for her work as Sister Outrider. I do need to add a caveat to this endorsement, though, and one that stands in stark contrast to the previous essay; while the essay, thankfully, does not reflect this, Heuchan is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and outspokenly so on the blog this essay is about; for an essay collection with only one trans contributor, her inclusion can be seen as an error in judgement, regardless of the excellence of her essay.
Nadine Aisha Jassat’s essay ‘On Naming’ takes a different approach to looking at being a woman of colour in a white supremacist world; Jassat talks about the way her name is perceived and read by a white-dominated society, the way people make assumptions based on it, often racist ones, and the way it is often mangled by strangers and what that means to her as a person. It’s a fascinating essay on the importance of naming to identity, and the importance of claiming and asserting one’s name as an assertion of identity; one I perhaps overidentify with, albeit along a different and distinct axis.
The final essay that is a display of stand-out excellence is that of Bella Owen, ‘Liberation or Segregation’; it is the only essay in the collection to discuss disability, and it discusses it through a mixture of analysis and personal autobiography in a way that really drives home the ways that Owen has had to deal with an albeist society putting restrictions on her. The specific venue for much of the essay is music gigs, which are a theme running through many of the essays, but Owen’s experience of being a disabled woman at them is obviously different to that of Laura Jane Grace as a trans star, or Elise Hines as a music photographer who is a woman of colour. The specific and the general experiences drawn out in this essay are really noteworthy in that they are also stories we are rarely told, so it is good to have them seen.
No collection will be all gems, though, and two essays just did not work for me. The first felt simply badly written; Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism’ appears to be trying to emulate the writing of Nan Shepherd, who it praises, and Robert MacFarlane, which it dislikes rather strongly, but falling somewhere between into a kind of poetic nothing, which while making some strong points along the way, and ending on a powerful note, has a tendency to descend into some very strange romanticisations of the past and of certain historical practices as feminist in a way the evidence presented in the essay doesn’t seem to support.
The other is Chitra Ramaswamy’s ‘After Expecting’; while this is an excellent essay where it limits itself to Ramaswamy’s experiences of pregnancy, when it talks about wider issues of pregnancy, it falls into a couple of (common) errors. The first is a kind of mysticism around pregnancy that it seems to also want to dismiss, as if it is necessary and intrinsic to a woman and a deep secret, even while demanding that it be made more open and understood. The other issue reflects a failing noted above, of a failure to register trans issues; the essay suggests that “while death happens to all of us, birth happens to women.” Either this is suggesting that only women are born or, and it seems this is likely what Ramaswamy means, that only women give birth – which, of course, is not true, and erases AFAB trans people.
A final issue to bring out with the volume is an uneven use of content notes. It is unclear whether these were added by the editors, or requested by the authors, but a number of the essays which talk about sexual violence in various forms have them; however, those which include (necessary and relevant use of!) racial slurs, sexist language, etc, do not, and not all the essays which include passing mentions of sexual violence have content notes. Nasty Women could easily have paved the way and demonstrated an excellent and consistent approach to content notes, it is intead rather a mixed bag on that front.
However, despite some shortcomings, Nasty Women maintains a high standard of excellence across its essays, and has some really good insights into the lives of women; as Margaret Atwood says, it is “[a]n essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.” I highly recommend it to you, and am looking forward to seeing what 404Ink do next.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC of the book provided by the publisher, 404Ink, which does not include essays by Kaite Welsh and Anna Cosgrave. I put money into the Kickstarter that funded this volume, and I helped organise the launch of the book yesterday (6/3) at my place of work. Laura Lam, a contributor to this volume, is a friend.
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In over a year of on-the-ground reportage, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled across the US to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.
In an effort to grasp the scale of the response to Michael Brown’s death and understand the magnitude of the problem police violence represents, Lowery conducted hundreds of interviews with the families of victims of police brutality, as well as with local activists working to stop it. Lowery investigates the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with constant discrimination, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs.
Offering a historically informed look at the standoff between the police and those they are sworn to protect, They Can’t Kill Us All demonstrates that civil unrest is just one tool of resistance in the broader struggle for justice. And at the end of President Obama’s tenure, it grapples with a worrying and largely unexamined aspect of his legacy: the failure to deliver tangible security and opportunity to the marginalised Americans most in need of it.
The broad Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the emerging political phenomena of the 2010s, affecting change, driving conversations and changing political priorities across the world. Wesley Lowery’s reportage gave him a unique point from which to observe the development of the movement, the mobilisation of a generation and community of people often seen as “apathetic” by outsiders, and this book came out of that reportage, so how does “They Can’t Kill Us All”: The Story of Black Lives Matter hold up to the task?
In a word, poorly. We’ll begin by addressing the subtitle; this book claims to be the story of Black Lives Matter. That’s always going to be a tall order for a slim volume (less than 250 pages, including the notes and index), but is even taller a one for such a partial and patchy volume as this is; what Lowery is presenting is rather less the story than his story of Black Lives Matter, with a few exceptions. This is unsurprising, given that They Can’t Kill Us All is based on his reportage, but it is a problem: we’re given a view that doesn’t ever tie different events together, that jumps from event to event and flashpoint to flashpoint without ever really covering the hard graft behind the scenes, the stuff that doesn’t get media attention. Reading this book, you’d think none of that actually happened.
Furthermore, They Can’t Kill Us All has a contradictory thread in it; on the one hand, the larger Black Lives Matter movement has many leaders, many people driving it, many people involved. On the other hand, Lowery has a specific set of contacts, so they come up time and again – as leaders and spokespeople for every situation; this is especially true of DeRay Mckesson, who Lowery appears to have relied on heavily for much of his access. The picture presented then becomes of a movement that is falsely protesting its own leaderlessness; the reality of the broad array of groups and people who are active in the cause belies that, but is only mentioned, not demonstrated, in the book.
They Can’t Kill Us All is also incredibly narrow. Rather than being a story of the movement, it is a story of specific moments in the movement: those that coalesced around a specific set of deaths or brutalisations by the police. There is a minimal historical framing in the book – Lowery acknowledges that the American original sin is slavery, and talks about different generations of black activism, but doesn’t really provide past or future context; there’s no suggestion of the historical roots of police oppression and little of the history of anti-oppression activism in the African-American community, and no look at the possible futures of the movement, or future trends in police-community relations.
Those moments are well-written, and the encounters with activists well portrayed, though; Lowery is a consummate journalist and his use of language is incredible. Each person we meet, we’re given a very short pen-portrait of, and those are evocative, packed full of interesting detail and character information; they’re brief but complex and seemingly complete, and the reportage of the black deaths and brutalisations covered in They Can’t Kill Us All are sympathetic, and told with a kind of eye for detail and clarity that really brings them to mind, in both memory and imagination.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of They Can’t Kill Us All is how dated it was the moment it appeared, though. This book came out in the UK & US in 2017. Wesley Lowery doesn’t touch on the racialised, racist Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, let alone his victory in November 2016. Lowery doesn’t touch on the responses of the Democratic or Republican primary candidates, let alone the eventual Presidential candidates, to Black Lives Matter activists and their disruption of events (the closest we get is the fact that some BLM activists became Sanders surrogates; no mention at all of Clinton). Lowery barely covers any of the events of 2016, almost as if Black Lives Matter just vanished into the Presidential campaign – something he says is a media misconception: well, if so, it’s one They Can’t Kill Us All perpetuates.
It’s possible I wanted a different kind of book; an actual history of the Black Lives Matter movement, not a series of snapshots of moments in the movement (but “This is a movement, not a moment”, per Lorenzo Norris, quoted on p73). But that’s what They Can’t Kill Us All claims to be; The Story of Black Lives Matter. On those grounds, despite the excellent journalistic style, this book is a definite failure.
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Nothing More To Lose is the first collection of poems by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish to appear in English. Hailed across the Arab world and beyond, Darwish’s poetry walks the razor’s edge between despair and resistance, between dark humour and harsh political realities. With incisive imagery and passionate lyricism, Darwish confronts themes of equality and justice while offering a radical, more inclusive, rewriting of what it means to be both Arab and Palestinian living in Jerusalem, his birthplace.
Between Amal El-Mohtar and Liz Bourke, I suppose it was inevitable I was going to read Darwish’s collection. So, I did…
Nothing More To Lose is simultaneously nothing to do with speculative fiction, and also completely dystopian. But then, the world Darwish is writing about is dystopian; and that is brought across tremendously, painfully well by his poetry. It’s not soft-edged, it’s not polite, it’s blunt and brutal, it calls out Zionists, it names genocide as genocide, it rages against injustice and discrimination. This isn’t a collection for people looking for a polite Palestinian talking about idyllic themes; it’s a collection for those wanting to look at the rage, the disenfranchisement, the horror that is the Palestinian condition in the modern world.
Something that really stands out is the historical engagement and literacy of Darwish’s poems. In an early poem in Nothing More To Lose, ‘Identity Card’ (p8-9), Darwish references Byzantium, the Armenian genocide (a recurring topic), the Kurds, the Algerians, the expulsion of the Jews from Andalucia – and explicitly states a connection and an empathy with all of them. That sense of global parallels, of connections across different communities and cultures, of a shared humanity across persecuted people, really gives depth and something unique to Darwish’s poetry, and that it is on display in so much of Nothing More To Lose is really fascinating.
This isn’t a simple collection though; Darwish has all kinds of different poems in here, all undoubtedly influenced by the dystopic situation of Palestinians, but focusing on different aspects of that. Nothing More To Lose has elegies, laments, love poetry, a certain amount of humour (albeit largely dark), anger, despair, and a certain sort of peace at times; it’s a dense, varied, fluid collection of poetry in that regard, and a really beautiful slim volume that encapsulates so much of the human condition – but specifically the Palestinian condition.
Darwish has really given us poetry that reveals one person’s experience of the Palestinian condition; Nothing More To Lose is a beautiful, painful collection that should be given to everyone who wants to talk about the Middle East before they say another word.