Words in Action - Feminist Reading and What it Taught Me about Writing and Social Change
March 22nd, 2019
This fall and winter, I took it upon myself to read as many “feminist” books as I could. Mainly, I found it odd that as someone who considers herself a committed feminist and an avid reader, I had almost never read the books and essays that come up or lie implicitly in the background of conversations about feminism. I felt like my feminism would be so much stronger if I understood these texts, if I received their meaning directly from the authors instead of secondarily, distorted by time and misinterpretation. So I made a list for myself of books that dealt with feminism and started reading –– you’ll get to read that list at the end of this piece.
I have not gotten through that list yet, and I don’t expect I will for at least another few months. But the experience of reading the five or six that I have has been astounding, way beyond what I expected at the start. The texts have forced me to think more critically and ask hard questions of myself and everything around me. They have opened my eyes to realities and patterns in the world that I had never thought about before. And they have, above all, given the gift of solid language to feelings and frustrations and vague ideas I’d never been able to put my finger on.
I love to write –– I always have –– but I’ve struggled for so long with having intention, having purpose, in my writing. My teachers always taught me that there were three kinds of writing: writing to inform, writing to persuade, and writing to entertain. If you wanted to change the world, I thought, you had to write to persuade the people in power to change their ways, or inform the very same people in power of the problems the world faces so they could change them more effectively. Writing to entertain might be nice, but it wasn’t treated as anything that could be conducive to change. Especially recently as became more attuned to the scale of the problems our society faces, it felt irresponsible, condemnable even, to spend time writing to entertain.
But what is the place of writing directed not toward the powerful, but the marginalized, in this equation? What’s the use of writing not to the “bad guys” –– the oppressors –– but instead to the oppressed? In writing not to persuade or to inform, but to say the things that your audience probably already knows or believes in to a certain extent?
This is the kind of writing that comes most easily to me, the kind of writing that feels most right. It’s the kind of writing that I like reading and the kind of writing I’m most eager to share. But I never understood exactly the power that kind of writing has. When I used to write this way, I would always hit a roadblock, because I would think, what does writing to “empower” even mean? What does it do? Am I just narrating this struggle instead of participating in it?
After reading these texts, I understand that the answer is no. When it’s done right –– and I now aspire to do it right –– this kind of writing may be narration, but it’s also participation. Much of the work of the authors I read - Audre Lorde, Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay, Rebecca Traister, Sarah Ahmed - is not intended to persuade any conservative white men to become feminists. It’s written for women, by women. This is powerful. To understand these texts, and to understand what my intention would be in activism-inspired writing of my own in the future, I needed to understand why that kind of writing was effective. These authors’ –– especially Solnit and Lorde’s –– ideas about the function of language and writing in social change provided a framework for reading these texts and many others; I think they could do the same for you.
So here's what I thought...
Writing is a way to name common experiences, feelings, and desires. These experiences, feelings and desires have already been felt by whole communities of people, but writing transforms what may have been just a vague feeling that something is wrong here to something that can be thought, and therefore, acted upon. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde writes, “...it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are - until the poem - nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding” (36). Writing –– or naming –– is a “distillation of experience” - it captures collective thought into just words or lines or paragraphs, which allows it to be shared. “We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it,” Lorde continues (38). In Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means you can’t come together to address it, let along change it” (129).
Writing helps people understand the causes for their anger, their pain, their frustration. It helps people accept their strengths and their flaws. When oppressed people realize that the position they are in is unjust –– that their feelings of wrongness are valid –– that external structures are responsible for the injustice they are subject to –– they have already conquered one of the most effective tools of the white patriarchy: convincing marginalized people that they are neither oppressed nor worthy of being freed. It is only when people have learned to understand the injustice of their situation, and decided that they deserve to be in a better one, that they can begin to fight for change. This is what empowerment really is.
Lorde and Solnit both write about this form of “empowerment,” the personal bases of political and social movements: Lorde describes how “If I can look at my most vulnerable places and acknowledge the pain I have felt, I can remove the source of that pain from my enemies’ arsenals. My history cannot be used to feather my enemies’ arrows then, and that lessens their power over me. Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me” (146-7). Solnit writes, “What does go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind.”
And then there’s this: even if writing is not intended to spark change, the ability to create art and to tell your own story is already revolutionary. “[A woman] struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the geneology, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt… The woman who is represented is obscured, but the woman who represents is not,” Rebecca Solnit writes in Men Explain Things to Me (73). The capability to represent has been robbed from marginalized groups for centuries, so to be able to exercise our creativity and show other people like us that their stories are worth telling and that what they create is worth reading (or watching or listening) - that’s enough.
Lorde writes about her global fear and uncertainty - something that I think is pretty relatable right now, despite all of the different ways that the world treats us. But for her, to think, to write, to create - it was critical to moving through the world at a time of crisis. “That we were dying, that we were killing our world - that sense had always been with me. That whatever I was doing, whatever we were doing that was creative and right, functioned to hold us from going over the edge. That was the most we could do while we constructed some saner future” (93).
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist