The sweat behind the words

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is a thin, three-chapter volume of work by Canadian academic Erin Wunker. The work builds on the idea of the “feminist killjoy” coined by Sara Ahmed, which Ahmed popularised with her blog of the same name. Ahmed also wrote an extensive chapter on the figure of the feminist killjoy in literature in her book The Promise of Happiness, which I recommend for a more in-depth understanding of this particular figure and concept. Since this is Wunker’s work, though, I will use her definition of a feminist killjoy as someone who “takes pleasure in the work of interrupting the patriarchal norms that pass as joys.”

Basically, the feminist killjoy embraces the idea that they will be the problem causer wherever they go, because they make a commitment to speak out about oppression. Wunker has devoted her career to being that feminist killjoy, and it’s worth noting her extensive career in making the academy a better place for women. She’s the chair of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, she runs the academic blog Hook and Eye with several other women academics and she’s done extensive research on Canadian women and Canadian colonial history. She practices what she writes about and that practice is transparent; she spends a lot of Notes from a Feminist Killjoy talking about these academic projects, her experiences both in and out of the classroom (including a hunger strike she went on in support of one of her students) and her experiences in graduate school. Some sections of these chapters appeared as essays on Hook and Eye (much like Ahmed’s work often appears on her blog before in book format), but most of this work is brand new.

In many ways, Wunker’s work speaks as a subtle echo of Ahmed’s: she doesn’t just borrow her feminist killjoy as a figure, but the notion of “sweaty concepts” and how our identities depend on the objects and situations we encounter and the ones we resist. Wunker, though, is not merely copying, but adding to the distinct work that goes into the theory and practice of feminism.

In a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, capitalist and imperialist society, you have to be a feminist killjoy and take notes

The “sweaty concept” is something that demonstrates this succinctly. Concepts are linked to the mind, which often ignores the body. Moreover, the process of writing is often obscured through the act of publication, since the reader only gets the finished product. Making concepts ‘sweat’, according to Ahmed, makes the heavy lifting of theory more visible by making writing itself more visible. Wunker tries to make her writing process ‘sweat’ by showing her work in a series of notes, sparsely written on the page and separated by asterisks to mark a sketchy kind of thought. Through this fragmented style, she links her writing to the body, as it shows the reader the labour that goes into this work. When Wunker titles her book Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, she points to the ‘sweaty’ nature of her writing process, along with the sweating that must go into breaking down oppression.

On first glance, Wunker’s title makes it seem like her work will be an instruction manual, similar to Ahmed’s feminist ‘tool kit’ in Living a Feminist Life – but it’s not. The notes of Wunker’s text are a subtle confession to form; it’s Wunker’s realisation, after having a child, that her concentration was shot and her entire approach to her theoretical work had to change. She had to adapt by working in the early mornings and writing in spurts. “Notes” is how she described this process, and by making it part of her title, and then calling attention to it in her introduction, she makes her entire work practical. Sweaty. And transparent. She’s a feminist mother who writes because she must, and thinks with these big concepts because there is no other way to structure life. To understand it is to also live it. And in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, capitalist and imperialist society, you have to be a feminist killjoy and take notes.

This was something that resonated with me immediately. I always look up writing practices of authors I admire, such as how much they write each day, how many pages, when they write. But this information is often discussed as a personal accomplishment, rather than a factor of material conditions. For instance, Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison waking up at four in the morning to write before they went to work makes them amazing writers, but it fails to bring to light the fact that they are black women writers, and so often they must wake up before dawn to even be given a chance to have a voice. Wunker’s choice to be transparent about her practices helps to pull back the veil on writing and expose the systematic structure of oppression underneath. In Wunker’s case, the systematic oppression here is academia itself.

Academia works really hard at oppressing the women inside its walls, but it often does this through veiled silence and absences, not force. So when Wunker describes the fact that you almost never see a child on university campus, she points to an absence which is actually a large barrier that prevents women academics from being taken seriously or given enough time to work.

Wunker continues a type of body-orientated narrative with each of her chapters. She opens her chapter on rape culture with a scar on her ankle that reminds her of the time she narrowly avoided an attack by running through a field

Though I don’t share this experience of trying to find childcare in academia, I knew what she was talking about intuitively because I’ve been on a campus, and I’ve seen very few children. The women I befriend who have children tell me the same story: their place in academia becomes fragile when they present with a pregnant body or a child in a pushchair. Suddenly, because they’re mothers, it’s like they don’t have a mind anymore – only a body. So I appreciate Wunker’s wedding of the cognitive with the physical, because it’s not only mothers who must become at odds with their bodies, but everyone with a body that goes against the dominant culture. And while everybody deserves to have access to academia’s knowledge, it can be hard to feel as if you belong inside its walls.

Wunker continues a type of body-orientated narrative with each of her chapters. She opens her chapter on rape culture with a scar on her ankle that reminds her of the time she narrowly avoided an attack by running through a field. She harmed herself in an attempt to avoid harm, leaving her with an ever-present physical reminder of the threat that exists in the world for women. This was a powerful opening precisely because it made something that seems invisible, like sexual trauma, very real.

The Greek root for the word trauma is wound – so by talking about a physical wound, Wunker was free to explore all kinds trauma in this chapter, and do so without being exploitative or sentimental. It’s a frank discussion of violence and the legacy that trauma leaves on the body, and especially in the Jian Ghomeshi case, the legacy it leaves on national identity. Canada is often seen as a ‘nice’ country with few problems, but sexual violence does not have borders. And the Jian Ghomeshi case rocked Canada so profoundly; it, like Wunker’s scar, left a mark on us – and not for the better.

Similarly, Wunker’s third chapter on motherhood is rooted in the body. I found myself actually wanting to hear more about her labour and pregnancy stories precisely because her storytelling was so engaging and dynamic. She drew a lot of parallels to Maggie Nelson’s experience in The Argonauts; through her pregnancy, Wunker became aware of her body and the way her identity became severed when she literally made a person. Her discussion on birth, like everything in her work, is also steeped in theory – but it’s never theory that pushes a reader out of the text through inaccessibility. Wunker’s “notes” are always explained and well researched.

I understand the frustration with coming across a good theorist or writer, then realising something they’ve done or said is problematic

That does not mean the book was without flaws. Her weakest chapter was on female friendship. Perhaps I didn’t like it because, while she does her best to acknowledge her situated knowledge of being a cis woman, this chapter felt like she had excluded trans women. She spent a good section of this essay talking about Janice Raymond’s book on female friendships called A Passion for Friends, only to double back pages later and discuss Raymond’s problematic book The Transsexual Empire and her controversial status in the trans community. I was already aware of Raymond, so when she was mentioned in Wunker’s chapter it sent up an immediate red flag. Even though Wunker tries to renegotiate Raymond’s place in feminist discourse, her treatment of the topic felt stilted to me.

I understand the frustration with coming across a good theorist or writer, then realising something they’ve done or said is problematic. As a trans studies scholar, I find almost everyone outside the discipline gets it wrong, even wonderful feminist figureheads like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The way around these problematic texts or words from otherwise well-respected individuals isn’t to necessarily leave them off your syllabus or out of your book. We all say problematic things because saying them, and then going back to question them, is how we learn. So I understand Wunker not wanting to leave Raymond behind. But introducing her potentially good ideas on female friendship, then only coming to the transphobic issue and trying to extricate that implication later, seems like an after-the-fact apology, especially since what Raymond said about female friendships wasn’t that unique. Wunker could have found someone else, like Roxane Gay (who she does cite later in the essay). Considering how much of Wunker’s work is built around Ahmed’s theories, and Ahmed has spoken about the power of citations in building better knowledge, this inclusion of Raymond seemed like a grave oversight.

That being said, her chapter on female friendship also stands out as the weakest because Wunker doesn’t offer too much of her own personal experience or the ‘bodily voice’ that made the other sections that much stronger. She opens the chapter describing how books were her friends:

When I think of my childhood, I think of myself as solitary […] I don’t think of childhood friends; I think of books I read in the car, in the living room, in small nooks and crannies of the house that I tried to make as magical as the garret room conjured by the imaginations of the small Victorian girls I was reading about.

Books hold this hallowed place for Wunker, which I can definitely relate to. But the intense focus on books (like those by Raymond), seemed to weaken the chapter because I couldn’t get outside Wunker’s thoughts/head. She talked about her friends, and perhaps they didn’t stand out because she obscured them with initials rather than names. I understand the need for anonymising like this, but the practice made it so that figures like Raymond stood out while the caring friend R disappeared into the pages. For a chapter that was supposed to be about women finding solace in one another, I got very little of that by the end. And for a book in general that had done so much work to make the “sweat” behind concepts visible, all I saw was retreat.

Though her last section was technically a postscript after the three major sections, it was my favourite part of the book because Wunker did what she does best: focus on the body, the work she’s produced and the theoretical sweat behind that work.

Wunker’s book is short, to the point and very good. It left me wanting more, in both good and bad ways; it frustrated me as much as it inspired me. It’s the best kind of book about being a feminist killjoy, really – to frustrate as well as inspire. I can only hope that Wunker is still writing her notes, at four in the morning, and we see another work from her soon.

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy by Erin Wunker is published by Book Thug and available to purchase HERE.

The image is the cover of the book which was obtained from the publisher’s website. The cover is plain black. The title ‘Notes from a Feminist Killjoy’ appears at the top in grey font, with the first letter ‘N’ in white. Beneath it is the sub-title ‘Essays on everyday life’. Erin Wunker’s name appears below this in the same style as the title.