Strange Encounter

The Lesbian PostmodernThe Lesbian Postmodern by Laura Doan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The winged lesbian on the cover of this book gazes anxiously at the hand with which she finishes drawing her second, presently missing trouser leg, while in the other hand she holds aloft a fragrant bottle of essence. This image got funnier as I understood more and more about it, which was a relief as for the first two essays I wasn’t sure I could understand anything else. It got easier, but (disclaimer!) this review is bound to be full of gross oversimplifications.

Doan’s preface to the collection tantalisingly promises that it will unsettle rather than settle questions arising from the confluence of the lesbian and the postmodern, two fraught terms with no immediately obvious relationship. Judith Roof begins her essay by resisting the conjunction, but after tracing their parallel histories finally finds readings of both that set them up for a potentially fruitful collaboration. Other essays are more direct in their intention to utilise, to put to work some relation to the postmodern for something, for the benefit of the lesbian (community)? I feel postmodern divestment from epistemic foundations holds out the possibility of testing the effects of thinking words and structures differently. We are at sea and it is up to us to work the winds

Sometimes this relation is negative. Emma Perez is perhaps the strongest voice critiquing postmodern approaches to categories of identity and subjectivities. Perez shares (in an essay I loved) that claiming her subjectivity as a Chicana lesbian is a practice of strategic essentialism (needed for survival). Robin Wiegman and Sagri Dhairyam expose postmodernism’s repositioning of power as ever more concentrated in academia, which remains white and male, and critique the complicity of the (postmodern) intellectual in the commodification of categories of identity. Erica Rand points out that ‘postmodern’ readings are often esoteric, and have limited use. But these authors are not calling for divestment from postmodern ideas and attitudes, but for critical and pragmatic engagement.

Wiegman offers, the suggestion that it is postmodern thinking that helps feminism to recognise that categories of gender race and class are inadequate to define and critique all relations of domination; Dhairyam notes that lesbian/queer as subject position/identity is only reached via the sanctions of race and class privilege.

My favourite was Elizabeth Grosz’s beautiful, inspiring contribution ‘Refiguring Lesbian Desire’, which critiques the Platonic concept of desire as a lack of something, which leads to the complementarity model of heterosexual relationships. Grosz shows that desire-as-lack means that desire is annihilated by satisfaction, so its only appropriate (or sustainable) object is another desire. She proposes a Spinozist/Deleuze & Guattarian idea of desire as productive, creative, making something, making connections. In so doing she moves away from psychoanalysis, from ‘latencies and depth’ and to ‘intensities and surfaces’ ‘energies, exitations, impulses, actions, movements, practices, moments, pulses of feeling’. This is great! Postmodernism’s suggestions of relational and dynamic… transformations? directly offer something to the erotic (not only sexual) This refiguration would have an interesting meeting with Audre Lorde I think.

Colleen Lamos asks who is reading the lesbian porn publication
On Our Backs
and finds that apparently everyone is. She suggests that this represents something like the mainstream becoming lesbian as well as the lesbian becoming mainstream. One of the themes I feel in the collection is that as soon as a step beyond the constraining frame of heterosexuality is taken, gender, romantic and sexual diversity flows in myriad directions. This is perhaps the effect of restless subjectivities seeking languages, styles, modes of being and becoming not overdetermined by the hetero/cisgender-normative, but it also, I think, exposes the artificiality of those norms.

J Halberstam (writing from a trans perspective) goes so far as to suggest that ‘we are all transsexuals’: all gender is a fiction, and one that seems to need readers. This essay seemed in danger of erasing trans people to me, but on the contrary I think, it was seeking to centre the experiences of trans men in particular. The proximity of butch lesbian women and trans hetero men reads uncomfortably through my awareness feminism’s shoddy record on trans rights, and the all too common conflation of sexual orientation with gender (although it surely harmonises in some ways with Julia Serano’s discussion of oppositional sexism in
Whipping Girl
). Halberstam’s suggestion that gender confirmation surgery be reclassified as cosmetic rather than medical rings urgent alarm bells, but is an attempt to undo the pathologisation of trans people rather than to trivialise their needs. Perhaps the head-in-the-sand syndrome of the privileged postmodern intellectual, critiqued elsewhere in relation to race, is at work here.

Laura Doan’s own contribution is a wonderful essay on the delights of Jeanette Winterson and the risky but potentially transformative work of ‘sexing the postmodern’ which lesbian feminists must undertake, in Doan’s view, to bring liberatory possibilities to life from the collapse of Enlightenment foundationalism.

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machines dream electricity and other predictabilities

Imaginary Numbers: An Anthology of Marvelous Mathematical Stories, Diversions, Poems, and MusingsImaginary Numbers: An Anthology of Marvelous Mathematical Stories, Diversions, Poems, and Musings by William Frucht
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first picked up this book at my brilliant local library when I was about thirteen, and I was totally inspired. This is my third reading, and I found it dispiritingly male and pale (not a single non-white character or author as far as I can tell)

The Form of Space by Italo Calvino This sexist little piece is very eloquently, gracefully written, but repulsive in content. Rape culture is not Calvino’s fault, but there is really no need to enthusiastically pitch in.

A New Golden Age by Rudy Rucker
This is pure intellectual snobbery, but apart from that is hugely likeable. It doesn’t start off well and the dialogue feels lumpy, with too many characters for a short short story, but the idea of a math-player that you can plug into your brain to experience math directly is just too cool to resist, and Rucker’s description illustrates it perfectly. I hope someone invents it.

A Serpent with Corners by Lewis Carroll This will amuse folks who pick this up hoping for logic puzzles to chew on. Abner Shimony’s piece Resolution of the Paradox: A Philosophical Puppet Play, which features a lion who defies Zeno’s logic, is in the same vein

How Kazir Won His Wife by Raymond Smulyan
This is about the ‘Goodman principle’ which tells you how to find things out in a situation where some people always lie and others always tell the truth, (geek moment: Sarah uses it in The Labyrinth!), but there is much talk around the topic. This tale is a good example of what the book is like in general: math-inspired subversive whimsical realism (has someone coined this genre?)

An extract from Einstein’s Dreams made me really want to read the whole book – here Lightman imagines what the universe would be like if the arrow of time pointed in the opposite direction: the one in which disorder DECREASES. Another extract, from Hofstadter’s GDB, about preludes to fugues, reminds me that I want to re-read that book as well

The Golden Man by Philip K Dick A longer piece that as always demonstrates Dick’s genius-level talent for writing hauntingly believeable scifi. There is, I think, a critique here of illiberal institutional controls, yet its tension with fear is fully fleshed out, to the point where the terror takes over. I’m not buying the woman-blaming though…

The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck by Hilbert Schenk is a unique piece, less whimsical realism than math-magical realism. It’s protagonist reads as a typical lifeboat man, hardy and deeply experienced, to the point where his professional intuition seems like a preternatural ability, except in his case it actually is. I enjoyed the framing of the story from the point of view of ‘time-users’ watching Keeper Chase, an energy-user, doing his godlike tricks.

The Third Sally, or The Dragons of Probability by Stanislaw Lem bored me somewhat after the first few pages, but I think I was just being impatient – it is quite funny in a Terry Pratchett way. The same goes for the other Lem story in here, The Extraordinary Hotel, which is about set theory, and is more technical.

An extract from Flatland: Concerning Irregular Figures is extremely disturbing. I wonder if anyone has written a feminist analysis of Flatland, where all women are lines while men have different shapes depending on social class/occupation. In itself this is a kind of feminist comment on Victorian society… I’ve never been tempted to read Flatland but maybe I should. Clearly only men could be ‘irregular’ and therefore subject to the murderous eugenic policy here illustrated…

On Fiddib Har by A K Dewdney is an extract from The Planiverse, which imagines contact with a two-dimensional world through a youth who lives there, and is extremely clever and interesting to me. The illustrations are particularly delightful. It is quite technical and book length would probably bore, but a small dose is delicious.

The Church of the Fourth Dimension by Martin Gardner feels more real than fiction. I’m sort of surprised that Gardner imagined the whole thing – it makes sense! Nice that it has some knot tricks at the end. Fun.

Burning Chrome by William Gibson Most of these stories have no women in them at all. Where we do feature, we are invariably objects of the action and description rather than subjects. Here hacker Bobby, for whom women are ‘talismans’, is observed by his partner in crime Jack. Rikki, Bobby’s current sexual partner, is the driving force of the story, yet she has no character, other than a desire to become a ‘simstim’ star, for which she will need to have her lovely brown eyes replaced with new ones able to literally film life from her point of view. The eyes she wants are blue, but Gibson offers no material for an analysis of why. Jack is in love with Rikki and thus resents Bobby’s objectifying relationship to her, but his intervention in her favour consists of buying her a flight to Hollywood to pursue her dreams

While I’m on the feminist line of attack, Fritz Leiber’s story Gonna Roll the Bones is particularly grotesquely sexist. Oppressed by his mother and abused (by him) wife, the protagonist heads out to gamble, where slim, naked young women serve and are delighted to be groped. Sample: “The Big Gambler had just taken into his arms his prettiest evilest sporting girl and was running an aristocratic hand across her haunch with perfect gentility, when the poet chap, green-eyed from jealousy and lovesickness, came leaping forward like a wild cat and aimed a long gleaming dagger at the black satin back.”

The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges was my favourite story on first reading and it retains its ponderous and ponderable pleasure, but by this point I am wondering why none of the authors yet featured have been women (with the possible exception of Wislawa Szymborska who contributed a poem – must check gender!) and can’t help but notice that the Library contains no women at all. Presumably the men spring fully formed from the bookshelves without the messy business of birthing…

Ah here we are! Connie Willis’ tale Schwarzchild Radius breaks the mold with a very literary reflection on the weirdness of war and relativistic physics. Now my favourite piece in the collection. I must find more of Willis’ work.

Siv Cedering’s poem Letter from Caroline Herschel is great – I think I saw it before in Dark Matter? Anyway, it’s a tribute to ‘my long, lost sisters, forgotten/in the books that record/our science – Agnice of Thessaly, Hyptia, Hildegard, Catherina Hervelius, Maria Agnesi…

Then there is an extract from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin which is a very good book in my opinion, and finally a J G Ballard story The Garden of Time which as Frucht writes in his introduction, is very evocative, reeking of nostalgia for decadent days. The final description of the approaching army is painfully vivid. But isn’t this fear of barbarian hoards from whom one cannot protect one’s charming, frail wife a sort of… elitist white supremacist parable?

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Picturing Frida

Frida : a biography of Frida KahloFrida : a biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a long book of a rather short life: Frida Kahlo was injured in a traffic incident when she was eighteen and spent the rest of her life in pain and ‘invalidism’. Regardless of this, her persona was so vibrant and vital that her magnetism outshone her vivid, charismatic work, and if she had lived thirty more years the book would doubtless be three hundred pages longer.

But it would have been completely different. Frida would probably not have begun to paint if she had not been immobilised for many months after her accident, and if she had not been made unable to have children, she would have had them. And so she would not have painted her physical pain and her frustrated longing.

I enjoyed Herrera’s descriptive interpretations of Frida’s paintings and only rarely felt she had gone too far in taking them literally or carrying her own idea further than was justified. My highlight was her rejection of the inclusion of Frida in the Surrealist movement. Herrera unlines the cultural and individual specificity of Frida’s work and the personal authenticity of its non-realistic elements. Her work perhaps owes something to Mexical socialist realism and Latin@ Catholic iconography (the ‘naive’ ex-voto tradition is clearly an influence) but not to self-indulgent European navel-gazing. Herrera explains why Surrealism gained little traction in Mexico:

Mexico had its own magic and myths and did not need foreign notions of fantasy. The self-conscious search for subconscious truths that may have provided European Surrealists with some release from the confines of their rational world and ordinary bourgeois life offered little enchantment in a country where reality and dreams are perceived to merge and miracles are thought to be daily occurrences

I also loved her eloquent writing about Frida’s dress and ‘costume’, which was obviously a hugely important part of her process of identity. Although Frida’s maternal grandfather was indigenous, she had a middle class settler Christian upbringing and dressing in tehuana clothing was a deliberate, political, and perhaps disingenuous act of appropriation, motivated, it seems, by Communist anti-imperialism, aesthetic appreciation and the desire to hide her right leg, which was damaged by childhood polio and became increasingly problematic, probably as her injuries put an end to her therapeutic habits of exercise.

It’s always hard not to see the life of an artist primarily through their work, but according to Herrera, in many periods of her life Frida painted little. She writes that Frida’s relationship to Diego was often more important to her sense of herself than her art. Some of Frida’s writing supports this, but I am uncomfortable with Herrera’s adhesion to the idea, especially as Frida often complained about Diego too. She had many correspondants, friends, and semi-secret lovers, and organised Diego’s life and finances as well as her own. While he floundered without her, however inattentive he could be (apparently he lived for his work; unlike Frida he seems to have painted compulsively from childhood), she seems entirely capable of independence.

Diego was always unfaithful, but while he apparently tolerated Frida’s lesbian affairs, he seemed to be typically macho about her heterosexual ones, which she kept secret. Herrera gives far more attention to these associations with men, although affairs and intimacies with women may have been at least as important to Frida. But perhaps she did not write to her women lovers, or the letters have not come into the public realm, as those written to men have. I usually feel that biographers of bisexual women are annoyingly dismissive in this way: lesbian affairs do not count, just as they didn’t for Diego.

Frida and Diego were ardent Communists, and as world communism shifted and strained their allegiances were juggled too. But they retained the original impulse towards the rights of the people, towards leftist revolutionary and anti-imperialist politics. Frida was frustrated that she could not make political art, but Diego reassured her that her work was a worthwhile political contribution. Later in life, she became a teacher and led students in creating murals for a pulqueria and a women’s laundry. It was fun to read her scornful opinion of European bohemians who ‘did no work’ and spent all their time in idle talk. A message to Euro-USian hipsters not to co-opt Frida as ‘one of us’.

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A Generous Orthodoxy For Feminism – Or Why This Issue With ‘Cis’ MUST Be Resolved.


I entirely agree with you that the post is an example of ‘gender panic’ as described by Schilt, but I’m not sure about calling the gender abolitionist faction conservative since they generally tend leftward, want to redress assymmetrical power relationships and advocate a kind of gender revolution.

I consider myself generally radical rather than liberal but my first political tenet is ‘nobody under the bus for anything’ – that’s how I got here. Increasingly I feel & recognise that gender-as-power structure can only be dismantled through ending gender-as-coercion, beginning with not assigning sex at birth. What I would really like to do is persuade the trans-excluding gender abolition lobby that their pronouncements reify the tropes they wish to destroy, as you suggest here in your last paragraph.

Since sex (mostly but not exclusively f or m) in the body exists, is often recognisable and has social effects, gender (sex (mostly but not exclusively f or m) in social space) exists and will crystallise on top of it, regardless of any efforts to the contrary. We can only work to prevent gender from functioning as a system of power and exclusion. The ‘fallback to biology’ will always be conservative in effect because insisting on a hardened biological category will harden the functioning of gender as power *sigh*

Originally posted on incarnationalrelational:

In a [Western] society, where patriarchy dominates much of our daily lives, it is too easy to forget that there are also subtle (and not so subtle) web-like power structures which too many of us fail to recognise our own role in – the able bodied and the differently abled, people who enjoy stable mental health and those who don’t, white and black or colour, straight and gay/bi/queer, trans*gender and cis gender.

This a very simplified overview and there are of course many other variants, and interweaving hierarchy’s across all those and more. As we grapple with those concepts, peeling away the layers and struggling with continuously evolving understandings, working out where our oppressions and privileges are within those structures, there is often push back from those who have prefer their theologies more orthodox – more conservative.

Those with such staunch conservative tendancies do not tolerate ‘liberals’ (a word that is often spat out with…

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a blade of grass

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I know know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

There was a slight pause, and when Haber answered his tone was no longer genial, reassuring or encouraging. It was quite neutral and verged, just detectably, on contempt.

“You’re of a peculiarly passive outlook for a man brought up in the Judaeo-Christian-Rationalist West. A sort of natural Buddhist. Have you ever studied the Eastern mysticisms, George?” The last question, with its obvious answer, was an open sneer.

Many white men have written science fiction that ahistorically imagines a better world – one without war, prejudice, blahblahblah. This book wonders what would happen if a liberal white USian man was empowered with a subtle means of effecting magical changes (of making dreams true), and suggests that all this I-Know-Besting might actually be how we got to where we are. De-colonial, ableism-indicting sci fi, where have you been all my life?

The idea that one mind can’t fix everything is a difficult one for a fiction author to present, for obvious reasons, but Le Guin does it. Most books, I think, create a we-understand-each-other intimacy between author and reader that usually extends to the protagonist. But George Orr isn’t like us. He is so direct that sometimes he speaks in formulae, sharing his thought process. I want to call this mode unpolitician.

He never spoke with any bitterness at all, no matter how awful the things he said. Are there really people without resentment, without hate, she wondered. People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognise evil, and resist evil, yet are utterly unaffected by it?

Of course there are. Countless, the living and the dead. Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper’s wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in Peru and the millworker in Odessa and the greengrocer in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the othes. There are enough of them, enough to keep us going. Perhaps.

He brushes off the mantle of heroism, not because he is in need of encouragement, but because he knows the quest is vain vanity. The female protagonist, more forceful and vivacious, vanishes when ‘the race problem’ is ‘solved’ by making everybody grey. As with the other changes, Le Guin shows us that the removal of inconvenient bodies is always a genocide, even if some sleight of hand makes it appear non violent and ‘progressive’. (If you ever find yourself complaining about overpopulation, read this book before you go on.)

But now, never to have known a woman with brown skin and wiry black hair cut very short so that the elegant line of the skull showed like the curve of a bronze vase – no, that was wrong. That was intolerable. That every soul on earth should have a body the colour of a battleship!

That’s why she’s not here, he thought. She could not have been born grey. Her colour, her colour of brown, was an essential part of her, not an accident. Her anger, timidity, brashness, gentleness, all were elements of her mixed being, her mixed nature, dark and clear right through, like Baltic amber. She could not exist in the grey people’s world.

I was rapt from the moment I began reading to the last page, held by a spell of poetry that was unbroken. For me the story’s music reached the zenith of beauty when the Alien came into Orr’s dream offering help. Sometimes hampered communication manages to be the most eloquent: we have said too much already.

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Inconvenient bodies

A reader pointed out that my use of the word ‘transphobia’ in this post, and indeed the term itself, is problematic, and sent me a link to this blog Bigotry is not a Mental Illness

In her novel NW Zadie Smith shows us how certain bodies are convenient for making certain arguments. One of the protagonists, a young black barrister, finds herself much in demand to prosecute sympathetic black defendants, and to defend evil corporations pressing cases against communities asserting their rights to space and resources in developing countries. Human rights cases find her less convenient. Black feminists have explained how that white supremacist capitalism & the white colonial project is founded on the convenient exploitation of black and brown women’s bodies and there’s nothing really different here.

White women’s bodies certainly aren’t exempt from being treated as exploitable conveniences: as passive objects of male sexual desire, justifying white male protection and possession, useful for criminalising black men. In other places, women black and non-black find ourselves less convenient: places where we find ourselves ignored, talked over and dismissed in favour of men, or of women who better meet kyriarchal expectations.

Recognition of this sexism and the appropriate response of asserting our subjectivity and full-personhood against it is feminist praxis. It can help us to reclaim, through finding shoulders to stand on and to cry on, through collaborative social-cultural-political work, our me-for-my-sakeness, our I-am-enoughness. Feminism has helped me to love my body when I can and at least treat it kindly. To accept it, and recognise it as mine, my responsibility, my right, something nobody else has a claim to use or control.

I read the writings of gender abolitionists and I believe that they want that autonomy and subjectivity for all women – for everyone in fact! But since gender for them is synonymous with sexism, since femaleness or maleness must be, for them, some particular orientation of observable features of the body, they find certain bodies, especially trans female bodies, inconvenient to their arguments. Gender abolitionist feminists have not been able to find anywhere acceptable to lodge trans women and girls’ claims to be women and girls. They believe that these claims are ‘regressive’ and ‘essentialist’, reinscribing sexist gender norms.

These women’s bodies have to be controlled, these women cannot be allowed autonomy. They are seen as a threat, often a physical threat I don’t want your genitals in my space, and always a social/political/cultural threat, an obstacle to the feminist project.

Trans women continue to be treated as matter out of place (dirt) by sections of UK feminist movements

I see influential, column-writing feminists arguing that they don’t have to accept trans ‘ideology’, which seems to mean the use of the term ‘cis’ and requests that feminists stop misgendering them and restricting ‘female’ to those with the right sort of body. I’ll play nice, they offer, I’ll call you ‘she’. I just don’t want your genitals in my space or your socialisation, maybe, implying that people can’t, after all, divest from their socialisation (which is the opposite of the whole point of radical feminism?). I’ve previously felt that these voices were not transphobic, so much as cis-sexist. But unfounded fear is exactly what these recent pieces expressed. And while those articulating these fears offer their sympathy plus the pronouns of your choice (I’m not transphobic!!), the people who appreciate and reblog their posts (Cathy Brennan for one) are not so subtle.

An example: Sarah Ditum has been having trouble talking about female bodies of late, which she says fits into a pattern of making such bodies inconvenient. Her own body is found very convenient for the argument, as are some others: Here’s the child I bore, reproductive achievement, conveniently supporting my real woman status, and here’s my cis male man husband, also here to back up my real femaleness. And I’ll call you she (or he, let’s be fair) but it’s my way or the highway:

“Gender is a vicious framework, and few of us can survive as complete people within it. Of course there will be escapees, refugees, self-fashioning radicals who make their own existence – and I support them and embrace them, if they will embrace what gender means and acknowledge the harms which feminists seek to dismantle.”

To me that reads:
I’ll support you if you agree with me.
I’ll support you if you acknowledge my real woman-ness (supported by husband and child) as against your subsidiary woman-ness (which I condescend to acknowledge)
And if I support you feminists will support you because feminists are with me.

Even inconvenient bodies can be accommodated, as long as they are compliant!

Sounds like patriarchy to me.

It feels right to me

Sister Outsider: Essays and SpeechesSister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is something spellbinding about reading this book, as though one had stepped into a room where someone was speaking, quietly and clearly, and a crowd of people were listening intently, feeling together in mutual awareness and sympathy. It must be because I know so many women have read this book and felt their hearts answer Lorde. It must be because she is a poet and creates with words that space within us, that bridge where separate senses of being can cross and touch.

Perhaps the spell of a poet speaking about feminist praxis is in healing a breech, in reorienting us away from the false and foolish dichotomy between emotion and thought, which in her essays Poetry is not a Luxury and Uses of the Erotic Lorde shows us how to unlearn. Feminist work questions such patriarchal assumptions that make us easier to control by splitting one part of us off and denigrating it, calling us hysterical and unbalanced.

Audre Lorde: Black Lesbian feminist mother, lover, cancer survivor, daughter of Grendian immigrants to the USA, socialist, shows how one struggle is bound up with another: I am not free while others are in chains. She draws us towards wholeness, with ourselves and with each other: not in the denial of difference but in the recognition that difference is strength.

Notes from a Trip to Russia Lorde’s notes from a visit she made in 1976 as an observer of the African-Asian Writer’s Conference. She talks about dreaming Russia before she talks about being there: she notes that the socialism she dreams of does not really exist anywhere, and she is not uncritical, but her account is largely positive. She does not experience any individual racial prejudice (though people look interestedly) and this makes her aware of racism in the USA as the texture of everyday life. Her observation is fine-grained, a vital snapshot, highly personal, aesthetic, emotionally rich, acutely political. She compares Soviet cities to cities in West Africa. She is critical of the conference and the lack of attention to black people in the USA, with whom there is no meaningful solidarity expressed. Above all she is impressed by the fact that basic needs are met: healthcare is free, and everyone has enough to eat. This compared very favourably to black populations in the US.

Poetry is not a Luxury “I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word to mean in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.””The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free” I got so much from reading this essay, slowly, word by word. Lorde asserts boldly that there are “no new ideas, only new ways of making them felt”. We feel our ways towards what we want to build, towards change and freedom. To me hers is a beautiful and profound expression of the barrenness of rationality without feeling self-interrogation and empathy. Much is true that we lack words to express, bound as we are by a culture and language of white supremacist patriarchy. “For women, then, poetry… is a vital necessity of our existence” because it is the means by which we name the nameless and speak the unheard.

The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action Lorde makes a passionate case for not being silent, because when we speak we can come together and overcome fears, and create change. I felt this paragraph especially, considering the marginalisation of many women within feminist movement: “And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own. For instance, ‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing – their experience is so different from mine.’ Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?… Or ‘she’s a lesbian and what would my husband say, or my chairman’… And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of each other.”

Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving Lorde begins by asserting that racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia are “forms of human blindness [that] stem from… an inability to recognise the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one that is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals”. This idea alone deserves deep thought and endless repetition. The essay is about lesbophobia particularly in the Black US community. She explains how white supremacist patriarchy functions to manufacture it, and why Black woman-identified women are not a threat to Black men or to the community in general. She talks about accepted practices of love and forms of marriage between women in West African communities, which is fascinating. The essay may be less urgently needed today, but the arguments are fresh and clear, and returning to them is fruitful.

Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power
This is my favourite ever feminist essay. I think if I had my own apartment, I would paint the words of it all around the room where I worked and wrote and thought. It’s a further development of ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, on the power of feeling:

As women we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to psychically milked.

Lorde rehabilitates eros, the life force as a vivifying principle for our actions:

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire[...] Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.

It requires the matchless eloquence and sensitivity of a poet to articulate this radically expanded and renewed idea of the erotic. I will read this many times and each time draw a new lesson from it.

Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface In this response to an article by Robert Staples in The Black Scholar, Lorde addresses anti-feminism and sexism in the Black community, and the re-weaponisation of racism against Black women by Black men (with the ongoing complicity of White feminists).

In this country, Black women traditionally have had compassion for everybody except ourselves. We have cared for whites because we had to for pay or survival; we have cared for our children and our fathers and our brothers and our lovers. History and popular culture, as well as our personal lives, are full of tales of Black women who had ‘compassion for misguided black men.’ Our scarred, broken, battered and dead daughters and sisters are a mute testament to that reality. We need to learn to have compassion for ourselves, also.

An Open Letter to Mary Daly Another classic and much-shared (but evidently still not enough read) essay on the failure of white feminists to examine their own racism, to divest from white supremacist patriarchal constructions of Black and non-European women, to actually read the work of women of colour and hear it, feel it and respond to it rather than appropriate and plagiarise it. At the end she says “I felt it was wasted energy [to speak to white women about racism] because of destructive guilt and defensiveness, and because whatever I had to say might better be said by white women to one another at far less emotional cost to the speaker, and probably with a better hearing.” This is not her first or last expression of the wish for white people to teach each other about racism. Lorde’s words are still needed, and once met, turned to again and again, because the problem will not go away while our education remains silent on structural racism and our culture refuses to mark whiteness.

Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response This is a very touching essay about raising boys, specifically as a Black woman raising a Black boy, and as a Lesbian. There are many insights, one being that she has to teach her son that women do not exist to do men’s emotional labour. She sheds light on how parents inadvertantly inculcate in their children the lesson so culturally ingrained that might makes right: how family life can be complicit and contributary to a culture of domination and assymetrical power relationships.

An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich I have read works that quoted Rich’s feminist work and I have one of her poetry books on my TBR, but I did not know she had interviewed Lorde. She seems to do a good job of drawing her out, making space for her to talk about her ways of thinking and working and sources of inspiration. Every time Audre speaks the music of her style swells gorgeously across the page. Her stories, whether of aesthetic experiences, teaching or writing, are dense with insights. The two come into conflict when Audre upbraids Adrienne for asking for ‘documentation’, for more than intuition, and Adrienne insists on her position: “Help me to perceive what you perceive” as white women so often plead. Audre is patient, she explains that ‘the one thing I’ve had to fight with my whole life [is] preserving my perceptions of how things are… doing this in the face of tremendous opposition and cruel judgement. Adrienne says that she asks herself what she can do with Lorde’s ideas, how she can use them, which Lorde says is the oft-missed ‘essential step’

The Master’s Tools will never Dismantle the Master’s House Lorde has done her work to equip us, or rather to show us how to equip ourselves, with our own tools, forged in the recognition of difference and the use and celebration of its fruitful, creative potential, and in the need and desire to nurture each other. Yet academic white American feminists, she argues, do not reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower” “Now we hear that it is the task of women of Colour to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought”

Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference Lorde here expands her lament about the oppressed being expected to educate the oppressor, explaining how all of these binaries and hierarchies serve a racist patriarchal capitalism: “institutionalised rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people” She describes the american ‘mythical norm’ of the thin, white, male, young, heterosexual, financially secure “those of us who stand outside this power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing. By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus on their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretence to the homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.”

Lorde’s argument that difference is fruitful and powerful grows out, I feel, from her arguments in The Uses of the Erotic, because ‘the erotic cannot be felt secondhand’ but it can be shared, taught and understood across difference, and its affirmative power affirms others rather than struggling for a position from which to dominate them. In recognition of each other we can direct the power we each derive from the erotic towards common political goals (QUICK NB – Lorde is not talking about that ‘erotic capital’ thing! This has nothing to do with reinscribing and co-opting patriarchal sexual norms)

The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism “Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal and cooptation” “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strenthening act of clarification” “Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism. It wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence”. Lorde critiques Consciousness Raising groups which helped white women to articulate their anger against men, but not against other women across barriers of difference “No tools were developed to deal with other women’s anger except to avoid it, deflect it, or flee from it under a blanket of guilt”. There can be no collective action when white women evade instead of “meet[ing] us, face to face, beyond objectification and beyond guilt”

Learning from the 60s Some thoughts on Malcolm X, heterosexism and homophobia in the Black community, and US foreign policy (interventionist, imperialistic) and social policy (anti-welfare, atomising) in the 80s

Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger Here Lorde discusses anger and animosity between Black women at great length. I never realised how the treatment of Black women by daily and structural manifestations of white supremacist patriarchy came to engender distrust and hate between Black women themselves. As she often does, Audre draws on histories of African women collaborating with and sharing power with each other, supporting and loving each other, offering these resources for Black American women. She also offers wisdom from the I Ching and from fellow Black women poets. She explains how the destruction of self esteem makes Black women devalue each other as well as themselves. She decries the dehumanising idea that ‘white folks feel, Black folks DO’.

Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report This is a witness testimony. Lorde, of Grenadian parents, visited the island before the bloodless New Jewel coup which overthrew a wasteful, corrupt US sanctioned regime, after the coup during the rule of the People’s Revolutionary Government, and then after the US invasion of 1983. She is furious, because the PRG had improved every aspect of life for the people of Grenada, creatively, sutainably, and independently. And the invasion, patently unjustified and cynically motivated, is a wave of destruction uprooting that progress. I’ve probably read Chomsky’s account of the same events, but Lorde tells it with personal horror and rage.

Sister Outsider is a profound work, and a strong, deep root out of which feminist praxis can take nourishment and grow. Lorde points out what must be done, and tells us how to begin our work together, with the power of our own deeply felt truths.

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