These past few months I’ve been reading a lot of classic feminist essays. This isn’t exactly a great deviation from my normal reading habits, but I think I’ve been looking for something a little different when I pick them up. Perhaps that needs rephrasing: the difference is more likely to be in how I experience what I’m reading, but it feels fundamental all the same. Another thing I’ve been feeling lately, which is more or less related to this, is that all the reading that really shakes me, and all the writing I then do in response, is about different iterations of the same few ideas. This is partially a result of the fact that I’ve been following my reading whims more than ever before, and partially about what I’m paying attention to, what I find useful, and what I zoom in on in whatever books I pick up.
When I returned to blogging at the end of March, a few of you said you’d especially like to hear my thoughts on the bell hooks books I’d been reading. I first read Ain’t I a Woman and Feminism is for Everybody a few years ago, and I loved them — of course I did. And you know, I don’t want to make it sound like my initial discovery of feminist texts in my twenties was not intensely personal, because it very much was. My particular “click” moment came in the shape of tearing up while reading the Shakespeare’s sister section of A Room of One’s Own during a university class, and what followed was a reconceptualisation of a whole lifetime of experiences that helped me feel more sane and less alone than I ever had before. There’s no overstating how healing and normalising that was, how transformative, or how much I wish it had happened sooner.
Still, when I return to hooks now, I feel more personally affected by her work than I could have allowed myself to be when I was younger. Angela Davis writes that while “everyone is familiar with the slogan ‘the personal is political’”, it doesn’t only mean “that what we experience on a personal level has profound personal implications, but [also] that our interior lives, our emotional lives, are very much informed by ideology”, which more or less gets at what I’m trying to say. I’m interested, now as ever, in the process of learning how to be alive in the world, and I’ve been turning to classic feminist texts because so many of them approach this question with an eye to dismantling power relationships, and to confronting how these insinuate themselves into even the most sacred and intimate corners of our lives.
bell hooks’ All About Love (and also Communion and The Will to Change) is deeply preoccupied with this. It’s about relinquishing control, which is not the same as relinquishing agency, about what relationships between equals really look like, and about how to make them possible in a world that teaches and encourages dominance and exploitation in ways that aren’t always immediately obvious or recognisable. In other words, it’s about how to be, how to love, and how to avoid inflicting hurt on ourselves and others. It’s useful stuff for anyone who’s trying to recover from whatever wounds the world has inflicted on them without making use of the patriarchal tools that immediately present themselves to us. Being okay doesn’t necessarily look like what we’re encouraged to imagine. I’ve known this intellectually for years, but it took me too long to feel this truth deep in my bones.
Another thing that drew me to these books was the fact that they’re concerned with articulating what was once beyond the reach of language. Adrienne Rich, whose way with words floored me (an obvious point to make about one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, but bear with me — I’m new here), reminds us that what remains unspoken risks becoming unspeakable; and Audre Lorde devotes the whole of Zami to articulating what was once impossible to express — her experiences as a black woman, as a feminist, and as a lesbian in 1940s and 1950s New York.
They give me courage, these books, and also tools to tackle the unspoken messes of my own life. A little while ago someone I think well of praised me for being open; while this made me happy, it also got me thinking about everything I’m still not able to say. I think perhaps I’m slowly, very slowly, edging closer to writing about all the things that make me instinctively go, “I couldn’t possibly write about that”. I think my belief in its value is firmer than it was before. I think perhaps one day I’ll be able to do it in a way that feels, to quote Rich again, “frightening but not destructive”.
This last quote is from “Some Notes on Lying”, which was to me the most affecting essay in On Lies, Secrets and Silences. It is, like hooks’ work, about establishing relationships that reject the dominant models of control, and where the possibility of expressing truths of increasing complexity remains alive — even if the participants aren’t able to live up to it all the time. The model it outlines is definitely something I want in my own life, and I think it goes for writing and for wider community links just as much as it goes for one to one human ties.
Lastly, I think it’s the desire for something like this that has lately been driving me to this loose, neither fish nor fowl sort of writing. It doesn’t mean I’m forever done with the more structured business of book reviewing, or that I don’t still value the intellectual joy of it. It doesn’t mean I have lost my faith in the format’s ability to deal with the messy business of being a human alive in the world, which is after all the business of literature. But for now, this is what I need. This is the sort of writing that allows me to edge closer to my truths. Thank you for sticking around while I figure it out.