When the League’s Feminist Caucus was formed in the 1980s, its goal was was to make space for women in a largely male-dominated field and organization. Since then, much space has certainly been made, but many women in poetry, literature, and writing still face unique obstacles for the sole fact that they are not men. One facet of this is the term “woman writer” — what is a woman writer other than a writer? Not too long ago, the hashtag #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear went viral, with women from all fields of writing sharing their experiences as “women writers.” Although the conversation has been going on for decades, it’s far from over, so we wanted to sit down with some of the women shortlisted for our 2017 book awards and ask them how feminism interacts with their writing and writing lives, if at all.
Today we’re sitting down with Juliane Okot Bitek, Sue Sinclair, and Johanna Skibsrud, all shortlisted for the Pat Lowther memorial award.
Do you identify as feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
Sue Sinclair: I am a feminist. It’s a no-brainer. For me, feminism means the belief in equal opportunity and fair treatment regardless of sex or gender. It also means being in touch with the variety of challenges faced by women, depending on their social and economic situations. Day to day it means dressing my daughter in a range of colours; it means making sure a variety of women are represented on my syllabi; it means allowing myself to tend to my needs as well as to those of work and family; it means addressing my ignorance about other lives whenever I have the chance; it means noticing the lack of women in the upper administration of my university; it means marching when marching is called for.
Johanna Skibsrud: Yes, of course. Feminism—as bell hooks writes—“is for everybody.” I don’t think that any of us will be truly “liberated” until we realize, collectively, that sexism is harmful to men as well as to women—or that racism is harmful to white people as well as to people of colour, or that homophobia is harmful to straight people as well to the LGBTQ community, or that classism is harmful to the rich as well as to the poor… Being a feminist means paying attention; it means recognizing that when some voices are heard, other voices are not. It means asking why this is so, and listening very hard, and using what voice you have to draw attention to the fact that there are more voices. It means being aware of the way that we are all connected—of the fact that feminism is and needs to be “for everybody”—and at the same time not being willing to give in to the sort of abstract “universals” that have been silencing women and minorities for so many years.
Juliane Okot Bitek: There are so many conversations about feminism – who is one, who can claim to be one, and who can never be one — that it begs for an explanation or at least an extension of what/who a feminist is. Feminism celebrates the potential of women and girls everywhere but I also understand that there are some people that don’t. I never went for the Women’s March because it seemed to me that it was concerned with women’s rights in the way it has not been concerned with rights of other people, many of them also women. I wholly believe that women and girls are as valuable as men and boys, and that women and girls come in many forms. I believe that my identification as a woman does not make me any less a feminist than anyone who doesn’t. I believe that empowering women benefits everyone. This makes me a feminist but this still reads like a trick question. Hmm.
How does feminism influence your writing life, if at all?
JS: Erin Wunker—author of Notes From a Feminist Killjoy (BookThug 2016)—defines a Feminist Killjoy as someone who “calls out and refuses to be complacent with the so-called joys of patriarchal culture.” I think—or at least I hope—that most of my writing is informed by my own desire “not to be complacent.” Writing, for me, is a way of paying attention—a way of critiquing as well as celebrating and participating in the world. This latest book of poetry, for example, starts out with a series of “Landscape Studies” that question how, on a very basic level, we witness the world around us from a seemingly “fixed” point of view, then builds toward a consideration of Nuclear and Atomic warfare. I wanted to think about the ways in which the insularities and limitations of our perspectives on a personal scale are related to the limitations of our perspectives on an international and historical scale.
JOB: Sigh. Feminism influences my life, not just my writing life. But gender and sexual discrimination, racism, class, erasures, silencing, access to power and other factors also influence my writing. To be in the company of people who never have occasion to recognize the unfinished struggle of other women reminds me that writing is only one way to imagine a world that is free for all women, and therefore, for everybody. We must also be and care and listen to and walk with those who still struggle to be themselves.
Related: do you feel your writing is inherently political just because you are a woman? How do you interact with that in your writing?
SS: Taking up public space as a woman is on the political spectrum for sure. What you do within that space can further or hamper the political gesture of claiming it. I don’t always interact with my woman-ness directly in my writing, though I have written a great deal about beauty, which is often associated with the feminine. Insisting on beauty’s worth, at least as a topic, has a feminist flavour. Is it entirely accidental that the supervisors of my dissertation on beauty were both women? Probably not.
JOB: My writing is political because I’m a woman, an African, Acholi, Canadian and middle aged. I’m also Ugandan and of a wide diaspora of invisible people who are also called people of color. The political that I respond to is related to the way I encounter the world and my various ways of being, along with being a woman. It also means that I look for silences that respond to the invisibility about me and other racialized people. Even the question that connects being a woman with being political elicits a defensive response, and yet when I write something, anything, it’s not that I begin from my position as a woman — but I am a woman. And African and Black and Acholi and Canadian and Vancouverite and mother and daughter and lover and friend and sister and and and
Mostly I look for ways to welcome readers into the language by creating spaces where we can have some dialogue. But sometimes I don’t think about the reader at all and I’m only interested in playing with the language. I try to write against categories that disempower and silence — “women and children,” sex slaves,” “minorities” – to challenge ways that others claim authority over our experiences. Sometimes there’s a well-meaning intent to speak for us who are thus categorized but too often, there’s no attempt to include our voices.
JS: Yes. But I also think—risking a universal—that all writing is inherently political. I believe that writing is a way of thinking, a way of pressing against the perceived limits of language, a way of imagining new relationships, new imperatives, and new ways of being. Being a woman helps me to be particularly aware of this, though. It helps me to be aware, always, of what a tremendous privilege—and tremendous responsibility—it is to write. I write in a very particular space that has been carved for me by the women writers who have come before me: writers I know and love, like Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Aphra Ben, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Muriel Rukeyser, Clarice Lispector, Wislawa Szymborska, Angela Davis, Helene Cixous, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne Carson, Dionne Brand … and many, many more who I will never know. It helps remind me that I can never be abstract, and I can never be singular. That I write because of them, and for them—as well as for the future. For my own daughter, and for the generations to come who are also going to need a place to stand and speak from—a way of believing in their own voices, their own possibilities.
Who are some female, trans, or non-binary writers who have influenced you, or who you would recommend as must-read writers?
SS: For the sake of narrowing down the list somewhat, I’m going to keep it Canadian: Roo Borson and Jan Zwicky were formative influences, and I rely on their work to this day. I admire Sina Queryas’ poetry, especially M X T. I’m currently enjoying the work of Linda Besner & Laura Broadbent. Clea Roberts has a new book of spare, precise lyric work, Auguries. This is a scattershot sampling.
JS: See list above. [“Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Aphra Ben, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Muriel Rukeyser, Clarice Lispector, Wislawa Szymborska, Angela Davis, Helene Cixous, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne Carson, Dionne Brand … and many, many more who I will never know.”]
I really admire writers who can write along their nerve-endings and fuse open-hearted candour and self-disclosure with fierce mastery and linguistic rigour. Writers like Sharon Olds and Gwen Benaway are two poets who are deeply inspirational to me for their ability to do this.
JOB: I begin with a caveat. Having long decided that there is no must anything, I can’t coerce folks to read what they might not have otherwise considered but I can speak/write about the people who inspire me. Many of the most influential people in my life are not writers in the traditional sense of having their writing presented in book form. They are thinkers and daring people who have changed the way we think about the kind of world we live in, and how language and culture can betray us when it doesn’t include us in all the ways we can be. Vivek Shraya is a Vancouver writer whose piece on suicide is so powerful that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the most insightful pieces I’ve ever known on that topic. Shraya’s video poem is a great example of how our various identities and relationships can crash and bounce in a political and cultural landscape and how we can be saved by love (although even love may not be enough). I love their Even This Page is White. American actor, Laverne Cox is a woman whose voice and presence are so important in helping us understand the deadly intersection of class, race and transphobia. Black transwomen are abused and killed in the United States for being who they are and this reflects and echoes the murdered and missing women in Canada. Her Twitter response to Chimamanda Adichie’s assertion that transwomen were not women is a great example of speaking truth to power that determines who belongs and who doesn’t. Toni Morrison reminds me of the necessity and responsibility of writing into being. She writes unapologetically and powerfully about what it means to be Black and American. Anything she’s written, both fiction and essay, is evidence of her mastery of language, history and voice.
I’m totally aware of how I haven’t resisted the categories of this question. I wonder how to consider it without identifying as “female, trans, or non-binary”.