I was the kid who told my peers I was a feminist in the playground in elementary school. My parents were dedicated to raising their children with Afrocentric and feminist values, so there have been times I’ve fully taken for granted how self-evident certain feminist ideals are. Of course, my feminist consciousness has grown and changed as I have; I’ve thankfully outgrown my childhood disdain for many “feminine” things. Still, for most of my academic development, feminism was an implicit underpinning rather than an overt engagement. Then, in 2019, I started a dual appointment in English and gender and women’s studies. This job made me articulate more directly and explicitly how feminism factors into my writing, my pedagogy, and my service to communities, academic and otherwise. Being forced to tease out what I take for granted has been powerful, especially as I work to teach my students the value of speaking what often goes unspoken. Indeed, for me, speaking what goes unspoken is a fundamental step in feminist consciousness-raising and writing because it is only through articulating our experiences and assumptions that we realize which of those we actually stand by and which we have been unconsciously carrying around like ticks. Last year, a Mi’kmaw student of mine compared reading Sara Ahmed’s feministkilljoys blog to being in a sweat lodge, and that comment filled me with joy because it is that experience—of finding a new key that helps you to interpret and live in the world—that I am always trying to create in both my writing and teaching. Like many spiritual experiences, it is the combination of the tangible and the intangible, the intellectual and the emotional, the embodied experience of wisdom settling into you that, for me, marks a feminist life.
I’m in the throes of writing a book about rebellious Black immigrant daughters in US fiction and, as a result, I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about rebellion than I, a remarkably unrebellious daughter, have in the past. At the risk of offering a free preview, one thing that is becoming clearer to me is that there are many forms of rebellion, some of which are self-destructive and some which are generative. Those rebellions rooted in a simple reversal—“you tell me not to do it, so I do it”—are often the first rebellions, but the truly revelatory and revolutionary moment in most of the protagonists’ lives comes through a later rebellion, one rooted in a clearer and more nuanced view of what is being rebelled against and, just as importantly, knowing where your allegiance is going when you revoke it from one place. It is so much easier, after all, to know what you do not want than to know what you do. For me, a generative relationship to feminism as a rebellion against white supremacist heteropatriarchy and capitalism requires that often difficult-to-achieve clarity and nuance, that foundation in speaking the unspoken even when it complicates things, even when it makes knowing the “right” thing to do harder. If we might read all feminists as rebellious progeny of a series of systems that were built without their best interests at heart, perhaps the lessons from the works I study apply to us all.
A central concept for my current work is the idea of against, a term that indicates both intimacy—I hold you against my body—and rejection—I am against war. The daughters I write about often relate to their families and their societies in a state of against-ness that embodies both meanings as they are buffeted by political, social, and economic forces that shape family and social dynamics, as well as gendered expectations both within the home and outside of it. The duality of against is something that has always been present in feminism, especially when we look at Black women’s feminist writing, where there are meaningful reflections on how to navigate Black love and intimacy in the face of white supremacy while also confronting misogyny and homophobia in Black communities. We know deeply that need to hold something or someone close while simultaneously needing space and distance, and, importantly, writers like bell hooks give us the language to articulate and assert this knowledge. Time and again, I see how being given the tools to articulate experience, especially these kinds of psychologically complex aspects of life, empowers my students in ways that constantly reinforce the value of this work.
For me, as an academic worker, the concept of against is also useful for helping me to understand my relationship to the university. I am both intimately a part of it as well as engaged in critiquing how it works. Recognizing this push and pull is an integral part of surviving and thriving in the oft contradictory spaces that make up academia, especially for women of colour academics whose work is rooted in structural critique of power relations. For both myself and my students, I need to dwell in this in-between space. One characteristic I do share with the daughters I write about is an ability to make a home in the spaces between, to come to see the layered nature of my identity and experience as a source of power and knowledge as opposed to a flaw. The value of experience is, of course, one of the greatest and most misunderstood gifts feminism has given the world.
Here and now, feminism has become more important to my scholarly and pedagogical work, and to me as both a scholar and a teacher, than it has ever been. It resonates with my interest in experience, in my insistence on nuance, in my quest for articulation. It informs my methodology and my pedagogy. It is urgent, integral, and generative.
Dr. Asha Jeffers is an Assistant Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies at Dalhousie.
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