When I search my recent book for the word feminism, it appears only once. In the acknowledgements, I thank my fellow contributors to the feminist blog, Hook & Eye, that I have been co-writing and co-editing during most of the period in which I wrote the book. Riffing on the blog’s tagline, I acknowledge that “fast feminism helped me to write slowly and thoughtfully” (xxiii). For me, even though feminism as a word only appears once, it is everywhere in that book as a key theoretical commitment, as a mode of intervention in the archive that was at the core of the book, and as a lived practice that allowed me to write and finish the book at all. I cannot imagine having been able to write that book, or write anything at all, without feminism as an anchor for work that I want to do.
Why, then, is feminism seemingly so invisible in the actual text of my work?
Before I can begin to answer this question—one that I asked myself as I stared at the single reference to feminism in a work of mine that I thought was infused with feminism—I want to pause and think about the place of this single reference. The reference to feminism lives in the part of the book where I recognize the enormous community of people who make my writing possible. It is the place where I tell my readers a little about how the book actually came into existence. It is where I name, albeit in a muted and truncated way, the challenges I encountered in the decade that I spent researching and writing the book. It is where I share the journey of the book and name the people who were with me from the moment when the ideas for the book were just something I talked about to the moment when I knew that the book would actually be a book.
I confess that I always read the acknowledgements sections of academic books. I especially like reading this section of the book when I do not know the author at all. In my ignoble moments, this reading is the closest I come to experiencing guilty pleasure when engaging with academic work. It is small glimpse into the world behind the book. Mostly, I love reading the acknowledgements because they remind their readers that books come out of communities. They do not emerge sui generis from the minds of single authors. They come out of conversations and debates. They come out of the generosity of fellow thinkers sharing their thoughts and, sometimes, even their labour. They come out of the hospitality of friends and family who made space for the book to live, even when it often took up space that it did not have the right to claim. And by space, I actually mean time. Writing a book takes some physical space, yes; but more than anything, it takes so much time. Years and years of time that are carved out of everything from long, glorious stretches, such as sabbaticals or fellowships, to the stolen moments when the baby is napping or in the strange, odd minutes between meetings and marking.
When I read my own acknowledgements, I am reminded again that the communities out of which the book emerged were deeply and profoundly feminist communities. My Hook & Eye pals are not the only feminists who make my work possible. They are also my friends. They are also the archivists and librarians. They are also the support staff in the offices where I do my non-writing work: teaching and serving in administration. And always, always, there is my daughter.
All of this is to say that acknowledging the role of feminism in my work in the space of the acknowledgements is itself a way of telling myself and my readers that it matters more than I knew how to say in the text of the book itself. I have only written two books and, both times, the acknowledgements were the hardest parts to write. The labour of recognizing the labour of others is no small thing.
Still, I am left with the starkness of this single reference. If feminism is everywhere in my work, why is it seemingly almost nowhere in the text itself? This ubiquity coupled with invisibility highlights precisely why this special issue of Canadian Literature is so important. Having lived and breathed the gains of second-wave feminism, and having cut my teeth as a new academic in the midst of the third wave, I took for granted that everybody I worked with, that every institution I worked in, was working towards feminism. That it was just part of the air we breathed.
How wrong I was. I had a mistakenly capacious understanding of who was breathing alongside me—and of the air itself. The gains of the many waves of feminism continue to be eroded at every turn. Even as I write this, the rights of North American women to decide how and if to bear children are profoundly jeopardized. Misogyny is so much deeper than I could really have grasped.
I see now that it is a mistake for me not to name feminism at every turn of my work. It is a mistake to think that the feminism that anchors and animates all my thinking would simply be so obvious as not to require explicit recognition. There is no literary and cultural analysis I conduct that is not also always already a feminist literary and cultural analysis. That is not to say that decolonizing and anti-racist practices are not also always already a part of the work. And that is also to say that queer theory transforms my work. But the thing is, race and racism can be found thirty-two times in my book. Queer appears twice. That makes me wince too.
Perhaps there is no correlation between textual references to a concept and the transformative role of that concept. But the textual scholar in me thinks that there is something more complicated unfolding here. I think it has to do with the role of these concepts as a practice rather than a theory.
In my work, feminist practices risk invisibility precisely because they are so ubiquitous and because they are practices. They demand a kind of doing that repeats, over and over. To write a book is to want to rewrite it almost as soon as one is supposedly finished with the writing. I would like to write this one again now, write feminism all over the text. It is always already there.
Cho, Lily. Mass Capture: Chinese Head Tax and the Making of Non-citizens. McGill- Queen’s UP, 2021.
Lily Cho is Professor of English, and Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (International) at Western University. Her book, Mass Capture: Chinese Head Tax and the Making of Non-citizens (McGill-Queen’s UP 2021), was awarded the 2023 Book Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Multidisciplinary Category by the Association for Asian American Studies.
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