Life as a Feminist Academic

  • Erin Wunker
    Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life. BookThug (purchase at

In their groundbreaking queer and feminist of colour collection This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa articulate what they call “theory in the flesh”: “where the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity.” With her title drawn from Sara Ahmed’s figure of the feminist killjoy, one may wonder about the necessity of Erin Wunker’s 2016 book of essays given the recent publication of Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy acts as an homage to Ahmed, demonstrating how Wunker’s writing works as theory in the flesh in two senses: her intersectional feminist praxis situated as a white, middle-class, Canadian cis woman academic in the twenty-first century, along with her lived experience with theory itself. Notes is a deliberately fragmentary, deeply personal window into how Wunker understands her everyday life on an affective level through engaging thinkers like Ahmed, Berlant, Spillers, and Lorde. She engages a genealogy of feminist theory that foregrounds the work of women of colour as an intellectual tradition that offers a way of thinking and being in the world.

Wunker explores how Ahmed’s concept enables the “killing” of oppressions that masquerade as joys, and thereby opens up the joys of a better world for all. Rape culture is the focus of the first chapter: different stages of Wunker’s life are framed through Black feminist theory and put into conversation with recent events that have brought rape culture into mainstream consciousness, like the Jian Ghomeshi trial and Emma Sulkowicz’s art installation in response to her rape at Columbia University. In the second chapter, Wunker considers an archive of female friendship drawn from literary texts like Their Eyes Were Watching God and cultural artifacts like the Bechdel Test in order to explore her expanding sense of feminist community with those around her and, symbolically, her relationship to the critics she cites. In the final chapter, Wunker confronts motherhood as a theory in the flesh, the bodying forth of praxis as various forms of care under the gender-neutral term “parenting.” Through parenting, Wunker achieves a different orientation to the world, a killjoy refusal that calls her to political solidarity: her postscript returns to considerations of her research and teaching in Canadian literature as a settler in the wake of Idle No More, a movement for Indigenous sovereignty.

In Notes, Wunker’s literary erudition, pop-culture references, and memoir fragments work together as a model of intersectional feminism and allyship. As she says in her introduction, “[f]irst, we situate ourselves. Then, we widen the scope of our looking. Then, we situate ourselves again. And repeat.” We as readers should situate our engagement of Wunker’s work and her call for change not just into our everyday lives, but into the field of Canadian literature and the state of academia in the humanities.

This review “Life as a Feminist Academic” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 177-178.

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