Book Club in the Time of Trump: We Should All Be Feminists
I want to start by saying Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has said some really problematic things about trans women that I disagree with, and has defended herself in ways that she would denounce in other contexts—she said so herself in her Facebook clarification that if she were a white woman insisting she weren’t racist, it would be a huge eye roll. Given that she has carved out a space for herself in speaking about gender across different cultures, her insistence that she should not have to use the language of trans folks to talk about queer issues is baffling to me; she should be seeking to educate herself on a community to which she does not belong if she would like to advocate for them. She should, perhaps, be listening to that community instead of deciding what that community needs and imparting it upon them, upon us.
I also want to say that I love Adiche’s work and have done for many years. Americanah is one of my favorite novels and I cite The Danger of a Single Story in so many arguments, in so many pieces. I think she has really valuable things to say. And I think her opinions about trans people are misguided and incorrect. Both things. Which is, in particular, why I wanted to read We Should All Be Feminists. It is because of these problematic statements, not in spite of them, that I feel her slim volume calling for something idealogical should not escape analysis through a queer, trans lens.
1. Who is this book for?
This book, I believe, was intended for an African audience who think feminism is a dirty word. I think this book has found purchase for folks outside that intended audience because there are folks across many cultures who think feminism is a dirty word, and for all the same reasons Adiche lists.
It becomes clear pretty quickly that this book isn’t for queer trans people, most specifically queer trans people who exist outside the gender binary. First off, throughout, the book only acknowledges the existence of men and women, and no one in between or otherwise. But there are other, subtler signs that this just wasn’t for us. The baggage of feminism listed on page ten, for example, included things like “you don’t wear make-up” and “you don’t shave.” I…don’t wear make-up and I don’t shave. And these are not negatives in the queer community. It’s amazing to me that Adiche can categorize these things as baggage while so vividly and accurately depicting how things become baggage on page 13: “If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.” It’s a bit surprising to me that she could make that argument and call the baggage anything other than “mainstream expectations” instead of insisting that they’re inherently negatives. What about all the women who don’t like the things Adiche likes? What about the people who aren’t women, but keep getting gendered that way?
But then, given Adiche’s problematic notions of the trans experience, do we really want her to write a book for us, speaking to us? I think probably not! Because of this book’s intended audience, I think Adiche and her readers are operating at a 101 level on gender; we’re talking the very basics here of “this is a problem, women are subjugated.” A lot of the truths of this book are for people who have never considered any of this before. Probably this is one of those times where it’s just fine to leave us out of it! Which brings me to my next question—
2. What can I as a trans-masc person learn from a book that doesn't include me? What stood out to you as valuable?
We should be reading and elevating books from a lot of different cultures because we want a well-rounded understanding of what the world looks like. I am a white trans masculine person who lives in New York City; there are aspects of this book that I absolutely should read, over and over again. Like I need to hear about how feminine people are treated because, even though I’m AFAB (assigned female at birth) and am not afforded a lot of the privileges men are, I am afforded some just because I appear masculine and therefore “to be taken more seriously” than my feminine counterparts. Adiche does talk about how masculinity is prized. I need to hear that over and over and over again and I need to pay attention when it happens in my life and find ways to disrupt it. But I will admit to what is potentially a personal shortcoming on my part: my first instinct at this point in my life when a book, especially a theoretical call to action on behalf of feminism, expressly doesn’t include me is to ignore it entirely. To quote Adiche directly: “Each time they ignore me, I feel invisible. I feel upset. I want to tell them that I am just as human as the man, just as worthy of acknowledgement (20).”
But what if I moved past that immediate reaction and took the book for what it’s worth? And it’s worth a lot! I exist in a world that’s larger than my community and has entirely different notions on gender—being able to recommend a slim, colorful volume that is well written and that I can speak about cogently is a boon. This texts describes intersectionality in a bite-sized, non-accusatory way (page 43); it’s a concept that is usually difficult for folks to get on their first try. It appeals to cis men who have a hard time seeing outside their own experiences of the world. It sucks that we often have to be the educators of those around us; we shouldn’t have to be. We should be able to live our lives without justifying our existence to folks. But, alas, life isn’t fair. At least instead of expending one million years and our sanity during a family barbecue, I can pass someone a tiny-ass book and be like, hey, check this out! It all comes down to moving folks one notch farther along than they were.
3. What do we gain from being on the margins of gender?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the weird privilege being on the margins of the gender binary affords me. I was recently speaking with a friend about how much pressure she feels from her religious parents and religious community back home to marry a Jewish boy and have a bunch of children, even though she’s questioning whether or not she wants that for the first time in her life. I said, you know, you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. And she snapped back at me that not everyone can opt out like I can.
The thing is, she’s right. There is a strange freedom in existing so far out of the realm of rules. No one has figured out how to regulate my behavior based on my gender. And it’s because I exist in this grey area that I have a super power: I and people like me can actually lead the way in what it means to re-make and re-define both masculinity and femininity in the ways that Adiche touches on. We needn’t, for instance, adhere to Adiche’s definition of negative baggage. It’s usually true, in my queer-ass opinion, that the best parts of cultural progress come from the radical fringes, and that’ll probably be the case here. We can use our powers for good, and then its down to representation of happy queers in media to display alternatives to folks who might not otherwise consider them.
4. How do we reconcile creators who have exclusionary views and their sometimes-valuable work? Can we enjoy work by an ill-informed artist?
I don’t rightly have a good answer for this one, y’all. Like I said, it’s hard for me to read a text that expressly excludes me, and this one does. But I love so much of Adiche’s work, and one of the things I hate in our community is our willingness to excommunicate members and allies if they aren’t perfect one hundred percent of the time. This artist is so, so misinformed on the experience of being trans. On some days, I have more bandwidth to engage with work that comes from people who hold problematic opinions than I do on others. So here’s my only answer to this particular question: of course we can. We can enjoy and engage with work created by an ill-informed artist because no one is perfect and no one can know and be good at everything. It’s just not possible. Even the good genius ones are going to fuck it up sometimes. But I don’t begrudge readers deciding that today is not the damn day. Pay attention to your bandwidth! It's ok to conserve your emotional energy!
Next Month’s Pick: Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens.
This month I chose a book that is too 101 for most of us, but will aid us all in moving folks one notch forward, something we all (sadly) need to be doing in this, the Time of Trump. But the next book? That’s all for you, queers! This is another slim volume, but one that supports a creative practice under an oppressive regime. How do we make things when the world is on fire? This book is targeted at those who make art professionally, but contains a lot of good, solid information for those who want to start creating as an outlet in turbulent times. Let’s dive in!
A.E. Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where they teach digital storytelling. They're writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow them on Twitter or on Instagram.