Book Review: Nora Samaran's Turn This World Inside Out
You may have heard of Nora Samaran from her essay “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture,” which went viral in early 2016. In it, Samaran claims “violence is nurturance turned backwards” and extrapolates the nuance of rape culture that pervades our lives in imperceptible ways. Whether it is the weight of emotional labor performed by women, femmes, and nonbinary people, movement building with masculine identified people working on cultivating empathy, or navigating how to move forward from a culture of call-outs and cancellations, Samaran’s essay is incredibly prescient to our world today where previously culturally mandated silences are being broken.
With the book release of Turn This World Inside Out, Samaran expands on her viral essay to construct almost a manual, a how-to guide, to heal the dominant culture we live in and also show examples of how this work is being utilized by activists and individuals who are implementing nurturance culture in their daily lives. Interspersed between essays on topical issues close to the cultural pulse in America and other Western cultures today, such as “On Gaslighting” and apologizing for when harm does occur with “Own, Apologize, Repair: Coming Back to Integrity,” are dialogues conducted between Samaran and other activists who are trying to answer these questions in their own work. Presented as “dialogues” rather than interviews, Samaran engages with the pitfalls of her work with the very people who are being affected by the implications of putting nurturance culture into practice.
As a cis white writer, Samaran does not shy away from her own blind spots that could hinder the fullness of her argument for nurturance culture, engaging with the blossoming complexity that arises when we try to take on these tangled power structures. For example, in the dialogue “Turning Gender Inside Out,” Samaran speaks with Serena Bhandar, a writer, activist, and educator who also happens to be transgender. While “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture” essay that starts the book focuses on men, “men [who] do not talk to one another about nurturance skills...the codes of masculinity makes doing so frightening,” Bhandar addresses how transgender people are not explicitly centered in the work and converses with Samaran on how that can be corrected. Bhandar states
“A lot of writing I have seen reduces violence to a cis male-cis female dynamic, where it is presented as though there is nothing beyond and nothing between. Any arguments directed toward a trans audience are tacked on, even though trans folks, and trans women in particular, face disproportionate and severe levels of violence...instead transness should be built right into the argument from its conception, especially since everybody has the potential to be trans...Putting transness at the center of our understanding of gender makes apparent that cisness has also always been complicated.”
Rather than defend her work as trans-inclusive, Samaran’s response is refreshing in a world that often focuses on the shame that arises from being educated or corrected and the fear that comes up with being “wrong.” “Yes, that makes sense,” Samaran responds “I can see how the piece adds trans readers on, as you have described, rather than writing in a way that builds transness right into the fundamental way of thinking about gender.” Samaran demonstrates in this dialogue a core piece of nurturance culture: to disrupt the harm systems perpetuate against us, it's imperative that we expand ourselves to listen to people, analysis, and arguments that result in empathy to transcend our own ego, so that we can work to dismantle the systems in operation around us. Ultimately, Samaran acknowledges that the bulk of this work is often done by women, femmes, Black, Indigenous, and other feminists of color, feminists who organize and theorize about these systems and doesn’t present her work at the solution to these issues. Rather, Turn This World Inside Out is the guide for those who may resist and not have engaged with this work before.
I truly appreciate how Samaran builds off the theoretical movements before her with utilization of attachment theory from psychology schools of thought, gender studies, critical race theory, and postcolonial theory. As we learn about power structures and oppressions inherent in those structures, Turn This World Inside Out asks what kind of world can we create when we nurture each other, rather than Western individualism that is fed by imperialism and capitalism, focusing on who can be the best from the rest. Rather than offering a one size fits all solution to care and accountability that distinguishes itself from call out and cancel culture, Turn This World Inside Out acknowledges that this work is something that is different for everyone but also necessary to conduct. In the dialogue “Building Strength Through Movement and Afrofuturism,” with Ruby Smith Diaz, Diaz states
“We often inhabit and replicate the toxic behaviors of the society and the state we live in. We need to be able to understand what is happening to us and heal ourselves so we don’t perpetuate those toxic behaviors and ways of being.” This is something that is happening on an unconscious level that takes conscious effort to unpack and correct.
With that said, Samaran steps into academic and colloquial language seamlessly in a way that makes complex theoretical ideas digestible for a wider audience outside of the academic spaces these theories initially originated in. On gaslighting, which despite the etymology of the phrase, isn’t about throwing a match on petroleum fuel, Samaran writes “Do you understand the depth of the harm of making someone question their sanity? This is serious shit….It is poking a hole in someone’s fundamental capacity to engage with reality...Our capacity to know ourselves is powerful - and power in people who are situated as abject is squashed at every turn for the very reason that it has the force to overturn injustice” (emphasis mine). By acknowledging the very real harm in a normalized activity that is inherent in thousands of day-to-day interactions outside of opaque academic jargon, Samara is truly working to engage the reader into nurturance culture and increase accessibility.
Ultimately, Turn This World Inside Out is an imperative text for our modern times. Samaran deftly demonstrates the need for this type of book throughout her essays and dialogues. This slender tome will be sure to draw readers in for providing answers to the questions people in positions of privilege have. I only hope that it can live up to its title.
Dena Rod is an Iranian American writer, editor, and poet. They're a graduate of San Francisco State University, where they received a Master’s Degree in English Literature. You can find more of their work in CCSF’s Forum Literary Magazine, Endangered Species, Enduring Values: An Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers and Artists of Color, and the upcoming anthology My Shadow is My Skin (Spring 2020). You can reach them at denarod.com and Twitter.