Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reading Audre Lorde is changing my life

As my interest in feminism has grown, I've started reading some of the works of feminist writers. I've started slowly and avoided certain topics completely (due to self care), but I'm learning so much. I've loved the books I've read so far and they've all been helpful to me in their own way. But none have spoken to me in the way that Audre Lorde has.

I started reading her "Sister Outsider" just after a trip to visit a friend. Said friend had me read the essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" from this book. And I was hooked! In this particular essay Lorde points out that our silence hasn't ever protected us from violence, victimisation and ridicule. As women we get those anyway, whether we are silent or whether we "speak". This essay spoke to me because this is how I view my move into feminism and activism. Through twitter and blogging I found my voice. I am able to speak against injustice where I see it and people respond to my writing. I've written not just on my own blog but for other campaigns too, and I continue to do this. It allows me, in some small way, to feel like I am fighting. But more than this, I'm fighting using something I am good at. I LOVE writing. I always have. And because I love it, and have done so much of it (for fun) over the years, I'm pretty good at it. I'm confident about my writing, in a way that I am not always confident about "speaking" in person. So being able to write, to use writing as my voice, as a way to break the silence has been immensely powerful for me. And reading Lorde's essay felt like a validation of all of those feelings. I feel stronger because I write; I feel empowered because I write; I feel like I'm contributing because I write; I broke my silence because I write.

But, Lorde's impact on me doesn't end there. When I got home I went to the uni library and picked up Sister Outsider. I started reading and was blown away by the essay "Poetry is not a Luxury". In this piece Lorde talks about the power of poetry and how it is not a trivial thing. I was moved almost to tears (I kid you not) by this paragraph:

"For women then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives."

When I read those words, they hit me in the chest, took my breath away, and filled my eyes with tears. Here Lorde was putting words to a feeling I've had my whole life but never been able to articulate. I've always used poetry to cope and process. When I'm dealing with trauma I write poems. When I'm hurting and sad, those feelings express themselves through words on a page. I rarely let people read these poems. They are MINE, for me. A way to deal with my life experiences, to process my pain. The act of writing these poems frees me somehow. Lets me see the hurt and deal with it. It moves it from within me to on the page. Poetry is and always has been my survival tactic. To see that this is true of other women, and to see Lorde articulate it so clearly, changed my life. It moved me, in a way no other piece of writing ever has. It switched something in my head and again, made me feel stronger and more connected to other women.

It was so powerful that I had to share it: I tweeted it. And since then it has sat in my heart and in my head, I'm pretty sure those words have taken up permanent residence inside me. :)

After this I was besotted with Lorde and her writing, but sure that her words were done moving me so much. And then she hit me again, with her essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power". In this essay Lorde talks about reclaiming "the erotic" as not just referring to sexual behaviours and actions, but as that feeling of love and passion. That these feelings do not just pertain to sex and relationships but to our passions, such as writing, art, to everything:

"The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves."

Again, this hit me in the chest. These words gave me permission for my pursuit of my education. For the direction I am trying to push my career. My path is one which follows the erotic in this sense, when I research, teach and write I feel this sense of satisfaction. I KNOW it is what I am supposed to be doing. What I was made for. There have been times when I have felt like this pursuit is selfish. That the sacrifices my family make for this are too much to ask. But these words again freed me. Lorde spoke to me and let me know that what I am doing will make me a stronger, more whole person. And in truth, that to not pursue this sense of satisfaction would be a betrayal of myself.

Like I said, this book is changing my life. Sister Outsider contains so much other wisdom, words about being a black woman, a lesbian, about intersectionality and multiple oppressions. I know it's a book I will return to again and again throughout my life. If you haven't read it, DO. It is truly an amazing work. I intend to find EVERYTHING Audre Lorde has ever written, because I have a feeling she has much more to say to me.

To my London friend (you know who you are) THANK-YOU, thank-you for putting this book in my hands.

To the memory of the amazing Audre Lorde I say: Your words changed my world. Thank-you!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Academic Abelism

If you've been following my tweeting this week you will have seen me using the Academic Abelism hashtag and RTing and talking with the @phdisabled account. I decided to get some of my thoughts down and try to explain why I think this conversation is so important. 

As regular readers of my blog (or twitter followers) will be aware I suffer from a chronic illness. This illness is debilitating and severe. As you will also know, I'm a PhD student. I'm hoping that it's apparent how much I love my research, and my institution (most of the time). But this intersection of graduate study and ill health is HARD. It's hard for many reasons and all of them need to be talked about, because in truth what is needed in academia is a culture shift. A paradigm change. And for those you need pressure. You need evidence and you need someone to make the noise. 

The acadmeic lifestyle nowadays is predicated upon this ideal of the "superhero worker". Someone who works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week minimum. You are supposed to live, eat, breathe and sleep academia. It is not enough now to be a good researcher, you must publish, publish, publish in respectable journals. You must be an exceptional teacher (I mean, students are paying £9K), but you have to do all your prep for this teaching in "your own time" because all of your working hours are taken up with research and grant proposals. 

This lifestyle is unhealthy.  As is evidenced by the high insidence of mental health problems and depression amongst PhD students and academics. God help you if you come to the academy with existing health problems. If you come to the academy unable to put in all the "extra" hours because doing so will exaccerbate your pre-existing condition. In this case, the blame is put on you. You are weak, and cannot cope with the high pressure academic environment. You are found wanting. NO-ONE considers that actually it's academia that has the problem. 

At least no-one did until a few small voices started to make noise: Thesis Whisperer, @JessicaRdctd, @nadinemuller and then @Phdisabled. And suddenly all of those in academia with chronic illness/ disability realised that we are not alone. We started to talk, and realised that our experiences were similar. And we began to join the dots. Realising that the problem isn't us, it's the system. 

Any system that purportes to be built on an intellectual meritocrary, that excludes some intellects because of disability is a broken system. Our intellect is not wanting. We are not lesser minds. We have bodies that betray us: That mean we cannot and SHOULD NOT work ourselves to illness. 

The changes we would make, the issues that we see as needing to be addressed, will not only benefit us. All of academia is exhausted. Isn't it about time we started talking about changing this?!