Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy
I started reading Notes from a Feminist Killjoy the day after the UBC Accountable letter was published. Only a few days had passed since the US elections and I, like many, was feeling distressed. With the publication of the letter, I felt both fragile and hardened at once; about to break and moulded into something hard and unforgiving. These two things coiled inside of me and inside of each other and the result was an exhaustion that wouldn’t let me sleep. Instead, I opened this book and began to read.
In recent months I had found myself trying to find a language for the anger, frustration, and exhaustion that I had been feeling, and not just in relation to the UBC Accountable letter or the US elections. It was, and often still is, a more generalized and interminable exasperation. Erin Wunker describes a similar experience encountering feminist theory for the first time in university in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She says, “I found words for what my body already knew.” Last year, in response to my unease, I promised myself that I would make a conscious effort to read more feminist criticism. My bedside table slowly became dotted with the likes of Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit, and Maggie Nelson. But when I began this exercise, I wasn’t sure what I needed from these writers.
While I had taken gender studies courses in the past and read my share of feminist works, it had been a while, and in 2016 I wanted to ground my thoughts and feelings in praxis. Of the feminist texts that I read last year, Wunker’s was one of the most crucial, a book that helped clarify what I was looking for and reinforced the necessity of feminist texts in navigating patriarchy. It was easily one of the best books I read in 2016, with Wunker taking a place as one of the many-gendered mothers of my heart (to borrow from Nelson and Wunker).
I started reading ‘Notes from a Feminist Killjoy’ the day after the UBC Accountable letter was published.
Erin Wunker is a writer and academic who approaches the material of her book through the intersection of theory, literary criticism, pop culture, and personal experience. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is divided into four sections: an introduction followed by notes on rape culture, friendships, and feminist mothering. True to the title, the book takes the form of a series of notes, representing different epistemological approaches to the issue at hand.
The format is powerfully used within the book; it lends the writing a sense of intimacy that allows for recognition, while still upholding the formidable theory that allows for a complete dissection of the topics. The structure is reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, released in 2015 to critical acclaim. Wunker cites Nelson numerous times within the book, alongside many others, including Sara Ahmed, whose blog feministkilljoys provided the namesake for this book. The room that Wunker makes for other voices besides her own is one of the strengths of the book, allowing Wunker to respond to those around her, ask questions of her own, and propel conversations about feminism, rape culture, friendship, and female mothering forward with new insight. In fact, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy does actually feel like a conversation, and not just one that takes place between Wunker and other writers, but one that is taking place between Wunker and the reader as well. Wunker refers to the readers (us) multiple times throughout the book, questioning the relationship between writer and reader while also asking questions of the reader that imply an earnest desire for contribution.
… I wanted to ground my thoughts and feelings in praxis.
Each individual section is generous in its mix of the critical and the personal. Part of the brilliance of the book is its acceptance of ulterior forms of knowledge; its embrace, on the level of form, emotive thinking, and feeling. When Wunker takes up rape culture in the first chapter, she supplements theory with lived experience, demonstrating the degree to which the personal is political and necessary. After all, rape culture is already personal—what Wunker calls “an accretion of small and big aggressions working themselves out on my body and mind.” She begins the chapter by listing the various ways she has encountered rape culture throughout her life and how it has been normalized.
In her second chapter, on friendship, Wunker approaches the topic in the same way, taking up literary criticism and pop culture to work through the various representations of female friendship she has encountered. The final chapter, on feminist mothering, is the most deeply rooted in praxis. Wunker, who recently became a mother, is actively negotiating what it means to be a mother and what it means to raise her daughter within a patriarchal society.
Making and claiming space is one of the larger themes within Wunker’s work. From the outset, she diligently situates herself within the scope of her experiences and privilege. She recognizes her own limitations while emphasizing the need to make room for other voices.
After all, rape culture is already personal—what Wunker calls ‘an accretion of small and big aggressions working themselves out on my body and mind.’
Wunker argues that one way to go about this is by taking up the subject position in writing. She says, “The I is an interstice, not an intersection … I invites observation at the level of the personal and the intimate without allowing the observer to mistake the observed for anything other than what it is: individuated.” The personal pronoun “I” structures the text. The willingness to be vulnerable and take up the subject position allows Wunker to carve out a space for herself while recognizing those that are making space alongside her.
Wunker’s vulnerability is honest in a way that speaks instantly to the concerns and struggles faced by those who take up the mantle of being a feminist killjoy. The task of navigating patriarchy is hard work. Wunker periodically centers this emotional labour as a way of calling attention to the abrasiveness and discomfort of patriarchy. When writing about rape culture she says:
Every now and then in the writing of this, I catch myself holding my breath or staring at the computer screen while I actually wring my hands. Or I feel my heart racing. Or I am sharp. I want to yell, but I don’t know whom to yell at. And that’s usually where the physical effects of my anger shift to something else. Exhaustion. Despair.
These digressions into the emotional labour of being a feminist killjoy are completely recognizable. They allow the reader to approach the text not just critically, but emotionally.
While Notes from a Feminist Killjoy dissects the various discourses that surround feminism, rape culture, friendship, and parenting, it’s also a call to action. The feminist killjoy is someone who actively defies patriarchy. Wunker asks that you “don’t let your anger stop you from doing the hard feminist work of killing the joys of patriarchal culture.” When reading this, and other parts of the text, I was reminded of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, in which Solnit champions the successes of activists and reiterates the need to keep fighting. Solnit describes hope as “… an account of the complexities and uncertainties, with openings.” I feel like this definition characterizes Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. Both believe in the need to make an opening, to make space. Wunker recalls telling her students at one point that “reading and writing are attempts at joining conversations, making new ones, and sometimes, shifting the direction of discourse.” I would argue that Wunker accomplishes just such an intervention into the larger conversation we are having about feminism, and that the conversation is indebted to Wunker for her keen and incisive contribution.