Reading Into Radical Being

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Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life
Erin Wunker
BookThug, 11/3/2016
220 pages, $23.00
Reviewed by Eshani Surya 

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy begins with a letter to Wunker’s daughter, not in an attempt to conflate feminism with motherhood, but as an opportunity to remind us that the concepts in this book touch communities larger than the individual reader. She holds her daughter in her arms and says a prayer: “May you be comfortable in your body and know it is yours…may you know the fierceness of strong friendships with women…may you write your own stories.” The hope that Wunker carries for her daughter extends to all the generations of women that will come next—and indeed, this generation too. Engagement with this book means subscribing to ideals that might better the lives of those who have been used and made voiceless by a patriarchal society. And so, the reading of the book itself is a political act with great weight.

It does take some pages for Notes from a Feminist Killjoy to move past defining both its terms and its writer’s limitations. Wunker makes it clear that she has been ruminating on feminism as an intersectional space, but her quest for this is hindered by her own identity as a white, middle-class writer: “I didn’t see how inequality was affecting me on a daily basis, in part because of my relative privilege and, in another part, because I had been taught to internalize and make normal the rules of the system.” While the acknowledgement of her own privilege is a welcome moment of self-awareness, for those readers who have already been navigating how to radicalize their feminism and work in tandem with white, middle-class feminists, it seems too basic, especially in moments where Wunker defines such terminology like “feminist” and “patriarchy.” Luckily, though, the book is more than this, moving past groundwork into more nuanced territory that dissects rape culture, women’s friendships, feminist mothering, and acts of refusal.

Part of the appeal of Wunker’s book is that she herself is on a journey. Early on, she writes that “the personal pronoun I is crucial” because it creates an acknowledgement that each particular self can only have access to so many experiences at one time. That access might be evolving, but the self is never omniscient—and the structure of Wunker’s book reflects this.

Instead of writing long, academic-sounding diatribes about feminism, Wunker creates a patchwork narrative that moves through short sections separated with white space. Each piece reads like a separate thought, jotted down quickly, and not overly wrought. Some are about politics, some are about pop culture, some are about personal experiences, and some are about the act of writing itself.

Early on, Wunker writes a section detailing how it feels to write the book, “I want to yell, but I don’t know whom to yell at,” a painful depiction of what it means to struggle to be an effective artist and thinker, trying to situate emotion on a page. But right after this, Wunker begins anew, invoking Blair L. M. Kelley’s discussion of women’s anger being co-opted by white men. In a masterful move, she critiques Freud with the Kelley example. She moves, then, to a one-line section: “Who gets to be angry?” Here Wunker creates a transition, a type of topic sentence—but the white space around it gives the question more power. It stands alone, resounding, just as it might have echoed in Wunker’s mind as she wrote the book, trying to parse through these complicated subjects. In these few pages, she transitions through all her modes, giving the book life.

Here, and other places, are moments where Wunker is a real voice on the page, saying “oof” in the face of her anger, her emotions. Together, these sections become more meaningful, because they present the full life of a feminist scholar—a mind curious, often critical, about the world, trying to understand the self and its complexities within comfortable, but problematic structures. Wunker’s book isn’t the answer—though sometimes it has compelling arguments for what in the world needs to be altered and how it might be done—but it presents the reality of a feminist figure and her questions.

By the end of the book Wunker explains that there is a “Feminist Snap…a breaking point at which [one breaks]from oppressive and repressive systems.” This book might be the portal to that snap—and that is what makes the reading of it so important. It is a text that calls out to the reader and asks them to live the life of a feminist killjoy—a person who rebels against the happiness that is derived from domineering and painful systems—and to do so proudly.

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About Author

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Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter Online, New Delta Review, Lunch Ticket, and Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment. She was the 2016 winner of the Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction from New Delta Review. Eshani also serves as the Web Editor at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani. 

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