In her brilliant book of autotheory The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson charts a lineage of her thinking, citing the feminist, anti-racist, queer writers and theorists who have influenced and inspired her work. Borrowing from the poet Dana Ward, Nelson calls these thinkers "the many-gendered mothers of [her] heart." Erin Wunker, in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, does something similarly beautiful and powerful. In this interview, conducted after a summer of berry-picking with friends and family and ahead of the publication of Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, co-edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Wunker, Erin shares with me her thoughts on writing, public feminist work, risk, collaboration, and the many-gendered mothers who she looks to during these tumultuous and divisive times.
Jason Purcell: I want to begin by talking about your writing practice. You’re trained as an academic, are co-founder, writer, and managing editor of Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe, and yet, early in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, you remark that despite all of this writing training and experience, you were “just not a writer.” As the reader makes their way through the book, as we “body forth” with you, as you unpack all the conditions and forces that make it difficult for those of us who embody identities other than that of the white, straight, cisgender man to claim space, I think we see you settling in to another conclusion about yourself as a writer. What has writing Notes meant to you? What has it offered you?
Erin Wunker: Writing that book was in some ways catharsis and in other ways literally a bodying forth of myself into an identity that I always wanted to have. Somewhere along the way I lost sight of the fact that writing was a thing that, if you put your mind to it, you could do it to more or less success, depending on what success means to you. But you can have a writing practice.
Writing this book really was a bullshit call on myself. I thought that I wasn’t a writer and then there was a book, and so indeed clearly I was. My partner pointed out to me that it took me a better part of a year to refer to myself as a writer and to refer to the book as a book, as opposed to I wrote a thing. It took a while to take myself seriously. I think in great part that has nothing to do with humility and everything to do with vulnerability and a fear of failure. I’m thinking of the incredibly unrealistic and perhaps even fabricated or fabulous notion of what a writer is. I’m thinking about on Twitter or Maria Popova’s site Brain Pickings, there are all sorts of people sharing their rejection letters. I saw the wonderful Cherie Dimaline sharing a rejection note she got saying, “You shouldn’t submit, you don’t know how to write,” and she was like, “My latest novel won a few awards. It’s at the top of the bestseller list.” You see these big-deal writers, writers who experience external affirmation for their writing in the form of best-seller lists and prizes, when you see these writers talking about the quotidian experiences of failure in their writing and you somehow forget that can be you too. Success doesn’t have to look like, and indeed for most of us will not look like, a Governor General’s Award-winning novel. But we can think about “success” differently. We can know that writing regularly, that developing a writing practice is a real form of “success.”
Writing the book required me to own up to something that I was already doing and to give it a name and let it take some space. I have to shrug off that imposter syndrome which looms fairly large. Writing the book put some value into and clarified for me the way that I actually think and work. I’m around so many people who are linear thinkers, who are logical thinkers, who are outline writers. I’m not that kind of thinker at all. I had to move away from this notion that abstract thinking is messy and not rigorous, and to realize that in fact, feeling your way to a thesis or feeling your way to the point of your essay and having a kinetic magpie mind that gets distracted by a shiny idea is a kind of a rigorous practice.
The last thing I would say about it is that when I was writing that particular book the material constraints of my time were pretty intense. Though it allowed me to realize—which is so useful for anyone of us who don’t live fully funded lives of leisure, for any of us who have to work in any capacity—that not working, not being at your desk, is actually a completely necessary part of my writing practice. When I am out going for a run or reading some sort of ridiculous book about a Gruffalo to my toddler, in fact there are things happening there that come through elsewhere.
JP: I would like to circle back to this idea of imposter syndrome, as it is something I have been thinking a lot about and talking about with my own communities in and out of the academy. I think Notes offers a way to look at it not only as something that exists on the personal level, as a fear of failure, but also as a symptom of these systems, such as patriarchy and capitalism. Have you developed any strategies or hopes for how we can resist this in our thinking and writing?
EW: Yes. The answer is yes. There are many strategies that I practise with friends, within care networks, but also with those people who you couldn’t quite call friends and aren’t exactly colleagues, but they’re there in that network seeing you and responding. Some of these strategies were in practice prior to writing that book and some of them have been sharpened through the process of encountering and weathering resistance to the things that you write about, which in various ways I have experienced very acutely in recent months.
First, it’s like what any good therapist will tell you: you need to ask for help. So, one of the things I started doing with my partner is to remind each other that there is a lot to life that is not just this particular job or this particular piece of writing. There are a lot of deliberate attempts at laughter and humour and silliness. As a very serious only child of serious Baptist folk, I am not prone to the silly, so I resist it. But it turns out I’m very good at it. There’s a lot of “Get the fuck over yourself. This is not every defining part of who you are.” Whatever “this” is. This thing that you’re writing. It’s said with this jocularity that is very much is couched in, “If you need to sit down and have me remind you of all the things you’re good at, we can do that too, but for now, put a record on and let’s dance.” There’s a lot of kitchen dancing. Indeed, this morning, before we took our toddler to her first day back to daycare after four months, she was feeling a bit nervous and so we had a big living room dance party at 8 a.m. to Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied,” her favourite song. I need someone else in my life to remind me to laugh because left to my own devices I can be dour and navel-gazing in the extreme.
I also have friends and colleagues—I have a careful handful—who, when I am doing something, or something has been done that has really got me questioning my self-worth, I have learned and am still practicing and it’s always hard to say: “Can you remind me what it is that I’m good at?” Citational practice is one of my favourite things: Hannah McGregor is very good at doing that reminding. My friend Melissa Dalgleish, who I work with on Hook & Eye, is very good at doing that. I have a few people who I just really need to reach out to and say: “Can you remind me what it is that I do?”
JP: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is also a wonderful archive of feminist thought, of the feminist writers who have influenced you, and I think the ways that you put your ideas in conversation with theirs is so generative. The two I think of immediately are Sara Ahmed, whose figure of the Feminist Killjoy and her open-access blog of ideas-in-progress inform this book, and Maggie Nelson, who authored The Argonauts, a brilliant example of autotheory. What did it mean for you to write in a similar mode, to move between the academic and the personal?
EW: It was both a really long journey and a very short move to actually doing it. When I was a graduate student in Calgary I was working on a dissertation that was about difficult writing by women—experimental, avant-garde—and I wanted to be writing in a particular way that did not work for the structure of the dissertation at the time. I suspect that things might have changed a little bit since then. But I was thinking about it and it was some of the people I was reading for this particular dissertation—I’m thinking especially of Nicole Brossard’s work—and I was thinking about the conversational thing that was happening. I was thinking about the ways in which there are communities of writers who get made mythic, their conversations with each other get anthologized—things that come out of the Modernist period, things that come out of major events like the Writing Through Race conference in 1990—and thinking about how to have conversations with people when you’re by yourself with your computer. There’s lots of ways to do it, obviously, but I was thinking of this for a long time.
My style of reading Notes is to respond to particular passages and try to figure out and articulate what it is that I understand to be reading. I started doing that when I was reading a lot of the French theorists when I was in graduate school, trying to figure out, “Do I actually understand what semiotics are? Maybe not, but it makes me think about this…” And then when I was actually behind the due date for the manuscript for Notes to be submitted, I had to start writing conversationally so that I would not be completely paralyzed by the blankness of the page. It became a writing exercise which was incredibly useful for me. I’m starting to think now and work toward another collection of essays that is entirely me returning to and thinking through critical essays that were important to me. It’s been a writing prompt that I’m not tired of yet.
JP: Early on in Notes, you talk about risk, about the risk that appends itself to writing a book like this, in the first person. You also talk about the ways in which having a marginalized person writing autobiographically, writing that I, poses a risk for the status quo. I’m wondering if you can talk more about that idea of risk, perhaps in the context of the public feminist work of this book and your other projects?
EW: One of the things that I did not expect or could have ever fully understood is that a book that I was writing would ever get read. As we know, academic writing on the whole does not circulate widely. One imagines ten, maybe fifteen people reading it, and that’s a big readership. If you write an article that fifteen people read, I mean, that’s big-time academic readership right there! Because I was that combination of sleep-deprived and naïve when writing my first non-academic book, I didn’t think that much about risk in the ways that I have thought about it since then. I also didn’t think about the kinds of risk that would come of writing autobiographically, even with the distance of academic criticism, which very much undergirds everything I’ve written in that book.
When writing autobiographically, by virtue of that genre, anything I say pulls in other people in my life. It’s about me, or it’s from my perspective, but I naïvely thought that exonerated any responsibility for anybody else. But I clearly remember that my partner, who is an incredible editor and writer themselves, didn’t read it until it was fully finished. The one suggestion that was made was, “Throughout the whole book you refer to our child in veiled diminutives, but there is one point that you spell her name out. I think you should think twice whether you really want her name out there.” And I was like, “Right. Right, right, right.”
Another example is that my parents sent me a photo of themselves each with a copy, sitting and reading my book. A couple of days later I got a letter from my dad saying, “I’m writing a rebuttal,” and I got a phone call from my mom saying, “You’ve got it wrong.” Having them really take exception to the way in which my memory remembers some of my childhood. And I get it. When writing about yourself and in any way implicating anybody else in your life story, there is the possibility, regardless of your best intentions—nowhere in this book was my attempt or my desire to be like, “Shame on you, parents.” Rather I am trying to think systemically about how people grow up in certainly systems like patriarchy or white supremacy—and the risk is that it was quite upsetting to them.
I guess the other kind of risk is that people who have critiqued the book in ways that feel risky have clearly not read it. There have been really great book reviews that take issue with certain things that I’ve done and certain things that I’ve said, and they do so in an intellectually engaged way, and I actually think most of them are right. Regardless, if it’s clear that someone has read it and is thinking through what I’ve done, then spending time on a book review and being critical is, I think, part of the scholarly and literary culture that we live in. But the critiques that have come from this book or about me personally that have been just harsh, verging on slanderous, are from people who have clearly not read the book and are affronted by the use of the word feminism, or seeing that I in any way want to critique or question certain kinds of status quos. That is probably the hardest one that I’ve dealt with so far because it recapitulates me into that imposter syndrome, where I feel like, “Maybe I did get it wrong, maybe I am just a bitch.” The truth is, I’m a smart bitch who has useful things to say and a relative position of power from which to say them, and that ruffling feathers in that way is not easy but can be useful and is certainly part of the responsibility of the position that I find myself in, which is a tenure-track position in an institution that has a faculty association. When you start asking questions about patriarchy, about upholding unequal systems of power, and people get upset, it feels terrible, but it’s also very useful to have those networks of care in place to remind you that ruffling feathers in those sorts of cases probably means that you’re asking the right questions, or at least questions that need to be asked. But the risk has not come from the places I would have expected it to come from.
JP: I want to shift gears now and talk a bit about your upcoming publication Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, a volume co-edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and yourself. This volume gathers pieces of writing about the state of Canadian literature, in this moment when the institution does seem to be in ruins. I’m thinking about the emotional cost of public feminist work—particularly that which you, Hannah, and Julie have faced over this year for troubling CanLit publicly—and I’m wondering how we can turn to collaboration to weather the emotional and psychic toll of this kind of work? What does it mean to gather together—an editorial collective, a group of writers and academics—to talk about these topics?
EW: There are 25 contributors, three editors, and a publisher, and what we’re trying to do in this collection is not, in any way, give the final word on something, but rather to do, as I see it, two things: first, to attempt to archive some of the ephemeral ways in which discourse happens now, to try to put in a differently material form—of course the digital is material too—things like Twitter essays, blog posts, that are responding to rupture events. Second, Julie and Hannah and I are three very different writers from one another who wrote lengthy introductions trying to contextualize in the longer literary history of Canada—which is a settler-colonial literary history—some of the issues that we see making mainstream media these days. These are questions of power, accessibility in a variety of forms, the assumption that whiteness is a normative baseline; put differently, this system of white supremacy that is an institutional system that seeps into people in different ways and affects them differently. We also want to think about what it means to have a signifier—CanLit—in a country that has people who do and do not relate to the nation of Canada or see themselves reflected in it or see themselves accepted in it. What we’re trying to do as literary scholars and editors is to provide a context for thinking not just in the short recent term but in a longer literary history.
Having the trust of the contributors to let us hold their work and put it in conversation just by being in proximity with each other is an incredible gift. There are so many exciting contributions in this piece, and it’s not encompassing of every voice that could or should or might be in the collection at all, but gosh, we’re grateful for the ones that are there, and very mindful of some of the reasons why people may not feel safe or even feel interested in contributing to this volume. Working with one another has been an incredible act of trust and it has been, for me, transformative in terms of how mentorship works. We are two assistant professors and one full professor, we’re working in really different departments in really different parts of the country and relying on and recognizing each other’s expertise in various ways, and also learning how to trust one another. This kind of collaboration, with the external pressures that we’ve experienced, of criticisms before the book has even been turned into galleys, has meant that we’ve had to talk with each other differently. That’s pretty exciting.
JP: I was struck by the title of the new collection: Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, and immediately thought of the final passage of Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: “Refusal is a feminist act when you are acting in solidarity. Refusal is a feminist act when you are acting against the oppression of others. Refusal is a feminist act when you kill the so-called joys of patriarchal culture. Refusal is a feminist act when you forge new lines of flight—away from what is into what might be.” Can you talk to me about what refusal means in the context of this collection?
EW: At the time of this interview, the book is structured in three sections in which we are playing around, perhaps a little heavy-handedly, with the different inflections of refuse. So, of course, refuse, as in garbage, as in things that have been thrown out. Those are not all the same things, but they are connected. And then we are thinking about refuse as the way in which I was writing about it and thinking about it at the end of my own book, and that is that a refusal in the way that the signatories of Refus Global in Montréal were refusing to participate in what was in order to imagine what might be. There’s that sense of refusal. And then, finally, we’re thinking about refusal as in re-fusing something. Rewiring. Reanimating or animating otherwise, these other possibilities, these other lines of flight. In that section, the book does not end with us speaking. The book ends with one of the contributors, and aside from the necessary publication details after that, that refusing is structurally designed in such a way that it is another person’s voice moving things elsewhere. Not ours, not the publisher’s, not somebody who has that power of editorial gatekeeping. Those are the ways we’re playing around with it.
My understanding, to speak to the second part of the title, is that there has been some concern around the entire title, which is Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, and a sense, without anyone having any opportunity to read the book because it’s not yet published, a lot of critique and misunderstanding about what that title is doing. There’s been this suggestion that concern from different arenas that we are suggesting somehow that all publication history in Canada is garbage and needs to be tossed out, which is so antithetical to what we’re actually trying to discuss in the collection as to be kind of heartbreaking. It’s also brought home to me the divide or the schism in shared cultural knowledge between people working in the academy, in Canadian literature, the Canadian academy, and the people working outside it, because as we discuss at length in the introduction, the second part of that title, “CanLit in Ruins,” is an homage to Bill Reading’s indispensable text University in Ruins, in which he’s thinking about the effects of neoliberalism in the university, the creative process, the imagination and curiosity, and asking how can we live within the ruins without being subsumed by the very forces that are bringing them down on our heads.
JP: To close, I want to think about the public work you have been doing to evince the violences, injustices, and abuses of power that have structured Canadian literature, and thank you for it. I want to return to Sara Ahmed, to think about her belief that “to narrate unhappiness can be affirmative; it can gesture toward another world.” In this spirit of hope among the ruins, I’m wondering if you can point us to writers who are also making possible this other world? Who can we be reading for more hope and care in our lives?
EW: I’m looking at the books on my desk as I get ready for teaching. So many people who have contributed to this volume are at various stages of their career and are doing such incredible work. I’m thinking of the work of Joshua Whitehead, whose generosity of structure and voice and language is staggering to me, what he is able to do in his writing. I’m thinking also of Phoebe Wang’s work. I’m thinking of the work of Kai Cheng Thom, of my friend Vivek Shraya, whose new book has just come out. I’m thinking also about established writers who, for reasons that I don’t totally understand, have not circulated, are not household names, in ways that I think they should be. I’m thinking specifically of M. NourbeSe Philip. Kate Siklosi just wrote a really brilliant article of Philip’s work in The Puritan. Last year Book*hug published Blank: Essays and Interview by M. NourbeSe Philip and to date it still hasn’t been reviewed in a major publication site in Canada. It’s shocking to me. I’m thinking of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s work that she does both as a storyteller in person and in her textual work. I will always sing the praises of Sina Queyras, a teacher and a writer and someone who uses her institutional affiliation to make space for students and early-career, mid-career, established-career writers on Lemonhound. I had the opportunity to meet Cherie Dimaline recently, and the generosity which her storyline structure espouses is so incredible. I think that Sachiko Murakami is always doing really thoughtful, really interesting work. And Johanna Skibsrud’s collection of short stories is quietly working against established power structures and is really questioning a kind of human capacity for knowledge and empathy that I think is so incredible. There’s so many people at all stages and phases of their career who are doing incredible work. It’s a hopeful time, I think.