Lola Olufemi is a black feminist writer, organiser and researcher from London. Her work focuses on the uses of the feminist imagination and its relationship with futurity.
She is co-author of A FLY Girl’s Guide to University (2019), author of Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power (2020) and a member of ‘bare minimum’, an interdisciplinary anti-work arts collective.
Jay Bernard is a writer and film programmer from London, and the author of Surge (Chatto and Windus 2019), which won the 2017 Ted Hughes Award. It has been shortlisted for the Forward, Costa, Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot Prizes among many others
Lola Olufemi was due to appear at Housmans in conversation with Jay Bernard in May 2020 to talk about her recently released book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power
The events was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but we are delighted to present a written conversation instead.
JB: I was glad to see so much about Black British feminism in the book and would like to begin there. There’s a fantastic quote by someone saying that in the 1980s black feminists were far more interested in Samora Machela – the first president of Mozambique – than what white women were talking about. You also talk about Rojava and Anna Campbell who died there. Are there currently other movements in Africa, Latin America and India that you wouldn’t necessarily call “feminist” but might be insightful for understanding the way forward for contemporary feminism, if we are to move away from essentialist single issue approaches?
LO: That quote reveals the internationalist ethos of black feminist movements in the 70s and 80s. By that I mean, the way they rejected all ideas of the border or national boundary that separated movements from one another and recognised how the freedom they were fighting for in their local communities was connected to and informed by broader revolutionary movements across continents.
I think that tendency stemmed from a refusal to think about oneself and one’s life in isolation, recognising that suffering is not unique to a specific location or historical context – and that states, across the world, used the same patterns of repression and dispossession. There is something to be gained from becoming alive to the ways our lives are closely knitted together by historical encounter, trade, labour, through military intervention and so on.
I think of how people like Olive Morris travelled to China and Algeria, meeting delegations there in order to share knowledge and strategies and reaping the benefits of an engagement with struggle outside the context she was born in. There are ways those experiences would have shaped the organising being advanced by black feminists, especially the nature of their demands. This internationalist focus would also have broadened their understanding of what feminism was and what it could do by removing the connection between ‘feminism’ and ‘woman’ as well as the tendency for seperatism that was an (important) feature of certain feminist groups and collectives at the same time. I think it’s less important to label movements ‘feminist’ as it is to properly examine the principles that they advocate and examine whether those principles seek to bring about an improvement in conditions for all.
I think especially of the various and disparate groups working and thinking about freedom in the context of Palestine and opposing settler colonialism of all kinds. I think of movements against sexual violence in Brazil, Spain and Chile. The growing feminist anti-facist movement in Brazil, making links between the subjugation and domination of people under fascist regimes and the attempts by Bolsonaro’s government to reel women back into the nuclear family and limit their claims to public life. Scholar organisers like Stella Nyzanzi, who was imprisoned for critiquing authoritarianism in Uganda demonstrate that one of feminism’s core duties is to question power. I think of women like Marielle Franco, who lose their lives in the process of doing this work and the collective organising and protests that continue in her wake. I also think about indignenous movements against land dispossession and the poisoning of land by oil conglomerates, such as the mass protests staged by the Wet’sutwet’en Nation and the number of women organisers silently “disappeared” by the state in these contexts.
Often, it is hard to credit these movements because they are leaderless and made up of working class women who strategically work through a collective voice rather than as individuals. I’m interested in what gets considered “feminist work” and how the liberal engulfing of feminism as a discourse has led to the idea that movements against ecological crisis, state power, facism and neo-colonialism are somehow unconnected from feminism and feminist thinking.
JB: You chose feminism over transfeminism as the main descriptor of your politics. Yet you are transinclusive and much of what you write pertains to the transfeminist manifesto. In fact, many people are really turned off the word feminist (as well as the word lesbian) because of some of the negative baggage it carries. Was there a reason for that choice?
LO: I think it’s interesting how the culture war around trans life has produced the need for the idea of ‘trans inclusivity’ as a signal, as if any feminism premised on the destruction of trans life can be or should be considered meaningful for anyone. I think it also comes from this idea that ‘the feminist movement’ was at some points premised on essentialisms that locked trans women out of participation. To that I ask, which movements? Not transfeminist movements, some black feminist movements and so on which were all occuring simultaneously. I don’t believe in the idea of a single feminist movement and I think liberal feminism and its demands is always positioned as ‘the’ defining feminist moment/movement when feminism has always been a shifting, myriad collection of competing ideas and claims.
Whilst a number of feminist collectives/groups did rationalise themselves through essentialisms during what what is called ‘the second wave’ – many did not and its important to note how those feminists, placed on the periphery, were also invested in questions of race, class and exploitation. There has and will always be a tug-of-war of groups making different claims about what feminism is under the term and for this reason, it is important to clarify what you mean and understand by it when you deploy it.
When I say feminism, I mean trans liberation – and the refusal to impose limits on the possibility of queer life that confounds everything we know and understand by ‘gender’, ‘sex’, ‘race’, ‘the family’ and so on. In the book, I was trying to speak to feminism in the broadest terms, not to argue that everyone should be happy with the term or adhere to it or (I don’t think that’s particularly important) but to underline the very serious demands that it makes of us those interested in making the world more liveable. And to hammer home that if we are committed to feminist principles, that will change how we move through the world, what our priorities are and how we organise.
On the question of ‘negative baggage,’ I think the task is to push out the liberal arm of feminist thinking from under the term, so it’s no longer to think of liberalism as the dominant mantle through which we think about feminism, something that is quickly remedied by understanding feminism’s radical histories and genealogies.
JB: “Privilege” is a very contentious word, and I notice you barely use it. In fact, you cleverly avoid using many buzz words – were you conscious of the vocabulary you chose?
LO: I think it is important to be precise where possible and for me, the word “privilege” belongs to the language of the individual. I think it was useful for a particular generation of people politicised through the internet as a way of mapping and understanding microaggressions, but the systems we seek to end do not find their full manifestation in the ‘micro.’ ‘Privilege’ doesn’t adequately convey the urgency of what needs to be addressed. At the very least, I think it depoliticizes oppressive conditions, turning the possession of structural power into an innocent coincidence that one must be mindful of instead of a direct consequence of a particular production of historical circumstance.
I don’t want people to check or be mindful of the ‘privileges’ that keep me subordinated, I would like them to be abolished. It’s not enough when lives are on the line. I think I was careful with the language I used in the book and with defining my terms, but I had to reckon with the fact it’s near impossible to do the various genologies and degrees of feminist theory and practice justice in a book that is trying, at its heart, to invite people into a mode of critical thinking maybe for the first time.
JB: How does this book fit into a post-Corbyn political landscape? And I mean that in terms of the huge effort to reinvigorate the left that was defeated in December 2019.
LO: The book purposefully sits outside the realm of party politics. A big part of it was trying to make the case that it is possible and even necessary to think beyond the state and the narrow, often self-defeating cycles of electioneering.
What does feminism look like if we refused to limit our gains to law and policy and getting parties to commit to all-women shortlists? We might be asked to sit and reckon with the fact that built into a two-party system is the betrayal of certain sections of the working class that become unthinkable (black migrants, sex workers and so on). No mainstream political party takes seriously radical propositions: the abolition of detention, an end to policing and prisons, abolition of borders. These concerns are central to my ideas and my understanding of what makes feminism a political practice worth investing in.
I’m interested in a feminism of the commons and I hope where this book sits is as a tool that can help expand the scope of demands made of the party political project in the short term but also aid in its abolition. I think in the UK, it is still fair to say that there were material gains and an improvement of conditions that could have been ushered in by Corbyn’s government, though this is also debatable for some people. I think sometimes the conversation about ‘pragmatism’ and reliance on political parties vs building outside of them can become too abstracted. It goes without saying that you can utilise a party political route to demand non-reformist reforms or temporarily relieve suffering, if the context allows and to make strategic gains without believing in the party political project, you can also abandon said route when/if it does not work.
I take from Sita Balani the idea that no matter which party is in power, we still have to struggle – It would be more favourable if that struggle were conducted under a government that did not criminalise and endanger the lives of those engaged in resistance as much as another.
JB: Were there any chapters or ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor so to speak?
LO: I was pretty clear on the topics I wanted to discuss from the get-go and didn’t really deviate from them because I wanted to do justice to the kinds of conversations that young feminists are engaged in.
Of course, the book is by no means comprehensive and I would have loved to include a chapter on the work of disabled feminists and how work, exploitation, ‘productivity’ and austerity has had a specific effect on the lives of disabled women in the UK. Crip theory offers us a lot in terms of rethinking a phenomenon that has always been contentious in feminist thinking: the body. It might help us loosen an attachment to biology as a determiner of fate, helping us reassess the cost-analyses and value calculation embedded in the way we think about life. This is particularly important in this crisis, where disability and the language of “underlying conditions” is being utilised to subtly reaffirm whose lives can and should be saved and who is simply collateral, a problem that is always and inevitably racialised. Feminist and queer disability theory challenges predetermination and inateness, retraining the eye on the way the organisation of the world and social structures put us in danger, create a host of obstacles and barriers, making it harder to live survive let alone live full and dignified lives.
JB: Yes, this point about disability is becoming very clear at the moment, with many disabled people pointing out that they have been campaigning around issues such as universal credit, social care and accessibility online, yet these things are only being taken seriously now that the majority of the able-bodied population is being affected. And of course, you were meant to be launching this book, then the Covid-19 pandemic happened. How do you think this current moment will affect contemporary feminism in the future?
LO: I think this is a crucial moment for reassessing the demands that we make as feminists and pulls into sharper focus the need to combat liberal feminism on more than just a discursive level. We’re seeing increased police powers to deport and detain, infringements on the rights and dignity of disabled people, black workers with close proximity to the virus dying due to lack of PPE, poor workers and families being sacrificed by the government’s callous and misleading ‘guidance’, women being murdered in their homes by abusive partners.
The crisis has brought to the fore a number of issues that contemporary feminist thinkers have to attentive to: those include asking questions about why the our country’s social care systems were so ill-prepared for a public health crisis of this scale (austerity), workers rights, how to attend to gendered violence as communities without relying on the police, the prison industrial complex and the rights of migrants in detention which are last to be considered in this crisis. I think this will require a proliferation of ideas and tactics, and utilising a number of different routes at the same time.
Where interventions using law and policy might mean the difference between stopping an illegal deportation, use it. Where community organising might help in providing urgent care to people abandoned by the state, use it. I think in many ways a watershed moment has come – younger feminists who are being politicised much earlier because of the breakdown of economies, the onset of this pandemic, ecological crisis, the instability of the neoliberal age are able to see through the smokescreen that liberal feminism places over our priorities.
Those of us who have lost and will lose loved ones in this crisis, who are forced to watch the spectre of preventable death and the dystopian response by the Conservative government will be galvanised to reassert feminism’s importance in a new way and to do so for as long as is necessary. Mutual aid networks holding communities together will radicalise those who had never before questioned state power. This is a moment to begin to connect the dots and to realise that we depend on one another for our lives and so much more and that we defeat our purpose when we allow sects of the population to be sacrificed for the sake of winning an election.
JB: Feminism is about solidarity and joy as much as struggle and oppression. You talk very lovingly about Sisters Uncut, which has done so much to introduce young activists to leftist politics. What experiences of solidarity, community and joy have you had that keep your politics, writing and activism moving?
LO: I think constantly about the moments that bring people to politics and critical thinking. For me, that happened in the bounds of an institution – I was heavily involved in different kinds of organising as a student that continued after I left university. A lot of the book would not be possible without those experiences, committing yourself to any kind of transformative political project no matter where you are produces knowledge.
In the book, I talk about the idea of ‘feminist work as justice work’ (the idea that feminism has a purpose beyond highlighting discrimination or inequality – that it is fundamentally inseparable from the task of rearranging this life for the benefit for all). I vividly remember hearing that phrase at an event in my first year. Small moments and phrases and ideas like that have really stuck with me and helped contour my thinking. They keep me moving by reminding me what drew me to thinking about the conditions of this world in the first place.
Recalling these moments brings me joy – joy in remembering how little I knew at that point, what I would come to learn and how many times I would make up my mind about a political question and change it. The feminist spaces I was a part of transformed me. Modelled in the ways people treated one another, in the ways we cared and supported each other, and in patience taken in the facilitation of political education, was this idea that different ways of being together were possible.
JB: What kind of organising did you begin with and how does it inform your thinking now?
LO: At university I was involved in organising around racism, opposing PREVENT legislation, sexual violence, marketisation/precarity and continuing efforts to hold the university accountabile for its historical and contemporary role in upholding forms of colonialism.
The women’s campaign at my university was the space where my politics developed, it was always concerned with thinking beyond the limits of student life and engaging with other radical feminist projects across the country and in our local community. Organising outside of institutions, at a grassroots level, has reminded me of the importance of not being subsumed by them and rejecting the benefits they offer you in favour of community. The occupation, strike, sit in, forms of direct action are all moments of revelation in my opinion.
I’m thinking a lot about Karen Brodine’s idea that “survival is a repetitive process” – for me, organising has been a lot of that – repetition, routine, strategy and all the frustrations that come along with that. That keeps me moving too, knowing that the aim is never to say something new but to say something in a different way, to use action in this manner as well. To refuse to think about what we struggle for in terms of “wins” and “losses”, I think that’s too facile a frame. I try not to think of time as linear in regards to revolution or the future, I think the idea of a million revolutions all happening at the same time, transformation for me is about chaos – it will never be ushered in neatly.
JB: So, someone has just finished reading this book. And maybe it’s their first foray into feminist thought. What do you recommend next and why?
LO: Because I think of feminism as a grand, unwieldy set of histories and practices – I always shy away from being prescriptive. I’d recommend them to follow their interests – and to understand that embedded in the radical feminist tradition, in particular black feminism, will be something that speaks to it. The resources listed in the back of the book could be a starting point, if there are thinkers whose ideas strike you, follow them and their work and take note of how it has developed. Be flexible enough to change your mind but recognise you’ll be deeply indebted to the kinds of thinking you came across first.
I’d also encourage thinking about the same ideas across a range of mediums. I’ve learnt about politics from from feminist visual artists, poets, writers, filmmakers, painters who often are locked out of the “political” canon of knowledge production.
This point about changing your mind is really key, and you made it earlier as well. Now this might be somewhat exposing, but it’s also very interesting: in what ways have you changed your mind over the years and why?
I think anyone who is introduced to feminism as a political practice through engagement with white feminist thinkers of the ‘second wave’ has a lot of unlearning to do. I think that a certain kind of thinking can really limit your conception of what is possible.
For me, there was a point in which I moved beyond the state, law and legislation as markers of freedom towards ideas of black anarchy/communism/collectivism, moved beyond an understanding of gender rooted into biological essentialism, came to a better understanding of sex work as work under capitalism, the practical feasibility of abolishing borders and prisons, changed my mind about what the meaning of a “good” life is. I was also heavily influenced by lesbian seperatist movements and teachings, which will always have a special place in my heart but are of course an incomplete blueprint for revolution.
As I’ve gotten older, I believe more in the possibility of transformative gender relations and crafting political ideas/demands that account for everyone. At a certain point I changed my mind about ‘work/careers’ being the most defining aspect of a person’s life, the necessity to ‘love’ your job and instead chose to think about work in terms of what capitalism does to our bodies and minds, what we are missing out on, what we don’t get to do.
I’ve stopped viewing certain thinkers as infallible or their theories as impervious to critique. I really want to stress how crucial it is that people who are trying to craft a radical understanding of the world remain unashamed of the places that they began. I try to have empathy for those other versions of myself. I think remaining flexible in that way also helps us trace what it was that caused those shifts – affective experiences, reading, material conditions etc, which will matter a lot in a ‘post-COVID’ political moment when more people will begin to question state power.
JB: Finally, it’s always fascinating to know what other people watch to inform their politics and thinking. And a list is a great way to avoid other temptations online. So what are your favourite feminist lectures or talks on Youtube?