When I approached Djibril al-Ayad about a sekrit intersectional project, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, though I know that The Future Fire often produces excellent anthologies that make you think and wonder about intersectional spaces. When I saw what it was going to be about, I wholeheartedly supported it.
“Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, focusing on the lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these.”
I interviewed editors Nicolette Barischoff and Rivqa Rafael about their awesome intersectional feminist anthology.
If you are a feminist, a Problem Daughter, someone who is in between, and resonates with this, please submit. Do not self-reject. Your voices are important!
Tell me a bit about yourselves.
Rivqa Rafael: I’m a Jewish writer and editor living in Sydney. My current favourite genres to write are cyberpunk and steampunk, but I dabble a lot. Problem Daughters is my first fiction editing project; normally I work on academic medical writing, so I’m looking forward to the change as well as what we’re trying to achieve here.
Nicolette Barischoff: I’m a speculative fiction author with spastic Cerebral Palsy who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about bodies (disabled bodies, female bodies, trans bodies, naked bodies), and how we react to them. I’ve had some short fiction and a couple novelettes published, and I think they all touch on this in some way. I often use my own body, in art and activism (which are often the same thing, in my case), to examine how people react to me and my atypical body, as well as others whose exercise of their bodily autonomy makes people uncomfortable.
What inspired this anthology? Why did you want to make Problem Daughters? What prompted it? (Hey, look – it’s three questions in one!)
Nicolette: The whole thing sort of spilled out over a discussion on Twitter about how we (the cultural “we’) define works of writing as “Feminist.” We were talking about the absurdity of using the Bechdel-Wallace test as a sort of litmus test of whether individual works are “Feminist Enough.’ And that led us to think about definitions of feminism generally. What presuppositions are our own definitions of feminism based on? Who am I, as an American middle-class white woman, excluding in my very culturally specific understanding of feminism as a concept? If I lay out all of what I presume to be Feminist Ideology or Feminist Ideals, am I really of the opinion that any woman who doesn’t share those precise ideals is Not Feminist, or that her voice doesn’t have a place in the feminist conversation? If so, I’m excluding a simply enormous number of women.
The import of this conversation was somewhat compounded for me by something that had caught my attention in the media earlier that year. Amnesty International had recently made the recommendation that, for the safety of women everywhere, sex work should be decriminalized. I have a great many online friendships with women who practice sex work (both legally and not). I’m acquainted with some of the dangers and challenges they face. And so it absolutely turned my stomach when, without missing a beat, dozens of influential Hollywood actresses (avowed feminists, all) signed an open letter condemning Amnesty International’s plea. That so many privileged women could, without much thought, publicly oppose the safety and bodily autonomy of so many other women whose lives they knew nothing about, left me reeling.
I think you were sort of Twitter-present for the other thing that had me needing to speak out, and needing to collaborate with other women who need to be heard. A fairly prominent able-bodied male author had just made some cyber ink talking about disability, and was talking with several people who I know about the subject. My attempts to engage with him on the subject were treated so dismissively that someone I’d never before spoken to popped into my DMs a full week later to say she couldn’t stop thinking about how rudely I was treated. I guess I’m kind of used to people talking over me, but it took her mentioning it for me to go, “Yeah, that was pretty crappy.” It was a reminder that, to many people, I am an object of the conversation rather than a participant. This is all highly personal and specific to me, but the obvious truth is every woman, everywhere has a story like that.
Anyway, what with one thing and another, we found ourselves right smack dab in the middle of a pretty kick-ass call for submissions.
Rivqa: Twitter is such a huge part of it, isn’t it? Not just because that’s where we three co-editors started this discussion, but because it seems like every day there’s a story like this. Twitter beefs are often dismissed as tempests in teacups, or criticised when people (even marginalised people) are seen to be ‘piling on’ to someone ill-equipped to deal with critique of their harmful behaviour. Maybe it’s easy for me to say when I’m so much on the outer of these circles (perhaps one day I’ll be the subject of critique myself), but I have learned so much from Twitter. Mind you, even this concept of ‘I’ve learned so much’ is deserving of critique, because other people, especially those with fewer axes of privilege then I have, don’t exist to be my learning experience. But I honestly wonder whether, without Twitter, and specifically my carefully curated feed, I’d have become an obnoxious Reddit internet atheist instead of a social justice warrior who’s at least trying to view the world through an intersectional lens.
All of this is an indirect way of saying that when we were refining our message, it was hugely important to me (and all of us) that we make space for some of the people whose voices are so often unheard, and that, if at all possible, we paid those writers pro rates for the privilege of hearing their voices. That’s informed our decisions around our crowdfunding campaign, which is fairly ambitious, and our call for submissions, which is on the broader side.
Do you think that (white) feminism as a concept/construct has failed? Has it omitted vital voices?
Rivqa: I really do. But first, let’s distinguish White Feminism from white feminists; not only are some white feminists doing OK, or trying to (I hope I’m one of them!), but people of colour (and other marginalised people) also sometimes buy into White Feminism out of Stockholm Syndrome or for any other reason. We’re talking about a construct, not every individual white person. In the process of trying to free women, White Feminism has failed so many people.
White Australian women gained the right to vote (in federal elections) in 1902; it took another 60 years for this right to be extended to Aboriginal Australians (including, of course Aboriginal women, a fact often forgotten by Australian women boasting about how early “we” got the vote). TERFs and SWERFs still have more credibility than they deserve (none, in case you we were wondering). Second-wave feminists are intent on slut-shaming younger women for expressing their sexuality as they choose to, while silencing women who choose to cover their bodies for religious reasons. “Lean in” doesn’t work if you’re poor; fatphobia is ubiquitous among feminists; and disabled women are often left out of the discussion altogether, with able-bodied people making decisions for them (Nicci’s already discussed this far more eloquently than I can).
It’s no wonder so many women don’t identify as feminists, whether they’re involved with other equality movements or completely disaffected; the sense that “this isn’t for you” screams at the majority of women, worldwide.
Nicolette: “Failed” is perhaps not the term I would use. “Woefully and harmfully incomplete/inadequate” seems more appropriate. The feminist movements we refer to as “white” feminism, or “Western” feminism were generated in a specific environment (as all movements of course are.) They came about as a result of a very narrow group of women’s dissatisfaction with the choices available to them. They were created to address the concerns of women at a very specific intersection of class and race. And they have been -I would argue- more or less effective in championing those concerns.
The failure comes of trying to formulate an “all women” model of feminism from a prototype that wasn’t created with all (or even most) women’s interests in mind. In order to be effective, feminist movements need to be as homegrown and diverse and numerous as the cultures and subcultures that create them. That’s one of the truths we want to help illustrate in gathering together a bunch of radically diverse narratives and putting them side by side by side under the single heading of “feminist.”
Intersectionalism/intersectionality is often hard to explain, perhaps even harder to write. What kind of stories and poetry do you expect to see in the anthology?
Nicolette:It’s my hope that we see stories that reflect the many and varied feminisms that exist in the world.
A major problem with many mainstream feminist movements is that, for the sake of unity and uniformity, they require that a woman regard herself first and foremost as a woman. That she set aside other portions of her identity and other concerns in order to prioritize those concerns she can be said to share with other women. (and because such movements depend on uniformity for impact, a lot of time is spent codifying what “women’s issues” are, and what “feminist choices” are.)
But the very concept of intersectionality tells us that she cannot possibly do so. That the experiences of her gender cannot be separated out from those of her class, her race, her nationality, her orientation, her level of ability, or any other part of her embodied experience. An aboriginal woman is going to have different concerns than a black American woman is going to have different concerns than a Bedouin woman, is going to have different concerns from a white middle-class Western European woman. What they each call “women’s issues” is going to be strikingly different.
We want stories that speak to the specific challenges that very different groups of women must face, and the very different choices they have to make. We want stories where women serve dramatically different roles in their society than the ones we’re used to seeing. We want stories that present new visions of the world, and a woman’s possible place in it. We want to see fresh visions of how the world ought to be.
All issues that women face are Women’s Issues. All choices women face are Feminist Choices, that’s the general idea. We want to give authors room to challenge our preconceived notions of what a Feminist Story is.
We also want pirates, and cyborg battles, and ancient spells, and generation ships on hundred-year missions…it is a speculative anthology, after all!
Rivqa: Basically this! Nailed it, Nicci. I will add that I think there’s a persistent view that it’s ‘unrealistic’ for a character to have more than a couple of marginalisations. I think this is how Hollywood has ended up making so many movies with one black man and one white woman as the nod to diversity. In Problem Daughters, we’d like to swing things in the other direction. Disability, sexual orientation, religiosity, and more – all of these intersect in real life, and we’d love to see this reflected in fiction.
In this time and age when diversity is not just a buzzword (because it is the world), what do you foresee Problem Daughters achieving? What voice would it have and what role would it play?
Nicolette: The role that stories play in furthering and normalizing diversity has always been an important one. Our first exposure to other citizens of the world is often through stories. The very first time we experience empathy and sympathy for someone utterly unlike us, it’s most likely someone we read about in a compelling story. A good story brings distant things close, makes every character’s daily struggle feel intimate and understandable and lived in. It’’s how the exotic becomes familiar, how the Other becomes the Protagonist.
You always want a book of short stories to give the reader a good, clear, vivid beautiful look at some lives they’ve never lived, and of course you want those stories to be easy to slip into and thrilling to read. Really terrific stories have always functioned as windows into the lives of people we’ve never met. But one of the important changes taking place in the speculative fiction landscape today, with anthologies like Problem Daughters, is that many of these windows are now being cut from the inside, by the people actually living those lives. And that’s when things really begin to be diverse. When there is diversity of narrator as well as narrative.
There are a lot of women whose lives and stories are a complete mystery to middle-class white Western feminism, women whose personhood we have only just begun to acknowledge, whose rights and personal agency and safety we have only just begun to see as important. It’s my hope that these women will see Problem Daughters as a place to tell their story, and cut true windows into their own existence. Realistically, not all voices in Problem Daughters will be Own Voices (or even can be, as it is in the nature of speculative fiction to dream far, of alien cultures and civilizations long gone), but I strive to create the sort of book where these women are true protagonists of their own stories, even where they’ve elected to have those stories told by someone else.
Rivqa: Right. If we can be a gateway for our readers, if we can help them conceive of something they couldn’t before, I’ll be thrilled.
And I’m so optimistic about what we might find in our slush pile. While it would be wonderful to publish established writers, I’m also hoping for a good mix of new and emerging writers. Giving another writer an opportunity like that isn’t something I get to do very often. I’d love to publish some folks who I can reminisce about in a few years and say ‘I knew them when…’. Here’s hoping!
Nicolette Barischoff was born with spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. Her fiction has appeared in Long Hidden, Accessing the Future, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Podcastle, and Angels of the Meanwhile. She regularly writes about disability, feminism, sex- and body-positivity, and how all these fit together. She’s been on the front page of CBS New York, where they called her activism public pornography and suggested her face was a Public Order Crime.
Rivqa Rafael is a queer Jewish writer and editor based in Sydney. She started writing speculative fiction well before earning degrees in science and writing, although they have probably helped. Her previous gig as subeditor and reviews editor for Cosmos magazine likewise fueled her imagination. Her short stories have appeared in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), The Never Never Land (CSFG Publishing), and Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press). In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. She can be found at rivqa.net and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.