Intersectionality Coming Alive

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Stephanie Luce

IT’S HARD TO choose just one thing to recommend for a socialist feminist “must-read,” as there are so many writers that influenced my thinking, from Audre Lorde to Meredith Tax. However, when I think about the works that have had the greatest impact on my thinking, I’d have to focus on fiction. While I appreciate reading history and theory, I’ve found that novels give me the opportunity to visualize other worlds in a much deeper and lasting way.

Although I was asked to choose one thing, I will cheat a bit and mention three novels that stand out. First, I’d have to include the novel Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy. This piece of science fiction, written in 1976, was one of the first books I read that really helped me imagine a very different world.

Connie, the main character, travels to a future society that has developed ways to be environmentally sustainable, and overcome patriarchy, racism and homophobia. The future world isn’t perfect, and is still plagued by the threat of war with other societies, and the book leaves open the possibility that Connie’s visits to the future are delusions. The story made a big impact on me because it helped me believe that an alternative future and some form of democratic self-governance might be possible.

This novel also presented through images the real depth of “intersectionality.” The theory I was reading at the time seemed to struggle to find a comprehensive way to understand how gender, race, class, sexuality, nationality, and environment all fit together; yet Woman on the Edge of Time showed how it’s impossible to build a better world without such an inclusive, intersectional understanding.

Secret of Joy

Another novel that made a big impact on me was Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alice Walker (1992), which follows the life of Tashi, a minor character from Walker’s novel The Color Purple. The book is an intervention into debates about cultural relativism, as it addresses the issue of female genital circumcision.

Tashi did not undergo the procedure as a child and chooses to go through it as an adult. The novel addresses her struggle with the emotional and physical pain of the practice, and although Tashi doesn’t condemn the practice, the message of the book does. This was controversial, as some feminists critiqued Walker and others who grew up in the West for critiquing a cultural practice they are not part of.

The book made a large impression on me, however, not necessarily for its position on the practice of cutting, but for the way in which Walker tries to present the story in a much more complex way.

She challenges the notions of choice, culture, gender, and nationality. She comes down against the practice but asks the reader to have understanding and compassion around it. This was an important intervention into feminist debate at the time, because some feminist theorists argued that we could not make judgments on any practice that wasn’t our own.

Walker argued against cultural relativism, but the book makes it clear that we must be careful and deeply thoughtful.

The third novel I’d recommend is Brick Lane, by Monica Ali. Ali, born in Bangladesh and raised in Britain, wrote the novel inspired by a nonfiction book called The Power to Choose, by Naila Kabeer. Kabeer, a feminist economist from Bangladesh, writes about young women who work in the garment industry in Dhaka and London.

The Power to Choose critiques the western paternalistic view of garment workers as passive victims. Kabeer argues that many young women in the industry have agency, and have benefitted from the opportunity to work.  Ali edited The Power to Choose, and was inspired to write a novel featuring two Bangladeshi sisters: one who gets married and moves to London; the other who stays behind and works in the garment industry.

Brick Lane inspired its own controversy, as some felt it portrayed a negative image of Bangladeshi Muslims in London. However, the best part of the book is the relationship between the two sisters, and the portrayal of how one, Nazneen, struggles to make a life as a new immigrant in Britain. Again, the novel is timely in its intervention into theoretical debates about the impacts of globalization and immigration.

Ali also asks the reader to see these women as people rather than passive victims: even if they are living in conditions not of their own choosing, they still have agency and still do not ask for pity. Like Woman on the Edge of Time, Brick Lane also helps make intersectionality real.

ATC 139, March-April 2009