Nasty Women: publishing as history making

I finished Nasty Women on the train to meet my family for a day out and on the way back, my sister complained about always being bored on trains. I handed her Nasty Women and told her to read it. She read the first four essays on the train and asked me what intersectional feminism was so I count that as a supreme success.

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Since I bought the book at Waterstones in Edinburgh at the beginning of last month, breaking my self-imposed book-buying ban, I’ve been reading it on-and-off, momentarily stopping because the rage at systemic oppression got too much or because I wanted to really concentrate and take in each essay in full. I’ve highlighted passages, reread pages and read out lines and sent photos of titles to my friends.

What struck me when I read the first essay on the train back was that I was reading a book that spoke about now more than anything I’ve read recently. Granted in the last year of an English Literature (and Film!) degree, I’ve mostly been reading course-mandated stuff and although that course was “Contemporary Scottish Literature”, the nature of academia means the most recent novel on the curriculum was published in 2011. For my university that’s really really contemporary but that, combined with my aforementioned book buying ban, has meant that my reading habits have been dominated by novels from the past.

The first essay in Nasty Women is titled ‘Independence Day’, written by Katie Muriel. The opening lines, which stayed with me for the train journey and beyond, are as follows:

“They are calling him my president, and I am scared out of my mind. They are calling him my president, and there is bile in my throat as they ask me to respect him. They are calling him my president, and each time I think about it my chest feels tight with indignation, or rage, or an impending sense of doom. I can no longer tell these feelings apart and I think they’ve evolved into something I can’t entirely give voice to, something that tastes all the more sour each day when I wake up and find that it wasn’t just a vivid nightmare. They are calling him my president and my future has never looked so bleak.” (p. 1)

A gut punch of an opening. The placement of this essay at the beginning was a strong choice, one that sets the tone for the anger, passion, fear, confusion and determination of each and every woman who follows. I was in awe of how present this collection feels, how different it was to read about Trump’s election in a book as opposed to seeing it in a tweet or an online article. It made it feel more real, certainly. It also made me truly aware of our time in the present as history-making, one for the history books, as it were.

And suddenly I was grateful for this book to exist. For if Trump is president and books must be written whilst this is the case, let them be like this one. I want a resistance full of perspectives we never hear from, or at least that I never sought out before. I want to hear voices that are marginalised, have always been marginalised and now more than ever need to be lifted up and heard.

Because it’s not as though the stories we read in this book have happened because of Trump. And he didn’t create racism or misogyny or heteronormativity or oppression of any kind. These voices were ignored before and gradually, through hard graft and much sacrifice, barriers began to be broken down. But many of those barriers still existed which is why regardless of the contemporary political context of Trump’s election this book is a powerful statement of existence from each of the contributors: we’re here, we’re speaking, you’re going to listen.

It’s not an exclusionary experience though. Never whilst reading this did I feel that I couldn’t empathise or understand something of their perspectives. Nor did I feel at any stage set in a position of opposition with those whose work I was reading. I felt included, I felt part of something bigger. The diversity of viewpoints this book presented me with only served to include more, uniting people through factors other than race, class, nationality or other categories so often used to divide. What struck me most was an underlying hopeful determination, a passion that manifested itself in different ways in each account but tied the book together, creating a community between women who have probably (as far as I know) never all been in the same room.

To go through and name each essay one by one, focusing on what I loved about each, would take me forever and I might as well ask 404 Ink to publish my collection “Nasty Women 2.0 – a review” because it would be as long as this book. But a quick rundown of the ones that have stuck with me (except that they all have and choosing between them is kind of hurting my soul BUT it’s fine we’ll deal)

  • My flatmate loves pop punk and punk rock and knows about the communities that Ren Aldridge and Kristy Diaz discuss with such in-depth and nuanced passion but these essays were really my first introduction to those intricate dynamics, social hierarchies that seem to perpetuate the structures these communities strive to rebel against.
  • Laura Lam’s ‘These Shadows, These Ghosts’ was a heartwrenching account of three generations of women who have struggled with mental illness, domestic abuse, marriage and murder. It read like fiction, too unbelievable to be true yet a story unlikely to be heard now solidified as history. Lam has published the story that has impacted her life personally, with reference to larger themes but predominantly just focusing on the story of these women, her family, lifting their stories and considering them as important, worthy of history.
  • Claire L. Heuchan and Joelle A. Owusu’s accounts of their experiences of the intersection of being black and female AND living in Scotland were powerful and harrowing. Often what we do hear of being black and British is based in London (as they point out) so it was incredibly interesting, as I’ve already said, to hear even more. (Further to that Heuchan’s focus on online spaces, feminism online and the ups and downs that go along with that, had a similar impact on me in that reading about online spaces seemed to legitimize them in ways online articles and tweets still don’t.)
  • ‘Hard Dumplings’ for Visitors by Christina Neuwirth gave me Ruby Tandoh food-posi feelings and it was fantastic.
  • ‘Fat in Every Language’ by Jonatha Kottler blew me away.

“Here’s a fact: fat people know they are fat. We live it every single moment of every day. Whether it has a physical cause like a prescription drug that saves your life, but make you gain weight; or an emotional or psychological one; or is even simply a deliberate choice, we know we are fat. And if we ever forget it for a moment, there is a whole world to remind us.” p. 157

I just can’t remember the last time I read something about body positivity that wasn’t accompanied by an image of someone. Instagram is a great place for that kind of thing but I can’t deny the strength of a statement about fatness which doesn’t provide you with imagery, proof of fatness. Kottler just wrote an account which I understood and could relate to but didn’t require me to compare my own fatness to hers, to see if we had the same body type, the same curves, the same issues or disorders. And I appreciated that.

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I have to go now, I have a dissertation to write (and also I might be going to see Get Out tonight, maybe, possibly, definitely) so I haven’t even covered half of the essays in this book but I think I’ve made it pretty clear. You should read this book. (It also helps that 404 Ink is a new publisher in Scotland that is publishing some really great stuff right now and I want to support that!) It’s great. It’s so, so great. Buy it for everyone you know (if you can, if not, I can lend you my copy).

I could talk about this book for days so if you’ve read it, please leave a comment or talk to me on Twitter!

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