Wednesday, 10 July 2019

(Too many notes) on: armouring, smiling, wonder, killjoys, applause, racism, and reciprocity

This is pretty much a mash up of blog posts I’ve drafted and never finished over the last couple of years. Today, I decide they are all related. Today I publish this mix of thoughts, all joined up without the lines, differently dated and side by side. Find what calls to you. Make your own lines and alliances. Jump in and out. Or don’t. I share them for my own pleasure, and warmly invite you to be alongside me if it’s our moment.


I was watching back some video of myself the other day. This is not something I usually do. The video was of me describing something quite painful, an incident that was bound up in racism. I was watching it back – listening, in fact – in order to transcribe my own words to help me prepare for a talk I was about to give. I was transcribing my words in order to understand something of my own language around resistance, invisibility, voicelessness, and my own shadows. But what I noticed most of all as I transcribed this video is that I smile throughout. Not a small smile, but a broad all-teeth smile. The one people often compliment me on. When I look back at it, I see that smile as a grimace, and as armour. It says: here I am, all armour in position, ready to make myself vulnerable at your pleasure. It’s disturbing. Always smiling, always ready to be in agreement, always the one to find a solution, never wanting to disrupt too much. The smile, I realised, is a pre-emptive way of being in the world. It foresees rejection, fear, and difficulty, and is underlined by shame. It offers protection. It says: I am already smiling, so how can you harm me? But the harm is already done.  Smile!


I’ve always found the applause of theatre audiences troubling. I dutifully applaude at the end of most shows, but somewhere in me I have always had a feeling that I was in trouble. What I mean by this is that when I have seen a really powerful show, and then it ends, I often don’t feel like applauding, so when I applaude I am following along with a convention that feels fundamentally wrong in that moment. I’m troubled by the idea of what that applause does, and what it stands for. My experience is always that applause comes thick and fast, often moments before a show has finished or a final echo of sound has finished resonating. It is as if audience members want to leave the experience behind as quickly as possible – closing the door on whatever has been opened during the performance, to return to a more familiar terrain. The applause is closely followed by questions about what we all feel about the show we’ve seen. Did you like it? What did you think of it? Did we have a good time?

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette.* The show was everything I have read about it – funny, devastating, painful, honest. And like many people, I would describe it as one of the best shows I have ever seen. But it also brought something into focus for me, about what it means to be in audience and how that is related to being alive in the world with other people. Because at the end of the show, after a standing ovation and two short bows, many of us in tears, Hannah Gadsby left the stage, and the house lights went up and everyone filed out of the theatre. And it kind of broke my heart that it felt possible for us to walk out of the theatre like that, to move back into sociality so easily, with a round of applause. Because the show had been difficult and confronting, and had opened up something so rare that I feel like it’s barely touched on in most shows I have seen.

And yes it was all the stuff before that led up to this moment, but I realised that this moment always breaks my heart a little. When we sit together and share something like that, something that is about what happens when we are in a theatre, and that is simultaneously about what happens when we look at each other in the world - how we make stories about ourselves and about others, how we cause violence to each other, how we are capable of so much more - when we see something like that, and then we are left sitting in a room together, I want to know that we are not capable of simply walking back out into our lives. I want to know that something like that changes us, that it allows us to relate to each other differently, that maybe we take a moment to see whether another person is okay. I want to know that we could sit together quietly before dispersing.

It told me so much about how we function as a society inside late capitalism [& the performance I saw was at the Sydney Opera House, fully resonant with a violent colonial present] that I had been sitting in a room with hundreds of people, and we had shared an incredibly moving experience, and many of us were weeping, and yet when the house lights went up most people went to the bar and made chat with the people they already knew, or travelled home. Transaction completed. There was no room for processing, no room for quietness or difficulty or awkwardness, no room for messiness, no room for being together across difference. It was almost as if the being together had never happened.

* I saw Nanette in the theatre, not in its later Netflix version, and I think these are fundamentally different experiences


A few weeks ago I began a Feminist Killjoys Reading Group on Darug land in Western Sydney. Each day we read a blog post from Sara Ahmed’s and we talked about our own experiences in relation to the ideas in that blog post. On the second day, I introduced the blog post called ‘Feminist Wonder’. In it, Ahmed writes about wonder as something that is not necessarily outside history, or outside politics, but that brings historicity into view as something made. Something that has been made and can therefore be unmade. And then she writes about shattering:

“I am interested in how consciousness of gender (say, as a way of directing human traffic) can be a world consciousness that can leave us shattered. But shattering is also what enables us to become alive to possibility. Becoming feminist can inject life into a world by allowing you to recognise not only that things acquire shape over time, but that this shape is not necessary or inevitable; that possibilities are not always lost, even when we have given them up.”

This is what it felt like to me at the end of Hannah Gadsby’s show, like the world had been exposed as made, in a moment of both horror and wonder. The show left me feeling shattered. I think this is a good word for it. And the theatre, as I have known it, is one of the places where I can experience this shattering feeling without needing to put myself back together too soon. A world made and unmade. Constructed through wonder. In the company of others.

And I ask myself: what do you need in order to feel safe enough to become shattered?


I recently published something that had at its centre my own experience of a racist incident. An incident that you might call ‘mildly racist’. But these are the ones that pull at my guts, and I have come to believe that while some racism can cause more immediate harm than other forms of racism, the idea that some racism might be ‘mild’ is misleading. The small things are perhaps the most poisonous. It is in the detail that the violence is rooted.

But you see the thing is that when I published this something, I knew the fallout would be too great, and I left it out. I left the word ‘racist’ out of the writing. Cowardly? Maybe. … because… it was minor / I did not want to deal with the consequences of calling this person out / my life has been filled with these minor incidents of eradication / they seem not worth telling. I am, finally, able to feel them deeply, but I have no idea what to do with them. They do not feel like they warrant attention from a wider audience. And yet, they have shaped me, held my body in place, and taught me to be very quiet for a very long time. And now I want to do something with all those moments, because they are gathering, and they are teaching me that it is not an indulgence but a responsibility to both feel them and share them with others.

feminist killjoys [12/18]

“If we think with and through orientation, we might allow the moments of disorientation to gather, almost as if they were bodies around a different table. We might, in the gathering, face a different way. Queer objects might take us to the very limits of social gathering, even when they still lead us to gather at the table. Indeed, to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering.” – Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

This is one of my favourite Sara Ahmed quotes. I come back to it again and again, finding myself differently in relation to it. I read it out loud at some of the first sessions of the Feminist Killjoys Reading Group. To set the scene. To say: you are welcome here. To say: we can do this differently. And to say: but it will take work – the work of sustaining wonder about the very forms of social gathering.

How attention is distributed is political. It is the most political thing.

Several years later, the Feminist Killjoys Reading Group continues. Now there is a core group of five who meet regularly and organise monthly events at which anyone is welcome. It is a growing community. And creating this community is one of the ways of saying: it takes work to be a killjoy, and we need each other in order to be able to continue doing this work. In order for this work to exist, part of the work needs to be the work of finding solidarity. And not parcelling each other up in the process.

The other day, I spent time with some of the killjoys reflecting on the work we have done so far. One of the reflections was: We have survived. We took this as celebration. Survival as celebration. We all knew what this meant. To have continued, to have survived, means we are doing the work.


I keep having this conversation with friends, peers, people I’m mentoring. I find it is particularly something that comes up around people who have been raised as girls and women, and that it is particularly heightened in racialised bodies. It is an inability to receive. A difficulty in finding oneself worthy of receiving a gift, a kindness, attention, gratitude, or praise. It is an inability to perceive worth in self. But the conversation I keep coming back to is about reciprocity. What it takes to create/allow flow in the world, to create/allow community and conversation and belonging. That it takes both give and receive. The ability to be generous and to take a stand in one’s own body and belong there. They are always linked. To be able to receive what is being offered, to be able to both see and be seen. This work is transformative, and hard, and necessary for survival.   reciprocity