The new Foyles cafe is like a model of the neo-liberal marketplace. Nothing is as nice as it used to be in the old shabby one; the menu is misleading – the ‘East End Salt Beef’ is plasticised pap with no sinews; and yet there is light and air and decent coffee.
I first met Laurie Penny in the old one, back in 2009, when she was working on a piece on trans issues, and soon afterwards, by her request, I adopted her and became her Fairy Godmother. In so many ways. We are dedicating-books-to-each-other close friends, in spite of the gap in our ages, and this interview makes no pretense otherise. We’re here to talk about her new book, Unspeakable Things.
I asked her why she felt she needed an Evil Aunt.
LP: Everyone needs an evil Auntie, just most people are not lucky enough to have one. Actually that’s an interesting question – you’re probably my most important female mentor. There’s a serious lack of mentors for writers my age, especially female ones. I used to find it hard to have personal and professional relationships with women of other generations. There’s massive hostility there.
RK: That’s weird because it used not to be the case. When I think back to my late 20s and early thirties, I had a wodge of them, Lorna Sage for example.
LP: The difference is that you’re not just a mentor, you’re socially a peer.
RK: That’s because one of the good things about your generation is that you don’t defer. It used to be taken for granted that you did. And the plus point with your generation is that you don’t defer and the minus is that people who had to, back in the day, and now expect their turn resent that.
LP: Absolutely. And there’s even more stock set right now on being young, on being a bright young thing. And so there’s more suspicion. One of the things I say in the book is that being a woman is seen like being your job. It’s the job that everyone has signed up for, anyone who is in any way female and every other woman is your competitor. And if being a woman is our job, we need to unionise.
RK: It’s unpaid work, as being a woman always was.
LP: In the movie All About Eve the central character, Margot Channing, the one played by Bette Davis, says: “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it.” I thought that was so sad and so profound.
RK: Except your generation, you’re not just supposed to work at it, you’re supposed to work at monetising it.
LP: It’s more like a profession, and that’s what I mean in talking about neoliberalism in general.
RK: It’s a portfolio femininity. You’re supposed to be a walking CV.
LP: Back when I was young, very young, feminism was a lifestyle choice – it was all sort of sassy. It was a matter of “can you be a feminist and wear a white wedding dress or high heels?” And you still get those articles. It was all about identity rather than action. Politics didn’t come into it, and feminism was massively depoliticised and also massively dequeered. And that’s something that’s now reversed itself. A new generation of LGBT and genderqueer activists are making their voices heard. In the 90s, feminism seemed only to talk about straight women; if there was any sense of queer, it was just lesbian women, and it wasn’t an inclusive sense that we all live under heteropatriarchy. It was a politics of lesbian women, if at all, that was oriented around political lesbianism and that whole package. So it wasn’t about queer at all. That’s why it’s so great for my politics to know you and people like you. Because I could read it in books but I wouldn’t get the ‘History as gossip’ version.
RK: History as gossip is important because it means you know where the bodies were buried.
LP: There’s that wonderful article about Shulamith Firestone by Susan Faludi, because it’s not dry, it tells you about the personalities involved and the interactions, and what really broke Shulamith was disillusion with that movement and the way she was rejected.
RK: It’s really important to recognise that history, because trashing was what nearly destroyed second wave feminism, or at least seriously crippled it, in the 70s.
LP: Feminists started talking mainly to each other and it’s partly the trashing and partly the way it gets to be about the Perfect Line. And obviously I care about what feminists think of my book, but I am more interested in what fifteen year olds who are reading it in their bedroom think. It’s not about convincing people who are already my comrades that my politics are pure and perfect. That’s the scary thing about writing a book instead of a blog post – you can’t go back and change it.
RK: But there is no pure line, there’s never been a pure line, the pure line is a delusion.
LP: A lot of what’s important in seventies feminism is the stuff it got wrong. There’s the chapter about race in Dialectic of Sex in which Firestone talks as if she has never met anyone who wasn’t white. Yet if you write off the whole book on the basis of that, you’d have lost a lot of important thought. So it’s important to read it alongside feminists of colour writing at the same time, like Angela Davis and Alice Walker.
RK: You’ve learned a lot from feminists of colour. It took a lot of us ages to do that. Intersectionality, for example, as a clear concept and set of ideas.
LP: Intersectionality does crop up in the book. I do use the I word, not a lot. I ration all the other words – neo-liberalism, capitalism – that smack even a tiny bit of jargon. I went through the manuscript with the search function and wherever possible I changed them, rephrased the sentence, cut them down. So it said the same thing without using the words. There are a lot of schoolkids of every gender whose lives would be so much better if [Judith Butler’s] Gender Trouble had been written in a comprehensible manner, in a language that was exciting and accessible to people not already versed in the language of theory.
RK: The version of Gender Trouble explained in Lolcats is a great contribution to the welfare of humanity. Unspeakable Things works very hard at accessibility, at making the language new.
LP: That’s part of the reason it has so much memoir in there. It was difficult to strike a balance between that and polemic – because you have to have the personal gossip that moves polemic along, and there’s a lot of stuff that is straight up polemic. And the memoir bits explain where my politics come from and how they developed. If I were going to write straight memoir – but I’m 27 and far too young to write memoirs – here I barely talk about my family at all – and there are very good reasons for that – and I don’t talk about Oxford at all. University was my least political time, because I went there very young – I was just 17 and just out of hospital. I spent a couple of years just getting myself well and doing a lot of theatre and drinking gin and being a reprobate and scraping through my exams. It was a couple of years off serious politics. I needed to use the time for other things – self-care is radical. People go on at me about Oxford – and sure it’s important to acknowledge privilege.
RK: True, but in this country, privilege is as complex as class. And the language we use has to reflect that.
LP: There’s a failure to understand that privilege is not the same as power. There’s a lot of that in the chapter about boys, about their rage because they were promised things, they were raised to be able to live in a world which does not exist — never existed actually — less so now. There’s that very painful conflict between the stories they grew up with, in stories and films, in home and school, that they would grow up to be these powerful macho guys and their growing awareness, especially if they are moving in social justice circles, that that’s not an ethical way to be, it’s not a way to live your life. James Bond films are cool, but everyone knows now that James Bond is a total prick. You can’t now watch Connery’s Bond from a position of unwatching Craig. We have all these old ideas of what a masculine hero is meant to be and there isn’t much to replace it.
RK: Is it also because of the massive disillusion – and I feel this from the specific viewpoint of someone in their 60s – with the radical heroes of my generation and what became of them?
LP: It’s almost the opposite really. We had to get older and read a bit more before we understood what they used to be. Remember, I was only ten when Labour came to power. I remember kids in the playground talking about it and going “Labour! My mum and dad are voting Labour” And they were going “TONY BLAIR!” I was a Thatcher baby, but my sisters are both Major babies. Kids born when Labour came to power will be turning 18 this summer. I only started reading political papers at 13, and 9/11 was the first major event that registered with me. That was the thing for us.
RK: With me it was the Cuban missile crisis
LP: When you talk about political generations, it’s particular moments rather than purely chronological. Millennials have no idea of the Berlin Wall but are very clear about 9/11. The next generation won’t remember it.
I asked Laurie why she identifies as a geek.
LP: I’ve always been a geek. Stories have always fascinated me – the more engaged I’ve got with writing, the more I have realised that politics is a story we tell ourselves about what life is about, what identity is about, and the more you can change the story the more you can change the future. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story – I’ve been reading her novels – and the danger of the single story. There’s a problem with the stories women have been allowed to tell themselves about themselves. And the reason I am so fascinated by geek feminism is that it interrogates narrative, the stories we are allowed to tell ourselves about identity and sexuality and gender and agency.
RK: Women’s stories have constantly to be fought for – did you see that article the other day about the Trinity version of the strong woman, the woman who is characterized as strong but does not actually do anything?
LP: All you have to do to be a Strong Woman is turn up wearing combat boots and fall for the hero. Surely we can do better than that in 2014. She can have amazing attributes but she never gets to kill the dragon. She is always a character in someone else’s story, the amazing woman who whisks the hero off to a fantasyland like Trinity in the Matrix. Women are encouraged to see themselves as characters in stories that happen to other people rather than the heroes of their own story. And in Doctor Who, maybe not River Song or Martha or Donna, but most of the other recent companions – they’re Manic Pixy Dream Girls. Amy Pond is definitively a Manic Pixy Dream Girl and so is the new one, Clara. They have quirks and eccentricities but what are they actually like? And if anyone uses the words sassy or spunky – or feisty – I hate feisty. Feisty is a word about women that’s a stand-in for having an actual personality. And they don’t have flaws, or if they have flaws, it’s like it is in New Girl, where they were sitting around thinking that the character ought to have a flaw and someone said “let’s make her clumsy”, which means she sometimes drops things. It’s not even actual dyspraxia which might generate plot.
Women are not allowed character development, let alone catharsis; there’s a big fight going on about who gets to tell stories. It’s not just women, it’s people of colour and LGBT people and there’s a struggle to be the subject of one’s own stories, not a point in other people’s. The internet has had a certain amount to do with this – and fan fiction. Especially now that fan writers are breaking into the mainstream. Some of the sci-fi awards lists are full of new interesting women writers telling stories about race and gender – the Hugo shortlist a bit less so – and of course sci-fi is ideal for that. The excitement for me about writing fiction is how many stories are there left to be told? How many lives and sorts of lives need to find narrative embodiment?
I ask Laurie about her role models from the earlier past.
LP: I’ve just reviewed a collection of Nellie Bly‘s writing. She’s the first gonzo journalist, she’s the first woman investigative reporter, and though there have been children’s books about her, and I think at least one television show – in the USA she’s the legend, the plucky girl reporter – but nobody bothered to collect her writing, nobody bothered to read what she actually wrote. She’s so much more radical than the legend – which is all: Young girl comes out of nothing, becomes ace reporter, does whatever a man can do, rarara – but her work about marriage, her work about the condition of working women across the US is really very radical.
RK: Of course, another great product of Bly’s era is London’s THE IRON HEEL – which Orwell thought was terrifyingly predictive in the 40s, but now…
LP: The future isn’t necessarily bright; there is everything to fight for. Stories are the only way we steal the children of the rich, they’re the only way we can fight apart from simply managing to survive. One of the things about the LGBT communities – that we have to give other communities – and also communities of colour have done this – is to realize that survival is the struggle. Self-care is radical, it is politics, and mutual care, and a solidarity that is not merely in name only. It’s not just a hashtag, it’s showing up and taking care of people. And not being a dick on the internet unless you absolutely have to. I wish more people realised this, because in fallow times the left has a tendency to eat itself. The anti-capitalist left, the feminist left…
RK: Which leads us to the queston of ‘what Laurie Penny did next’.
LP: I’m taking a year off. I am going to Harvard on the Nieman Foundation. I applied for it last year just after losing my father. I could no longer do this kind of unremitting engagement without a physical break. If I hadn’t got that fellowship, I would still have taken a year off of some kind. It’s been really difficult to fight my corner and look after myself and do the work – which doesn’t mean it’s not been worth doing, but I have to think long term and not burn out. That would be sad – no one wants to be in the 27 club. I’m 27 but my birthday’s in September, so I am probably all right.
This is my second interview and the first was with a woman who had eating disorders in her 30s and 40s and I realized that getting better is a process. I’d thought that you just got better, and then I’d be done. But you have to work at it your whole life.
Laurie Penny’s new book ‘Unspeakable Things’ was published on 3 July, by Bloomsbury.