Julie Feng on “Notes from a Feminist Killjoy” by Erin Wunker

Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is a collection of essays that, despite being steeped in academic theory, reads more like a letter from a friend. In the tradition of Sara Ahmed, the writer and professor who coined “feminist killjoy,” Wunker pens a collection of thoughts that encourages open and fluid conversation.

“This is a collection of attempts,” writes Wunker. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy has no pretense of grandeur. The notes themselves do not pretend to be a canonical cornerstone of feminist thought — they are simply candid thoughts from one particular feminist. They are, as the author puts it, “notes for conversations, notes from conversations.”

The most powerful theme of the book is the ways in which women connect to one another. Mothers to daughters. Mentors to mentees. Friends to friends. The author to the reader. There’s an entire chapter devoted to female friendship and recurring references to it throughout the collection.

Wunker, as an academic who has spent her entire career on campuses of higher learning, writes in that context. However, reading her personal and vulnerable essays was like opening messages from someone I know. She successfully writes in écriture féminine, the tradition of women’s writing which includes the goal to “wrench theoretical writing from the austerity of academic language that was (is) associated with logic, whiteness, and masculinity.” Although deeply entwined with theoretical frameworks and academic language, Wunker focuses on everyday experiences and their contexts.

Two women, strangers to each other, walk home at night and make eye contact. This is praxis. A police officer suggests that women stop dressing like sluts to avoid being raped. This is cultural osmosis. A woman tries to remember the first time she heard the word “rape.” This is a new paradigm of thought. The Facebook messages between a student and her rapist. This is a text that can be close-read and analyzed.

Although deeply entwined with theoretical frameworks and academic language, Wunker focuses on everyday experiences and their contexts.

Throughout Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, Wunker repeats this formulation. She introduces the issue, frames it in a theoretical concept, and then carries it from the top of the ivory tower to the roots — the lived experiences of the marginalized.

Wunker has discovered and beautifully utilized the most useful aspect of academia: the power of giving words to what is felt in the gut, in the bones. About reading the works of feminist foremothers like Patricia Hill Collins, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, she writes, “I found words for what my body already knew.”

This mission — putting words to experiences and perceptions and concepts — is central to the goals of Wunker’s Notes. “Naming the lack and speaking the open secrets: some of the tasks of the feminist killjoy.” Wunker accomplishes these tasks with candor and heart.

She “names the lack” over and over again. The words you say to your child about rape. The jealousy you feel at another woman’s accomplishments. The right questions that a listening friend asks. The many violences of growing up a girl.

Wunker shares stories from her life — from childhood traumas to fears in motherhood — like she is whispering in the ear of a confidante. She writes consciously from her particular perspective. Her position as a learner is just as clear as her position as a teacher. She lapses into university professor mode over and over, but I thought that her moments of active re-learning and un-learning were the most powerful. Moments in which she reflects on her privilege or acknowledges that critical thought is an incomplete process. She is clearly working to widen her scope without losing track of the first-person point of view.

Women reaching out to one another, telling each other our stories. This is a structural tactic. It is also crucial to the work of justice and social change. Let us take Wunker’s core message to heart and continue this messy, complex, and vital conversation.