“Stay Back, Tears!”An Interview with Feminist Killjoy Erin Wunker

When I first saw the cover of Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, I thought of where I had first encountered the phrase “feminist killjoy”—the internet. I was in high school and still finding my footing in feminism, still feeling like I wasn’t deserving of the title. I recall browsing Etsy shops, looking at all the tiny DIY pins boasting the nomenclature. Reading about certain feminists who had been put on pedestals online made feminism seem too intimidating, another place where I did not belong. Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is the particular type of book that reverses this kind of thinking. It shows feminism as what it is, shows that all of the forces we are trying to dismantle are rooted in human life. They’re not vast and unapproachable.
The book is split into three defined sections: rape culture, friendship, and parenthood. These sections share a lot of research and political cases, like Jian Ghomeshi’s trials, but they are also relievingly grounded in smaller life details, like when Wunker writes about her changing relationship to the body and time now that she is a parent. When she writes of the relationship between internalized misogyny and friendship with other women, it is not in hypotheticals but in relation to the friendships she has attempted to form with other women across her lifetime. An hour before her book launch, I spoke to Wunker about the essentiality of speaking up, impostor syndrome, and the importance of particularity.  
RACHEL DAVIES: So, Notes is your first solo work. From what I’ve seen, you also coedited a textbook called Public Poetics. How did the process differ between working on Notes  and your more academic-aligned publications?
ERIN WUNKER: Yeah, I coedited Public Poetics with three other people, and then I edited, by myself, a book of Sina Queyras poetry. It was a real swerve for me, working with a trade press on nonfiction essays as opposed to academic research and publication in academic presses, which is the orbit that I’ve been orbiting in most. The experience was entirely different. Not only because Jay MillAr, who is one half of the duo that is BookThug, had asked me to write the book; I didn’t go to them with a manuscript. They asked me to write for them, and that was wholly unexpected.
Wow. So you wanted the book to be a handbook at first, right? Like a sort of guide for feminism?
It was a bit of a misunderstanding, actually. BookThug had just launched their new series called Essais, and my understanding in talking with them was that they were hoping for something direct and how-to. So, I heard handbook. This got stuck in my head, and that’s how we first started talking about it, and I thought that writing a logical, linear step-by-step process on intersectional feminist praxis—how to do it, how to be it—was something that was within my realm of capability. So, I started writing this, and it became clear to me quite quickly that I was not the person to write a handbook. There is someone out there—actually I’m sure there are many someones out there—but it wasn’t me. So I kind of shoved the contract under my bed and ignored it and promptly gave birth. I assumed everyone would forget about it, and that was not the case. The series editor, Julie Joosten, contacted me, and finally, after a great bit of hemming and hawing, I revealed to her that my anxiety was that I couldn’t write the book I thought they wanted. She said, “No, we just want a book on feminism written by you.” So I started writing, and I didn’t have much time. I don’t have a permanent job; I was teaching sessionally at the time, as was my partner. When I started really writing this book in January of this year, we had a five-month-old baby and no childcare. I started writing something very different, which is this book, which turned out to be autotheory, memoir, and very much drawing from the academic research I do but in a different idiom. I tried to think about who I would want the book to be read by, and I decided I would want the book to be read by people who might be my students and might not be my students. I didn’t want it to be constrained by the potential borders and boundaries that come with an academic classroom. So that’s the process, really. 
Yeah, I was actually going to ask you about something that you’ve already seemed to address. In the book, you write about how the internet is such a wonderful access point for feminism and how so much discourse is occurring online right now, and I was just thinking about how that would have played into your writing that book—this knowledge that what works best may not be strictly academic. I think you can see that in the book. You use so many intelligent references, and you come off as so intelligent, but I think it’s really approachable, too. Was this something that had occurred to you, then?
Yes and no. At first, the challenge for me was to get out of my own way. I tried to ignore and suppress the impostor syndrome of “Who do I think I am writing this book on feminism?” and the material constraints and conditions of my writing life really helped with that. There was no time to really think and fret in the way that I tend to about that. My writing process changed, and it was through the editing process that I started to, with my editor, streamline and polish the voice that was my voice very much, but a tone that was trying to be pitched as approachable without ever condescending to anyone’s intelligence or capabilities of reading. My mom is a person I really want to like this book, but not a person who is an immediate fan of the book, and the first thing she said was, “Very readable!” [Laughs.]
How did you come to the academic realm? Are any of your family members involved in it?
Oh, no, my parents are not professors. My mother grew up in a rural dairy farm in Pennsylvania and was the first person in her family to go to college, and she was a nurse. My dad grew up in Haliburton County in Ontario running a family business that is a lodge, and it’s still going. He was in politics, and we lived in Ottawa for a little while. My parents are both really avid readers, and they encouraged, fostered, required me to read a lot. So they were thrilled when I wanted to go to university. I was interested in creative writing, and I started to follow a path. I mean, you could call it a path or a rabbit hole into academia. But no, no one in my family is in academia; there are no role models in that respect. 
How do you think your role as a professor shaped the book? Both through how you were speaking earlier of being a professor, and being a mother, and balancing all of these roles, but also just in the content of what you were writing?
Two ways I think. Forgive my pedantry, but I am absolutely a professor, but I don’t have permanent employment as such. The only reason that I underscore that is that it’s important for me in thinking of how I try to move in a classroom space. I have to justify for myself why I am working so hard for such—when I’m doing it as a sessional. I have a contract that’s quite reasonable [now], but last year when I was writing this book, I was teaching per course and making the same you would make on employment insurance, and I’d have to explain to myself why I am doing this. The reason I would keep coming back to was that I have spent a decade-plus trying to understand intersectional feminist politics and make that understanding available to other people. That fundamentally has affected how I’ve continued to try to hone my articulation of these ideas to students who are interested and students who don’t know that they should be interested.
Your book often quotes Sara Ahmed, and the book title is a nudge to her blog, feministkilljoys.com. From reading your book, it’s very clear that you really admire Ahmed’s work. When did you first find her work and what struck you about her writing in particular?
I mean, I’ve read Ahmed’s work for years now. In my scholarly research, much of my writing on feminist poetics and multicultural poetics is read through a lense of affect theory, and Ahmed is one of the foremost scholars of affect, that notion that feelings have political force. So I had been familiar with her scholarly work since I was a graduate student, so if you want to put a date on it, 2006. But a friend of mine sent me her blog when it started in 2015, and I was just absolutely compelled by the generous praxis of feminist scholarship in a public space. I mean, the idea that she was using this blog to write first drafts of her next scholarly monograph was, to me, in a culture where I went to grad school and people were worried that other people were going to steal their ideas, an incredibly generous act. It also modeled public scholarship, like, where in the academy do we want our scholarship to go? To our students in the classroom, yes, but hopefully it’s relevant beyond the academy as well. So that’s what resonated for me so much: not only the content of her writing, but also the context in which she was choosing to present her work. 
What was the importance of organizing the book the way you did, with three sections, called “notes”: one on rape culture, one on friendship, and the last on motherhood? Was this intentional, or did you just realize in the process of writing that these were the three main sections that you kept coming back to?
That’s such a nice question, thank you for asking it. It was semi-intentional. I knew when I started writing the book that in the course of finishing the manuscript, the Jian Ghomeshi trial would finish. I knew that I had a responsibility to think about rape culture. I mean, as a teacher on university and college campuses in Canada, we need to talk about rape culture and the ways in which it is affecting us. So to me, it was an absolute necessity. So I wrote that chapter first. It was really hard to write it, but it is also, I think in some ways, the most obviously inflected by my scholarly training because I was grappling to find some intellectual hankerings for the force of feelings. This chapter on rape culture was twice as long as it is now, and it’s already the bigger chapter in the book. My editor and I let it sit for a really long time because it was hard to know what to do with it, and then we were wondering if the whole book should be on rape culture. I really didn’t want that to be my only note that I wrote. [Laughs.] So then I really needed to gather my resources, because it was exhausting to try to articulate both intellectually and emotionally how I see rape culture working in our context. 
So I thought, what’s the antidote? Oh, friends! [Laughs.] But, you know, being a bit of an Eeyore in my general life, I thought, Okay, I have life-sustaining friendships with women, but those are hard won. Why? I was trying to think about the toxic narratives that circulate in our popular imaginary about women’s friendships, so that’s how that started to emerge. I had been reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, I had been trying to be interested in Amy Schumer’s so-called feminism and I just couldn’t be, I had been listening to Fariha Roisin and Zeba Blay’s Two Brown Girls podcast and was thinking that it was a model of friendship that was much more interesting to me than more widely recognized models of pop-feminism. I tried to think through that, and that chapter came next, but then I realized that I couldn’t and didn’t want to avoid the fact that the book took the shape it did in notes because I was a new parent and that changed the way that I understood my gendered body in the world. I wrote the conclusion last, which is not always the case in my writing, and I wanted there to be space to refuse everything that I had said, so that if people read and say, “Interesting, but not my feminism”—I wanted to make space for that because my feminism is not everybody’s feminism. 
There was a sort of momentum to the structure of the book. My editor sort of shifted the tables and told me that I needed to give myself permission to lean in to the vignette-style writing that I was doing because she said it was working for her and that I needed to go for it. 
Who inspired you to write in this vignette style? Or was it just necessity because of your circumstances?
It was absolutely the circumstances that made me discover that you could get a shit load of writing done in 15 minutes because if you get it down, you can go back and revise it, but if it’s not there at all, what are you going to do? But also, whose writing influenced me: Maggie Nelson, absolutely, but also Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, which is a meditation on race and belonging in the context of Canada. It’s written in not so much vignettes, but interlocking narratives. Nicole Broussard’s essay style where she meditates on gender, sexuality, and language in the context of Canada, being a Francophone in a majority English-speaking country. For something completely different, Marie Clements, who is a Metis playwright from Western Canada—the way that her plays are structured, I’m thinking of Burning Vision, the stage directions are themselves are a kind of simultaneous narrative. I could go on and on… [Laughs.]
Reading the book—mostly just in the introduction, I think—I was thinking about how difficult it is to rise to the occasion of being a feminist killjoy, and always speaking out, and especially with Trump being elected, it’s so important right now. Do you have any advice for that? Especially because you’re very forthcoming in the book about how you were at first hesitant towards feminism when you were in college. So, basically, I’m asking: How have you arrived at where you are in feminism? That’s such a huge question, I’m sorry.
No, no, I mean, it is a huge question, but the silence is me taking a deep breath thinking of how to most simply answer you. I think that coming to the realization that not just feminism but intersectional feminism and mindful discursive allyship in conversation with the people you are trying to support—how I came to that was first through reading widely, listening in classrooms and friendships with people whose experiences of race, sexuality, and gender are different than mine. Unlearning my white privilege, which is a constant and unending process. Those are my processes of coming to the fundamental and unshakable understanding of what being an ethical being in the world requires of me, in my unearned privileges, and there are many.  It’s my fundamental responsibility to speak up against and call attention to and try to unpack the inequities of the world. The best shorthand for what I’ve just said is that my only way to be an ethical person in the world is to be an intersectional feminist killjoy. I am imperfect in my practice, it’s an ongoing evolution, but it’s absolutely necessary. That makes me feel a bit like, “Stay back, tears!” But yeah, it’s necessary. 
by Rachel Davies
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Rachel Davies is a freelance writer and the arts editor at The Le Sigh. In an alternate universe, Rachel is living in the 1800s making pamphlets on a clamshell press, but in this world she spends her time writing and drawing for Rookie Mag, NYLON, and Broken Pencil Mag, among other places. You can follow her on twitter @rachelcomplains.

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