Turning Fury Into FuelThree Women Authors on Publishing’s New Investment in Anger

collage of Soraya Chemaly, Reema Zaman, and Gemma Hartley on multi-colored blue and purple background

From left to right: Soraya Chemaly, Reema Zaman, and Gemma Hartley (Photo credit: Karen Sayre, Erika Ellis, and Erin Nicole/Bitch Media Illustration)

Women’s anger has fueled every political movement in the United States, from suffrage to Civil Rights to #MeToo. Women’s anger is a powerful, unshakeable force that sends people from marginalized communities into the streets, the courtrooms, the classrooms, and beyond to fight for the more just world that our ancestors fought for and our descendants will fight for long after we’re gone.

“The Future is Furious” is a weeklong series about women’s anger—and, more specifically, about how that anger is policed, dismissed, and overlooked because its potent, transformative social and political power terrifies people. We get to decide how we wield our anger, and this series is a mere entry point for a canon of work about women’s rage. It is our hope that by the end of it, you’re revved up and ready to rage in a time when it’s more important than ever to put women’s anger to work.

In January, when publishers began sending us advance copies of their 2018 books, we realized that many authors were exploring a similar theme—women’s anger. Receiving those books was the initial catalyst for our weeklong The Future is Furious series. Publishers realizing that multiple books about women’s anger are worth putting on shelves; Maxine Waters expressing her anger on national television; and sexual-assault survivors forcing Hollywood and media to reckon with the predators they’ve long protected gave us the gumption to shine a light on the transformative power of women’s anger.

Few people understand the moment we’re in better than Soraya Chemaly, Gemma Hartley, and Reema Zaman—three women who’ve written books about anger and can offer a prescient overview of why publishers are suddenly giving us these books in droves. So, we asked them about it.

People from marginalized communities are driving so many of our cultural conversations about engaging in the political process. Based on the research you’ve done about anger, would you say we’re in a new moment? Or is this a continuation of the anger that has always fueled political shifts?

Gemma Hartley:
I think it’s both. Our anger is intrinsically linked to the past, but I think we need to claim this moment as our own, to claim our rage as our own. I think (hope) what makes this a new moment is that we seem to be waking up to the fact that civility is a patriarchal tool that we can’t use to our advantage. The whole purpose of imposing civility and quelling the expressed anger of marginalized groups is to make sure they can’t be heard or effectively harness their power. We’re told that engaging “nicely” will lead to change (think whitewashed Martin Luther King Jr. memes), but historically, that’s not true. There’s inherent inequality in demanding civil discourse between two parties when one has significantly more power and privilege than the other. And, of course, this shift in thinking about anger comes from the leadership of Black women, who have always been at the heart of activism and political change. Following their leadership, instead of merely capitalizing on their labor, is necessary if we really want this to be a “new” moment, more than a continuation of the ineffective white feminism of the past.

Reema Zaman: I agree with Gemma. We’re in a specific, unique moment, [but it’s also] part of a larger story [that’s] continually unfolding. The coalescence of all these elements is ideal for enormous change—a perfect storm of sorts. [We’ve had] enough failures and betrayals on the part of our “leaders,” [and it has caused] us to collectively hit our tolerance [limit]. We’re simultaneously saying enough, and coming forward with our personal stories; our solidarity, our unified commitment to change, is the force that will [make] the defining difference. Our unified commitment gives me such hope amidst all this. Additionally, women in their 30s and 40s were raised on the values of third-wave feminism. We were encouraged to pursue higher education as well as our own income and careers. So, I feel we’re equipped, mentally and tactically, to follow through on this fertile rage.

Knowledge is power, and being able to articulate why we’re furious is in itself galvanizing, and helps us uncover solutions. Furthermore, in the last 10 or so years, culturally, we’ve done a lot of work to investigate the ways white hetero activism and white hetero feminism in the past have been nearsighted or downright harmful. Because the thing is, if you’re trying to heal a wound using rusted tools, you’ll only hurt the body further. Nearsighted activism has done precisely that in the past. Now, we’re more intelligent and conscious about leveraging this present moment of fertile rage, with the goal of achieving authentically inclusive, ethical, and sustainable change.

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From left to right: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger by Soraya Chemaly and Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley (Photo credit: Atria Books/HarperOne)

How did you come to the decision to write a book specifically about women’s anger (in relation to emotional labor, the dismissing and denying of women’s anger, and an abusive marriage)?

Soraya Chemaly: For many years I’d written about social-justice issues and worked on several book proposals in the process. The 2016 U.S. presidential election was the catalyst for shifting [my] focus to anger. Anger was so palpable in the build up to and the aftermath of [Donald] Trump’s election. What was so striking was how powerfully male candidates like Bernie Sanders and Trump could freely, and with added benefit, tap into the rising tide of populist rage. They could pound fists, get red in the face and express righteous political indignation, and [still] be seen as “in touch” with voters. Women, specifically Hillary Clinton, couldn’t do this without penalty. We saw the same dynamic in the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings recently. That double standard and others like it are so defining for women. Anger—its social construction, regulation, expression as an entitlement—seemed like the best filter through which to write about women’s experiences, needs, and status.

GH: When I set out to write Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, I didn’t intend to write an “angry” book. In fact, you’ll probably notice throughout the book the conflation of anger and frustration, because anger is still such a taboo subject. We’re not mad at our partners, we’re frustrated or disappointed or sad because we can’t be angry without also being labeled emotional, crazy, unstable, illogical, etc. But of course, anger is the natural response to injustice and inequality. Anger is the spark that drives change.

RZ: My memoir, I Am Yours, is a love letter of healing and a call to action for anyone who has gone through sexual or intimate-partner violence. I was 27 when I left my abusive marriage, and 30 when I decided to write the memoir. During the marriage, I started to connect a few things: I came from a long history of sexual violence, and my entire life, I’d been shamed any time I expressed any morsel of anger or pain. I’m from Bangladesh, the eldest child of an arranged marriage, and I was raised to be the most polite, compassionate, cheerful, understanding, pleasing daughter, woman, and partner, often to my own peril and erasure. [I was] precisely the kind of woman who, upon encountering an abusive man, said, “It’s all right. I forgive you. This is just how life and men are. I’ll help you.”

A lifetime of silenced anger and pain led me straight into an abusive marriage. Inside that marriage, any time I voiced my rage or sorrow toward the things he did, I was further punished. So, I grew to see that the culture of abuse and violence requires our obedience and silence. My personal story spoke to a larger political tale. Once I saw the micro and macro architecture at work, I realized I had to write this memoir [because] it’s the quintessential narrative of the female condition, the human condition. I felt a deep responsibility to illustrate that by owning our power, validating our rightful rage, and breaking our silence, we heal the past, reclaim authorship in our own lives, and woman by woman, voice by voice, reject the systemic architecture designed to keep us small and caged. To speak is a revolution, and our collective voices are the reckoning the world needs.

I had five years to perfect the book. I began writing in 2013, from my deep need to heal my anorexia and the wounds of sexual trauma, then, with Trump’s election in 2016, #MeToo in 2017, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in 2018, I’ve stepped into my voice as a writer and speaker. I’ve been able to make the memoir an intimate, but shared experience.

Recently, there’s been an influx of fiction and nonfiction books that deal specifically with women’s anger. Of course, you’ve all released or will release your books. There’s also Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. Why are publishers so heavily invested in these narratives? What does that convey, if anything, about our cultural moment?

SC: I think many people were stunned by the course of the presidential election and what Trump means to the state of our culture and democracy. I think this batch of books reflects the surprise that this happened, as well as a greater level of political awareness and editorial activism in the ranks of publishing. 

GH: Nothing gives me hope quite like seeing this avalanche of books dealing with women and [other] marginalized experiences with anger. I think the fact that publishers are investing in these narratives helps validate and normalize our anger, which is long overdue. These books convey that we have a lot to be angry about in this cultural moment, and that anger is not only an appropriate response, but one that we can leverage to forge change.

RZ: I’m very close to my publisher, Dayna Anderson, and she’s said that publishing my memoir was a personal and social responsibility. Publishing these specific narratives is one way she can use her power and voice in the world to [foster] change, justice, hope, healing, and empowerment. Our marketing tagline for I Am Yours is “it is time.” Because it is. The silencing of women’s stories [has enabled] our globe-spanning oppression in the past, so writing, publishing, and reading our narratives [gives us] the wisdom, fuel, and solidarity we need to heal and evolve.

What obstacles did you encounter as you began the process for publishing your books? How did you push past those obstacles?

SC: First, finding an agent who understood the book and was an excellent advocate. Second, overcoming imposter syndrome! Third, writing at breakneck speed. Fourth, having to do a crash course in the mechanics of publishing. Fifth, really coming to terms with how marginal feminist opinions are in so much of mainstream media. For example, a lot of what I write about isn’t family friendly—sexual and domestic violence, racism and racist violence, the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth, for example. Many editors [are still] profoundly uncomfortable with straightforward descriptions of whiteness or male domination. This has actually improved since Trump’s election because of the blunt, self-evident fact of their power and meaning. I tend to weigh risks, benefits, anxieties, and objectives, and the benefits and objectives always seem to win out! That or the fact that I’m angry.

GH: I strongly second what Soraya says about imposter syndrome, and the only cure for that is doing the damn work. Ditto on writing at a fast and furious speed. Another hard thing for me was feeling comfortable “raising my voice” in the writing. My editor often had to coax me out of my conditioned default setting, which is to be safe and palatable for a male audience. That’s not who this book is for! It’s for women who are fed up with shouldering all the emotional labor without recognition or reprieve. I had to be given permission (and a nudge) to get my full self on the page.

RZ: I’ve realized that writing this memoir has perfectly equipped me to become the voice and advocate of this memoir, and its larger message. The first three decades of my life held a bizarre volume of adversity, trauma, and violence, so to survive and not die, I’ve had to redefine my understanding of obstacles, by learning to reframe and compartmentalize my focus and attention. I started writing I Am Yours in 2013, long before I’d published a single essay or had any writing credit or accolades to my name. I was on a very strict, high-stakes budget: My parents let me live with them, and I had a year to write a book with the specific goal of publication. [Up until that point], everything else in my life had failed. I was a “failed” wife and actress, and producing a publishable book was my plan b. I wrote with intense pressure, concentration, and discipline—a process that works very well for my personality.

The writing flowed without pause or obstacle. I Am Yours was on submission from June 2016 to November 2017. Others may have found this crushing, but this length of time played to my advantage. My agent, Lisa DiMona, and I realized I Am Yours needed that time in submission [because] it’s a book that required an ideal fit, a [book editor] who understands it and loves it as her own. I spent that year-and-a-half training and launching myself as a speaker and essayist. By the time we found [my book editor] Dayna [Anderson], I’d stepped into my voice as an author, speaker, and thought-leader. Moreover, over that time, society’s consciousness and palate matured on the themes in my memoir, so the timing of my book is uncannily ideal.

Writing this book and becoming its voice has made me unshakable. I’ve released toxic people, and learned how to value, protect, and advocate for myself in ways I never did before. Harsh criticism, rejection, backlash, and trolls haven’t mattered thus far, and they won’t. Whenever I encounter misogyny, I laugh, knowing it’s the last, vain, dying gasps of a system that knows its days are numbered. By rejecting the confines and privileges reaped from the hetero male gaze, I threaten the very people who profited off the pleasing behavior, silence, and docility of my past.

You’ve all written about the various ways that women are penalized for being vocal—in the workplace, in public spaces, and in personal relationships. Have you personally encountered those consequences? If so, how have you found the strength to continue speaking truth to power and people? What are steps other women can take to tap into that anger and wield it effectively?

SC: Yes, I think like most women, I have. Some of the limits and regulation are so built into our social mores, traditions, and habits that they’re hard for some people to see [and] difficult to call out. For example, women are often ritually silenced in patriarchal religions—not allowed to serve in ministerial positions in churches, mosques, and synagogues. That teaches children powerful lessons about who has the right to public speech and authority. I think the denial of women’s ability to represent divinity is a direct assault on girls and women. Online, women are also subjected to more direct policing in the form of sustained, sexualized, and often double- or triple-threat abuse. In my case, online harassment has involved everything from stereotypical name calling to violent and graphic rape threats.

GH: Every bit of writing I’ve published has received vitriol from men who are outraged that I’ve had the gall to write about my life on my terms. I’m really strict with my “don’t read the comments” rule, but I’ve been assured by curious friends and family that there’s some truly horrifying stuff down there about me. I delete a lot of emails without opening them. The bulk of the response to my writing, however, comes from women thanking me for using my voice in a way that resonates with them—that makes them feel less alone. That’s what gives me the strength to keep doing this work. Of course, I want my work to impress visible change on our culture, but even if it did nothing more than make a few people feel less alone in their struggles, that would be wholly worth it.

RZ: Yes. For the first three decades of my life, I was penalized for being vocal. Now, I’ve found the strength to speak and continue speaking truth to power and people because of the revelation I had during my abusive marriage. Abusers require our silence [for them] to thrive. So, we must break silence. For me, the high-stakes of that are the fuel I need to keep speaking. I encourage women to take [the following] steps: Do something that gives your voice a place to be heard. Keep a journal for yourself, even if you’re lucky enough to have a supportive network of friends and family. Having a journal and writing essays in my laptop was quintessential [to] breaking free from my abusive husband. Gaslighting is a highly effective tool used by abusive partners, relatives, coworkers, politicians, and society to invalidate our feelings, particularly our anger; keep us second-guessing our intelligence, clarity, power, and self-sustenance; and disregard our right to respect, kindness, and justice.

Shaming and silencing our rightful rage is another part of an abuser’s arsenal. They shame and gaslight us into silence and submission, manipulate us into thinking we deserve their cruelty, thereby normalizing their behavior. Consequently, by writing down your thoughts and giving voice to your anger on the page, especially if you’re surrounded by people who continually invalidate and disregard your voice, you’ll begin seeing that you’re indeed intelligent and correct to feel and think the things you do. By bearing witness to your truth on the page, you’ll begin filling with the courage and validation you need to start speaking up for yourself, start owning your power, and taking steps toward leaving that harmful relationship, job, lifestyle, or environment. [Since] women have been conditioned to be highly empathic, nurturing creatures that are forever attuned to the wellbeing of others, women’s rage is always felt in the presence of injustice. It’s not something that should be ashamed of.

Since women have been conditioned to be highly empathic, nurturing creatures that are forever attuned to the wellbeing of others, women’s rage is always felt in the presence of injustice. It’s not something that should be ashamed of.

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Soraya, in Rage Becomes Her, you write that there’s a difference between anger, assertiveness, and aggression. Can you expand on this? How do we begin separating these out?

SC: Anger is an emotion, whereas assertiveness and aggression are better described as behaviors. A confident girl can be assertive, which does not mean she’s automatically aggressive or angry. Similarly, a person can be aggressive—stridently confronting someone, for example, without being angry at all. As we know, it’s also possible to feel profoundly angry but not be assertive or aggressive. These are so often unhelpfully conflated, largely in an effort to tone police or silence girls and women.

We often associate anger with courage. In order to be vocal, we have to be brave. Is that something you believe in? If so, why?

SC: Yes, I really do believe this. It’s so often the case that speaking, saying difficult truths out loud means challenging our families, teachers, coworkers, [and] employers. There are real risks and often threats. For me, speaking is still very challenging. However, I have found a good path in writing. While [speaking] can often be difficult, virtually anything I believe is worth saying comes flying out of my fingertips with little inhibition.

GH: In a culture where anger is essentially “forbidden” for women, I think it takes a lot of bravery to speak up about our anger and its sources without hedging to make everyone comfortable. Honestly, it’s something I still struggle with.

RZ: I absolutely believe voice and courage go hand in hand, but thinking you have to be brave before you can speak can often work against you. [It can] keep you quiet until you have the courage to speak. I became brave because I began speaking; using my voice led to courage. The voice is a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it grows. By practicing the muscle, you engage and develop audacity, until courage becomes synonymous with who you are, as easy as breathing, as seamless as speaking. In addition to writing, I’ve been performing spoken-memoir for a long time, and I love every minute of speaking truth to power. I love the feeling of connecting emotion with the visible or invisible audience. It’s invigorating and liberating for both artist and audience to feel validated and unified in our humanity, be it our rage, our past wounds, our hope, our healing, our strength. By voicing our truth, we alleviate the ache of being human.

Who are the cultural figures you look to as you attempt to navigate and define anger? For instance, Serena Williams is it for me. When I look at how she’s policed and how she responds, it offers me a chance to really examine the relationship between anger and race. Who is that person(s) for you?

SC: I thought a lot about this when I was researching the book. I found that I kept, over and over again, coming back to feminist philosophers whose work I admired or whose work I was only just finding through research. I was struck by how remarkable their descriptions and analyses and very deep thinking on the topic were. In particular, I found Miranda Flicker’s work on epistemic justice clarifying. It resonated very deeply.

RZ: Lidia Yuknavitch’s work has been monumental in shedding my shame about women’s rage. Reading her memoir The Chronology of Water was enormously empowering, and [gave me] permission to accept and own the power of my rage. Gloria Steinem has always been an inspiring role model as well. To me, she emulates a different route to fighting and breaking patriarchy, of battling the system from the inside out. Steinem’s Playboy expose will always [be] one of the most inspiring and brilliant pieces of work and activism. [It was] brilliant in conception and execution. Infiltrating the toxic architecture, learning and exposing its mechanics, cutting the wires, and burning it all down is my type of Trojan Horse chess play—being strategic and precise, turning fury into fortitude.

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by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.