A Conversation With Neesha Meminger and Ibi Zoboi
July 22, 2012 4:20 AM   Subscribe

Two writers discusses race, class, feminism and its intersections in this wide-ranging discussion about what feminism can mean for women of colour. Refreshingly substantive.
posted by smoke (20 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Neesha Meminger: I agree—I’m definitely a root-for-the-underdog gal. It’s what I identify with. My experience was slightly different in that the battle for self-realization began at home. The disappointment of women who gave birth to girl after girl was a constant presence when I was growing up. The mothers around me, of cousins and friends, were desperate to have boy children, especially if they already had one or more girls. I was told I was a “luck” child because a boy was born after me. My mother got off okay because she was the mother of sons, but I remember, vividly, the torment of women who could not bear boy children. I remember the tears these women cried on my mother’s shoulder, their self-hatred, the sometimes extreme conditions they faced with their in-laws. It’s something that has seeped so deeply into my bones – the crying of these mothers, or soon-to-be mothers, and their heart-wrenching desperation. My mother going to console women after they’d had their second, third, fourth, or whatever number daughter, is something that lodged itself pretty deep into my psyche. It had a profound impact on my worldview.

The impact of the battle over control of my own body was no less profound. I was not allowed to cut my hair because it was against our religion. However, it seemed our religion only applied to me and my mother as my brothers and father and uncles all had shorn hair. What I wore, who I spoke to, where I spent my time—all were strictly monitored and controlled. I could not wear jeans that were too tight, shorts of any length, skirts or dresses, yet my brother wore what he pleased without so much as a passing glance. He was also enrolled in martial arts classes because he needed to learn to defend himself. No such classes were necessary for me because I would be protected by someone else. I was a smart girl, but that mattered less than my looks and the fact that I was not light-skinned, which would make me a harder sell on the marriage market.

So, before I even left the house each day, I was waging massive battles for control over my body and psyche. Because of this, I’ve always considered myself a feminist first. When I was born, the disappointment was that I was a girl, not anything else.

Your question, “Would a culture that is founded on the ideas of matriarchy and the feminine as the divine birth a feminist movement?” stopped me short because it’s so true. I thought of the last book I wrote and the fact that I wanted to include an ancient Indian civilization that was based entirely on a belief in the feminine divine, and how there would be no need for a feminist movement there. And yet, the India of today, even with its many goddesses and female deities (many which have been appropriated by mainstream feminism, incidentally), is deeply patriarchal and systemically misogynistic. I would argue that patriarchy is at the core of just about every culture, globally, at this point. Even if the world’s ancient, indigenous cultures were matriarchal and revered a feminine divine, much of that has been erased, violently destroyed through colonialism and imperialism, or lost and forgotten. I have faith, though, that it’s still there, in the deepest part of our cellular memory. It’s about to make a comeback…I can totally feel it.

posted by infini at 4:54 AM on July 22, 2012

(leaves to take a walk, aims to return when the memories stop hurting)
posted by infini at 4:55 AM on July 22, 2012

Thanks, that was a really interesting read. In addition to the powerful passage infini quoted, I was struck by this, on class:
But, yes, class is internalized. I still have to work hard with the expectation of getting a livable wage as a writer. Write, submit, publish, get paid. The game has changed. And because of I come from a working class immigrant family, I struggle at times to be innovative in my approach to work. I’ve watched people I know who come from families with doctors and expensive degrees seemingly navigate their careers with ease. They speak up more freely and some are comfortable in white spaces. They can write and “not do it for the money” because they’ve internalized the idea of there is enough or there is an opportunity to make more.
I was impatient with some of what I can't help but regard as hooey ("Even if the world’s ancient, indigenous cultures were matriarchal and revered a feminine divine..."; "This means acknowledging that there was once a holistic way of coexisting"), but if it helps people get through the day and doesn't impede them from dealing with these issues on a rational/political basis (which is the only way anything will get done), then I have no problem with it.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't understand what's "hooey" about that. There were a great many ancient indigenous cultures that match that description, which basically coincided with the "invention" and propagation of agriculture. The use of the word holistic in this specific sense makes me wonder if this person's paraphrasing from Leonard Shlain's "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess," a book that links the oppression of women and "female" values" with the rise of literacy throughout history.
posted by hermitosis at 7:54 AM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is such an important conversation to have, about intersectionality and kyriarchy, internal and external struggles and how we negotiate them all. I agree with the authors (and Teju Cole, quoted) that there is so much avoidance of pointing fingers in the name of getting along ("newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic") that it makes it difficult to really address the problems, as if the defensiveness (and anticipated defensiveness) against these illustrative cases takes priority over the fact of oppressive language and actions. That's really just another example of privilege: my/your discomfort with being called out for x takes precedence over your/my experience of oppression.

I love this Audre Lorde quote: “Caring for myself is not indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
posted by notashroom at 8:04 AM on July 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Thanks for this. I was already a Neesha Meminger fan; now I'm going to seek out Ibi Zoboi's work.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:24 AM on July 22, 2012

I don't understand what's "hooey"

It struck me as classic Golden Age stuff: "ah, in those ancient days, when all lived in peace and harmony together." What little we know about social life in the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods doesn't suggest tremendous harmony between groups, individuals within groups or between humans and the natural world. There's archaeological evidence for homicide, overhunting, social inequality (particularly after the turn to agriculture), and while sexual violence doesn't leave easily recognizable traces a this distance, it's not absent within present pre-literate groups, either agricultural or hunter-gatherers.

Which doesn't obviate any of the excellent points about gender, injustice and inequality today that are raised and discussed in the OP. I've run into a fair number of people who are deeply interested in these questions and who also seem to need to believe in an ur-society of peaceful gender relations and holistic environmental symbiosis and such. Doesn't impact the value of their activism for me, I just don't think the evidence is there, or that its a necessary precondition for understanding how things are or imagining a better way to organize things at present.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:48 AM on July 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

It felt a bit hooey to me but Neesha's writing on class prejudice (within our shared culture of Indians) struck a deep nerve that I still don't have the words for. Perhaps that idealistic belief (her last words in the section I've quoted above) is her lodestone for growth, strength and survival. I am ashamed of my culture's adherence to an unthinking bigotry and inbred apartheid due to caste. Reading her experience as the child of working class parents brought home that difference. I have worked to overcome my own guilt of a privileged upper class life. This is a festering sore and blight in the 21st century.
posted by infini at 10:58 AM on July 22, 2012

Wow, thanks for this! I loved Neesha Meminger enough from what I read here, but this was just the icing on the cake: "INTO THE WISE DARK, Neesha’s third novel, is a feminist time-travel fantasy featuring a multicultural cast of young women who save the world." Nabbed that thing on my Kindle faster than ... well, fast things.
posted by Devika at 11:28 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah- the suggestion that there was a pre-historical record matriarchal culture of peace and sisterhood is a problem for a number of reasons:

1) A lot of this hinges on found artistic depictions of (idealized) women, while in practice we both have no way of knowing if these were totemic, pornographic, or hell, used as a tool of suppression in some sort of women controlling voodoo. Our own culture, that is the one that dominates the lives of the average mefi user, makes heavy use of depictions of women above and beyond the effort put into putting depictions of men on things, from ads to magazines- this does not imply, outside of paranoid fantasies, that women are running stuff because there's a lot of female shaped images everywhere.

2) The idea that a society dominated by women would be better is inherently sexist, because it gives primacy to the 'women as peace angel' stereotype in exception to the very real evidence that human females are just as petty, pigheaded and selfish as their male counterparts. It is damaging to women to be treated like they have a magic instinctual skill set, and forced gender roles are just a short walk away from 'of course you're wise, empathetic and loving, that's why it's better if you have these responsibilities!' It's the sneaky trap used to bribe and guilt people into doing socio-cultural bidding.

3) In practice, the rare matriarchies that are extant are not paradises of equality. Idealizing the past in this fashion suffers from the same otherization-in-the-pursuit-of-authenticity that other cultures suffer in the hands of my culture- see also 'poor people are more honest' or 'native people have a better connection with the land'. It also is wilfully oblivious to the historically important role of women in the so called patriarchies and it further washes them out- remembering that post on mefi a while back about how fantasy novels tend to have a very particular idea of Ye Olde Fakke Europe, I emphasize that treating women like they've always never done anything of note, even blaming it on the bad old oppressive cultures, contributes to their marginalization in the now.
posted by Phalene at 11:30 AM on July 22, 2012 [12 favorites]

Phalene, The Gate to Women's Country captures some of what you're saying above, imho.
posted by infini at 11:58 AM on July 22, 2012

It's sadly telling that any mention of goddesses is immediately dismissed as "hooey" based on lack of or unsufficient evidence (in spite of still-living beliefs such as in the Iroquoian First Woman, Aataentsic, not to mention Gaia in Orphic traditions), but hey, don't mock god/gods. Those aren't hooey because, um, people still believe in them? How is this rational, exactly, and in what way does it discredit belief that, oh hey, maybe the other half of humanity had equally important representatives? It doesn't have to mean utopia, and I also find it strange that utopic thinking is trotted out in parallel to mentions of goddesses. Again, Native American cultures generally had egalitarian structures in their mythological beliefs and in their societies, but it didn't mean they were free of violence.

On a more popular level, it's also pretty telling that stories about what can both ostensibly and clearly be defined as "gods", i.e. superheroes, then more clear examples such as Loki and Thor, rake in loads of views... but goddesses? Remind me again how much screen time Frigg had in "Thor"?
posted by fraula at 12:49 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

When you are born a mere girl child in a culture that exhalted Shakti and provided her with a manifestation behind Brahm, Vishnu and Shiva (Creator, Preserver and Destroyer respectively) yet daily see/experience the various humiliations of the female vessel, the chattel and burden, you will ... deep in your cynical brown female soul... go "hooey" but let the girl have her vision, because that strength from the feminine is a natural need and part of what helps to overcome the millstones around the neck and the gravestone placed on your head, to bow your neck, even before you become a "person" in your right.
posted by infini at 1:06 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think it's a linguistic problem. "Goddess" sounds like a secondary alternative to the "God." It's the female version of something that's otherwise intrinsically male, right?

Goddess-worshiping religions aren't necessarily organized this way. The manifestation of their divinity is simply essentially female, in a way that is either totally equal to, or superior to, masculine divine presences. That sort of thinking was integral to the way humans perceived their own gender, and the way they interacted with each other.

These cultures, as languagehat pointed out, were hardly utopian societies that we would benefit from emulating, but looking purely at gender they were egalitarian in ways that seem unreachable by today's standards. We have gender bias built into our most innate linguistic and religious understanding of reality, whether we go on to be religious as adults or not. We can't even imagine what it's like to be the product of a holistic environment which doesn't favor men.
posted by hermitosis at 1:09 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's sadly telling that any mention of goddesses is immediately dismissed as "hooey" based on lack of or unsufficient evidence

No one is claiming goddesses didn't exist or describing them as hooey. The presence of goddesses in a great many fervently patriarchal cultures, past and present, does not make those cultures less patriarchal, and can in many ways be used to reinforce patriarchy (via the use of highly stereotyped female divinities, for example).

That's all I'll say on that, 'cause it seems like a bit of a derail. There's lots of other more interesting and significant stuff to unpack from the OP, after all.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:43 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

That's all I'll say on that, 'cause it seems like a bit of a derail. There's lots of other more interesting and significant stuff to unpack from the OP, after all.

I don't know. Sita is often upheld as an example of perfect womanhood and divinity at the same time - hermitosis has a point when he says:

We have gender bias built into our most innate linguistic and religious understanding of reality, whether we go on to be religious as adults or not.

Sometimes I wonder, why this is so, this bias that's so uniformly distributed across all cultures, religions, continents... Old Music.

If you want to unpack the OP then the bits about the role of brown/black men in their struggles are almost painful to read.
posted by infini at 1:52 PM on July 22, 2012

Meminger was raised Sikh. When she talks about goddesses, she is talking about the everyday religious tradition she was raised in, not some New Age North American ideas.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:59 PM on July 22, 2012

Included in our family are in-laws, relatives abroad, half-siblings, very close friends—our proverbial village. And within this village, do you know what is lacking the most? Grandfathers. Strong, robust, financially secure patriarchs. Not even a feeble but deeply wise one. A head-of-family. A breadwinner who has lived past a certain age and could look out over his family and see the fruits of his labor so to speak.

This, of course, is not the kind of the thing that’s brought up in a discussion about feminism. Because, ultimately, women of color are not competing with men of color for high paying jobs. We are outliving and have outsmarted our brothers. For a number of reasons, women of color are both the breadwinners and caretakers of their families. But rarely do we talk about a movement for men of color, and if we do, it’s usually within the context of crises—an unwarranted murder, the disparaging population of the prison industrial complex, the rights of fathers within the family court system.

I could have written something very similar, and I'm from a different background globally, ethnically, and religiously. It's disturbing to think how typical this dynamic is. :(
posted by luckynerd at 5:22 PM on July 22, 2012

Grandfathers. Strong, robust, financially secure patriarchs. Not even a feeble but deeply wise one. A head-of-family. A breadwinner who has lived past a certain age and could look out over his family and see the fruits of his labor so to speak.

Having been immensely lucky to have grown up with one of these, reading this snippet and what you've quoted above, pierced me painfully.

Its a realization that even with all the barriers, ceilings and challenges I may have bumped into, on a global basis, as a small brown big mouthed woman with an opinion, I have been humbled by my own heritage and opportunities even so.
posted by infini at 11:24 PM on July 22, 2012

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