Feminist Utopia Project
By Margaret ShultzAugust 30, 2015
The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, will be mailed to subscribing LARB members in September. Click here to get your subscription today.
The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in October. It features interviews, essays, speculative fiction, poetry, manifestos, art, and more. Contributors include Janet Mock, Sheila Heti, and Melissa Harris-Perry.
The Feminist Utopia Project is edited by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.
MARGARET SHULTZ: When I was reading the book I found myself skipping around instead of going from start to finish — it seemed like the book was based on various constellations of ideas rather than a simple progression. What are the anthology’s organizing principles? How, in an ideal world, do you imagine this book will be read?
RACHEL KAUDER NALEBUFF: I’m so glad to hear that you engaged with the book this way — “constellations of ideas” nicely sums up what we were going for! Alexandra and I both wanted the construction of the book to be as feminist as the content. Having the project be an anthology — a collection of diverse voices that equally highlights contributors who are well known alongside our loved ones and strangers from the internet — was itself an important organizing principle for us. Then we had a lot of fun with the question: what would it mean to design and organize a feminist book? (This is why, for example, we used Filosofia and Expansion — two typefaces designed by women.) One answer that seemed clear was that we really didn’t want any hierarchy in the order of contributions.
ALEXANDRA BRODSKY: There’s a logic to the ordering that we think puts the contributions in conversation, and makes for a smooth read if someone wants to go cover to cover. But we knew from pretty early on that we didn’t want to break the book into chapters — “bodies,” “work,” “families,” “art” — because we thought that would be a disservice to the pieces, limiting readers’ experience of them. Take Gloria Malone’s piece about schools that support young parents. That’s an essay about education and reproductive justice and family. Chloe Angyal’s interview about rom-coms is about romance and storytelling and labor. And we wouldn’t want to lose out on any one of those dimensions.
RKN: That’s one of the reasons why the table of contents is laid out in a big circle. The thematic connections aren’t so discrete. And then thinking more about hierarchy, while of course we’re used to reading books front to back, we want to encourage readers, as much as we can, to dive in anywhere and then follow their curiosity by reading a sequence of complementary essays and art that naturally evolves into a new issue or idea. In my ideal world, someone reads a few contributions, then does some Googling about the issues raised in the piece, reads more about/by the contributor, and then talks with their friends about all the ideas and images that struck them. Repeat!
Many pieces in this anthology belong to the genre of speculative fiction, and are set in the future. But future imaginings are also predicated on a re-imagining of the present. Pieces like Jasmine Giuliani’s excavation of a prose poem and Dara Lind’s “Description of a Video File From the Year 2067” look at things that are part of the fabric of contemporary life — sexual assault, discrimination on the basis of race or sexuality, citizenship ceremonies — and impose a critical, questioning separation.
These pieces take familiar cultural artifacts and queer them. How do the terms of utopia affect how we see our present moment? What does it take to have a utopia now?
RKN: Well! That’s pretty much the question of the project!
One thing I’ve noticed is that contributions that look backwards on the present are particularly effective at making our contemporary world seem almost comically inadequate. Today’s society will hopefully become tomorrow’s backward society. So the idea of the future looking back on today with pity doesn’t seem as sci-fi-y or abstract as other utopian approaches. This one feels like real talk: a humbling reminder that we’re all surely currently engaging in some kind of harmful behavior. This particular approach is great for noticing the outrageousness, the lunacy of daily life. But I’d say that each utopian framework facilitates a similar push and pull: dissatisfaction for the present, but also hope for the future. Knowing that we deserve more.
AZB: Definitely. The heart of what I see as so important and useful about utopian thought is to make the familiar strange. So much that we come to accept as natural, as inevitable, is man-made and malleable, but sometimes we need to imagine alternatives to realize that. I had so many moments while editing the book where I felt my own resistance. When I did the interview with Jessica Luther about athletics, and her first demand was that we gender-integrate sports, I had this immediate reaction of no, that’s not how this works. But Jessica’s really compelling vision of the future demands: why not?
I love when Melissa Harris-Perry defines a feminist utopia as one where the question is constantly being asked, “what truths are missing?” What truths do you think are “missing” from current feminist discussions? Are there submissions that you didn’t get that you wish you would have?
Rather than imagining one future trajectory, FUP asks, whose future gets to count? And who decides? This made me think about your roles as editors — how do you make an anthology that’s as inclusive as the utopia you hope to achieve within the limits of a physical book? What’s it like to edit utopia?
RKN: This project could be limitless. The biggest constraint really was time and keeping the book affordable. We expected there to be lots to say about health care, criminal justice, and sex, but pieces like Amy Jean Porter’s — which imagines new uses for words like “whimsy” or “princess” when they’ll have been stripped of their original misogynist connotations — or Cindy Ok’s — which envisions alternative layouts for chairs in a classroom — showed us that literally every corner of our world could be re-imagined.
So I might just have to reframe the question about missing truths because the answer is “so, so much.” I think it’s more about seeing the project as a sampling of utopias that are diverse enough in style and topic that they inspire and invite the reader to investigate their own worlds. Re-imagining the world together is the best way to all these truths. Though if someone was down to subsidize my and Alexandra’s lives to make this book into an ongoing life-long, sprawling, evolving online/offline/multimedia encyclopedia of dreams, we’d love it!
AZB: I think it’s also true that while the internet expands our communities, it doesn’t do so without limit. We put out open calls on blogs and social media to solicit pieces, and many of those ended up in the book. But, of course, there are really talented writers and artists that don’t have the time to read feminist blogs and Twitter — so I’m sure our invitations to submit failed to reach a lot of people I wish we could have included in the book.
In her piece, “Feminist Constitution,” Katherine Cross imagines “a cybernetic congress harnessing the aspirations of all people, hashed out collectively, rebooting the constitutional enterprise with an entirely new syntax.” This amazing proposal reminds me that the Feminist Utopia Project is not just a print anthology — there is also a web-based component.
Could you talk about the relationship between the project’s website and the physical book — what’s the plan for the website? How do you envision them interacting?
RKN: The website was an important component for the feminist creation of the book as it allowed for all sorts of people we might otherwise not have met to participate in the project. We used our site, along with a few others, to make an open call for submissions and a good number of our contributions came through this channel. We’re excited for the website to continue expanding the reach and accessibility of the project. As for what exactly this means… we’ve just started working on this more seriously now that we’re done with the manuscript. All we know is that it’s going to involve pictures somehow!
AZB: We really want to create a space for people to share their ideas and their inspirations in a way that’s accessible both to create and to read, and which we can facilitate while holding jobs and, for me, finishing up school. Right now we’re thinking it will be some kind of virtual bulletin board that showcases short utopian visions.
And, maybe a little bit more broadly, what’s the relationship between intersectional feminism and the spaces and communities of the internet?
I was familiar with many of the anthology’s contributors — Suey Park, Mia McKenzie — primarily through their web presences on particular platforms, so it was exciting to encounter them in a totally different context. What’s it like to bring these online heroes together in print?
AZB: I wish I had a really sophisticated theory of text shifting between web and print, but I think the only truth I know here is that there are really fucking talented feminist writers and organizers online right now and they should be given every platform to reach as many people as possible. There are certainly ways in which online spaces are conducive to a certain kind of thought-building, but it’s also just the publishing medium that’s accessible to the most people, so I hope those origins never cabin people as “internet writers” rather than “print writers.”
RKN: Here is my sophisticated theory of text shifting between web and print: working in print is a treat! And collaborating with writers who primarily share their thoughts online in response to urgent, time-sensitive concerns really highlights this. Giving ourselves permission to explore ideas in more depth, being able looking back on a text after several months with new perspective, having the option to have fun with a creative conceit, even just having the time to fully craft a sentence or a thought. We were all kind of reveling in these luxuries!
As you were putting this anthology together, was there anything surprising? Any strange connections or unexpected encounters?
AZB: I was really struck by how many contributors wrote about how important gender is to them. Some of my most formative early political experiences were in very masculine organizing spaces, and when we first started the book I think I was really uncomfortable with femininity, including my own, and saw it really only as a source of restriction. And I feel very grateful for pieces like Verónica Bayetti Flores’s, Mia McKenzie’s, and Katie J.M. Baker’s that explore the joy gender expression could be, can be.
I feel so lucky that we got to work on this project at such a formative time in our political educations. I learned so much by editing this, and can only hope that readers get to enjoy a fraction of that.
Lauren Chief Elk says, “I want to help people become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” which reminds me of Melissa Harris-Perry’s call to embrace struggle. I’m wondering, what have you learned in compiling these submissions about (as Donna Haraway puts it) “staying with the trouble” or living with contradictions?
RKN: A big theme that emerged was that utopias don’t necessarily need to be carefree places. Our cultural prioritization of happiness might even be a flawed, capitalist notion in the first place. This is why Katherine Cross, in her sweeping essay that rewrites an entirely feminist constitution, replaces the “the pursuit of happiness” with another inalienable right: the right to “eudaimonia” — which translates roughly to fulfillment. Or, as Katherine explains, the ability “to dance through a full range of human experience — from the most pleasurable emotions, states, and practices” to (excluding oppression) “the thoroughly unpleasant ones. It means to live a life full of meaning.”
AZB: I think editing an anthology is, in some ways, an experiment of embracing contradictions. There are real conflicts between some pieces. We don’t agree with all the pieces in the book either. But we affirmatively wanted to avoid an anthology that would fit together too neatly, as though to outline a single, uncomplicated vision. Different people want different things, and are building futures from different truths about today. That’s hard work. That’s important.
Utopia, for many of the contributors, involves control over their own bodies, especially access to health care, accommodation for disabilities, and reproductive rights. Yet having things like free childcare or a communal justice system would require that individuals be held to a higher standard of responsibility for those around them. Are self-care and collective care mutually dependent?
And (I realize this is a huge question) how can we maximize individual freedom from oppression while also holding each other accountable for harm?
AZB: I’ll take your first question. I think they absolutely are dependent. This is a problem that I see a lot of in organizing communities. Everyone is burnt out caring for the work and other people until they snap and need to finally take care of themselves —which can only be done by other people taking on their burden, exhausting themselves, until they reach that breaking point too. It’s a terrible cycle, and one we’re going to have to figure out ways to stop if we’re going to keep building toward utopia. I really love Victoria Law’s piece about how a village actually could raise a child: her point of contrast in the “past” is a mother struggling to juggle work, childcare, and racial justice organizing.
On your second question: I have no idea. If you figure it out, please let me know.
I really enjoyed the interview with the teen rock band, Harsh Crowd, and Karla Schickele’s piece “Noisy Utopia,” about an all-female summer rock camp. I think the idea of a utopia based on different music, different sounds, is very compelling, and it makes me think about the history of feminist music; from riot grrrl to Pussy Riot. Are you planning an audio or video version of The Utopia Project? A mixtape, maybe? Playlist for the revolution?
RKN: This could be the soundtrack to the utopian cross-country road trip Ria Fay-Berquist writes about!
This book is so visually engaging; in addition to a wide variety of genres — poetry, fiction, essays — there is so much art. Several of the pieces are illustrated, and there are photographs, line drawings, comics, and mixed media works as well. What does the art add to the project? What’s the role of art in a utopia?
RKN: Utopias are such visual thought exercises to begin with; it seemed essential to have artwork in the book. What I love about our visual pieces is that, literally in a glance, a reader can immediately see what’s utopian and different from our world. You can convey a nuanced utopian and political argument so viscerally!
Your question about the role of art in utopia is hard for me to answer...probably because it’s getting at what the role of art is at large. Sheila Heti and Judy Rebick address this in their wonderful interview too. Does art need to come from some kind of oppression? What “purpose” does art serve in a world without oppression? In a utopia, what might art “respond” to instead? And then how would our entire language and vocabulary shift to talk about art accordingly? I love Mia McKenzie’s answer to this question. In our interview, she describes how, in a utopia where “everyone would just have what they need and marginalized voices would already be heard” writing wouldn’t be burdened by political responsibility. Aesthetics would change too because “we could focus more on the beauty of our stories, just the telling of them, just the sharing of them, just the healing and the joy and all the things that come with sharing stories. We could think of our writing less as a tool and more just as sharing.”
Margaret Shultz studies English and creative writing at Yale.
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