Roundtable: Intersectionality, Part 1

Here’s a crunchy topic to start off 2012. We’ve had a reader request (from Nisi Shawl) for thoughts on intersectionality. She defines it thus:

There’s probably a better definition out there, but to my mind, “intersectionality” refers to the idea that one can relate to numerous sorts of marginalized identities, and that the effect of these marginalizations is synergistic–and needs to be seen as such. For instance, my identity includes my race, gender, age, physical disabilities, and so on. My experience as an African American is influenced by my gender, age, and physical ability, etc. So any analyses of the impact of racial factors on my life will be more accurate when they reflect these other factors as well.

I think that intersectionality is modified not just by the experience of oppression, but also by the experience of privilege. So, again, my experience of my racial identity as an African American is transformed by my US citizenship, my highfunctioning literacy, and so on.

Where the idea of intersectionality fits in a discussion of speculative fiction is in the representation of differences to be found in our stories and in the courting of larger audiences for them.

How can intersectionality affect how we read and write fiction?

As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

John Clute

This idea is not exactly reinventing the wheel, but I do have two fast thoughts, before going out to dinner (or out to lunch: that’s two of me): 1) “intersectionality” is a good but not a new description of the experience of urban existence, which is the most important and most valuable (and overall the least energy-consuming per capita) form of existence we can live on this planet, unless we are exceedingly privileged; and 2) that it is always good to understand more, but that calving ourselves into Aspects, though it may make us feel like Virtuals before the fact, is a bit, dare one say it, utopian: when I think of intersectionality, I think of city planners not understanding the action…..

Michael Dirda

I rather agree with John. For years I kept posted above my desk at Book World a famous sentence from Henry James: “Be one on whom nothing is lost.” This is, obviously, a goal for any critical reader, rather than a completely achievable reality. Still, it does seem that intersectionality is essentially that: To be aware of as many of the dynamics as possible that inform a work of art. But one doesn’t want to forget that somehow, too, the great work of art not only registers all these local forces and sometimes provincial aspects, but can transcend them too.

Karen Burnham

This topic put me in mind of the idea of theory as a series of lenses that you can use to examine a story (or text). I was lucky enough to attend the SFF Masterclass in the UK in 2008. Dr. Wendy Pearson was leading a discussion of Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden, and we were mostly discussing it using queer theory. Someone asked if there was any other theoretical approach we could use, and I tentatively suggested Marxist theory. Another person mentioned that if we looked at it via a Marxist lens, we’d miss out on those aspects of the story that touched on personal sexuality, but it seemed to me that when we were using a queer theory lens we were missing out on the parts of the story that dealt with governance and economics. It seems like we should be able to bring all these different lenses/theories/perspectives, including race/class/gender/nationality/sexuality/ability, to the things we read as needed.

For me the hard part is remembering to look at different lenses once I’ve found one that gives me something interesting to say about the story at hand. It’s really easy to stop at that point and miss other potentially fruitful ways of reading.

Karen Lord

Different lenses, or soft/overlapping boundaries. That’s the poetry of writing: having many identities/roles/aspects/things encased in one supposedly simple skin … purposely ambiguous, confusing, conflicting or reinforcing. Some readers will see only according to their habits of categorisation; others will look for and detect the layers and shades and nuances. I love those other readers very very much. They understand the game I’m playing.

Add cultural/historical differences to intersectionality and we’ve really got a fun game going. Age, appearance, accent, occupation – they all mean different things and spark different reactions depending on where you are now, and where you came from before. That does affect how I write. I’ve seen a few other countries, few people have seen, really seen mine. I have to remember that not many readers share my particular lens, or are even aware that a different lens (or set of lenses) is in play.

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