Essay: Roanna Gonsalveson writing gender

Interrupting Intersectionality

A blank page brims with potential. It may incite a reflux of fear. It may unleash a prolonged bout of procrastination. For poets and storytellers of course, a blank page has immense potential to create new knowledge. As a writer working across genres and media, I think of the creation of new knowledge as involving an exploration of power, desire and change. In my writing practice, such explorations always begin with the intention to complicate my own fixed ideas about language, character and story shape, particularly in relation to identity. One way I do this is by recouping the compositional methodology of interrupting intersectionality, as writers have always done.

Many of us have a broad understanding of what Kimberlé Crenshaw means when she says,

Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and anti-racist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender… Because intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.

Sojourner Truth knew this in 1851, as Crenshaw notes, when she asked ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ conjoining the fight for women’s suffrage with the fight for emancipation from slavery. Consequently, many of us agree that our feminism must be intersectional, as Flavia Dzodan says, ‘or it will be bullshit’.

The terms ‘intersectionality’ and ‘intersectional feminism’ have been taken up worldwide as powerful tools for understanding and analysing the lived experiences of minority communities and the complexities within them as well as for policy demands across different fields. As Crenshaw says, ‘with Black women as the starting point, it becomes more apparent how dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis.’

But as writers, as creators of new knowledge, how do we think through these terms that come to us laden with the language of geometry, rigid lines that transect along multiple axes, as we immerse ourselves in the fluidity of the process of composition? How might we harness these terms as we grapple with the creation of character, as we labour over figurative language, narration, turning points, plots, patterns, perspective, dialogue, description, showing and telling, epiphanies and anti-epiphanies, beginnings and endings, killing our darlings?

The term ‘intersectionality’ (including ‘intersectional feminism’ as a corollary of it) and the ways of thinking embedded within it may be useful for the processes of interpretation and analysis. They may not be so useful as a methodology for literary composition. The discipline of Creative Writing calls for quite different ways of thinking about identity. It calls for a different set of techniques and strategies. After all, as writers of poetry, of fiction, of scripts, of literary nonfiction, our work requires us to be open to fresh ways of thinking about language, about character, about story. We play in the space of the irreverent and the inchoate. New knowledge in Creative Writing may only be formed by rejecting established silos of identity, by being attuned to that which is embryonic, that which is pre-conscious and permeable, by reaching for floating, fluid entanglement. While the term intersectionality may not be so useful as a compositional methodology, there are ways that we as writers may extend the ways of thinking embedded within it. We do this by interrupting it. Interrupting intersectionality may prompt ways of thinking about language, character and story shape in ways that are fresh, ways that reject cliché, in the process of composition, as writers have always done.

Consider this piece of Creative Writing:

He groped me
            For the underwear
That wasn’t
I saw the boy’s
And embraced him
            More tightly

This piece of Creative Writing feels current, tweetable, of our times because of its concise illumination of the subversion of power in a moment of sexual intimacy. Yet it comes from the Gāthāsaptaśatī, one of the earliest surviving anthologies of Indian poetry, compiled by a king, almost two thousand years ago, in the second century CE, when clearly, in the process of composition, the writer was paying attention to the fluidity of desire and power, as writers have always done. The poet and literary scholar Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the translator of these lucid works, tells us, ‘some of its verses go back to an even earlier period, for the legendary king drew on an oral tradition that belonged to the megalithic culture of the Deccan in the first millennium BC.’

This piece of Creative Writing complicates fixed ideas about the ways gender and power shaped each other through language in a particular context. This text was most likely created by a woman, Mehrotra tells us, but we as readers can’t be certain of this. It is in this space of uncertainty that the writer is playing, just as we as readers are called to play too. In paying attention to the way power and desire destabilise expectations around gender roles the writer shows us that the categories of gender, possibly also of class and ethnicity in this particular text, are fluid, not rigid. The labour of writing can be truly creative if it involves a scrutiny of such instabilities inherent within the categories of race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, age, ability, religious background, linguistic background etc.

In my own writing, I grapple with issues of complicity, self-preservation, and model minorities in a white settler state. I feel compelled to render into fiction this sense of what it means to be at the pit of immigrant life, for my characters to face multiple constraints as well as to enjoy multiple privileges on account of the many fluid and ever-changing categories that make up one’s identity and lead to change through narrative time. I know I can’t do this with any integrity or skill unless I consider that all these identity categories are, to use the work of the feminist scholar Nivedita Menon, themselves unstable. Menon builds on what the scholar and filmmaker Kum-Kum Bhavnani conceptualises as configurations rather than intersections. Menon notes,

Each identity emerges or rather, is called into being, in particular contexts in such a way that at that moment it is not simply an intersection of two or more identities but an unstable configuration that is more than the sum of its parts.

We know this to ring true from all the work that has been done over the last few decades in relation to the social construction of race, gender, caste, class etc. As a writer interested in creating new knowledge, it is crucial for me, in the process of composition, to interrupt the idea of intersectionality by considering this sense of unstable identity categories and the unstable configurations of identity, for example, in the process of creating characters and dreaming up their journeys through story.

Menon’s theorisation is in resonance with the work of many feminist scholars across the world whose work illuminates new ways of thinking about fluidity and instability within each identity category as well as porosity between categories. This work first begins in the process of creative composition, as we have seen with the work from the Gāthāsaptaśatī, and is later theorised by scholars. The sociologist and political scientist Leslie McCall talks about ‘anticategorical complexity’ as a way of interrogating the presumption that categories are pre-given, drawing attention instead to the regimes of power in and through which categories are constructed in the first place. This methodology of deconstructing analytical categories is what writers have always done as we play in the space of the irreverent and the inchoate. It is useful to recoup this compositional methodology for the exploration of power, desire and change, in relation to language, character and story shape, as we create new knowledge through our imaginative labour.

Examine any skilfully written book of contemporary poetry or fiction or literary nonfiction and we will find this imaginative perlustration of the instabilities of identity categories, a prior artistic thinking through of ‘anti-categorical complexity’, the possibilities for deconstructing that which has been socially constructed, multiple ‘configurations’ of identity that find their meaning through context, through setting, through change across narrative time.

In Michelle De Kretser’s Miles Franklin award-winning novel The Life To Come the author creates new knowledge through her imaginative work as she ignites the configurations of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, ability, linguistic background of her characters in order to narratavise change in a particular context. The instabilities of identity are constantly aerated throughout the novel, sometimes playfully, sometimes with tragic consequences, especially the identities of Bunty and Christabel in the novel’s fifth section. Class as an identity category is deconstructed and class positions are radically changed before and after the process of immigration. The social constructions of gender and sexual orientation are dismantled in startling ways.

The compositional methodology of interrupting intersectionality is enriched by an attention to what the feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty discusses as ‘the politics of location’, that is the ‘historical, geographical, cultural, psychic and imaginative boundaries which provide the ground for political definition’. As an Indian Australian writing about Indian Australians in a white settler state where we are the beneficiaries of the dispossession of the First Nations, it is crucial for me to consider Mohanty’s ‘politics of location’ precariously perched, as I am and as my characters often are, on the wires of multiple histories that were simultaneously cleaved, together and apart, by empire. As I write, I am aware of my own particular position as well as the positions in which I place my characters, where, as Mohanty tells us, ‘each historical experience illuminates the experiences of the others’. Mohanty goes on to note,

…the focus is not just on the intersections of race, class, gender, nation, and sexuality in different communities of women but on mutuality and complication, which suggests attentiveness to the interweaving of the histories of these communities.

The feminist political theorist Sumi Madhok provides an understanding of these ideas when she notes that ‘a critical reflexive politics of location…demands/enables scholarly accounts to reveal their location within the prevailing entanglements of power relations and to highlight the politics of struggle that underpin these.’ Although Madhok’s focus is the scholarly account, I find this attunement to the critical reflexive politics of location to be crucial to the compositional process. Again, it is something that skilled writers have always done when considering setting, world building, the development of character, the raising of stakes, the building of tension and conflict within individual characters, their communities and their worlds.

For better or worse, I’m one of those writers for whom the idea for a story emerges not through character or image but through language, through a fresh cluster of words that sound and look good to me. I recognise, through the labour of the creative process, the instability inherent in language itself, the fluidity of meaning that may be shaped to suit the story. This instability of language mirrors the compositional methodology of interrupting intersectionality, enabling me to render text on the page in a way that may bypass the cliché and may contribute something fresh to the long traditions into which I write. In the process and practice of writing, I have found it quite productive to question constantly that which is constantly in flux, to pay attention to the ‘mutuality and complication’, to borrow Mohanty’s phrase, of the identities and locations of my characters, not just their intersections. In this way, I find that the compositional methodology of interrupting intersectionality may help realise some of the potential of the blank page to create new knowledge as I attempt afresh, with every work, the process of writing the unstable, fluid configurations of identity, including the shifting, changing categories of race and class and gender.

Join Roanna Gonsalves, along with Jazz Money, Yves Rees and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, for a public webinar on Friday 17 September about the role of writing in generating new knowledge and understandings around gender. Find out more and register here.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Bhavnani, Kum-Kum and Connie L. McNeely. ‘Configuring feminisms, transforming paradigms: Reflections from Kum-Kum Bhavnani scholar, activist, filmmaker in Confronting Global Gender Justice: Women’s Lives, Human Rights edited by Debra Bergoffen, Paula Ruth Gilbert, Tamara Harvey, Connie L. McNeely. Routledge, 2011. 297-315.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique Of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory And Anti-Racist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989(1), Article 8.

De Kretser, Michelle. The Life To Come, Allen & Unwin, 2017.

Dzodan, Flavia. ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit’, Tiger Beatdown, Oct 10, 2011.

Madhok, Sumi. ‘A critical reflexive politics of location, ‘feminist debt’ and thinking from the Global South’ in European Journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 27(4), 394-412, 2020.

McCall, Leslie. ‘The Complexity of Intersectionality’ in Signs, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring 2005), pp. 1771-1800.

Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna tr. The Absent Traveller: Prākrit Love Poetry from the Gāthāsaptaśatī of Sātavāhana Hāla. Penguin Books, 2008. First published by Ravi Dayal Publisher 1991.

Menon, Nivedita, ‘Is Feminism About ‘Women’? A Critical View on Intersectionality From India’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. L. Number 17. April 25, 2015.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ‘‘‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles’ in Signs, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 499-535.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ‘Feminist encounters: Locating the politics of experience’ in Destabilising Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates, edited by Phillips A and Barrett M. Polity Press, 1992, pp. 74–92.