“Talking Back”: Teaching Feminist Writing with bell hooks – Michigan Quarterly Review

“Talking Back”: Teaching Feminist Writing with bell hooks

In the Fall of 2012, I found myself teaching bell hooks’s “talking back,” an essay from Talking Back (1989), to a class of upper-middle-class (mostly white) undergraduate students. In the piece, hooks writes about reclaiming her voice as a Black girl child in a working-class Black family in the southern United States. For hooks, “[t]o speak… when one was not spoken to was a courageous act—an act of risk and daring.” She clarifies that this “courageous act” was only applicable in the case of girl children like herself, as Black boys were “encouraged” to speak as they could find a calling in preaching at the church. Black girls were encouraged towards silence unless in the company of other Black women, where Black men were absent. 

I intuitively knew what hooks meant. As a racialized girl child, who spent her pre-teen and teenage years in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, my father often asked me to subdue my voice as a writer. As a ten-year-old, when I created a Santa Claus alter ego—Suntu Clays, I called him—and my English teacher, a Goan woman, Mrs. Fernandes, encouraged “such creativity,” my father felt my unfettered writing could get me into trouble. What kind of trouble exactly was always unclear, and yet, the fear of “trouble” would always steer me away from writing anything controversial, even if it was a harmless, punny character like Suntu.

But in October of 2012, teaching hooks was a first for me, a graduate student in the Department of Gender Studies at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I hadn’t encountered hooks before my twenties except in passing, not even during my four undergraduate years as an English student at York University, a liberal arts institution, in Toronto. Standing in that basement classroom, with bits of sunlight filtering through slats that passed for windows above my head, I squinted in the poorly lit room trying to figure out how to distill the seemingly accessible writing of a Black working-class queer feminist for a classroom of mostly white, mostly privileged students; students who had taken the “Introduction to Gender Studies” class as a mandatory elective. How do you communicate the voicelessness hooks writes about in “talking back” to students for whom that voicelessness was outside of their lived experience? How should I convey what I as a racialized queer woman intuitively understood? I didn’t know back then. As I rattled off hooks’s context and her quotes, I found blank stares meeting my animated face.

I would find myself reaching for hooks again when I taught my first proper class in the Fall of 2019, as a PhD candidate in English. It was a second-year undergraduate English class, “Contemporary Women’s Writing,” and I had carefully put together the syllabus. One week, we deep dived into Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (1984) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988). I explained to the class that when Spivak tried to find an example of the subaltern, she was specifically referring to the Black working-class woman in America; a figure not unlike the women hooks grew up with before she found her voice as a writer. 

hooks undoes Spivak. According to Spivak, the Black American working-class woman has no voice, and as a descendent of slavery, no history. Yet, the women who gave hooks her voice were the same Black working-class women whose “language so rich, so poetic, that it felt… like being shut off from life, smothered to death if one were not allowed to participate.” When my father told me to stop being controversial, I tried to hold myself back. But like hooks, it was the voices of three generations of women—my great grandmother, grandmother, and mother—in the same space, absent of men, exchanging sassy gossip in the darkened rooms of Calcutta monsoon afternoons, speaking rapidly in Dhakai Bangla, that I leaned into the familiar sounds I couldn’t participate in. While their dialect of comfort kept me from joining their conversations, I desperately wanted to be a part of their world by being in the same space, even if it was just as a spectator who half understood what was being said.

As I spoke of hooks in 2019, I saw the knowing in the room full of mostly women and non-binary students, many racialized. After our discussion on “Bloodchild,” an intricately timeless story borne of the genius of another Black woman writing around the same time, they knew what I meant. They intuitively understood the precarious position of a racialized girl child who could talk, but not “talk back,” who could write secretly but was mocked when found out by her other female siblings or other women, and a woman whose book Ain’t I a Woman? (1981) received harsh criticism from many who attempted to silence her forever. But it isn’t easy to silence one who finds joy in the very act of speaking. In hooks’s case, her joy lay in the “intensity and intimacy” between her mother and her mother’s mother, sisters, and women friends. hooks describes this “intensity and intimacy” as “loud talk, angry words, women with tongues quick and sharp, tender sweet tongues;” speech that became hooks’s reason to make speech her “birthright.”

Even such a birthright comes at a cost. Despite the joy that lies in temporary spaces absent of men, there is punishment for those who speak when their voice is not meant to be heard, or heard only when spoken to, or heard in very specific contexts. For when hooks spoke before she found her voice, she was often punished by her parents; they “often spoke about the necessity of breaking [her] spirit” and they reconceptualised her speech as madness in a world where “mad women” were often institutionalized. When I put together the syllabus of voices for my class, I deliberately chose those voices that fought against this breaking of spirit and thrived despite being silenced both within and without fraught, secret spaces: Vivek Shraya, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Cherie Dimaline, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, Gloria Anzaldúa, among others. hooks became the basis of these other feminist women’s voices in my fall term class.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks took up a pseudonym to create a “writer-identity that would challenge and subdue all impulses” rooted in the patriarchal need to silence women’s voices. Her untimely passing leaves behind a rich body of words and ideas that still hold true for the racialized female writer. And as racialized feminist women, it is up to us to use that wisdom to make speech our birthright not only on the page, but also the classroom and in conversation, with or without men. 

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