Sara Ahmed’s new book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook reclaims the term “feminist killjoy,” turning a judgment into a feminist project, speaking truth to power. (Photo by Rama via Wikimedia Commons)

Rebel at the Table: In Conversation with Sara Ahmed

by Christina Hajjar

The Feminist Killjoy Handbook was released in Canada on Oct. 3, 2023 (Seal Press).



Killjoy activism can be how we fill up what we free up.



The Feminist Killjoy is a fierce and poetic embodiment of willfulness and refusal. Feminist Killjoys are willing to get in the way of happiness to create a better world. They are willing to speak difficult truths, cause a disruption, create an intervention. Feminist Killjoys will not be silenced, confined, or controlled! As cultural critics, philosophers, poets, and activists, Feminist Killjoys often start their work young—at home, around the kitchen table—then later, around the tables of institutions and in feminist spaces. 


The Feminist Killjoy is a concept coined by feminist writer and independent scholar Sara Ahmed, a renowned U.K.-based author who has published over 11 books, including the cult classic, Living a Feminist Life (2017). Her most recent book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: The Radical Potential of Getting in the Way has been out in the U.K. since March (Penguin Random House) and will make its debut in Canada and the United States on October 2 (Seal Press). The handbook is a killjoy’s survival guide, inspiring action and validating the difficulty and necessity of going against the grain.


Feminist Killjoys are willing to disrupt the peace when that peace is predicated on perpetuating violence and the status quo. Ahmed writes, “We need to destroy what is built to make some lives possible, to make it possible for some people to get what they need.” Killjoy activism is not just about destruction, negativity, and killing joy. It is about community, laughter, and radical imagination. “There is poetry in killing joy,” says Ahmed, “a rearranging of worlds as well as words, breathing life into arrangements.” “Killjoy activism can be how we fill up what we free up,” she says. 



Feminist Killjoys are willing to disrupt the peace when that peace is predicated on perpetuating violence and the status quo.



Ahmed refers to killing joy as a “world-making project,” where we create room for invention from the starting point of negation, “the shattering.” In The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, Ahmed critiques diversity and discusses complaint through a queer, critical-race lens that is attuned to the harms of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as bell hooks names it, as well as how white feminism replicates violence, power, and exclusion. Ahmed’s handbook is full of feminist references and inspiration, drawing on a killjoy genealogy—a history that has brought us here and that we can look to for fuel. She also includes a reading list and discussion guide at the end of the book in order to prompt further engagement and fill gaps in the archives of feminist thought. 


The common thread that The Feminist Killjoy Handbook espouses is that social critique is often difficult, unwelcome, and risky, but necessary. Ahmed quotes Audre Lorde’s poem, “A Litany of Survival,” which speaks of the necessity of speech: “[Lorde] says for those who ‘were never meant to survive,’ it is ‘better to speak.’ When the world does not make you safe, makes it hard, and harder still, to survive, it is ‘better to speak,’ because, again in Lorde’s words, ‘your silence will not protect you.’” In the handbook, Ahmed also quotes journalist Mona Eltahawy, who says “fuck off” to the patriarchy, explaining, “I refuse to be polite or civil with anyone who does not acknowledge my full humanity.” 


Ahmed encourages us to resist, while also acknowledging the ways that killjoys are seen as the problem, and poses in her handbook and in our interview, suggestions and musings on the killjoy life—an open path of possibility. 



Sara Ahmed’s new book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook reclaims the term “feminist killjoy,” turning a judgment into a feminist project, speaking truth to power. (Photo by Rama via Wikimedia Commons)



A Conversation on Refusal, Survival, and Ahmed’s new book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook




Do you have any early childhood memories that inspired you to rebel? Where did your seeds get planted as a budding killjoy?




I always remember disagreeing with parents and teachers about stuff and not being willing to go along with them just because they were presumed to be right because they were older or because they were protected by their position. I’ve always questioned authority and I’m not really sure quite why. I know that I have in my family strong-willed, willful women. My aunt is one of the people I dedicate the handbook to and she was a very outspoken feminist in Pakistan; she had an amazing career as a politician and as a poet. She always taught me how important it was to think for yourself, that your mind was your own, and that you could have your own life. It wasn’t autonomy understood in sort of a Western sense as freedom from the family, but it was nevertheless a sense of not being required to live in accordance with somebody else’s viewpoint about who you are and what you could be. I had a difficult relationship with my father, who was violent towards me in a way that singled me out as a problem. My sisters were both much more conventionally feminine. As a third child, I was more able to see more of the violences of patriarchy, in part because of life position. There’s a strong connection between being able to see the violence of authority and being willing to rebel against it. 




In the handbook, you describe the Feminist Killjoy genealogy as “created by those who do not follow straight lines, who wander away from what they are told they should do or be.” You said “life unfolds from such points.” Who is one of your Feminist Killjoy inspirations and what does it mean to be a part of a Feminist Killjoy genealogy?




To be a Feminist Killjoy is to be endlessly inspired by those who came before you. One way in which the killjoy is pathologized—seen as the problem—is because you’re turned into an individual—an “I” who is trying to distance themself from a we: the family or the community. Part of the work of the killjoy is to question that individualizing. One way we do that is just by thinking about the history of those who came before, who were willing to be pathologized as being against a “we” because they understood how much violence in the “we” was reproduced. 



Audre Lorde appears throughout the handbook, especially in the killjoy poet section. She taught me that you need to turn towards, not away, from what is painful and difficult, and that what is painful and difficult is also where we learn more about history and learn more about ourselves, our politics, our project, our purpose—and that, in a way, when we name problems, we’re also changing our relationship to our own past. She really taught me that you have to stop what you are doing and take it in, take the violence, in order to express ourselves and to find new words for things that haven’t been said so that we can communicate something about these ongoing forms of violence, communicate something also about the kind of world we want to bring about. 



When we name problems, we’re also changing our relationship to our own past.




How can we embrace the Feminist Killjoy as an act of refusal?




The Feminist Killjoy is sometimes a figure that we take on as a way of announcing a stance, a relation to the world that we’re against. We’re saying something about what we’re against or saying “no” to something, because so often the invitation to participate in a social convention, a social norm, or a form of social violence is to participate happily—to give consent through an endorsement, a “yes.” For me, part of being a killjoy involves a refusal of that invitation—to say “no” to something. 



One really good example of this is diversity. Talking to diversity practitioners about how the word “diversity” was a very happy word, they described how, in a way, diversity worked to conceal ongoing relations of inequality and structural forms of violence. As people of colour, we’re often asked to participate in diversity, by providing the organization with our smiles, our smiling brown faces. That’s a really good instance, where, to be a killjoy is to almost refuse to give your smile to the institution, to refuse to participate in the discourses of diversity. We always want to say “no” to their willingness to use our work as evidence of what they’re doing. The killjoy is often in quite a difficult scenario because we want to refuse to participate in the very institutions that sometimes make our lives possible. 



The killjoy is often in quite a difficult scenario because we want to refuse to participate in the very institutions that sometimes make our lives possible.




Your work talks a lot about the meaning of tables—how we come to understand ourselves as killjoys around the kitchen table or the tables of institutions. You wrote, “When you are asked to debate your existence around a table, you are asked to witness yourself disappear.” What is there to lose and to gain when we engage at the table?




I think about family tables and the ways in which we gather around them and how so many of my own memories of disappearing—of feeling that my existence was not recognized, or that I couldn’t be who I understood myself to be—were around those tables. Whenever I would bring up something or respond to sexism or some form of offensive speech, usually spoken by my father, I would become the killjoy ruining the atmosphere, and my mother would say, “Oh, Sara, another dinner ruined.”



Today, the table often signifies inclusion. To be included is to have a place at the table. That use of the table can hide so much violence. I think of how trans people are constantly being asked to participate in debates that seem to be about the status of categories such as sex and gender, but that end up being a requirement to justify the very terms of their existence. The table itself becomes a liberal form of speech. For some, to be included means having to hear what makes it hard for them to exist. If we become killjoys by refusing to participate in some conversations, then to become killjoys is to give ourselves the time and space to have conversations on our own terms.



U.K.-based feminist author Sara Ahmed coined the term “feminist killjoy” years ago, and her new book The Feminist Killjoy Handbook is dedicated to the feminist figure.




This reminds me of Audre Lorde’s 1979 letter to a white feminist author, Mary Daly, which you discuss in the book. Calling out Daly’s exclusion of Black women’s experiences, Lorde observed: “To imply, however, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy.” The fact that Lorde’s letter is an open, public letter is significant, because sometimes we can’t debate; we know that we won’t get the proper response that we deserve, but it’s about making our point, even if we know we aren’t going to be heard.




Yes, the point of the letter was not to open up an exchange with Mary Daly, because I think Lorde recognized that exchange was not possible. What she’s describing in the letter is an account of the impossibility of having that conversation because of the terms of Mary Daly’s white feminism are such that the conversation is not possible. So the letter is really saying we can’t speak to each other on those terms, and it’s sent not to Daly, but to us—the readers, feminists of colour, Black feminists especially for whom the letter becomes a kind of shared and public knowledge. It’s quite interesting that sometimes the point is not to initiate a dialogue, but to announce a position. 



The refusal to have a dialogue is still a way of saying “no.”



The refusal to have a dialogue is still a way of saying “no,” not to just what is being said, but to the very structure of the exchange, because so often how we’re invited to participate in a dialogue, how we’re invited to participate in feminism, can be the means by which we are made strangers to that feminism—invited in as guests and hosts, presumed to be coming in to something that belongs to somebody else. So we’re going to contest that ownership. We have to say “no” to the dialogue, but we make that “no” public, and then that “no” circulates and it creates another possibility for feminist community.




You cite Audre Lorde’s famous quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Reflecting on how you left your job at a university that would not acknowledge or take action on sexual assault (Until 2016, Ahmed was a professor of race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London), how do you know when it’s time to walk away, when fixing something from the inside is a trap that should no longer be endured?




I reached a certain point when I felt like I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t take it. You know, the constant effort to try and get the university to even acknowledge in public that there had been all these inquiries—it was like they hadn’t taken place, which is, I think, the effect the university was looking for. The response to the harassment, which was so institutionalized, involved multiple perpetrators. The harassment was in secret. And, the response was in secret. Everything was kept secret. There was a certain point when we were just trying to get even one public sentence somewhere that this is what had been happening in the last three years. And we couldn’t get it. I don’t know exactly what it was, I had just had enough. So it wasn’t like I knew that I reached that point, I just did, and I resigned. 



Sometimes your body knows before you do that it can’t do it anymore, and that the only way of holding on to your political projects is to leave that situation, not because you’re leaving your project behind but because the way you’ve been trying to do that work was taking you away from the work, and it just became too crushing. 



One of the reasons I have “Surviving as a Feminist Killjoy” as the second chapter in the handbook, is I do think that the question of survival becomes really politically important. We know we need to transform institutions to survive them, but we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. 



One of my survival tips is: remember there is only so much you can do.



One of my survival tips is: remember there is only so much you can do. I actually had a conversation with my partner the day I decided to resign where she could just see that I was really struggling. I think she helped me know that, you know, you just don’t have to do it. There is no political obligation to keep expelling energy on something that is not being modified by the work. I do think that’s partly why community matters so much—it’s because we need each other to tell each other how much is too much.



Poppy, one of Sara Ahmed’s dogs, sporting a Feminist Killjoy jacket.




What are some of your personal coping strategies?




I love my companions. Those who I’m with and who travel some of the more difficult parts with me. It’s also about decentering oneself. I have a life in which I’m blessed to be in company with two dogs, Poppy and Bluebell. Just being with them, walking, hanging out, sharing life with them is actually really, really important. Once you’re trying to really fight for a world that enables you to exist on your own terms, you also know that’s not the world that you are in, and yet, you’re still in a world in which there is possibility, there’s breathing space, there’s hope. I live with my partner, Sarah, and we’re also living in a way that would not have been possible for generations before me. I feel a sense of joy at the queer family that we’ve managed to create and the life that we’re managing to live. 



One of the killjoy maxims is if it’s not funny, don’t laugh. And yet, I would say that part of being a Feminist Killjoy is actually laughing a lot. One time I was talking to a diversity practitioner who said she was looking at the photograph of a senior management team and her friend said, “Oh are they all related?” And she said she and her friend just laughed, and I just laughed. We were all laughing. In a way, you’re just seeing something that is so there about how institutions work—that they reproduce these relations of likeness, almost like a family resemblance. The life of being a killjoy is a sense of joy, possibility, wonder, and laughter at bringing out dimensions of the social world, the political world, that so often become powerful because they are not seen, they’re not noticed. It gives us the room, and I think the room is really important to coping.



Part of being a Feminist Killjoy is actually laughing a lot.




So much of the feminist fight has to happen not only in the broader world, but within feminist communities too. In the handbook, you write about how the demands that came out of women’s liberation conferences in the ’70s were being made to the state, but if antiracism was included, it would be a critique of the state. 




I refer to an old book, Charting the Journey which was published in 1988 and it includes pieces by Black lesbians and lesbians of colour. One of the contributions is by Avtar Brah, and it’s called “Journey to Nairobi.” She describes how she was at a conference and there was one other woman of colour there, and they put down that anti-racism needs to be a core feminist demand. But what they said was not recorded as having been said, so it doesn’t get taken forward to the plenary. It was as if they hadn’t said it. So the work of the Feminist Killjoy becomes archival. You have to go through these older books to look for glimpses of all the conversations that weren’t recorded because of who was doing the recording, who was telling the story.



If feminism is a place you go to have refuge from the violence of the world and you encounter the violence of the world in that refuge, that can be really, really hard. If you’re a queer woman, a lesbian woman, a trans woman, you also have experienced that weight of going to a space as a relief from cisgender normativity, presumed heterosexuality, and reproductive normativity, then encountering that in feminism, that’s the hardest thing. You realize that actually creating a space for killjoys to assemble doesn’t mean that you don’t end up the killjoy again. 



If feminism is a place you go to have refuge from the violence of the world and you encounter the violence of the world in that refuge, that can be really, really hard.




How has being a lesbian shaped your resistance?




So much of social value is understood as deriving from proximity to the category of man. To put yourself in relation as woman to woman is to somehow disappear, to become less socially intelligible in one way or another. It’s the work that you have to do to be in relation to each other. Yes, it can be a source of frustration and exhaustion—because there are so many ways being women together means not being seen—but it’s also a sense of an opportunity to be in relation otherwise, to work out what kind of world you’re creating. 



There’s something about claiming that category “lesbian” and also “dyke.” These words, these histories of women desiring women, willing to turn away from the heteropatriarchal invitation to orient yourself towards men and male approval—there’s something about that history that I still find incredibly beautiful and erotic, to use Audre Lorde’s term. 



The “no” really matters to the handbook and the killjoy work, but there’s also a sense of what we’re going for, like we’re creating room for ourselves by that refusal, creating room to work out who it is that we are. What do you create for yourself when you’re not modelling your life on a very particular template on “this is what a family looks like,” “this is what a body is,” “this is what it means to be a woman?”



What do you create for yourself when you’re not modelling your life on a very particular template?




My girlfriend gifted me a lip gloss with the colour identification as “FUSSY.” It is a killjoy prized possession that makes me proud of who I am. Do you have any special objects in your life that connect you to the feminist killjoy spirit?




The cover of the U.K. handbook has rainbow colours and it’s quite shiny. I bought a rainbow glitter top to match the book. I really like sparkly, glittery things, and I think it’s because they’re sharp and they’re shiny. There’s something about the killjoy aesthetic. I think it is about the grumpy face, the refusal to smile, but there’s also something really very shiny and lively about it. I sometimes talk about the Feminist Killjoy as electricity—it’s a spark, you can be lit up by it.






Christina Hajjar is a Lebanese artist, writer, and cultural worker based in Winnipeg on Treaty 1 Territory. She is the senior editor at Herizons and this interview was conducted for the special themed issue, Refusal (Fall 2023).