“This is both the era of standing up and the era of backlash” — Nasty Women: an interview with Zeba Talkhani and Laura Waddell — Thom Cuell

Nasty Women is a collection of intersectional feminist essays which fights back against what its editors describe as the normalisation of intolerance and inequality, and the rise of sensationalist political rhetoric. Launched on January 1st, Nasty Women struck a chord with readers, passing its crowd-funding target within days, and eventually reaching 369% of its goal, with endorsements from the likes of Margaret Atwood. The debut publication from the 404 Ink imprint addresses what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, tackling subjects such as working class identity, sexual assault, contraception, family, punk and immigration.

Contributors Laura Waddell and Zeba Talkhani spoke to Minor Literature[s] about their essays, and the issues raised by Nasty Women.


What role do you feel independent publishers and crowdfunding can play in reversing the narrative of 2016?

ZT: I believe they are already playing a pivotal role in reversing narratives. Crowdfunding gives a platform to voices that are systematically silenced by mainstream publishing. It takes away the narrow lens through which certain publishing houses or media companies might prefer to view issues of racism, intersectionality, gender disparity etc. It’s helping promote personal narratives in people’s own voices rather than re-enforcing white/male-gaze and mostly importantly it’s humanising the people who have been disparaged by Trump and his supporters. A great example of this is The Good Immigrant published by Unbound.

LW: In cinema, recent commercially and critically successful films fronted or developed by women (and women of colour), have often struggled from backlash along the way, whether that’s patronising surprise at their success, sceptical funders or online abuse.

Publishing is a commercial business too, and recent successful crowdfunders by independent publishers, often new and small ones, have demonstrated in their financial and publicity successes there is an appetite for alternative voices – and these nimble publishers have had enough of a finger on the pulse to see this. The stories that go down in record are disproportionately white and wealthy, and up until not that long ago in our history, largely male. This happens from the commissioning stage right through to awards and review coverage. In a political climate where racism and sexism is centre stage, I not only believe it’s more important than ever to read other writers for their perspective, but that creating what we want to exist is made more possible through channels such as Kickstarter.

How do you see the conventions and mores of digital culture reflect or differ from the IRL experiences you both talk about in growing up? Is the opportunity to connect beyond your immediate social circle liberating, or challenging?

LW: The internet was helpful to me as a goth loner teenager finding others of my kind, and it’s helpful to me as a publisher and writer working in Glasgow communicating with editors in London.

I was very much a teenager of the online forum and appreciated the world the internet opened up to me. I’m 30 years old and I’m glad I didn’t have social media when I was at school, but as a teenager I made many close and important friends in message boards, bonding over similar interests not geographical proximity, and this has continued to the present day. We all know the downside of the internet and the stress of a streaming ticker tape of news and it’s had an impact on literary culture and media for both good and bad. But on the whole, I find it professionally and personally liberating, valuable, and galvanising.

ZT: I was silenced often as a child, by elders, peers and societal norms. My voice didn’t exist. But it’s impossible to take away someone’s voice online. Trolls can distract and deviate from the topic, but the truth is that my voice remains heard and by some luck, it reaches people who have similar belief systems to mine. It’s a lot easier to connect online in comparison to my growing-up years. It’s liberating in that sense, but it’s quite challenging navigating the negativity, especially people who feel the need to tell me that I’m oppressed because I’m Muslim and I should stay in my lane because I’m a woman. It’s a small price to pay for the solidarity and community that online platforms provide.

Do you see much in modern literature which challenges the stereotypes of womanhood which you discuss in your essays, or are we still reinforcing stereotypes?

ZT: As a Muslim woman I find that I’m not represented fairly in books at all. Most titles are misery memoirs or fictionalised versions of various kinds of imagined oppressions. Muslim women’s narratives are tinted with white/male-gaze and reinforce problematic notions about my community. We have a long way to go before we completely un-fetishize the oppression of Muslim women in literature but I do believe things are improving. My favourite example is the Sofia Khan series by Ayisha Malik.

LW: Well, there are more books out there than ever. I think and hope it’s getting slightly better. As I say in my essay, I’ve read a lot of writing that might be straight from luxurious writers’ retreats; I’ve read much less about women from working class backgrounds like my own. The key to challenging stereotypes in literature is rooted in diversity of who is published, and who has editorial control. There’s always a duality here where not only must a woman writer get on with the business of writing and all that encompasses, but also push beyond the sorts of factors that see less representation in literary reviews, in awards, and the casual sexism that can present itself at events – and for some women, there are additional barriers to overcome. I feel momentarily tired when I think about this question; imagine how many incredible writers have been overlooked over the years, for us never to know, because they faced barriers to publication. Pushing past barriers to publication is as important for the individual as it is for the integrity and quality of literature itself.

‘Nasty Woman’ became a rallying cry after Trump used it to label Hillary Clinton, with social media users adopting it as a hashtag; what does it mean for you, and what is the impact of this form of online identification/solidarity?

LW: I think it’s a good shorthand for the ways in which women are still opposed, often just for existing in a public space. To take one example of how this manifests, research on women’s speech is very interesting – especially how often we are interrupted in conversation. I wrote about that for the Dangerous Women Project which also takes as its premise the idea of a ‘dangerous woman.’ Largely, I enjoy the mockery inherent in women taking up the Nasty Women moniker for themselves, and think it’s a potent and enjoyable way to challenge old fashioned ideas about how we should behave. Online communities have made it possible for women to share experiences and take strength from each other in challenging prejudice.

ZT: It’s redemptive, because I no longer carry the misplaced sense of guilt for being considered ‘nasty’. Seeing all these amazing women wear the label with pride was just the kind of reaffirmation I needed to realise that no one can make us feel bad about ourselves without our permissions. To be constantly reminded of this truth has been an important part of my identity.

Both of you talk about self-education playing a large formative role in your lives – libraries as an alternative room of one’s one, a quiet place to read and study- do you feel as though opportunities for this kind of self-direction are growing or diminishing?

ZT: Of course, things have changed since I left Saudi Arabia but I personally grew up without access to public libraries or second-hand shops. I was also dependent on my father to chauffer me to bookshops and my access to books always felt precarious. I had to make the most of what was available and read the books I could lay my hands on. An important part of my self-education was meeting people who shared my views and who recommended reading/viewing materials. I think in that way, opportunities have increased as it’s a lot easier to ask questions now and be directed to platforms that help self-growth.

LW: Libraries are closing at a growing rate, and I find it maddening and depressing. In an era of austerity, cuts that are made to arts and culture services disproportionately impact the working class. There wasn’t a bookshop in my town, but there was a library – and my local one has now been earmarked for closure. As I detail in my essay, this isn’t helped along by political or social stereotypes that working class people don’t like art so much as they like nondescript ‘simple pleasures.’ Politicians visit areas such as the one I grew up in and hold a pint of beer in their hand for a photo opportunity, but I’ve never seen one hold up a book. This kind of stereotypical framing of the working class, that we’re one kind of monocultural block, has been used to justify everything from racist immigration policies to dismissals of our access to culture. It is used to box us in. I have always challenged the idea that working class people cannot or do not enjoy or understand art and the current political climate gives me a lot to work with.

Growing up, did you find it difficult to find representations of people you could relate to in art/wider culture? What did you draw strength/inspiration from?

LW: As an insatiable reader, I found so much I could relate to or take inspiration from, whether shared values or a sense of curiosity – but not much in the way of representation of Scottish working class women like myself, no. There are some writers who tick some or all of these boxes I discovered as an adult and hold in high esteem – Janice Galloway (working with her collection Jellyfish was a really enjoyable milestone in my publishing career) or James Kelman. But I can’t think of any children’s books with characters from such a background. And for people of colour this representation is even more scant. I studied literature to Masters level (benefiting from free higher education in Scotland) and of course throughout history literature has been mostly male. Women have had to identify with qualities of the human experience through male authors and male characters for an awful long time. I think that’s a shame but it does build empathy. Nowadays there are men who seem to believe their entire existence, despite being the status quo since cave paintings, will disappear just at the prospect of a female Ghostbuster or Doctor Who. Representation is an important thing, but it’s also important for other people – a broadening of perspective. I’m really glad to have been able to read Zeba and the other contributors’ perspectives in Nasty Women, and found it eye-opening.

ZT: As a child, I didn’t think about it much. Looking back, it did have an unconscious impact on my psyche while I was growing up because I started viewing my community and status through the Western gaze. The few times that I did see Muslim women or even Indian women being represented in pop culture, it was always a caricature of some sort. I drew inspiration from the women around me, especially my mother. Their stories and their sense of humour gave me the strength to continue fighting for my right to be heard and represented.

You both talk about leaving home to study, which is seen as an opportunity for reinvention by many people; was there a temptation for you to adopt a new persona, and did you find it difficult to leave familiar social circles behind?

ZT: I didn’t think about reinventing myself but it became obvious to me that I came from a protected background and there was a lot that I hadn’t been exposed to. The distance from home and the time on my own brought a lot of clarity. I had a chance to shed pre-conceived notions and build my own ideas. I found that my emotional development was stunted in Saudi Arabia because my interactions were limited to a small circle of women. I had to consciously cultivate empathy, intersectionality in my thoughts and communication skills when I left home.

It is difficult to leave your comfort zone but it helped to have time to reflect on my childhood and the freedom to choose the kind of books/people/spaces I wanted to engage with. Curiosity was consistently misinterpreted for promiscuity and the pressure to keep proving my ‘good girl’ status came in the way of any real or deep engagement with art and philosophy while I was at home, so mostly it was liberating to be away. It wasn’t about reinventing myself as much as getting to know myself.

LW: I didn’t go so far – twenty miles or so from my hometown to the University of Glasgow. Many of my close friends were people I’d met online, and so that didn’t have to change. Despite excellent grades in English the careers advisor at my high school tried to talk me out of studying an art at university – I was actually told it wasn’t really a good idea for working class kids. I ignored that and still remember the sense of awe at access to lectures and the library, and being surrounded by people who loved books too.

You both talk about a sense of outsiderdom, whether that is as a working class woman in a predominantly middle class industry, or a Muslim woman in a largely non-Muslim country; do you feel pressured to act as an ambassador for your background/community? And how much do you find that you are pre-judged by the people around you?

LW: I think working in the arts/media there is often a case of mistaken middle class identity. I don’t feel any pressure to answer for my class in the way that people of minority race or religion might. It is often a theme in my writing, and I will always advocate for greater access to the arts for working class people as well as challenging claustrophobic stereotypes.

ZT: It was crushing at first, this pressure to represent my religion and my country. It took me a while to realise that other’s judgements are more a reflection of their own narrow mindedness and prejudices. I do find myself being judged but it’s important to note that I’ve also met people who go out of their way to make me feel comfortable. There are those who can’t see beyond my skin colour or my faith and with time I’ve learned to distinguish between those who care and those who are curious. I’m quick to dis-engage from such interactions and make time for people that truly matter.

Is the rise of identity politics a threat or an opportunity?

ZT: It’s both. It’s a threat when people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Katie Hopkins and even Lionel Shriver make light of other’s identities or feelings to serve their agendas but mostly it’s an opportunity for the constantly ‘othered’ to stand up and be heard. It’s empowering, engaging and inclusive. It’s extremely educative. I can’t stress enough on the importance of intersectionality and I think positive identity politics is a reality check that helps us be aware of how inclusive our activism truly is.

LW: Identity politics are simply politics. Coining the term seems to have been an opportunity for those not impacted to write columns more irked by racism and sexism being pointed out than actually occurring in policy and campaign rhetoric across the world. Want to write about “identity politics”? Try analysing why there’s a President of the United States who boasts about groping women and throwing out Muslims instead of a defensive diatribe against women on Twitter pointing out male legislators who stopped them from being able to get an abortion in their state.

There seems to be a groundswell of female-led social movements around the world, from the Repeal the 8th demonstrations to the recent Women’s Marches against Trump; do you feel as though there is a new, or different, sense of momentum behind feminist political engagement now, and what sort of impact can it have on the political landscape?

LW: I’ve been heartened by the demonstrations, and I was happy to see women in Poland had recent success having legislation overturned. In terms of impact on political landscape, I think it’s easier to show resistance; it’s easier to organise a march or protest. It’s easier to share and discuss political information in a casual way. But I think there is also a backlash to this increased visibility. We know it happens to women in physical spaces, where their speech is policed, for example. When it comes to the internet, women are present in the “public” social space in an unprecedented way. I think this is both the era of women standing up and the era of backlash (i.e. “nasty women.”) We’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to parity of representation in politics, media, arts; it is my hope that what is happening now both on and offline pushes more women forward.

ZT: I used to think that and then I read Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road (everyone should read this book!) and it made me realise that women have been doing this for centuries and it’s always had an impact. Of course, technology makes it easier to share, connect and participate on a global level, but I believe that these kinds of female-led movements have been a part of our history and have played an enormous role in getting us to where we are today. Women have been fighting for their rights and there’s always been solidarity and, as in the past, I believe that we will change the political landscape yet again.

On the other hand, in a mass movement, we often see faultlines develop, for example the Women’s Marches being seen by some as trans-exclusionary or playing down the role of women of colour. Is it possible, or desirable, to have a movement which avoided any divisions? What would a truly intersectional movement look like?

ZT: This is a tough question and I’m not sure if I have the correct answer, it’s something I’m grappling with myself. I was moved by the Women’s March and it gave me a lot of hope but it was also disturbing to read some of the experiences shared by native women and women of colour. All I can say is that I don’t believe it’s liberation if it comes at the cost of someone else’s freedom. I think a truly intersectional movement is achievable if we work towards it by educating ourselves, by being mindful of our language and by rethinking our notions of womanhood and feminism.

LW: This is an important question. Beyond the overarching goal of equality, feminists, like women, are diverse. In any movement, especially big political movements, there are factions and competing motivations. This was also true of the independence referendum in 2014 where requests for disparate groups to work together to achieve one goal (on either side) in practise sometimes meant minority needs being quashed to support rather traditional hierarchical power structures with their labour benefiting figureheads. I don’t know if it’s possible to have any big movement without any division but I think it’s clear work has to be done to make transwomen and women of colour properly, structurally represented. Achieving the goal of equality for women means all women. Otherwise, it’s not equality.

Zeba Talkhani is a writer and production editor with an interest in identity, feminism, intersectionality and social deconstruction. @zebatalk

Laura Waddell is a graduate of the University of Glasgow with an MLitt in Modernities and works as a publishing professional.As a freelance literary publicist specialising in translation her clients have included Les Fugitives, CB Editions, and Calisi Press, and formerly, Marketing Manager of Freight Books. She is also a Board Member of PEN Scotland and creator of poetry newsletter Lunchtime Poetry. As a writer of articles, criticism, and fiction, she has been published in The Digital Critic (OR Books, 2017), the Independent, Sunday Mail, 3:AM, Gutter, Glasgow Review of Books, Bella Caledonia, Libertine, TYCI, and Parallel magazine.

Thom Cuell is Features & Interviews editor at minor literature[s].

Image: courtesy of 404 Ink.

Nasty Women is published by 404 Ink.