book thoughts

on words

One student said of her complaint, “It just gets shoved in the box.” Another student said, “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard”… Doing things in the proper way, doing what you are supposed to do, can lead, does lead, to a burial. If a burial should not happen but does happen, then burials might not appear to have happened; a burial can disappear along with what has been buried. 1

Growing up as a bookworm, I sense a subtle tinge of shame admitting that I have only read a handful of books during the past few years. In my defence, the past few years were anything but normal. They seem like a never-ending train of tragedies, always keeping you on edge, wondering if you should perish the moment because what is yet to come is going to be even worse. Years of therapy were undone in a matter of months, and my already dwindling attention span got absolutely annihilated.

Choosing to take part in a course where the main task is read the damn book does not seem like the wisest decision. But I wanted to push myself, and having been familiar with Ahmed’s work, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in the new book, finding different, personal, and artistic ways to approach it.

And I’m gonna be honest – I have become a slow reader. But to my surprise, Complaint has been a rather easy read. Now, it might be condescending to describe a book by a scholar who’s been a professor, an academic worker, and a diversity worker as an easy read. Nothing this woman has done in her life could be spoken of in the same breath as anything easy . And a book that deals with such sensitive, important topics such as discrimination and harassment, and all the ways you could fail if you seek justice – How could it be easy to read?

Yet part of what makes Ahmed such an important feminist scholar is her ability to write in a way which is both accessible and cautiously intimate. Her aim is not to write specifically for people with a similar background or knowledge, at least not in this specific book, and not in, say, Living a Feminist Life. What we have here is not a textbook, you don’t have to put a bunch of reference books next to you to get what is discussed, all you need is being willing to become a feminist ear, as Ahmed herself. 

Complaint?! Is thereby an accessible book in both the way that it is written and the way it is structured. Before reading the book I listened to a few of Ahmed’s talks about her research throughout the writing process and the experience of reading the result is very much like listening to her. Complaint?! is an unapologetically emotional book. Is a collection of testimonies, as Ahmed likes to call them, yet not a simple report. If there’s one thing I have learned from this book is that there are already enough reports on complaints in this world – somewhere in a cabinet probably. She plays with words carefully, not too much to be a distraction but just enough to make sure that she still has your attention, which makes the text – if I dare judge – poetic and very human.

If a complaint is made to create more time and more room, a complaint can take time and leave you with even less room. The less time you have, the less room you have, the more conscious you become of who is given time, who is given room. 2

 Using metaphors – sinister ones: doors, burials, bodies that have stopped functioning… -and repetitions, Ahmed makes sure that a common language, a common understanding is being shaped gradually between her and the readers – who may or may not have been in the situations described in the book, or may or may not have privileges that would make them unlikely to ever experience them. And may or may not have the attention span of a squirrel after having spent what seems like a lifetime in isolation and a constant state of fear. And it’s amazing how empowering this sense of having achieved a common language is. How relieved you could feel when you hear what you could have not expressed in someone else’s words. Even if the relief is followed by a vague sense of helplessness, it is still something. It’s like putting feelings in words makes them justified, gives them a face, their very own identity. And it might make them scarier at the beginning – “words can never hurt me” says a liar or a fool – but that’s a start.

I think.

How do you pull yourself together to share an experience if an experience is of breaking apart? 3

  1. Ahmed, S. (2021): Complaint! 2021
  2. ebd
  3. ebd

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