Full video with closed captioning available here

 

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conference and I will actually be talking about “Sistah Vegan”, the anthology but also my new novel, that’s a social fiction novel that comes out at the end of summer 2014 this year.

So the title of my talk is called [In]Visible Scars of Suffering: Exploring Racial Dynamics, Speciesism, and Liberation through Creative Writing.

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So to give you a bit of a background about myself, I attended Dartmouth College in the early 1990’s and I decided to do my focus in cultural geography looking at how space
and place shape one’s relationship to culture and identity and how they formed that identity. I actually specifically looked at black feminist theory. For those of you who are not, I guess, well read in what black feminist theory is, it’s understanding that black women’s lives collectively in the USA have been organized by living in a white settler nation and most of us have collectively been or are descendants of those who have been enslaved and how that reality has organized our lives around race, class and gender.

So black feminist theory really focuses on those lived realities. And that’s what I did at Dartmouth College. And I did my bachelors thesis work looking at Dartmouth College and really understanding how it kind of sucks to be there if you’re not part of this white dynastic class privileged demographic that permeated Dartmouth College. I did my thesis looking at that. And on the side, I actually started writing a book, a novel, that I tried to translate this highly theoretical work, this thesis work, into something more palatable and I’m a big believer in the power of storytelling and narratives. So I decided to start a book looking at a life of a young black woman, who identifies as a lesbian, who is living in a rural white New England. That would later become a project that I will talk about.

I graduated from Dartmouth College and then a few years later I moved to Boston. Some of you probably already know this from my Sistah Vegan anthology and work, that I ended up becoming very, very ill, my womb health. I was diagnosed with fibroid tumors and at the same time I was in graduate school at Harvard and I was really trying to understand why there seemed to be covert whiteness, covert white supremacist ideologies, on a particular vegan oriented website. So I’m at graduate school and I’m trying to make these connections. In 2005-2006 I ended up doing a call for papers for the Sistah Vegan anthology and for those of you who are not familiar with that, Sistah Vegan is an anthology of black female voices that basically is vegan women of African Diaspora talking about why they become vegan. And that’s basically my first dabble into the world of creative writing. And what creative writing can offer to me. 

So I did this call for papers and the call for papers ended up on Vegan Porn, which has nothing to do with porn but everything to do with veganism. The responses to that call for papers for this anthology created this space for me to really understand what was happening from a theoretical level looking at whiteness as theory and then looking at this — it goes on to the Vegan Porn site and a significant number of people responded negatively to the intentions of the Sistah Vegan project. There were people who responded to the call for papers saying that the use of “Sistah” or black English is very ignorant. Mostly white-identified vegans had problems with the fact that I was even looking at gender and looking at race. It was right there where I realized that just this call for papers to have these women come together and use creative writing as an avenue to look at how their lives have been shaped by not just racism and classism and sexism but also, by incorporating veganism into their life, was quite telling to me. So the Sistah Vegan project came out, and I got lots of positive feedback, despite my initial call for papers yielding those negative responses on Vegan Porn. It came out in 2010, which is about 4 years later, after those negative responses came, and it really opened up a whole new world for me to figure out how we can actually start exploring how oppressions are interconnected, especially looking at the lives of black women who up until the Sistah Vegan project, their voices were marginalized. And for the most part when we look at the vegan movement and we look at animal rights movement, animal compassion, collectively – when you look at that collectively, the themes that drive the movement is still very much assumed that people have this white middle-class post-racial relationship to their own identities as vegans – Sistah Vegan project came along and kind of shifted that and said, “Hey, wait. Race and gender do matter” and even if you’re not a self-proclaimed racist, most of you who do identify as white people benefit in a society that is structured around racial power dynamics in which whiteness or white people are privileged and at the bottom are usually black women and indigenous women. I thought that was an exciting venture for me.

So I’m in giving you this back with Sistah Vegan and how I am trying to integrate this concept, and taking all of these theories that I had been learning doing black feminism and then later being introduced to veganism and how I’m fusing this together. So I wanted to give you that preface. And kind of enter into what will be this new project that I’m talking about that I want to share with you. And I will give you ideas about how to use this concept of intersecting creative writing with activism and getting people to understand these intersections of oppressions.

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So my new novel is called “Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England”. It’s a social fiction. It’s actually based on my Masters thesis work and my Bachelor thesis work and a little bit of my Doctoral work which is basically looking at veganism and black feminism and looking at how whiteness and racism organize the lives of everyone who are primarily living in North America, whether you identify as white or not. My book “Scars” looks at what is it like to be born and raised and in rural white New England. I’m going to now refer to my paper and read to you how I am intersecting everything and this next photo you see, this is the cover art for the new book. That is the main character. “Scars” is a novel about whiteness, racism and breaking past the normative boundaries of heterosexuality as experienced through 18-year-old Savannah Penelope Sales. Savannah is a black girl, born and raised in a white working-class and rural New England town. She is in denial of her lesbian sexuality, harbors internalized racism about her body and is ashamed of being poor. She lives with her ailing mother whose emphysema is a symptom of a mysterious past of suffering and sacrifice that Savannah is not privy to. When Savannah takes her first trip to major metropolitan city for two days, she never imagines how it will affect her return back home to her mother, or her capacity to not only love herself but also those who she thought were her enemies.

“Scars” is about the journey of friends and family who love Savannah and try to help her heal, all while they too battle their own wounds and scars of being part of multiple systems of oppression and power. Ultimately, “Scars” makes visible the psychological trauma and scarring that legacies of colonialism have caused to both the descendants of the colonized and the colonizer. And the potential for healing and reconciliation for everyone willing to embark on the journey. As a work of social fiction born out of years
of critical race black feminist and critical whiteness study scholarship, “Scars” engages the reader to think about US culture through the lens of race, whiteness, working-class, disability, sexual orientation, anti-speciesism and how rural geography influences identity consciousness. What makes this book unique is its emphasis on black and lesbian teen experiences of whiteness and racism and geography. 

Now often interrogations of whiteness and socioeconomic class are left out of fictional literature within popular LGBTQQ literature. My intention with “Scars” is to fill this gap by creating emotionally intense dialogues among four primary characters:  Savannah, Davis, Esperanza and Eric. Davis is one of Savannah’s best friends, a straight white male who grew up in a rural dairy farm in Savannah’s hometown. Davis and Savannah have been close friends since they were toddlers. Davis is the only white friend Savannah has ever chosen to develop a close relationship with. When Davis and Savannah interact with each other, the intimacies of their conversations reveal an interesting dynamic. Davis’s perception of reality manifest from what Savannah has marked as a privileged point of entry — white, male, lower middle class, and straight. Davis can never experience Savannah’s embodied experience as a black lesbian. Growing up in a country that has institutionally legitimatized whiteness and
heterosexuality as the norm, Davis’s white and straight identity limits him to superficially interpreting Savannah’s verbal hostility as nothing more than stereotypical “angry black female banter”. 

The second theme developed in “Scars” is the irreconcilable differences between Eric Roberts and Savannah and what they endure in their rocky, new platonic relationship. Eric and Savannah both identify as same gender loving. However, that is where the similarities end. Their verbal intercourse deconstructs the common myth that being gay or lesbian means that they will instantly connect emotionally to each other as comrades in the same battle against heterosexism.

The third and more subtle theme developed in “Scars” centers on how Savannah’s perception of oppression is positioned within a geopolitically global northern perspective. Savannah never acknowledges her privileges as an US national, only her lack of privileges as a nonwhite person. She never acknowledges that she has species privileges — but always complains that she is a victim of racism. She considers herself revolutionary in thought, in comparison to people living in the provincial town she grew up in. Simultaneously, she has no awareness of her perpetuation of inequality outside the USA and inside. For example, Savannah is unaware of how many of people of color outside of the USA are exploited so she can buy cheap coffee, chocolate, and Coca-Cola. Furthermore, Savannah is completely unaware of how much suffering is brought to her when she eats things like chicken McNuggets from McDonalds. Esperanza Perez, a key character, is one of her best friends. Esperanza, a vegan and fair-trade anti-globalization activist, who originally grew up in Guatemala, visits Savannah from college.Through honest and heart-felt dialogue with Esperanza, Savannah’s oblivious understanding of her geopolitical northern privilege and species privilege is revealed. I hope to engage the reader to empathize with Savannah’s realistic struggles with whiteness as the invisible norm in USA while also addressing the need for Savannah to engage deeper into social injustices by encompassing and linking black struggle in USA racism to a broader range of social and ecological and nonhuman animal inequalities throughout the world, including the suffering and pain that go into the commodities such as cocoa and, like I said, the chicken male that comes to Savannah’s plate.

Now I said how this was born out of my Dartmouth College and Masters work and a little bit from my dissertation work, and “Scars” really emphasizes this concept of intersectional oppression. And what I think is really important about this book, and the use of creative writing, is that a lot of scars and suffering and pain is not visible to many, while others are. This is why the title of my presentation has “In” in brackets. So, for me, I’m presenting this character who is suffering immensely, being this poor black lesbian, closeted from hetero-sexism and racism. She is upset that her scars, that suffering continues to be invisible to people like this new guy she has met, Eric, who identifies as homosexual but is also an upper middle-class white boy who went to Harvard and has an MBA but is also a vegetarian trying to be vegan, and so is her friend Esperanza.

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I think… Savannah contrasts the mainstream media stereotype, that authentic black experience is just about being a heterosexual black person that is raised in a predominantly urban landscape. Even though the critical theory in this novel has been translated into creative writing format, it’s notable that “Scars” is significantly influenced by a strong canon of black critical thinkers such as, W. E. B. Du Bois. My choice to title the book “Scars” reflects legacies of black anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon, and his intense dedication to making visible the psychological trauma and scarring that colonialism, white supremacy, and racism have caused to both the colonized and the colonizer. I also think about this book extends that work because Du Bois and Frantz Fanon never really looked at the question of nonhuman animal suffering.

And furthermore, this book connects bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Octavia Butler, who have written extensively about the problem of the color line. However – unlike Fanon and Du Bois’ more heteronormative and masculinist analysis – hooks, Lorde and Butler have complicated the problem of colour line with intersectional analysis of gender and sexual orientation. “Scars” and my writing has been heavily influenced by Octavia Butler and also Angela Davis. And not just in terms of black critical thinking but critical thinking along the lines of how much suffering nonhuman animals endure, due to the oblivion of complex characters such as Savannah, who doesn’t understand that there
is more than just racism that she is encountering and experiencing, but that her own oblivion to how commodities get to her, actually she kind of colludes with suffering. And that suffering being mostly nonhuman animal suffering, especially pointed out to her by her best friend Esperanza, who has decided to become vegan over the last year.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Octavia Butler but she’s a science fiction writer. A black, American science fiction writer who passed away a few years ago, but authors like Octavia Butler give the reader a taste of what appears to be an anti-speciesist alien species in her groundbreaking book “Dawn” which was published in the 1980s. And a lot of what Octavia Butler has written as a creative writer, she has been very brilliant at intersecting, making intersectional, giving intersectional approaches to oppression and suffering and actually going beyond humans; and going beyond binaries of genders, binaries of sexuality. In this book, “Dawn”, which was very influential to me, it’s about this species that, they are alien species, that rescue what is left of humanity in the 1980s, after the humans have decided to destroy each other using nuclear war. Hundreds of humans that have been rescued, they have been on this ship, this alien ship, there in space for hundreds of years, and the aliens are trying to convince the humans to be less violent and one of the goals is to make sure that the humans do not eat animals or kill them and use animal products. So I did eventually find out that Butler actually was vegan, so I think that is pretty cool and how I am trying to continue that line of work to make the people think more critically, but using this art of creative writing.

So I want to also mention Angela Davis’s influence on how I go about my creative writing. During a 2012 February visit to the University of California Davis, Dr. Angela Davis brilliantly shared her views on state sanctioned violence by looking at how both human and nonhuman animals suffer. And I had asked her to talk more about what she referenced in her talk – she talked about the suffering that comes to us in a meal. And she said no one really thinks about these things. Core to Dr. Davis’s analyses is the danger of how so many of our minds have been colonized by capitalism to the point that we don’t even think about how much suffering goes into a standard American chicken meal, which I focused on kind of subtly in the book “Scars”. In “Scars”, readers will witness how Savannah’s best friend, Esperanza, invites her to broaden her conceptualization of liberation and freedom by presenting to her the hypocrisy of Savannah’s consumption philosophy.

So, I know I have a few more minutes left before Q&A. But one of the things I also focus on in the book is thematically you see things like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, and cocoa – like chocolate. Coca-Cola has a powerful influence in Savannahs life throughout the book and it is quite significant. There’s a scene in which Savannah and her mother at the dinner table and Savannah drinks Coca-Cola. And it ends up being so sweet for her that it causes pain in one of her unfilled cavities. Simultaneously Coca-Cola offers a scholarship to college students that Savannah would like to apply to. Coca-Cola is actually a marker of modernity, but it’s also a marker of extreme capitalism, human rights violations and water privatization, to name a few. The soda that Savannah is consuming is destroying her dental health… and her highly stressful life and socio-economic class makes her and so many others in her situation easy prey for foodstuffs that deteriorate bodily health as well as overall community health. And commodities such as cigarettes and fast food restaurants, such as McDonalds, also come into play as significant creators of pain and suffering for Savannah and her mother’s lives, as well as the nonhuman animals that come to her plate as chicken Mcnuggets. Interestingly, when Esperanza presents veganism to Savannah, it is an offering for Savannah to extend her rather human and first-world-centric view of liberation and freedom. However, Savannah is not interested or ready for Esperanza’s new philosophy, especially since, along with veganism, Esperanza has asked Savannah to question her support of cocoa sourced from child slavery, Coca-Cola, and Savannah’s use of animal words to insult people, ie. referring to someone as a “wolf” as a negative thing. 

So in conclusion, for me writing creatively about subjects such as veganism, racial power dynamics and class struggle, creates intersectional approaches to these issues, showing how they are interconnected and more palatable for those of us who don’t have that highly educated background in critical theory. So it creates a more, creates a better approach or better method for people to connect to. Most people have probably read novels or even looked at movies that really, really made them get it, get those connections, those theories that had maybe been presented to in high school or if they had gone to college. And for me, I think “Scars” and “Sistah Vegan” really offer how these things intersect and come together. 

So, that’s basically my presentation. And this is the first time I’ve actually presented “Scars” and it should be available at the end of this year. I’m still working on the final draft and I what I’m trying to do is insert a few more important dialogues to really make the vegan aspect of it be more coherent because I think that’s the most challenging aspect for me and I think most of the readers will get the hetero-sexism that the character goes through, and most of the readers will get that we live in a racist society still and this young black woman is suffering, living in borderline poverty. But I’m trying to also make the connection as to how being anti-speciesist and how Esperanza as a vegan, and Eric as a vegetarian who is trying to become vegan, why that is so important. And having these conversations and even how it differs where Eric has this PeTA button that he has, he’s a white, homosexual man. He has this PeTA button,
and it annoys Savannah. This black girl who’s rolling her eyes, like “what is up with white people and PeTA?” But then she encounters Esperanza, who is Guatemalan and
Nigerian, and Esperanza talks about how she can’t stand PeTA but at the same time understands why it’s important to have compassion for animals, but understands why it’s important for PeTA to recognize that they’re being racist and white supremacist in their approach. So that’s the end of my presentation and if people have questions or comments, I look forward to them.

Here’s my information on the next slide. I’m also looking, if you’re interested for me to  talk more about this at your school or organization, I am open for invitations, whether it be via Skype or in person. Thank you. 


Q&A

“Gender-aware literature for kids in Sweden is described as less aesthetically … by critics, teachers, librarians. Thoughts about this, when writing social fiction, do you get the same response, that you have an agenda?”
Yea, I actually get the same response for mostly anything that goes against the norm. So if you try to write anything that goes against any norms, right? So, I don’t know much about Sweden but if I wanted to talk about race in America, people say that I have an agenda. Or, what are you trying to do, if you’re talking about not necessarily gender as much as race, like you must hate white people, you have an agenda to hate white people to make white people feel guilty. That is what I get. I’ve got it since I was 11 or 12 years old when I started becoming conscious of what it means to be a black female in this culture. I know that I’m on the right path if I’m getting a lot of the status quo upset with what I do, so I say ignore the critics, and continue doing that work because there is no way that we are even close to world where we don’t have gender inequality, we are no where close to a world where we there is racial equality. So that would be my answer and I don’t know much about Sweden but maybe you can write me personally, write my email address personally to let me know more of what you’re looking for, in terms of
what you are brainstorming or thinking about.

Full video with closed captioning available here

 

Dr. A. Breeze Harper is the director and founder of the Sistah Vegan Project. Her emphasis in the the intersections of critical food studies, critical race studies, and black feminist theorizing. She received her PhD from the University of California, Davis and is currently a Research Fellow in the Human Ecology Department of University of California where she is currently researching key black male vegans who use hip hop and decolonial methodologies for their health, food, and environmental activism. You can follow her work at http://www.sistahvegan.com.

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