By: Roxanne Zech
Red Salmon Arts, also known as Casa de Resistencia Books, isn't your typical bookstore. There's no line of cash registers, nor the looming of Starbucks’ bitter coffee. Instead, Resistencia is a community, a grassroots cultural arts organization, a resource with a long history of working alongside Austin's indigenous neighborhoods which also, yeah, happens to sell books. The book on these shelves serve as a resource for the movement - not a mechanism for profit. Feminist bookstores like La Resistencia have been serving communities since the ‘70s, creating spaces for dialogue and challenging how we measure success.
"Red Salmon Arts is dedicated to the development of emerging writers and the promotion of Chican@/Latin@/Native American literature, providing outlets and mechanisms for cultural exchange, and sharing in the retrieval of a people’s cultural heritage with a commitment to social justice."
Last month Resistencia’s caretaker Lilia, invited Dr. Kristen Hogan, feminist scholar and Education Coordinator for UT’s Gender & Sexuality Center, to read from her new book, The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability. SMEAR sat down with Dr. Hogan to discuss lesbian antiracism, capitalism, feminist accountability, and the role of the consumer.
SMEAR: You worked in bookstores before, but what made decide that you wanted to write about the movement?
Dr. Hogan: I've been working on it for so long, it feels like every part of my life is connected to this project. I worked at BookWoman in between my undergraduate and graduate programs, the end of '98 until the beginning of 2000. When I was there we had a copy of the Feminist Bookstore Network Catalog which the Feminist Bookstore Network published every year until 2000: it was profiling books and then in the back it listed the feminist bookstores, and we were just like crossing them off as they closed. I could tell it was dramatic even though I didn't really know about the extent of the movement at that time. At the same time when I was working at BookWoman I was seeing so many wonderful authors who were starting out in Austin – Sharon Bridgforth, Jackie Cuevas, Ana Sisnett, were reading their works at the bookstore. Susan Post and Amanda Johnston created this annual event called Turning the Tables which was an anti-thanksgiving event. We packed the tables in at BookWoman and we could seat 100 people and folks brought food to share and then heard from amazing authors. Just hearing Sharon Bridgforth read her work as she was writing the bull-jean stories (RedBone Press 1998) and then seeing that come out and RedBone Press, which is a Black queer press created by Lisa C. Moore, starting here in Austin. And it was just like, knowing that this wouldn't be possible through other spaces, it was that affective connection for me.
When I graduated with my PhD I went to work at the Toronto Women's Bookstore on a 14-month contract while the previous manager was taking a leave of absence and it was like “Oh my god, like, this is what a feminist bookstore can be!” There was so much conversation, thinking about Palestinian feminisms and what that accountability calls us to, thinking about trans feminisms and the importance of accountability to trans feminists, and some core ethical issues – thinking about class, thinking about disability – that in that context were urgent things that people were really grappling with and I could feel that in the history of feminist bookstores and I was like, ‘oh, this is amazing.’
S: How did feminist accountability play a role in your writing process, wanting to be accountable for these people's stories?
H: Feminist accountability in the bookstores is a kind of really daily experience. Like, the picture on the cover is of four folks from the collective of ICI: A Women's Place in Oakland. They were having some really hard conversations around what racial justice and feminist practice looks like. There were a series of Women in Print gatherings nationally starting in '76 and in the 80s, in the collective they were talking about who gets to go to the Women in Print gathering, and yet it was still a largely white gathering. So it was not a privilege for a woman of color to go, because it's work, it's additional labor of being in a predominantly white space and representing the bookstore and the labor of what that means is different than it is for a white woman going. Keiko Kubo and Elizabeth Summers as women of color in the collective were speaking specifically about that, and they engaged Jesse Meredith and Darlene Pagano, two white women in the collective, who were really called by that to reflect on their white privilege and what white alliance building with women of color would look like. And Keiko Kubo and Elizabeth Summers were thinking about that with each other across their racialized identities as women of color as well. And then two other white women in the collective changed the locks and were like, “this is not efficient, this is going to end the bookstore; it’s not sustainable for the bookstore.”
Keiko Kubo emailed me and wrote, “I hope that your story also recognizes that we weren’t just focusing on feminism, we were also focusing on ending all war and ending imperialism and ending poverty.” They were developing this idea of practicing what does coalitional feminism look like in our space. That accountability of the fact that these bookstores were spaces that were open and still are where people have the potential to try to figure out what the feminist movement looks like daily was really powerful. So to me that was the kind of grounding of feminist accountability that was happening among women in the feminist bookstores.
Part of what that meant for my writing was trying to include my own memoir reflective pieces because it felt kind of scary and I wanted to be willing to vulnerable in the way that I was asking other people to be and making other people vulnerable by sharing their stories. They were taking a risk and I wanted to take a risk too by trying to reflect on some of the really hard discussions. What I think my work does is that as a white person I'm in part telling about my journey of trying to practice antiracist scholarship, racial justice scholarship and what that looks like for people with white privilege and then trying to be a part of that conversation. Like what does that look like?
S: What is the feminist shelf? How does feminist accountability play into the feminist shelf?
H: I mean, there's the very literal shelf of course in the bookstores but I created the term "feminist shelf" to describe the practice of relationality that goes into that shelf and then is informed by it. It's the idea of the work it takes to get books on that shelf that we need, of bookwomen advocating, of feminist publishers, of authors, all of the folks that make that work possible and then we have the books on the shelf and we understand them differently because of their relationship with each other. There was this shared language, almost word for word, between Womanbooks in New York, Common Woman Bookstore which BookWoman was when it opened here in Austin, and the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective in Italy, of the importance of bringing books by women into one place to create their own context. And so that was a really powerful message from the movement for me: we would read Audre Lorde's, Sister Outsider differently on a shelf of feminist literature next to the the bull-jean stories and next to This Bridge Called my Back. Then we as readers need to learn how do we really understand this and what it means for us? I think that happened through events, conversations in the bookstore; and bookwomen were figuring that out in their relationships with each other. Then that was shared in lots of ways from shelf talkers to newsletters to events and catalogs, then started that cycle again. Also part of that practice is the lessons for our relationships with each other, thinking about, what are the contexts of our communities? Who is in our community? How do we understand ourselves?
There's this wonderful M. Jacqui Alexander quote, "there is no other work than the making and remaking ourselves in the context community." To me that's the feminist shelf, that idea of the continual process of developing our relationships with each other, learning to see each other differently and then see ourselves differently and to reconnect in a different way so it's this cycle that is modeled on this shelf but it's really paying attention to the backstory of that labor of the bookwoman. So that's what I mean when I say the feminist shelf is a practice of relationality.
S: You use the term lesbian antiracism in your book, how does that function differently than antiracism without the word 'lesbian' in it? How does that practice?
H: There's a history of work around how lesbian identity provides particularly white women potential access to understanding the urgency of antiracism. I’m thinking about the work of Mab Segrest, feeling like an outsider in sexuality and in gender, and then feeling that a call to do racial justice work and of course not all white lesbians may heed that call but it's that potential possibility. And I think a call to acknowledge that we should
For me it's that naming of lesbian as being both queer and woman requires then that interrupting of patriarchy, heterosexism, and then also racism. So to me that's core and it's also significant because I think 70's feminism is still thought of as white and straight and it so wasn't. (I mean some places were, that's always true.) Naming lesbian antiracism also to me is a very visible interruption of that narrative. The two identities and systems of oppression that I think the term lesbian addresses so nicely and did call people to think about and still does it is also part of what has to be collaboration with bi and pan folks, like with queer folks. So it's really not wanting to privilege like monosexual identity and also requiring the woman of lesbian to be gender inclusive so that it is not an exclusionary or essentialist term. If I were writing the book now I would be more clear about that. I think there's a lot of potential there.
S: How do/did feminist bookstores contribute to the interruption of capitalism?
H: In the 90s when we had that shift in language and bookwomen were trying to stay alive by asking people to shop at the bookstores, by then the radical history of feminist bookstores had been erased and people were like, “well obviously bookstores aren't profitable anymore.” And it's that "anymore" that's the challenge because people were never making real money off these bookstores or any bookstore. There was this bookstore called Labyris books in New York in the early 70s that was this lesbian separatist bookstore. They were really thinking about lesbian identity and racial justice and in 1974 they were having this fundraiser to save Labyris. This is really early in the movement of feminist bookstores. The first two opened in 1970 and they were already having fundraisers to stay open. It was not a question of like, if you run this business well - whatever that means - you will make money. It wasn't going to happen. Audre Lorde read at that fundraiser, Hattie Gossett, major people. It was about living with a feminist ethic and seeing what kind of community it could create.
Part of that also is redefining success of the bookstores. I think there's something to be said for the length of the bookstore movement as a whole: we've had feminist bookstores since 1970 and we continue to have them internationally. We continue to have these spaces where we can try out feminist things, but I don't think that the success of a feminist bookstore is how long it stays open. Like ICI: A Woman's Place, they had the lockout in '84, and they did mediation around that and then they had leadership sharing and the bookstore closed a couple years later. That's a different kind of success. It's a movement success of, this is what it looks like to try to be accountable to racial justice. The argument that the women made who locked out the locked out four was, “we need to save this business.” And the four women were like, “well, what are we doing? We work here for the feminist movement to save our lives, to save each other. Why would we want to save a business? That's not what this is.” So to me I think it's redefining that idea of it's not about how long it's open.
S: I've been to a number of movement bookstores recently like Bluestockings in New York City and Monkeywrench here in Austin that don't necessarily advertise themselves as feminist bookstores like BookWoman. If we were to make a new, more inclusive, list of feminist bookstores what would that look like?
H: If we were going to make a real list of feminist bookstores today I think it would be a matter of also saying, who is defining their stores as feminist spaces? Again, Resistencia explicitly does that. BookWoman and MonkeyWrench would say that as well and like that's going to mean different things to people. And that's always been true of any group of feminist organizations. There's a new bookstore, Amalgam Books, in D.C that's a comic book store and prioritizing the works of authors of color. That's really awesome and it is a feminist bookstore, it's run by a Black woman and they're really doing a lot of feminist work. So I think it's also for the person making the list, what counts as a feminist bookstore and for people in the bookstores, do you consider this feminist?
S: Is there a question that I should be asking? Is there something you'd like to include that maybe I haven't asked about?
H: Feminist love! So many feminist writers have written and are writing about love – Chela Sandoval, bell hooks, Aimee Carillo Rowe – and this revolutionary idea of love as, a longing for each other. On a basic level there are so many stories about feminist bookstores being spaces where women and queer people met their lovers, so like very literally a site of feminist love. I met my partner at BookWoman. I think that kind of literal sense of like finding romantic and/or sexual love or friendship is also a metaphor for a movement love that is a replacement of a capitalist set of values with a set of values centered around love and what it would actually look like to love each other ethically across our differences. I love this passage where bell hooks talks about how she learned what love is and that growing up what she learned that love is totally isn’t love. So again it's about the feminist shelf. How do we understand feminism? How do we understand each other? And how do we understand what love actually is? There are so many painful messages about love that we get, but if we can have a movement based on love, how that would transform us.
I think that also speaks to the interrupting of capitalism in the sense of if we're really trying to find a way to connect with each other and prioritize our relationships and not acquiring things, but in fact making sure that we all can live and thrive and recognizing our different ideas about what that looks like. That's so powerful to me and I think is at their best, what feminist bookstores have provided spaces for us to think about and have done the work of mapping out some vocabulary tools to try.