Nova Scotia·Q & A

What does it mean to be a feminist killjoy?

Erin Wunker, an English professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., discusses her new book, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life.

New book by Acadia University's Erin Wunker looks at joy and challenges of feminism

Erin Wunker says being a feminist killjoy involves some 'hugely uncomfortable' moments when people are called out for being racist or misogynistic. (Bart Vautour)

When Erin Wunker was asked to write a book on feminism, she interpreted that as a request to craft a guide on how to be a feminist.

That (along with her infant daughter, who kept her busy) shaped Wunker's approach.

Wunker, who teaches English at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., started writing short notes, sometimes with her daughter in mind. This turned into a collection called Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, released by Toronto indie publisher BookThug earlier this month.

Wunker spoke with CBC's Mainstreet on Wednesday. Here's some of that conversation, which has been edited for length.

What is a feminist killjoy, and why did you want your daughter to be one?

Wunker: Well, she's going be who she's going be, but I'm certainly going teach her about what a feminist killjoy is.

So, the term feminist killjoy was coined by the incredible teacher and public intellectual based in Britain whose name is Sara Ahmed. And I work a great deal with Sara Ahmed's thinking in the book and a feminist killjoy is someone — could be any gender — someone who feels uncomfortable with the status quo in society. And the status quo currently is ... things like racism, misogyny and certainly patriarchal culture.

And so not just being uncomfortable with them makes you a feminist killjoy, but speaking up, naming the inequities that are in our world and working to change them so that the world is more equitable for everyone ... So you speak up at the kitchen table, or the family dinner table, when somebody says something racist or misogynist.

What are those moments like when you do that?

Wunker: Hugely uncomfortable sometimes. At best, I think they're hugely uncomfortable. Nobody really enjoys being called out ... Different contexts call for different responses.

At the family dinner table, you want to call attention to the racist thing that your great uncle just said, but you don't want to shut the conversation down, right? So, it's hard to call somebody out, but it's also really important and possible to do so in a generous and generative way.

My dear friend who is a public intellectual based in Edmonton, Rebecca Blaikie, says that one of the best ways you can do this is by starting the conversation saying, "What you've just said is understandable, but it's not acceptable. Let's talk about why.'"

When your daughter is old enough to read this book, what do you hope she takes away from it?

Wunker: I hope that she takes away from it several things, first that ... she is a person who's in charge of her own body. She has the right to say no, and she has the right to say yes.

Second, that she is one person and that her experiences matter, but they don't matter any more or less than anyone else's.

And finally, that moving through the world as a generous person who values the life experience of other people is a far more generative and joyful way to move through the world than it is to be combative or aggressive towards other people's experiences.

The title of the book, as we said, is Feminist Killjoy, but what brings you joy as a feminist?

Wunker: Being with my family, both my chosen family and my biological family brings me joy.

Being in the classroom with students talking about ideas and ... plans and the ways in which literature is a space for us to think through what's happening in our world right now and how we got here.

Also, coffee is a great joy for me ... and having the opportunity to speak to people in public spaces like the one you've let me ... into here today about ideas that I think are very necessary for us now as much, if not more, than ever.

With files from CBC's Mainstreet