Interview with Lola Olufemi

Updated: Jul 31

by Sophie Marie Niang

Lola Olufemi is a Black feminist writer and organiser based in London. She organises with Sisters Uncut, a feminist direct action group that fights the closure of domestic violence services and other forms of state violence including austerity, prisons and deportation. She is also a member of Bare Minimum, an anti-work interdisciplinary art collective. Sophie Marie Niang met with Lola to discuss her second book Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power, which was published as part of Pluto’s Outspoken collection on 20 March 2020. “Feminism can no longer remain a rhetorical tool: it must have teeth.” This sentence sums up the spirit of Lola Olufemi’s forthcoming book, Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power. Feminism must have teeth because it is a weapon, it arms us with the tools and concepts necessary to understand and imagine ways of dismantling the structures of oppression that are woven around us. But we also show our teeth when we laugh, or smile. And this dual set of feelings is present throughout the book. While reading, I was constantly reminded that the activist work inspired by feminism was inseparable from love, hope, and joy - strong positive emotions that motivate and sustain feminist organising. During our discussion, she told me about the importance of imagination. “The Imagination can elude structural barriers”, she says, “it gives us more scope to think in a liberatory manner even when our bodies are bodies are subjected to inordinate amounts of violence. For me, the Black Feminist tradition, or Black radical tradition in fact, is an act of imagination. The imagination provides the impetus for organising - or at least for me it does. I organise because I believe that the world could be organised in a different way, in a way that frees us up.” I don’t understand the people who put limits on their thinking. For example, arguing that the border is violent but that abolishing borders is a step too far. Why would you place a limit on what is possible, when you’re already recognising how the problem emerges, and how people die because of it”. Indeed, what would be a step too far in the realm of imagination, when we live in such a violent world? And she continues, “and even if somebody said, by some magical decree, that we would never abolish borders, why deny yourself the ability to think about how the world could be organised without them.” This type of thinking, rich and complex, but also clear and imaginative, is the strength of Lola’s book. Feminism Interrupted, partly aimed at a younger audience, is unapologetically radical, without ever allowing its readers to forget that what motivates this radical thinking is the belief that we could live otherwise, that a better, more just world may be within our reach. Lola says she thought of this book as “an invitation to think more radically, an attempt to bring people into the realm of what could be instead of what is.” And that’s exactly what Feminism Interrupted is. It takes its readers by the hand, and invites them to think otherwise. From state violence to transmisogyny, to reproductive justice, but also food or art, the book takes us through a range of issues with a feminist approach, helping us turn away from the individual, and toward the structures of violence that we are subjected to. How can we think of sexual violence beyond emotional disclosure as the only means of thinking about trauma collectively? How can we link issues of sexual violence to austerity policies, through a focus for instance on those people who cannot access the public health services services which could help them through the journey of recovery from the trauma of sexual violence? These are the types of questions that Lola tackles in this book. “I hope this book gives people the language to make the connections between what has been posited by neoliberalism as individual issues and actually the structures that dictate how these issues affect our everyday lives,” she tells me. Feminism Interrupted achieves that, and so much more. This book is ambitious without being haughty, didactic without being patronising, and it succeeds in making complicated and radical ideas inviting. Lola stresses the importance of “extending people good faith in being able to facilitate their political growth. I have a lot of time and empathy for people who are growing, because somebody once extended this good faith to me. Nobody ever comes to anything understanding fully the contours of the political ideas involved, and it would be dangerous to think you have understood everything there is to know about any idea ”. She defines feminism as “ever-evolving”, always generating new ideas, and therefore enabling those involved in it to keep learning and growing. Consequently, if there is one thing that feminism isn’t, in Lola’s work, it’s easy. As she explains, nowadays, the message which is often conveyed, especially to young people, is that feminism is only a set of basic principles, so why would you refuse to call yourself a feminist? According to her, this focus on the word takes our attention away from the actual political practice of feminism. “Black feminists have always made those critiques of how feminism can be commodified, and reduced to the individual, or simple ideas about femininity and masculinity, and of how these reductions take our attention away from the questions of life and death that feminism can help us answer”. Feminism Interrupted grapples with these critiques, and reformulates them in a way which is both accessible and rigorous. And therefore, it belongs in an issue focused on Young Adults literature. This is the book I wish I had been able to read when I was in the process of developing my own feminist consciousness, because it gives you clarity. It points you in an array of directions, towards structural processes that you might sense are at work, but miss the language and tools necessary to comprehend. It helps you refocus your energy. Being a black girl, I have spent (and still spend) a lot of time being angry at the world, at the seemingly omnipresent and ever-shifting forms of violence that plague it, at the almost infinite incarnations of racism, sexism, state violence - the list goes on - that I notice around me all the time. Feminism Interrupted helped me sharpen my gaze, reaffirm some of my opinions while giving me tools to think about other issues in new ways. I always like to ask people, especially other feminists, how they come to hold the positions that they do now, because it is a good reminder that change and evolution are a central part of political practice, and that it is more than okay to have learned and changed your mind. To this question, Lola answered: “I discovered feminism and feminist thinking in my teen years, and when I found it it was a means for understanding how I was experiencing the world, what it was doing to, my body and the politics that surrounded the ways that I lived. It started off at a very individual level, about myself, how I was treated, and not so much about feminist thinking as a collective endeavour, as a means through which we might collectively move towards a better way of living. So, I guess over the years my feminism became more material, less about identity markers and more about structural barriers and the ways people are forced by the structures to have a closer proximity to violence. And that affects the way you think about a range of issues. If you have a very individualistic way of thinking about politics, then you’re never going to be able to make the connections that are needed to take down the machinery of exploitation. You’ll never be able to see that austerity is linked to the state, it’s linked to borders, the food, linked to t advertising. Do you know what I mean? So for me, the way my feminism has grown means it has become less about how others, especially men, treat or see me, and more about how I might think about how this life makes a lot of people miserable. How it kills them, how it makes their bodies sick, but also how at a local level we might organise against that.” All in all, Feminism Interrupted is a precious book, it makes brilliant interventions into this discussion, and all I can hope now is that it is read by the widest audience possible. So gift it to yourself, to your colleagues, your family, lend it to your flatmates and your teenage siblings. Open up your political imagination in radical new ways. Clench your jaw in anger as you come closer to understanding the structures of violence, and smile at the possibilities which lay ahead if we begin to dismantle them. Show your feminist teeth!

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Quarterly literary review magazine by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers.