FWF Quarantine Q&A: Elizabeth Tan

Elizabeth Tan is a writer and academic. Her beguiling short story collection Smart Ovens for Lonely People is her second book.

What does feminism mean to you?

I feel that feminism at its heart means paying careful attention to who is being served – who is being seen, dignified, understood – by language, by culture, by media, by systems – and who isn’t. I feel that feminism is also about recognising the necessary limits of empathy – if we think of empathy as the capacity to imagine experiences beyond your own, there’s a tacit understanding that there are simply some experiences and emotions that you will never have to deal with or truly know. I think feminism is about cultivating the ability to listen to and care for others without trying to cast yourself in the role of protagonist, and without insisting on being able to ‘relate’ to another’s experience as a prerequisite for having compassion, taking meaningful action, or ceding space.

These days – especially right now as I am contemplating how to answer these interview questions – I am trying to recognise that feminism is a lifelong effort, so it’s okay to be exhausted or overwhelmed by it, and that I cannot expect to be perfect.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?

It’s more like a collage of half-remembered moments – maybe even the same moments, as if I’m a character on The Good Place, learning again and again and again. That sounds bleak, and sometimes, it is – that heart-sinking déjà vu when women are scolded to practise ‘situational awareness’ to avoid rapists or when the government withdraws support for sectors which predominantly employ women. But every time I like a tweet or Facebook post that critiques or illuminates, every time I read or listen to something that makes me go yes, that’s it, there’s this sense that I’ve possibly already liked or read or listened to it before, maybe from the same person or from somebody else, and there’s a strange reassurance in that.

What role do you think feminism plays in tackling the challenges capitalism poses for our wellbeing? 

I suppose the insidious thing about capitalism in the West is that it is built upon, and continually reproduces, familiar (white patriarchal) power structures, under the guise of ‘the free market’, so that we can pretend that wealth disparity, wage gaps, the disproportionate division of household labour, and so on, are the natural and inevitable way of things. It’s a discourse which is individualist when it’s convenient (‘you’re responsible for your own success and happiness’) and collectivist when it’s convenient (‘do this unpaid labour for the good of society’). So perhaps the role of feminism is to be alert to capitalism’s contradictions, to foster curiosity about the way things are, and to imagine alternatives.

Your work radically re-imagines the everyday. How can technology and its advances be more helpful rather than harmful to women and the practice of feminism in our day-to-day lives?

Perhaps it is telling that when I think about feminism I think about scrolling rather than turning pages. Even though it can be overwhelming, I find that the information and solidarity shared in online spaces are enormously helpful, especially when it comes to articulating experiences of oppression (a force which thrives on being invisible and unarticulated).

While not necessarily particular to feminism and the lives of women, this question also makes me think about the helpfulness of online spaces in general as places to seek and share knowledge, and, as pithy as it is, I think about tutorials and videos on how to do things that you’re ‘just supposed’ to know how to do – like pump air into a car tyre, knot a sash, cut the skin off a pumpkin, write a cover letter.

I suppose this is to say that I think technology and its advances, in trivial and not-so-trivial ways, have the potential to relieve some of that crushing loneliness that comes from feeling that you’re alone in your anxiety and confusion and not-knowingness. Of course this kind of loneliness is not specific to women, but I think that anything that brings clarity to the opaque is extremely beneficial, and makes day-to-day life just a little more bearable.

Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?

Other FWF interviewees have given brilliant lists already, so I’ll limit mine to two writers whose work I’ve enjoyed and treasured recently – Shu-Ling Chua and Leah Jing McIntosh – and mention one name to look out for in the near future, Rebecca Higgie, whose debut The History of Mischief is coming out in September.

Photo cred: Leah Jing McIntosh

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