FWF QUARANTINE Q&A: Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing is a writer whose essay collection Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency makes the compelling argument for why art matters in times of turbulence.

What does feminism mean to you?

Speaking as a non-binary person, it means destroying the artificial and rigidly enforced notion of two biological genders, male and female, at the same time as recognising and working against the oppression of people put into the social category of women. If it excludes trans people, it ain’t feminism.

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

I was brought up by lesbians in the 1980s, so I’ve been a feminist from the off. The shelves in my childhood home were full of feminist and queer books, from lesbian classics like The Well of Loneliness, Patience and Sarah and Olivia (steamy!) to canonical second wave feminism like Kate Millett and Erica Jong. As a teenager I was making riot grrrl zines in my bedroom and writing feminist tracts on a typewriter. In my twenties I was in a women’s art collective, the Hell-Raising Anarchist Girls – one of our finest acts was cracking a squat that we turned into a community centre by climbing up a ladder and in the window disguised as the gas board – pink dreadlocks made this a little unconvincing. And in my thirties I was living in queer and trans communities in New York. The thinking that’s arisen around trans identity in the last decade has been crucial to me, both personally and as an artist. 

The arts are often de-prioritised and devalued, much like women’s and other group’s voices and interests. How do you think we can effectively champion the arts to be valued again?

We have to think about what claims we want to make for art. Personally I think art is essential for how we think about ourselves, how we view the crisis we’re in and how we invent a new and better future. We have to convey the urgency of art, its intimacy and its immense capacities for helping us reinvent our world. And we also have to put our money where our mouths are and support our own beloved institutions, from bookstores to museums, by using them. 

What do you think feminism has brought to your critiques on art and the way you consume art?

A interest in how power functions and for who. An interest in silence, in gaps and erasure. An interest in what isn’t being said, or can’t be said. Feminism isn’t a slogan to me, it’s a stance, an angle from which to view the world, in the same way that queerness is.

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

I don’t think everybody should do anything, but I am very into Eileen Myles, Lesley Feinberg, Sarah Schulman, Audre Lorde, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Andrea Dworkin, Angela Carter, Angela Davis, Kathy Acker, Jane Austen, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Adrienne Rich, Jean Rhys.

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