21 December 2015

Five things I have learned from writing this book

I think of fat as a life's work. Sometimes it is there strongly, very present in my life, sometimes I get burned out. But the question of what it is to be fat in cultures that hate fat people is on-going. I doubt I will ever find a definitive answer but so what, it's the journey that matters.

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is about to be published on 4 January 2016. It represents a period of great intensity for me, about seven years or so, maybe a bit longer, of thinking and working on fat. It's about to have a life beyond me and the many people who have supported the project over the years; it's about to go public.

I've certainly learned a lot about fat as I've done this work, but writing the book has been an education in itself. Here are five big things I've learned and a thing I knew before.

Our invisibility is profound
It remains unbelievable to me how much serious, credible, scholarly, rigorous work ignores fat people. I'm not talking about obesity research, that's a given, but the stuff that gets cited and circulated in other spaces and treated as reliable. It is extremely rare for fat people to be treated as a community, or series of communities, a social group, as people with agency who can speak for ourselves. This, to me, is so basic I can't believe it needs stating, and is emblematic of how dehumanised, patronised and alienated fat people are in general. Where fat community is mentioned, it is invariably white, straight, represented by organisations and based in the US. Want to see your own experiences of being fat in the literature? You will probably have to write it yourself, which might be no bad thing.

This is about revolution
Fat activism is a way of thinking about activism more broadly. It does away with the idea that activism always takes place in organised groups, through campaigns, on the streets with placards. It makes activism more accessible to people. It's what I think of as a meta movement, it has connections to a great many struggles for social justice and can offer useful insights, for example about bodies, marginalisation, absurdity, medicalisation. It's a way of approaching revolutionary politics so that nobody gets left behind.

The medium matters
The work, the thoughts, the people involved, the way a piece is published, this is all activism too. Caring about the subject means doing your best to consider who the work is really for and how they might find it. I have written elsewhere that I did not want this work to disappear into the academy, for example. The way that the work enters the world is very important.

It's lonely work
People expect you to be sort of magical and invulnerable. People you depended on and thought were rock solid will disappear. You are judged by people who don't know you. You share your thoughts where you can but you're basically alone with things. When I say you I mean me. It is very painful and hard work, work that is brutal and invisible a lot of the time. I won't be sad when it's over.

Things shift all the time
Communities fracture and change, people come out of the woodwork, I've found that who I am in relation to the work is constantly changing, I'm always reorientating myself depending on who I'm talking to. People can be very surprising too, over the past few weeks I've had conversations with people who I would never have thought would be interested in this stuff. This makes me feel very hopeful about the future of fat, a conversation can be pivotal and spark delightful changes, even though things are pretty awful a lot of the time.

There are bits of autobiography in the book, I situate it in my life. But I am part of a movement that is bigger than me, there are many who came before and I hope there will be people who come after. The book is a building block, something for other people to use. What I knew before is that this is not really about me, it's about a social movement that won't be stopped.

14 December 2015

Archiving Fat Activism

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is built on research. Some of this research involved interviewing people and some involved sifting through archival material.

I went to archives to look for fat activism because there are very few books and papers available that document it so I needed to look at original source material and try and piece things together. I drifted into archival work, it wasn't part of the original plan for the research but I just kept getting pulled further in because the things I found there were very moving and exciting to see. Where I often feel isolated in my present-day fat activism, in the archive I could clearly see myself and others as part of a much bigger movement, it was like visiting my ancestors. I felt a duty to witness the fat feminist activism I found there and to become an agent of its transmission. I'm not a spiritual person but this came close to being like a religious experience for me and was very emotional work. Sometimes I would find things that I had made in the archives I was searching too.

The materials I had the pleasure to read and handle represent evidence that is not in mainstream spaces. I also think that you sort of have to know a bit about what you are looking for when you visit one of these archives looking for fat activism, for example it helps to know about particular women. In addition, you'll soon get very lost if you use dominant culture language like 'obesity epidemic' for example. What I'm saying is this: your years of living in the margins are an asset in an archive when you are looking for fat activists.

I was very lucky to have a period where a lot of my travel was funded by a research institution, namely the Irish Social Sciences Platform. This was a dream come true. But you don't necessarily need cash to look at an archive. The ones I've listed below are free to use, and some are online. If you live in a big city, chances are that there will be archives, perhaps queer or feminist archives, perhaps archives with local newspapers and newsletters and flyers, perhaps archives that have zine libraries and finding aids where you can search for fat stuff. You don't have to be a student or part of a university, these resources are open to the public, ie you. Perhaps, like me, you are interested in setting up fat activist community archives, or are finding out about DIY archiving.

Fat activist histories are so very fragile because fat people are not culturally valued and often we do not value our own lives enough to document or preserve them. The material that does get archived represents the tiniest tip of the iceberg in terms of what constitutes a social movement of fat activists. Where people are further marginalised their legacies are even more fragile. People of colour and trans people's fat activist archives are particularly invisible, even within archives that are already very marginal spaces. One of the most painful experiences of being in an archive whilst looking for fat activism is the knowledge that there are terrible absences.

With this in mind, I urge fat activists to support archives that are open to documenting and preserving the evidence of our lives. Think about donating not just money but material, keep copies of things you make, encourage others to do so, learn how to use archives, try not to be intimidated by them.

Anyway, here are some of the archives that I visited between 2008-2015 to look for fat activism. Some have bigger holdings than others, some are more like libraries than archives, some require many visits and others are worth an afternoon of your time. Check them out if you can.

56A Infoshop
A radical social centre and book shop in London that also has a zine library and is generally a happening place to be. In fact, zine libraries, anarchist info centres and autonomous social spaces can be good places to find fat activism.

A wonderful feminist queer media archive in Hamburg. They have an active interest in supporting fat activism and hold the original copy of A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline.

Black Rose Library and Info Centre
This anarchist centre in Sydney was evicted from its longstanding home and is now on hiatus. When it flowers again you can find a handful of fat activist zines in their collection.

A really beautiful queer library in Bologna. Some fat holdings.

The Feminist Library
A brilliant community library in London. It has a lot of my stuff in there, and also full collections of 1980s lesbian journals such as Sinister Wisdom, which were hotbeds of fat feminism. Indeed, their periodicals reading room is the place to be if you want to know about early fat feminism in the UK and US.

Gay and Lesbian Historical Society
Based in San Francisco, this archive is a wonderland and its fat holdings include flyers, leaflets and boxes of Judy Freespirit's papers and personal effects. A compelling space.

Glasgow Women's Library
Beautiful, friendly local library and archive that has some fat activist material and, I'm sure, would be interested in collecting more.

Hall Carpenter Archives
Britain's prominent queer archive. It's very formal but don't be put off and don't be afraid to ask for help. They have an excellent collection of LGBT journals.

The Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan
Mind-blowing and massive queer archive, one of several special collections at the University of Michigan that should be of interest to fat activists. I found some holdings but only had a short amount of time there. I'm sure there's a lot more if you dig.

Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archives, a fabulous collection hosted by the Bishopsgate Instutute, a centre of working class research and culture in East London. Their queer clippings library is really worth a look.

The place for US fat feminist activism. Maintained by Karen Stimson for many years, this ESSENTIAL resource is now offline, though you can find its pages through the Wayback Machine internet archive. Completely worth your time. Try searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/ at The Wayback Machine.

Lesbian Herstory Archives
Situated in a house in Brooklyn, the archives have some fat holdings and very helpful volunteers to help you navigate the lovely space and its collections.

The Queer Zine Archive Project is an incredible free resource. It has some fat zines in its collection, and some of my stuff too. zinelibrary.info has also been a useful repository with some fat zines, but it is currently offline. Perhaps try searching snapshots of it through the Wayback Machine.

Spare Rib
The British Library hosts a full digital run of this feminist magazine, which includes important fat activist articles from the late 1980s. There is a keyword search, a bit fiddly and hard to find but great if you can get it to work.

Peaceful feminist archive in Berlin. Some fat activist material, they are interested in collecting more.

Stuart Hall Library
A small, well-curated library in London mostly dedicated to art and design but with more political and sociological works and material on fat by women of colour.

Sinister Wisdom
This journal of lesbian feminist arts and culture was founded in 1976. It has been sympathetic to fat feminism over the years and is a rich source of material by and about fat activists. Issues 1-57, more or less, are archived online and are available to download for free.

Trouble and Strife
The whole run of this British feminist journal has been digitised and is available online. Includes essential pieces from the 80s-90s by Heather Smith, Tina Jenkins, Karis Otobong, Cath Jackson and Margot Farnham.

The Women's Library
Important national collection now buried in the London School of Economics. Their collection is excellent, they have a full run of Fat News, but access leaves a lot to be desired.

I was thwarted in my visit to the Mayer Collection at the University of Connecticut by a blizzard and an ice storm. I tried! Very sad to have missed it but their finding aid is illuminating in itself.

Meanwhile, there are many more archives that I would like to visit. Two in particular are The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University which has the holdings of a number of fat feminists involved in the early part of the movement. The other is June Mazer Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, which has more West Coast early fat activism holdings.

There is also work underway on a major disability archive in the UK, which I hope will have at least some material on fat in its collection. The People's History Museum in Manchester is also a useful resource, though at present underdeveloped as far as fat activism goes.

Also, you know, The British Library, The Wellcome Library, the big institutions are also there and worth a look, though the places I've listed above have better fat activist material, in my opinion.

Are there other important archival sites for fat activism that I have overlooked? Add them in the comments please.

07 December 2015

DIY Publishing and Fat Activism

When I finished my PhD someone asked me about my plans for publishing it. I said that I might publish it myself and they looked at me aghast, this would clearly have been academic suicide. A book published by an academic press would most likely be expensive and would have to conform to an idea of what an academic book is. In my experience, academic books may be full of useful knowledge but are generally very boring to read. I didn't want to produce something that sends people to sleep. I want my writing to help people feel alive and full of possibility.

Somebody else said that the thesis contained some work that would be REF-able papers. REF refers to the Research Excellence Framework, a model for quality research in the UK that many of the academics I know feel is somewhat shonky. A REF-able paper would most likely be published by a journal that would cost ordinary people without access to university libraries quite a bit of money to read. That's if they knew how to use an academic database. It would be quite likely that the paper would not be read by many people, and certainly not the people who could most benefit from the work, or the people on whose lives the work was built.

In both cases, readers would have to know how to read an academic book or paper, to feel that they could handle dense language and lots of jargon. I thought but didn't say: "I have other hopes for this."

These two comments have stuck with me over the last year as I have prepared the book of my thesis for publication. Is my research excellent? I think it is! Early readers of the book also agree. I may be committing academic career suicide but I'm not pursuing an academic career right now and none of this has stopped me engaging with universities, doing research projects, continuing to have a rich intellectual life inside and beyond the academy and getting paid for it.

REF-able papers and academic status would be lovely, but I think of them as gravy, not a publishing rationale. What really matters to me is that people who are interested in fat activism, any kind of people, should be able to read a sophisticated book about it and not need a PhD or a lot of money to do so. I want as wide as possible a readership for this work because I think it has exciting applications for how people do and think about activism. In these conservative times activism is an important survival tactic. I want to be able to say what I need to say in a book that has my name on it. This didn't happen with my first book, the editors had political ideas they wanted to promote at my expense. So having editorial control over my own work is important to me, never again do I want to be pushed around by a publisher. I want to be able to learn new skills and meet new people in the process of publishing a book. I want to continue working collaboratively with other creative thinkers, writers and artists. Lastly, I want a good deal that doesn't rip me off or line the pockets of a corporate owner.

The publishing world is changing and so is academia. They would like to be closed worlds for an elite, especially under this government which wants to deny poorer people the cultural wealth that they enjoy. But people who have been pushed out are finding other ways to disseminate and benefit from ideas. This is why Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is being published by a small independent press. HammerOn has been instrumental in developing ideas about the para-academy in the UK, and is also rooted in DIY values. We both come from punk and are not afraid of experimenting and doing things in unorthodox ways.

From the initial PhD proposal to publication, this piece of work has often been unruly. It resists conventional narratives about fat, about fat activism; it's the product of an irreverent style of research and it challenges academic publishing strategies. It's a disruptive book and I hope it finds readers who enjoy misbehaving. The subject matter is about fat activism but the research and the book itself is also fat activism. So that's why I'm doing it this way and, I have to say, it is very satisfying.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement will be published on 4 January 2016.