The Practice of Creativity

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Becky Thompson has been an inspiration to many. She is an award-winning writer, professor, yoga instructor, and activist. She has spent the last twenty years traveling across the world researching, teaching, and writing on issues of social and racial inequality. An academic by training, she has written on a wide variety of topics that include eating disorders, HIV/AIDS, parenting a multi-ethnic family, and global activism. Her books are infused with creativity, scholarly rigor and meaningful engagement. They are magic carpet rides for the mind, body and spirit. She has also been a pedagogical pioneer in investigating and incorporating a wide range of contemplative practices in the classroom (including yoga, mindfulness, walking meditation, etc.). She uses the power of these practices to create a collective, intelligent and vulnerable space for students and teachers to engage deeply with difficult topics.

I count myself fortunate that I attended one of her contemplative pedagogy workshops, many years ago, while she was a visiting professor at Duke University. That made a deep impact on me though it would be years before I would muster up the courage to incorporate what I learned from Becky into my own teaching practice.

More recently, we’ve realized that we have overlapping interests in many areas, including yoga and social justice.

So, when I discovered that Becky has a new book that brings together narratives of social justice, yoga, trauma and healing, I couldn’t wait to find out more. Her latest book is Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for those Healing from Trauma (North Atlantic Books), and it promises to be groundbreaking.

Thompson’s other books include Zero is the Whole I Fall into at Night (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2011); When the Center is on Fire (co-authored with Diane Harriford, University of Texas Press, 2008); Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS From the Black Disapora (co-edited with Randall Horton and Michael Hunter, Third World Press, 2007); A Promise and A Way of Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2001); and Mothering without a Compass (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Thompson’s work has also been featured in multiple journals such as Harvard Review, Feminist Studies, Gender & SocietyWarpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas, Amandla, Illuminations, and Margie.

Currently, Becky is Chair and Professor of Sociology at Simmons College in Boston, MA.

Becky sees her yoga practice as the foundation upon which her writing, teaching, poetry, and activism can flourish.

It’s is my distinct pleasure to welcome Becky Thompson to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

 

beckythompson2

 

Tell us about your new book Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma. What sparked your interest in writing this book? 

My initial motivation came from an early teacher training I was participating in where I realized that many of the participants were whispering—in the halls, after sessions—about the depressions, loss, sexual abuse, and accidents they had experienced. But they did not feel okay about “coming out” about these traumas. It was as if yoga was in one corner and trauma was in another with no meeting place in between. During that training, I also dissociated on my yoga mat one Sunday morning which surprised me and led me to co-lead a workshop on trauma for the other yogis. That initial push was coupled by the inspiration I was getting from people who started to talk with me about their own stories of using yoga to help heal from racism, sexual abuse, incarceration, accidents, addictions, illnesses, great loss, war, etc.

While I can point to a moment when I officially started writing Survivors, in many ways I have been working my way up to this book for years. In some ways, Survivors is an answer to my first book, A Hunger So Wide and So Deep since Survivors offers stories of people living in the land of healthy solutions, who are finding embodiment that trauma had formerly stolen. The book follows A Promise and a Way of Life since it seeks to offer examples of antiracist activism currently taking place in yoga communities. Although I didn’t know this consciously when I started Survivors, I now know that I needed the last twenty years of writing, living, healing, and activism to get prepared for Survivors. For example, this book is a lot about the process of manufacturing joy. I didn’t know I even needed more joy ten or twenty years ago. And I never would have been able to put so much of my own story of trauma into a book before. That took some real coaxing and guidance this time around.

Survivors is an intellectual book in that I incorporate trauma theory, neuroscience and yoga philosophy. And it is an experiential book in that it starts and ends with the body—its pleasures and pain. Two decades ago, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or the community ties I needed to reach out to and find Joanne Wyckoff, who became my agent. And I wouldn’t have had the guts to include a bunch of photos of “unconventional” collective poses (that we have created together in my years of teaching yoga in an eclectic range of communities) in the book’s glossary. I can’t wait to hear what readers think and feel about all of this.

survivors

-In the book, you explore the unique strengths and needs of trauma survivors. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve discovered while working with trauma survivors?

One key lesson for me was learning that trauma survivors are special—subversive angels on the road to healing. There is a tendency when we hear the word “trauma” to back away. To pass the tissues. The word sounds heavy, intense. In fact, many trauma survivors have special characteristics. We tend to be highly intuitive and ingenious—we have had to be to survive. Trauma survivors tend to throw their weight behind the underdog, are willing to question authority, and take risks. Trauma survivors often come early to yoga classes and stay late. They know that their lives depends upon healing. We are the ones with the wiggles, who cry during savasana, who get up and try again.

-You have been thinking a lot about the connection between yoga and social justice activism. How can they inform each other?

Embedded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the “Native American Code of Ethics” (which are both guides for understanding yoga philosophy) are commitments for healing ourselves and our communities. It turns out that trauma survivors are often at the forefront of liberation struggles. Coming to terms with your life being turned upside down often provides motivation to try to turn the world right side up again. I am thinking for example of Lisa Houston, a Scottish woman whose story is in Survivors, who took her yoga mat with her in her work with refugees at the border of Thailand and Burma. I am thinking about Jarvis Jay Masters, a Buddhist man on death row in California who used his body to interrupt a stabbing in San Quentin. His years sitting on his meditation cushion guided him to do this. Survivors is full of stories by people who see activism as key to being human.

The well-known Buddhist Silva Boorstein has said that the longer she has practiced yoga and meditation, the more zealous she has become about social activism. This is a very good sign for yoga communities since practicing yoga certainly does not exempt us from enabling racism, sexism and elitism in our midst. We can’t just “om” ourselves into multiracial, global communities. Long-term yoga can help us listen more deeply and undo inequalities.

-You’ve written many different kinds of books (i.e. scholarly, creative, etc.), and across many types of genres (e.g. poetry, essay, narrative).  Who inspires you? Who are some of the writers that you continually mine for technique, style, or phrasing?

Joy Harjo remains one of the writers/activists/musicians whose work keeps me up at night. Her book, A Map to the Next World, has been the one book I have taken with me on my plane flights. Pure magic and talent in that book. Rolf Gates’ book Meditations from the Mat was the model for Survivors and the one I read to my grandmother in the last years of her life. I was thrilled when he consented to write the foreword for Survivors. Stephen Cope’s The Wisdom of Yoga and Matthew Sanford’s Waking are both yoga books I teach in my doctoral education and social theory classes. I like that cross-pollenization. I still think that Edwidge Dandicat’s Breath Eyes Memory is among the finest novels on sexual abuse, colonization and healing.   Dandicat also writes outstanding essays.

This Bridge Called my Back, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga gave me (and so many others) the intersectional analysis (attention to race, class, gender, sexuality, language, nation) that forms the theoretical foundation for Survivors (and my other justice books). That book combines many genres—poetry, creative nonfiction, essays. June Jordan, Dorothy Allison, Sonia Sanchez, and Jacqueline Woodson are marvelous models for me. Poetry and literature remain my company when I am lonely, worried, or trying to understand how to respond (or get quiet) in the face of much insanity around us.

Music also gives me much guidance: India.Arie, Angelique Kidjo, Sweet Honey, Bobby McFerrin, Snatum Kaur, Patti LaBelle and many others. Music makes so many invisible links that we need to write across genres—the improvisation in fiction, the steadiness of prose, the surprise in poetry. When I was finishing Survivors, the editor advised that I not include a music list in the appendix since people’s taste in music is so variable. But I couldn’t bear leaving out music and so I ended up labeling that section “idiosyncratic music list” and tucked it in after the “suggested further reading” in an appendix.

-If you could invite three living yoga teachers to a dinner party that you’re hosting, who would you invite and why?

I would love to have Angela Farmer (who teaches in Greece, is 76, and has been guiding us to go inside to find safety for 40 years), Angela Davis (who isn’t officially a yoga teacher but is a yogi), and Nikki Myers (founder of the innovative yoga and recovery model Y12sr) together. I would cook for days—wasabi tofu, grilled asparagus, sweet potatoes, Lundberg rice, homemade hummus, and divine salad. Mango and sticky rice for dessert. I would fantasize about the playlist for the dinner for weeks. Michele and Keval Kaur and Diane Harriford would need to come too. Life is short. I gotta figure out how to make this possible.

-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Honor the muse no matter what she needs. If she needs to write while you are driving, pull over. If she wakes you up in the night, thank her. If she is shy or angry, she has good reason. For prose writing, expressing the ideas first as poems helps to keep the language lyrical. Writing after doing an intense yoga practice can bring us into a deeper register. Talking about the writing process is erotic, in the Audre Lorde, expansive sense of the word. Yoga is big like that too.

I am attaching a poem I recently wrote for Sonia Sanchez—long time meditator, poet, and dancer for justice—since the poem resonates with some of the questions you have asked. Thank you Michele, for your generosity and creativity.

She be

for Sonia Sanchez

 She be
Tupac in the summertime

She be
we tumble in the fall

She be
writing on the fast train

She be
writing honey slow

She be
listen, she say listen

She be
rhyming with Coltrane

She be
singing us some praise songs

She be
a chandelier of sound

She be
traveling with ashe ashe

She be
prancing with her sons

She be
channeling tenacity

She be
heart sing heart sing heart sing song

She be
circling her audience

She be
can’t wait, can’t wait for love

She be she be she bow she shy she shake   she cry   she glow   she slide
She fly   she be   she be   she be   she be

 

Becky Thompson has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including grants from the NEH, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Association for University Women, the Ford Foundation, Political Research Associates and the Gustavus Myers Award for Outstanding Books on Human Rights in North America.

Becky is a senior level yoga teacher (YRT-500) and teaches yoga at conferences, workshops, in college classes, and community centers internationally and nationally.

Find out more about her and how to purchase Survivors on the Yoga Mat here

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Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934- November 17,1992)

Today is Audre Lorde’s birthday! Audre Lorde was an essayist, poet and activist who referred to herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,”.  Audre Lorde’s work has shaped and inspired two generations of writers, scholars, and activists. Lorde produced several volumes of poetry and created new directions in nonfiction with her untraditional memoir (Zami, A New Spelling of My Name), but she was not only a famous poet, she was also one of the most compelling black feminists of the past century. The topics she chose to write about broke open taboos on race, class, the role of ‘difference’ in the second wave women’s movement, breast cancer, sexuality, eroticism, marginality, and the necessity of theorizing about the interlocking nature of oppression. The body of her work has left a legacy for all those concerned with social justice.

I discovered her in college as a budding feminist thinker. I was deeply influenced by feminist literary theory and contemporary women authors. I found her work useful as she helped to redirect second wave feminist organizing to focus on the strength that is found in differences among women as opposed to believing in a mythical norm of the ‘universal woman’. At that time, I was finding my own voice at Bard College and involved in activism on campus (e.g. reproductive rights and fighting for ‘multicultural education’) and interested in feminist theorizing.

At the beginning of my senior year, I organized a group of friends to attend one of Audre Lorde’s final public appearances. Audre Lorde helped to a create conference called ‘Yo Soy Hermana/I Am Your Sister’. It was held in Boston. It called upon second wave (and budding third wave) feminists to come together to strategize, celebrate and develop new skills in feminist coalition building and action given the challenges young women and men faced globally (i.e. poverty, HIV/AIDS, repression of LGBT communities, sexual violence, etc.). My young female friends, all of us of diverse and multiracial backgrounds, found ourselves in a larger feminist and womanist community than we hadn’t dared imagine (or could imagine at Bard–a predominately white, private, liberal arts college). There were over 1000 activists in attendance from over 20 countries. The two days were packed with workshops, keynotes, plenaries, readings, and impromptu gatherings. During the conference, I felt that symbolically a baton was being passed from Lorde and other feminist elders to us in the audience. We were inheritors of the many benefits that Lorde and others had struggled for, yet, we still faced a world that was still fraught with inequality. What would we do with our knowledge and burgeoning power?

Her work inspired me to go on to graduate school. I felt a deep urgency to bring new voices and new ways of knowing into the academy, especially those from historically marginalized communities. I was eager to continue studying how feminist theory challenged typical assumptions about everyday social patterns that seemed ‘natural’. Everyone at Bard did the equivalent of an honors thesis, called the ‘Senior Project’. The tools and theory-building skills I acquired in my classes prepared me to write a senior project on the evolution of rape law reform of the 1970s and 1980s.  In my graduate school applications, I quoted Lorde, “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”

Those words resonated deeply with me because I felt that coalition building and self-definition were the building blocks of feminist theory and could be applied to both research and activism. It’s a quote that still remains a guiding star in my life.

It’s only been in the last few years that I have come to appreciate the other gift that Lorde offered which is that she claimed everything about her—emotions, intellect, all forms of creative writing, activism and theory. She fought to live her life holistically and self-defined. As I have, over the past several years, been intentional about making more space for a scholarly *and* creative life, I find her example life affirming.

I hope you put Audre Lorde on your reading list this year either as a new reader or as someone rediscovering her work.

Recommended Reading:

Poetry: The Black Unicorn (1978)

Memoir: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982)

Essays: Sister Outsider  (1984)

Scholarship: I am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2009)

Photo Credit:http://www.nedrajohnson.com/audre.htm

This post originally appeared on She Writes

How do we best preserve and study the record of lives lived outside and beyond the limits of the conventional? How do we document third wave feminist and queer activists’ work that is taking place in multiple mediums and often without a paper trail or through a specific organization? As someone who researches and teaches about second and third wave feminist movements, I believe these are important questions. Thankfully, Kelly Wooten has been thinking about the thorny challenges and advantages of researching, documenting and archiving contemporary activists in feminist and queer movements.

Kelly Wooten is the Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, as well as being Librarian for Sexuality Studies for Perkins Library at Duke University. She’s also a graduate of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill where I work. Her new book explores various perspectives on archiving traditional paper-based sources as well as blogs and social media, zines, and other kinds of material artifacts (e.g. tapes, CDs, protest posters, etc.,). I wanted to find out how Kelly approached writing this unique book that creatively brings together activists, archivists, librarians and scholars.

-Tell us about your new co-edited book, Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century. What brought you to writing this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?

I started thinking about this book three years ago in 2009 when Emily Drabinski, the editor for the Litwin Books Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, emailed me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in writing a book about zines after being referred to me by Jenna Freedman, the zine librarian at Barnard. My initial reaction was no, thanks, but then I realized this was a great opportunity to further explore some questions I had been asking about how to document the modern feminist movement beyond zines. Once we started exploring this topic, we realized it was hard to address without including pieces about queer activism and second wave feminism due to the intersectionality and fluid nature of feminism. I hope this book will highlight the Bingham Center’s leadership in documenting the modern feminist movement, but also share the other work being done at other institutions and encourage other archivists and activists to participate in this process since these movements are far too big for just a handful of archives to document.

-How did you find your contributors?

I started by recruiting my co-editor, Lyz Bly, a former Mary Lily Travel Grant recipient who had used the Bingham Center’s zine collections in her research for her dissertation, because I wanted a scholarly perspective to balance my librarian viewpoint. We decided to have a selective call for proposals, and ultimately five of the other contributors had direct connections to the Bingham Center including a former intern Angela DiVeglia, two other Mary Lily Travel Grant recipients: Alison Piepmeier and Kate Eicchorn, zine donor Sarah Dyer, and Alexis Gumbs, a Duke alum and frequent Bingham Center collaborator. The other contributors are part of a network of library colleagues, academics and activists that I’ve been privileged to connect with over the past few years and others who got drawn in through these connections.

-How did you get interested in girls’ studies, and zines made by women and girls?

I’ve always identified as feminist and have been interested in empowerment of women and girls, especially through self-expression, at least since college if not earlier. I wrote a zine in high school (I think we made 10 copies total and maybe 3 people read it), so when I found out about the Bingham Center and their acquisition of the Sarah Dyer Zine Collection while I was in library school, I knew I wanted to get involved. I made the zine collection the topic of a term paper, and later my master’s paper, and I was able to conduct a field experience with the Bingham Center (unpaid internship for course credit) that included curating an exhibit and bibliography about their girls’ literature collection, called “Beyond Nancy Drew.” So those topics were my first point of entry and exploration into the collections here, and when I became a staff member in 2006, I was able to capitalize on my experience and interest in those areas. Girls’ Studies has an inherent component of activism beyond just academic research—this requirement of involvement with a community really appeals to me, and I’ve been able to put this into practice through volunteering to teach zine workshops for Girls’ Rock NC summer camps over the past 6 years.

-What did you learn about the writing process that you didn’t know before you started working on your book?

The biggest thing I learned is that it’s probably not any easier to edit a book than to just write one yourself, but working with this diverse community of writers was rewarding and inspiring and I’m really glad to see it finally in print.

-You graduated with a dual major in English Literature and women’s studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. You know one of my favorite topics is hearing how people take their training in women’s studies and use it after graduation. How have you used your training?

My background in English and women’s studies really is the perfect combination for my work here at the Bingham Center. Women’s studies (the faculty, fellow students, and coursework combined) provided me with critical thinking skills, confidence in my ability to lead and make change (which came from a supportive community, not just individual faith in myself), and the tools I needed to be an activist and communicate and engage with the world. Due to my academic background, I am versed in the basics of feminist history and theory, which not only prepared me to engage with our collections of materials created by feminists like Robin Morgan and Kate Millett, but also provided the underpinnings for understanding the whole endeavor of documenting women’s history in general. Thankfully we no longer (or less frequently!) have to answer “Why do women’s stories and documents from women’s everyday lives matter?” but that question is  at the heart of the work we do.

-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

I have to steal this from something I recently read that Zadie Smith recommended in a talk at the National Book Festival: write at a computer that is not connected to the internet. Of course this is almost impossible, so what really helped me was to set aside a reasonable block of time to focus on this project—just an hour or two at a time. I would take a pen and paper to a coffee shop to write or read essays and edit, or plan a phone date with my co-editor when we could talk uninterrupted by work or kids. It’s not much of a tip, but I had to schedule time for myself to avoid the guilt of avoiding this book!  Also- if you are working with a writing partner or editor, or even by yourself if you are working on different computers or devices—Dropbox is a miracle.

Find out more about the book here

Kelly Wooten is the Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, as well as being Librarian for Sexuality Studies for Perkins Library at Duke University. She provides reference and instruction for women’s studies, sexuality studies, and many other interdisciplinary areas using our rich collections of primary sources and online resources. She also plans a wide variety of public programming to highlight the women’s history collections at the Bingham Center.

Her special interests include book arts, girls’ literature and girls’ studies, contemporary feminist movements, and zines.

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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