I met KaeLyn Rich in terminal six of Los Angeles International Airport five years ago, surrounded by what seemed like 100 other queer people who already knew each other. We were on our way to be the staff of A-Camp. KaeLyn and I were both pretty new to Autostraddle and it was the first camp for each of us, but when we ended up across the aisle from each other near the back of the charter bus and I looked over at her, I could tell we were having completely different experiences. The number of new people overwhelmed and intimidated me; KaeLyn was just waiting to hang out with what would obviously be her new friends. The unknown of camp was suffusing me with dread and anxiety; KaeLyn was perched on her seat, wide-eyed, ready for adventure. Something magical happened on the way up that mountain: As KaeLyn chatted happily to me, telling me about her life and asking me about mine, sharing all the things she was passionate about and her dreams for her week in the woods and the world at large, my worries dissolved. Wrapped in the warmth of her hopes, I saw the way forward.
I had that exact same experience reading KaeLyn’s first book, Girls Resist!: A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution, which was published by Quirk Books this summer. Every adult who reads this book says they wish it’d been available to them when they were youths, and I agree — but to be quite honest, it was also what I needed at this moment in my life. Girls Resist! is part introduction to intersectional feminism and part actual workbook with detailed information and plans for how to engage in various forms of activism that contribute to toppling the patriarchy. So many of us have felt so lost these last few years, overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of horrors perpetrated against minorities by our government. While I was, at times, cowering under my covers, KaeLyn was hovered over her keyboard, all day and all night, writing to teach every generation of girls and women how, exactly, to proceed.
You already know KaeLyn, of course, from her writing on Autostraddle dot com — including her actionable activism series, Be the Change, and her beloved T. Rex parenting column — and now you have a chance to know her even more. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her book for me!
I was reading your book in the middle of this #MeToo conversation we’re having about Woody Allen and Louis CK and the other shitty men whose behavior we excuse because they “make good art” and I kept coming back to what Alice Walker said about, “Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.” And I can’t tell you what a gift it was, knowing you, knowing the kind of person you are, to be able to relax into this art you created. Did you feel that extra pressure, at this moment in time, in this political climate, creating this book?
Oh yeah, I felt the extra pressure, self-inflicted and from my publisher and from the universe. I’d always thought I’d write a book, but I didn’t know it was going to be this one or at this time. The extreme political moment that we’re in right now kind of created the exact right conditions for this book to exist. That said, this is 100% in no way a book that’s about responding to Trump and I finished the manuscript before #MeToo rose into the upper echelons of White Men in Hollywood.
I had actually been wanting to write about organizing for Autostraddle and had a little mini-series on my figurative ideas shelf for a while. I think I’d even pitched it to the editors and was just working on refining the idea. This was months before the November election, under the Obama administration, when everyone I knew thought Trump was a ridiculous prospect for 45. Similarly, an editor at Quirk Books had been thinking about developing a teen activism handbook.
After the election, I started actually writing that organizing column, Be The Change, because it felt even more urgent and relevant to what people needed in the moment. Blair started hunting for someone to write the book and found an Autostraddle piece I wrote on Twitter. She reached out to me by email — which was a surreal AF moment — and that’s how it came together.
So, what I’m trying to say is, like, this book was just as necessary before November 2016 and it has been, in many ways, influenced and bolstered by this moment we’re in. Certainly the urgency to write the entire manuscript in three months came from that urgency. But the words have their own urgency that’s not date or time-stamped or even exclusive to the U.S. It’s the urgency of being a girl, in the broadest sense of that admittedly binary term, of being a marginalized person and knowing in your heart that you have the power to change your world.
On a related sidenote, the first language translation to be confirmed was Hungarian and I’ve been thinking about the Hungarian version of Girls Resist lately, with the news that gender studies programs will be eliminated in Hungary. I hope this book comes at the right time for feminists already fighting back in Hungary.
There’s a lot to learn about intersectionality in this book and I want to talk about one personal intersection for you, which is being a longtime political organizer and a fairly new mom, and how both of those things — and the collision of them — affected the way you approached this project?
This is the best question anyone has ever asked me, ever. The truth is that I was deep in writing this book right around the time my daughter turned one. I’d actually stepped away from a lot of volunteer work I was doing at the time because the unattainable goal of work-life balance was weighing heavily on me. I dedicated this book to Remi and to the person Remi is now and the person I hope Remi will continue to be, confident, self-assured, and passionate about everything. At the same time, I felt like the worst parent.
I work full-time at my day job, so I had to take every opportunity to write. I was spending whole weekends away from my family, pounding out chapters from the corner of Equal = Grounds, the gay-owned coffee shop near my house. I would sit and write and write until my back was sore and my mind was empty and I’d come home and barely spend any time with Remi or with Waffle and then sleep on the couch, pulling an all-nighter with rotating short naps to keep writing until it was literally the next day. Waffle was holding down everything around the house — the chores, the shopping, the childcare, the birthday planning. I felt like a shitty parent and partner while I was writing the book.
That said, I also felt the book more deeply because I felt it not only for my younger self, but for Remi. Whatever gender Remi turns out to be when Remi’s old enough to articulate it, being assigned female at birth means the world will not open so readily as it would for a cisgender boy. There is no possibility of Remi being a cisgender boy. And, so, very much in my heart I wrote this book thinking about Remi and the future world I want to create for all our children and the pain of being of multiple marginalized identities and how that will shape Remi’s experience of our family and self. It was while writing this book that I mentally grappled with the idea that there is a high likelihood my child will experience sexual assault, like I have, and that my baby will definitely be affected by hypersexualization with a racist tinge, that the microaggressions that are already happening only get worse as Remi is more able to understand and process them. All the reasons I never thought I would bring another human into this world are all the reasons that getting this book “right” felt important as I wrote it into the world.
On a more practical note, I was careful not to use “mom voice,” because this book isn’t about protecting or condescending to young people, to girls. I wanted to approach young people as the smart, cool, independent people they are and with the full acknowledgment that teens have the answers to questions I wouldn’t even think to ask. I take some comfort as a parent knowing that Remi gets to grow up and be part of the solution and that it will look totally different than what I might predict or suggest.
My favorite thing about this book, because I know it’s the thing that would have absolutely changed my life if someone had given it to me when I was 12, is that you give girls permission to be angry and then give them language for the things that are likely contributing to their anger. Privilege, power, patriarchy, over/hyper-sexualization of young women’s bodies, etc. Can you talk a little but about that?
I think, as adults who are in this movement, we have to start from the place the girls already know oppression and have already reacted to it in their bodies and minds. No teen girl, even with the most systemic privilege, is going to pick up this book and be shocked by the idea that inequity exists. Because it’s touched our lives. What teens don’t always have, because we don’t teach it in school and parents don’t necessarily talk about it or recognize the need for it, is the language to name and unpack these awful things that happen to us.
My first memory of rape culture and sexual harassment was this kid in kindergarten who had a crush on me. He and his friends would chase me around the playground and try to catch me so they could hold me down for him to kiss me on the cheek. I guess that sounds like not a big deal to some people, but it was embarrassing and scary for me as a kid and I remember hating him so much, having so much anger towards him. Yet, teachers and adults thought it was cute that he had a crush on me, not knowing how I felt. They even encouraged me to dance with him at the Spring Fling, a elementary school assembly day because I’m sure they thought it was cute. I was so angry at him and at my own humiliation. I wish someone had allowed me to be angry or even just asked me how I felt.
One of the surprising things to me is that some of my fan mail (OMG so weird to say “fan mail”) is from girls as young as eight or nine years old, who are reading Girls Resist with their moms. They get this stuff already, even at that early age. It’s already resonant to their experience of being a target of the patriarchy. I hate that so much and I’m so moved that Girls Resist is able to be a part of helping girls feel validated in their rage and feel supported in doing something to fight back.
So many of the reviews I’ve read of Girls Resist are from people who have experienced that anger, and who have a framework for it, but had no idea how to begin organizing around it, or even that they could organize around it. When you began conceiving this book, did you always know it was going to be practical as well as educational? Did the mass organizing after Trump’s election have any impact on that?
The idea was an activism guidebook, from the start. I immediately had a vision for what that was because I’ve read guidebooks on activism. The classic ones. The organizing “bibles,” as they’re sometimes called. Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, Organizing for Social Change by the Midwest Academy, and many others. But these books are written almost exclusively by white people and the most credit in organizing theory is given to white men like Saul Alinsky. These tools were helpful to me, but I never felt they were written for me. There is something about taking those basic recipes for organizing success, which are just the very basics of what every organizer learns regardless of whose method they are instructed in, and framing them in a feminist way for a youth reader. Of all the organizing books on the shelf, I wanted this one to be for teens and for girls who might not see themselves reflected in the writing of white adult men. It needed to have those fundamentals I picked up from over a decade of personal and professional organizing, but through my lens as a queer woman of color.
The educational parts are really about a feminist framework for organizing, which means we have to articulate our own positionality in relation to the work, that we have to think about the ways in which our labor is exploited in movements and articulate a vision for intersectionality and reciprocal self-care. I wanted to give every reader a place to start from that was resonant and accessible. I hope I was successful in that.
The mass organizing after Trump didn’t affect the book directly because the tools are the same. What did affect it was seeing white women who were either new or retired from activism pick up the megaphone after the election and begin to use that megaphone to drown out the voices of people of color who’d been organizing around things like immigration and racism for literal lifetimes. I also saw young people doing a much better job on intersectionality like the young people involved in organizing #BlackLivesMatter and the Parkland students who handed the mic directly to Black youth at schools where gun violence has been an unaddressed problem forever. The book would have been the same with or without the mass activism after Trump’s election, but I do think it’s especially helpful to folks who need it right now.
If you could be sure all your readers took one specific lesson and one specific tip away from this book, what would they be?
One special lesson: The most important activist skill is learning to listen deeply, to others, to your inner voice, but especially to people who experience the world in different ways than you do. We will only fight to win when we are working together and we can only work together meaningfully when we are listening to each other and really hearing each other.
One specific tip: When it comes to organizing, start with your goals, not your tactics. You will be so much more clear on what you need to do if you start from why you want to do it. Reactionary activism and organizing is really necessary and vital at times, but building long-term movements always involves having a goals-oriented plan.
I saw a lot of parents on GoodReads and Amazon talking about reading this book out loud to their daughters, which made me so happy (I can’t imagine how it makes YOU feel). Do you think you’ll read this book to Remi?
Maybe one day! I definitely plan to impart this knowledge in some way. When Remi was little and easily portable, I wore her to protests and meetings and such all the time. I plan to bring Remi with me again so activism will be a part of her life from an early age.
The jury is still out on whether Remi will think this is all very cool or be very embarrassed by me. LOL.
Are you going to write another book (please!)? What will it be about?
I’m working on my next book proposal right now, actually, and I’m not ready to say too much quite yet, but the idea is for a YA nonfiction book specifically for and about LGBTQ people.
And now you’ve experienced the magic of KaeLyn Rich even more! You can (and should) buy yourself and everyone you know a copy of Girls Resist! immediately!