Zahira Kelly is an Afro-Latina artist, writer and sociocultural critic from the Dominican Republic and the USA. Her work incorporates themes of race, ethnicity, gender, and other identities, calling for drastic changes to the oppressive status quo, and recognizing the histories of people often erased by the dominant historical narratives created by those who benefit from that continued oppression. She will participate in our 2017 PitchWise Festival.
Questions written and compiled by Justine Lyons, CURE Foundation Volunteer.
How would you introduce or describe the work you will present at PitchWise 2017?
My writing and art are centered on the needs and historical and present struggles of AfroLatinAmerican femmes in both Latin America and the U.S. In my work I analyze, deconstruct and critique oppressive social norms and media and connect the dots between them and Colonialism and Black Slavery.
What do you know about the women’s movement, and the development of intersectional feminism in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
I am aware of how women suffered gendered violence through the civil war and that they have struggled for equity both pre and post civil war. And how things have, by some accounts, become even less equitable for many women post-socialism due to lack of support for their trauma, misogynist social expectations and unpaid gendered labor.
What similarities can you see in the places where you’ve lived and Bosnia and Herzegovina relating to patriarchal culture and the challenges faced by members of marginalized communities? And what do you think our respective communities can learn from each other through participation in PitchWise 2017?
In reading about women in Bosnia in the aftermath of bloody war, I was struck by the similarities between post Colonial women and Bosnian women. Both have endured mass rape, displacement, persecution for their ethnicity. While colonization is a different, centuries long animal, the common points are widespread gendered sexual and other violence, genocide and the troubles of dealing with trauma and rebuilding after the fact in an inevitably changed society. While I would never equate or collapse our individual struggles, I’m confident we will learn we are not all that different in the end.
How do you think that we can all ensure that our spaces and actions are inclusive of individuals of differing races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, abilities, and other identities?
We live in a very big world. I do not believe it should be an otherworldly task to simply consider and respect all our different contexts, power dynamics, and positionality. It is easy to shut down the most marginal voices when listening brings a feeling of being incriminated or holding power over them. When hearing that others struggle under us seems like our struggles are being voided. But all these things are happening at once. It’s not either or, Its “Both And”. We aren’t all equally affected by everything nor in the same ways. Those are things we must acknowledge in order to begin repairing and rebuilding.
How do you see yourself affecting positive change in the future? And how would you encourage others to do so?
My goals are unfortunately still very tied to basic survival in the present because I am still a marginalized woman and single mother. It would be great to look beyond that but when food and shelter are still hard to come by, I have no choice but to fret about that if I am to stay alive and be around to see a future. In the last few years, speaking on my life, history and truth has opened many doors and minds. But I know even being able to speak on it and be heard at all is a privilege. I can only hope that other women and femmes see themselves as worthy and experts on their own experience, going forward.
What do you think is your biggest professional accomplishment so far?
Professional accomplishments I guess are something I don’t necessarily think about. I struggle to stay alive and do so while affecting some sort of change. It is cliche but it is true: I stay on this earth so my daughter will not be left alone in this madness. That is my greatest achievement. The awards, events, features in publications or invitations to university lectures occur as I try to survive. I am deeply grateful for every opportunity. But I do not center the professional in what I do. The work for me is inevitable for survival.
What kind of reactions does your work receive, and from whom?
Visibility has been both rewarding and affirming and dangerous and harmful. I have received an outpouring of love, support, opportunities, thanks for helping women recognize and leave abusive situations, thanks for helping women, especially marginalized ones, feel less alone, more confident, beautiful and unapologetic about their voice, thanks for helping men come to terms with their oppressive behaviors. But I have also gotten lots of vile racist misogynist hate-mail, stalking, harassment, rape and death threats from people of all walks of life. I had people dig up and expose my home and work address and photos of my daughter in hopes someone will come find and harm us. Speaking out against and challenging hundreds year old oppressive social norms unfortunately garners lots of pushback and abuse, not just fascination and support.
Can you share some of your perspective on the importance of incorporating race and ethnicity into the concept of feminism?
It is dehumanizing to ask people to be silent on their particular struggles just because we do not face them. Race and ethnicity bring their own challenges. I come from Latin America where being a Black woman leaves me erased, invisibilized and dehumanized. While nonblack LatinAmerican women also face many issues, they are centered in larger social and womens discourse and media. Feminism that doesn’t respect and address and seek to rectify how different my experience is for being Latin American, Black and lower class? Is not very feminist. We live in a global society that is hierarchal and does not treat everyone with the same humanity and reverence. And refusing to acknowledge our different experiences leaves us unable to remedy the roadblocks in our way. After all, you cannot fix things you do not admit exist. And only addressing the issues of women who do not face oppression for their race or ethnicity (or face less of it) ultimately ignores and leaves the most vulnerable needy women in the cold and favors the more powerful. Which is exactly what we, or at least I, am looking to eradicate.
In the face of the growing recognition of right-wing agendas across the world in recent years, have you felt any sort of difference in your work? Do you think that the recent rise of populism in the USA brings new kinds of oppression, or has it created new awareness of existing oppression?
For years women in my community have been warning everyone of what was coming, screaming about what was being done to us. We were called crazy exaggerating alarmists, liars, drama queens. Now everyone realizes they cannot escape it either so only now is it considered a problem. Marginal women are the canaries in the coal mine, we feel the effects of harmful policy and ideology first and most deeply. If we were listened to, others would be saved to. Instead people who were more protected are now panicking because they’re beginning to face a fraction of the harrassment and threats we have been forced to endure. They are alarmed because it’s looking like they will have to live some of the hardship we have for centuries. It is hard for women in my situation to fear impending doom when we have lived it for so long. Things have gotten worse in a sense in the U.S. but they’re still not anywhere near as bad as they are for women in my home country of the Dominican Republic, as what I grew up accustomed to. Why is it cause for alarm that the socalled 1st worlders will now struggle more but never cause for alarm that women in my country have endured far worse for hundreds of years?
So I do not necessarily believe it has brought awareness. It has brought out people in comfortable positions who only care now because they may finally be affected, and they still don’t acknowledge that as things get worse, marginal femmes will face the most violent and harmful consequences of it all. We have a ways to go.