Feminism & Technology
New Suns founder Sarah Shin explains the origins of the festival, and explores the literary work that inspired this year’s programme and theme - feminist approaches to technology.
As New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival returns for its second year, we caught up with its founder, Sarah Shin, to learn more about the festival’s origins, feminist publishing and we start to explore some questions in feminist approaches to technology.
Where did the idea for New Suns come from?
'New Suns began as an idea when Silver Press first published poet Audre Lorde back in 2017. We published Your Silence Will Not Protect You, which brought together her prose and poetry We thought we were the first British publishers of her work but actually it turned out we were wrong: she had previously been published by Sheba Press in the 1980s. From here, I started to discover this incredibly inspiring and vibrant scene of feminist exchange and publishing.
I originally had the idea of putting on an archival exhibition and talks series, and met with Alison Read from Sheba Press. She connected us to Jane Anger and Jane Cholmeley who is one of the founders of the legendary Silver Moon book shop, which used to be on Charing Cross Road. With some friends, I started learning more and more about this extraordinary network of feminist publishers, distributors and booksellers who all came together at the first International Feminist Book Fair in 1984. This was when Sheba published Audre's mytho-biography, Zami – and brought her over from the United States to speak at the book fair.
The idea evolved from this – that we should create a feminist bookfair for today. Books are incredible vehicles for ideas and stories and bookfairs have for centuries been spaces where the trade comes together to exchange and disseminate knowledge. Working with the Barbican, the project evolved into a literary festival which includes the bookfair, where publishers sell their books to the public alongside talks, film screenings and workshops.'
'Books are incredible vehicles for ideas and stories and bookfairs have for centuries been spaces where the trade comes together to exchange and disseminate knowledge'
What do you think is special about New Suns?
'I started thinking about New Suns in 2017, which was the year of Trump’s inauguration and #MeToo. #MeToo burst open a dam that needed to break but it was also painful for a lot of people and it seemed like a lot of feminist energy was being directed to struggles reacting to increasingly open misogyny and racism and transphobia. I wanted to create a generative space with New Suns, where people could come together and meet each other and enjoy themselves. Because of the mood of this current moment, I also wanted to introduce some access points to healing practices.
Activists like Angela Davis and Chani Nicholas teach that selfcare, healing, attention to the body and the interior world must be a part of liberatory work. In this year's festival, that's where the idea for a Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Ritual Listening’ workshop, in collaboration with Jo Kali from Rewire Festival, came from. We’ll also have an event exploring Zadie Xa's engagement with Korean Shamanism, co-curated with Res.
'Indie presses have always done a lot of important work to expand what feminism, gender, art and literature can be'
What excites you about feminist publishing at the moment?
'I love that there are new IRL [in real life] spaces opening. Allison Devers has opened the Second Shelf, which is a beautiful little shop in Soho dedicated to rare books by women and there's been news that The Black Feminist bookshop is set to open in London. I am particularly excited by what small presses and indies are doing because I think they tend to be more adventurous and experimental though there are great books coming out from publishers across the whole spectrum of scale. They've always done a lot of important work to expand what feminism, gender, art and literature can be. There’s also been a revival of The Feminist Book Fortnight, an initiative that works with small independent publishers and bookshops that took place in the 1980s.'
What do you think are the challenges it faces?
'It’s brilliant that feminism is definitely entering the mainstream, but it's important not to lose sight of the fact that the point is to change the world not just assimilate. This demands a close scrutiny of the conditions in which work is created, published and read. What are the structural conditions that determine who has access to the conditions - material, psychic, social and otherwise - necessary to write a book? Who has access to work within the industry with its low entrance level salaries? Who can afford to buy and read books and participate in literary culture? These are just some of the most simple questions that risk being obscured in the marketing of feminism.'
'We can think of storytelling itself as a form of cultural technology...'
An Ursula Le Guin essay inspired the festival - what ideas or reflections did that material spark for you? And how do you explain it to those who haven’t read it?
In The Carrier Bag Theory essay, Ursula Le Guin presents an alternative vision of human evolution that challenges the dominant narrative of technologically driven progress. She says:
'With or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home'
Before the preeminence of sticks and swords and the long hard things for killing, of the Hero’s tale, our ancestor's greatest invention was a container used by women to sustain life. Le Guin lists the basket of rolled oats, the water bottle, the medicine bundle, the net made of your own hair, the home, the shrine, the place that contains whatever is sacred, but as well as those things, the container is also the recipient, the beholder, the story - 'the bag of stars', as she puts it.
So in this way, she connects technology and narrative so we can think of storytelling itself as a form of cultural technology. And technology as part of a patriarchal story that puts it in the service of killing, surveillance and the ceaseless extraction of profit. I think that this direction of technology, what Le Guin calls 'hard tech', is intimately connected to ideas around realism and rationalism, which resist making what is both unrealistic and unjust in the name of common sense.
The doctrine of common sense vanishes elements of life that Western culture has historically prescribed to territory of the hysterical feminine, such as the irrational and ‘out-of-control’, the unknowable, the vulnerable, the worlds of the body, emotions and the unconscious. We're meant to understand ‘reality’ and how things are as reasonable, coherent and incontestable, supported by technology because the world is supposedly made more knowable through more data. But the glitches in this collective hallucination are becoming increasingly visible and I think it's time for the multiplicity of narratives of existence and experience (human and otherwise), epistemology, time, space and mysteries to emerge.
Ben Vickers, who I founded Ignota Books with, introduced me to Ursula Le Guin's 'The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction' essay which inspired the artist Sophia Al-Maria’s Whitechapel Gallery exhibition, 'BCE’ featuring a collaboration with Victoria Sin, responding to Le Guin’s reimagination of narrative itself as a feminist project, and her wonderful book, Sad Sack, published by Book Works this year. So the inspiration for this year’s New Suns is indebted to their work with Le Guin’s vision – and I’m really happy that Victoria and Sophia will be part of the keynote panel with Irenosen Okojie and Tai Shani.
'We're meant to understand reality and how things are as something reasonable and incontestable…
But the glitches in this collective hallucination are becoming more and more visible...'
How do you think feminist writing is responding to technological change?
'Imaginative forms such as poetry and speculative writing remain very powerful in challenging what Le Guin calls the ‘linear, progressive, Time's-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic.’
It’s vital that feminists continue to explore the relationship of technology and the body because some bodies remain far more vulnerable than others despite ‘techno-utopian’ hopes. Feminist writing in this area responds to issues around feminist biopolitics including disability, trans rights, looking at how technologies serve racialisation and of course reproduction.
Feminist critiques of liberal humanism (especially by, but not limited, to black feminism and women of colour feminism) have long noted the violence of a universalism which obscures the hierarchy in who is more human and who is less human, with proximity to whiteness and maleness granting inclusion into greater humanity. The feminist interest in and of ‘otherness’ prefigures the questions raised by the explosion of AI into everyday cultural consciousness around our anthropocentric notions of creativity, ‘genius’, authorship and value. So I’m curious to see how technologies such as AI will influence the production and aesthetics of literature, and the impact on cultural industries, and how feminists will respond in writing and the means of its production.'
This year’s theme is about the intersection of feminism and technology, tell us more about the territory the events will cover…
'This year’s program starts from the premise that the technological imagination can be reclaimed as a portal to other worlds where the varieties of experience can be expanded and remade. So the events cover a terrain that includes poetry, speculative writing, feminist epistemologies, sound ritual as healing technology, contemporary technofeminism and reproductive justice.'
'The technological imagination can be reclaimed as a portal to other worlds where the varieties of experience can be expanded and remade...'
What are you reading at the moment that people can pick up at the book fair at the festival?
'I’ve already read many of the books of the speakers at the festival, which will all be on sale in the bookfair, but I might highlight Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch, a darkly imaginative collection of short stories. It’s at times terrifying and lonely and at others fantastically joyful in the freedom with which she plays with language and metaphysics - it’s being published by Dialogue in time for the festival. I tend to read several books at once so I’m currently dipping into some old favourites like the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver, and How Like a Leaf, an interview book with Donna Haraway in which she talks about how the shared molecular architecture of plants and animals enable her to imagine how like a leaf she is. I think this is a beautiful illustration of her work muddling boundaries and suggests that scientists and mystics are perhaps not so different because through intimate scrutiny or meditation, they merge with the object of their contemplation.
I’m also currently proofreading My Mother Laughs, Silver Press’s forthcoming memoir by Chantal Akerman and for Ignota, I’m editing the poet Nisha Ramayya’s debut States of the Body Produced by Love. Both of these are experiments in genre, blending elements of memoir with fragmentary narrative, poetry, theory and images.'
By the speakers:
Sad Sack – Sophia Al-Maria (Book Works, 2019)
Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue, 2019)
Our Fatal Magic – Tai Shani (Strange Attractor, 2019)
Beautiful Warriors: Technofeminist Practice in the 21st Century – ed. by Cornelia Sollfrank (minor compositions, 2019)
TechnoFeminism – ed. by Judy Wacjman (Polity, 2004)
Beyond Unwanted Sound – Marie Thompson (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family – Sophie Lewis (Verso, 2019)
Once and Future Feminist – ed. by Merve Emre (MIT, 2018)
What’s Your Type – Merve Emre (William Collins, 2018)
sirens, body & faultlines – Nat Raha (Boilerhouse, 2018)
Radical Transfeminism zine – ed. by Nat Raha
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge (Bloomsbury, 2017)
WITCH – Rebecca Tamás (Penned in the Margins, 2019)
States of the Body Produced by Love – Nisha Ramayya (Ignota, 2019)
The Happy Hypocrite: Silver Bandage – ed. by Erica Scourti (Book Works, 2019)
Alembic – ed. by Res. (Res., 2018)
Against Memoir – Michelle Tea (And Other Stories, 2019)
Recent publications to look for at New Suns:
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments – Saidiya Hartman (Serpent’s Tail, 2019)
I Will Not Be Erased: Our Stories About Growing Up As People of Colour – gal-dem (Walker, 2019)
Kingdomland – Rachael Allen (Faber, 2019)
Magical Negro – Morgan Parker (Corsair, 2019)
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton, 2019)
Rape – Mithu Sanyal (Verso, 2019)
Constellations – Sinéad Gleeson (Picador, 2019)
Daddy Issues – Katharine Angel (Peninsula Press, 2019)
Corregidora – Gayl Jones (Virago, 2019)
Translating Feminisms poetry chapbook series (Tilted Axis Press, 2019)
My Mother Laughs – Chantal Akerman (Silver Press, 2019)
Happening – Annie Ernaux (Fitzcarraldo, 2019)
On Relationships – (3 of Cups, 2019)
Whose Story is It? – Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2019)
The Collection – Nina Leger (Granta, 2019)
Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze, 2019)
Hormonal – Eleanor Morgan (Virago, 2019)
Surge – Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus, 2019)
salt slow – Julia Armfield (Picador, 2019)
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrea Lawlor (Picador, 2019)
The Collected Schizophrenias – Esmé Wang Weijun (Penguin, 2019)
You Know You Want This – Kristen Roupenian (Jonathan Cape, 2019)
Shelf Life – Livia Franchini (Doubleday, 2019)
Queer Intentions – Amelia Abraham (Picador, 2019)
The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, 2019)
Sarah Shin is a publisher and curator. She is a co-founder and director of the Silver Press and Ignota Books and works at Verso Books.
About New Suns
The day will include workshops, talks and screenings exploring technofeminism, storytelling, sonic ritual, gender identity, reproductive justice and indigenous knowledge with writers, artists, mystics, poets and academics. In the spirit of the 1980s international feminist bookfairs, there will also be over thirty stalls to explore across the Barbican's Level G, and selected events for free.
New Suns takes place on Saturday 5 October.
New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival is accompanied by a cinema season, Cyberfeminism on Film: Gender, Sexuality, Technology (5-8 Oct) exploring fascinating and still radical ways of thinking about gender, sexuality and technology with a feminist twist.
Listen to a talk from New Suns 2018
What new stories can feminist myth-making offer to help create a habitable future? Authors Maria Dahvana Headley (The Mere Wife), Sophie Mackintosh (The Water Cure), and Preti Taneja (We That Are Young) - chaired by author So Mayer - discuss the many forms of feminist myth-making in literature and read extracts from their novels.