Giving Women Permission to Own Their Anger
The essays in "Burn It Down" look at the personal and political value of rage
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I was speaking with a friend recently about how we both deal with our anger as women on a daily basis, but especially during a time in which our reproductive health and our bodies are under attack by our country. So many women carry anger within us as a necessary step towards healing from trauma, from mistreatment, from microaggressions, and daily living. The issue, she said, is when anger is no longer productive and keeps us stuck spinning our wheels, roiling around inside of us with nowhere to go.
Burn It Down, a new essay anthology, contains voices from women across cultures and experiences who are attempting to address this very problem. Their work discusses anger caused by many different catalysts: misogyny, transphobia, sexual assault, racism, Islamophobia, gun violence, domestic violence, hormones and the more innocuous things like hunger and annoyance that make us angry just because they do. But, as editor Lilly Dancyger says in her introduction, “this anthology is not about the things that make us angry; it’s about us, and all the many ways we feel and live with our anger.” The authors discuss how they continuously work towards validating their anger first before they can make use of it. So many times, women and femmes are socialized to suppress anger, to push it down and even question whether one’s own anger is justified. The title, Burn It Down, suggests that in order to make real change, anger must be allowed to burn first like a cleansing fire that can make room for new growth. Part of the work of this collection is to say, yes, women’s anger is justified, and more than that, it is necessary to live authentic, healthy lives.
I spoke with the editor Lilly Dancyger about what can happen when women are allowed to understand and own their rage.
Leticia Urieta: Why did it feel important to create this anthology now? Where did it begin for you?
Lilly Dancyger: The idea started with Seal [Press]; it was a project they developed in-house. I had a good relationship with an editor there and they reached out to me. And I was like, “Have you been reading my diary? Of course I want to work on this!” It felt important now largely, but not entirely because of the political climate and everything happening in the world right now. Many women are tapping into and reclaiming anger that they have been repressing or explaining away that they didn’t know was there. I think that collectively we are angry. Women are so conditioned not to get angry or not to show it when we are. We are supposed to be nice and sweet and kind. So for a lot of people who are experiencing this cultural and communal anger, it is an uncomfortable and confusing experience and they don’t know what to do with it or even if they are right to express it. I was excited at the opportunity for writers to articulate that anger and for others to see it and understand that they are not alone when they feel that way. A lot of the pieces in the book talk about not only feelings of anger but what to do with it, which I think is important to have as we all navigate this really infuriating time.
LU: One of the ideas that I think comes across in this anthology is that anger expressed by women is a threat to patriarchal oppression, and this is why women are socialized to eat their anger before it leaks out and harms others. In your introduction, you describe having to push many of the writers in the anthology to “get angry” despite this socialization. How did you do so as an editor without being triggering or unkind?
LD: So much of editing is pulling out what is already there without veering into projecting what I think is there that is not. I am pushing them to go all the way there. That is why so much of this is a conversation. A lot of writers described what they were angry about, and so I would ask questions like “What did that feel like or look like? Can you describe it? What does it feel like physically to feel angry?” A lot of this process is getting back into the body. We often talk about emotions in a detached way, particularly as women in personal writing, and so embodying that rage is difficult and takes some digging and that is what an editor is for, to push you to go beyond the edges of the thing, and to go into the moment more deeply. Usually that is enough. But there were some writers who I pushed who pushed back and made me realize that I was imagining a version of the story that was in my head that wasn’t their experience.
LU: That seems important too because it seems that you are trying to get to an authentic representation of their anger without being performative.
LD: Yes, and it was really interesting working with so many different writers on the same topic all at once and to leave room for all of them to feel and express their anger differently. There were some things that came up a few times, like a few writers wrote about anger as the color red. I didn’t want to cut those patterns out because it is interesting to see concepts repeat and that there are things that are shared, like embodying physical heat. I also liked the variations. It was important to leave room for them to write about anger authentically to each of them, even in their writing styles. Some are more lyrical and others are more editorial, and I had to resist my impulse to make a uniform style because that was not authentic. I wanted to avoid a preconceived notion of any particular style or tone that I might be seeking.
LU: Do you think that the anthology is working to dispel the notion that women’s anger is singular in some way?
LD: I hope so! Women’s anger is “popular” right now. It’s a topic that has emerged as a talking point and a political force, and we have culturally come around to at least admitting that it exists. But that also runs the risk of thinking about it as a singular thing or as uncomplicated or simple. Women’s anger is not just the Women’s March; women’s anger can be quiet, can be internal and self-destructive and sometimes it can be external and destructive, it can be healing, it can be productive, it can be empowering, it can be all kinds of things. It can be a positive force that we talk about politically but it can also be poisonous if we don’t get it out. I wanted to give space to talk about anger beyond, “rah rah, girl power” and to talk about it as it actually is in our lives.
LU: I think you are touching on how there is a danger in anger if we allow it to consume us. In your introduction you say that “I wanted to treat anger not as a means to an end, but for its own sake.” What healing is there when we allow anger to burn?
LD: There is harmful, all consuming anger that is expressed, like becoming obsessed with something, or looking for revenge, but a lot of the harm that comes with anger is when it is held inside and not acknowledged. Sometimes just acknowledging that “I’m angry” and allowing that to be true is a huge step. I do that when I fight with my husband. I like to talk through conflict, but sometimes I have to say, “I’m fucking pissed off right now, and you need to give me some space to be angry.” The first time I did that, I felt like I was breaking the rules! But once I did it, I realized that it’s not harsh or mean, it’s just true. Sometimes what you need is space to be angry.
LU: I think that is something happening in this anthology, which is acknowledging that anger is not an ending place, but a starting place.
LD: Exactly. And I don’t know that there is an ending place. That’s the complicated thing about anger, there’s not always a way to redirect it and turn it into something positive. Sometimes it can be, and a lot of writers in the anthology talk about channeling into creative energy or politically energy, and have found a way to make it useful. But sometimes it’s not. It doesn’t have to become pretty and useful.
LU: Right, and that if it is allowed to exist, you are allowing yourself to live more authentically.
LD: Yes, and also that in feeling anger, it loses its power over you.
LU: How did you make it a priority to feature many different voices and expressions of women’s anger?
LD: That was a big priority from the beginning. This whole project would be pointless if the entire book is a bunch of cis straight white women talking about anger. It would have made it invalid. At first the process of soliciting pieces was challenging because I wanted to include as many different writers as possible, but I also didn’t want to tokenize people like I’m checking off a list of perspectives or identities. So I prioritized reaching out to writers whose work I admired or am excited about, but also keeping track of demographics and considering representation. I didn’t ask any white women until the second or third round of solicitations. Some of the essays I solicited because of topics I was interested in them covering. I knew we couldn’t create a book about women’s anger without discussing the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” that had to be in there. I also knew that there had to be trans women’s voices included both to dispel any notion that trans women are not women, and to hear their perspectives on how they learned the rules of women’s expressions of anger and what that awareness looked like.
LU: Several of the essays in the collection, such as Marissa Korbel’s “Why We Cry When We’re Angry” and Meredith Talusan’s “Basic Math” ask the reader to reconsider what expressions of anger we consider feminine and what we consider masculine. Do you think that these pieces are complicating the gender binary and how it limits what expressions of anger are generally considered acceptable from women and femme peoples?
LD: It’s an immediately fraught topic to talk about gendered anger. We are already starting with a presumption of what that means. Still, that is why I reached out to the smartest writers I know! They already had that question in mind of what makes women’s anger women’s anger as opposed to just anger. The writers were immediately aware of assumptions around that. When I reached out to them I simply said “talk to me about anger and how you experience it.” A lot of it ended up being about how women are socialized to suppress anger, but it was also about how writers who happen to be women feel anger.
LU: What conversations about women’s anger do you hope to create with this book once the reader is finished with it?
LD: I hope that the reader will take a closer look at the ways that they experience anger, and the ways that they do or don’t express it. So many of the essays ended up talking about the unexpected ways that anger comes out when we try to repress it; it comes out as tears, or guilt, shame, eating disorders, so many ways. I hope that it encourages people to give themselves permission to get their anger out, to examine it, express it and letting it be what it is.
LU: Do you feel that examining anger is a path towards social change?
LD: Yes, of course. I don’t want to de-value anger as a social tool, but I want to see it as more than that. I do think though that getting angry is essential to being directly engaged with society and making change. We can look around and see what is happening in the world and shrug, or we can get angry and do something about it. People don’t change the world by being apathetic, they do it by getting angry and not taking it any more. That’s a point I think we all need to get to.
LU: Yes. My hope is that a cis man would read this and understand a bit more and feel some compassion. Not that they will save us.
LD: It’s funny, I didn’t really think about that. This book felt like a reciprocal act of care between women. But yes, there is something to living in this world as women that cis men are oblivious too and it would be good for them to see what we are going through. However, I think that whether they listen or not, if enough of us get angry and go out and do what needs to be done, they won’t have a choice anymore.