Essay / 17 November 2020

Complaint and Survival

It is an overwhelming time; it is hard to know what to do. For those who are non-essential workers, being at home, withdrawing from physical proximity to others, is how we express our loyalty to others, our care for others. For those who understand themselves to be less vulnerable, less likely to become seriously ill from coronavirus, withdrawal is necessary, trying not to become a link in a chain that could lead very quickly to disaster for others.

Saddie Choua, Lamb Chops Should Not Be Overcooked, installation from Contour BIennale 9: Coltan as Cotton, 2019, photo: Lavinia Wouters

We don’t always know the situation in which others find themselves; we don’t always know about other people’s disasters. Compassion and care rest, I feel, on not making presumptions about how other people are doing. We need to listen; to learn. What makes a situation more or less hard is not always tangible or obvious even if we can point to what can ease burdens, material and economic securities, support systems; buffer zones that can protect some from the harsher consequences of crises if not from crises.

If we lose our anchors, we don’t always know what will help us get through. For me, working as an independent scholar, writing is a handle that gives me something to hold onto; I know that is not true for everyone. I don’t write to be productive or because I think what I have to say is important. It is not; it is what it is. Continuing with my own projects such as my project on complaint, keeping  myself going by keeping them going, is not about “carrying on” or “staying calm” or any of the other truisms that seem to circulate as national nostalgia for a time that never was. For me, writing is about holding on; how I stay in touch with myself as well as with others because some of my other handles are broken. It won’t necessarily always be that way. For me, now, writing is a lead, leading me to others; writing as hearing from others.

We are readers before we are writers. I find myself picking up Audre Lorde, again; her words again, guide me through.  I think of Audre Lorde and I think of those moments when a life-line is thrown out to you. A life line: it can be a fragile rope, worn and tethered from the harshness of weather, but it is enough, just enough, to bear your weight, to pull you out, to help you survive a shattering experience.

Words can pull us out.

Saddie Choua, Lamb Chops Should Not Be Overcooked, installation from Contour BIennale 9: Coltan as Cotton, 2019, photo: Lavinia Wouters

In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde described how she was so “sickened with fury” about the acquittal of a white policeman who shot a black child that she wrote the extraordinary poem, “Power” (2017, 85).

In Lorde’s own words:

I was driving in the car and heard the news on the radio that the cop had been acquitted. I was really sickened with fury, and I decided to pull over and just jot some things down in my note book to enable me to cross town without an accident because I felt so sick and so enraged. And I wrote those lines down – I was just writing, and the poem came out without craft.

She stopped the car to get her feelings out.

She stopped the car and a poem came out.

She stopped the car because she knew that what she felt would come out, one way or another; an accident or a poem.

A poem is not an accident.

I have been thinking about that: how sometimes we have to stop what we are doing to feel the true impact of something, to let our bodies experience that impact, the fury of an escalating injustice, a structure as well as an event; a history, an unfinished history.

Sometimes to sustain your commitments you stop what you are doing.

In stopping, something comes out.  We don’t always know what will come out when we stop to register the impact of something. Registering impact can be a life-long project. Perhaps collectives are assembled so we can share the work of registering the impact of what is ongoing; what is shattering.

I have been thinking about stopping and starting; what we have to do to express the truth of a situation; I have been thinking about complaint and survival.

I want to share some quotes from a testimony given to me by an indigenous woman academic. She talked to me about how the project of surviving the violence of colonial occupation led her both to complain and not to complain. Both actions – complaining and not complaining – were for her about survival, not just her own survival, but the survival of her family; her people.

She said:

It is possible I learned very early that in order to keep my job and to have a stable income… that I better just keep my mouth shut, and learn how to avoid these encounters, to protect myself, and to keep quiet about it.

For many, surviving institutions requires trying to avoid “these encounters” that you recognise because they happen. You try to avoid them by being silent about them if they happen or because they happen. Not to be silent, speaking out, speaking up, can be to turn yourself into a target. No wonder some refuse to refuse to be silent – if your family, your people, have been targeted, you might lay low, be quiet, not complain, or not do anything that might be heard as complaint; doing what you can to survive.

Doing what you can to survive: to survive certain histories can require not complaining about them or at least not expressing complaints in the usual places by filling in a form or by sharing in public what you think or feel about a given situation. I noted in my previous post “In the thick of It” how complaints can come out in the middle of a situation, expressed sometimes despite ourselves. Survival can be another way of expressing a complaint, of refusing to acquiesce to the demands of a situation. The implication here is that some of the actions that seem to be about “not complaining” can be oblique complaints, complaints that are not quite expressed or fully expressed; complaints that are below the surface; hidden complaints; underground complaints; queer complaints.

Saddie Choua, Lamb Chops Should Not Be Overcooked, installation from Contour BIennale 9: Coltan as Cotton, 2019, photo: Lavinia Wouters

We might end up expressing our complaints in less usual ways because of what happens when we make complaints in more usual ways. She did in fact try to make a formal complaint, a grievance, after her tenure case was sabotaged by a senior white manager:

I had to send an email to her with the subject line in all capital letters with an exclamation point, my final email to her after 7 months. THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! THIS IS A GRIEVANCE! And her obligation under the university rules and the process is that she has to put it forward. She did not. She did not put it forward.

A complaint does not go forward because it is not put forward by those who receive the complaint. That capitalized subject heading has much to teach us about how complaints are not heard. You have to shout because you are not heard. If you have to shout because you are not heard, you are heard as shouting. When complaints are heard as shouting, complaints are not heard.

Walls can be built from silence. Walls can be effects.  The consequences of how complaints are not heard make it less likely that complaints will be heard; you become worn out, worn down, by the struggle to get a complaint through.

The more you do not get through, the more you have to do. You change tactics:

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

In order to survive institutions, we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Closing a door can be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; teaches her students. She makes use of the institution’s door by using it to shut out what she can, who she can.  Doors can hold so many histories. If she uses the door to shut the institution out, she also takes everything off the door (“my posters, my activism, my leaflets”). She depersonalizes the door; takes herself out of it; her politics off it. That door is not going to be where she expresses herself. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because quite frankly for her, this is a war.

And so we learn: you can withdraw from an institution to take up a fight. You can take the institution on by taking it out. You don’t put everything you have into it; you do what you have to do to get through.

I think of Lorde: how a poem comes out when she stops what she was doing. I think sometimes you withdraw from a situation – driving a vehicle, being in the driver’s seat – to express your commitments. You close the door; stop the car because you need to get something out; you need to get yourself out.

You need to get yourself out; get yourself through.

When there is an effort to stop you from getting through, getting through can be how you express a complaint. When you are told you are not supposed to be here, that this place is not for you, the likes of you; this university, this nation, this neighborhood, being here can be complaint; being can be a complaint; being as complaint. If not complaining gives you a better chance of being, not complaining can give you a better chance of complaining.

Can: not always and not only. It can be a difficult deal: how we survive some structures can be how those structures are reproduced.  Yes, that is true. But there is more to it. The story of reproduction is a much less smooth story when told from the point of view of those who express their complaints obliquely, passing as not complaining, in order to trouble what they receive; that inheritance we call history. There can be creativity in laying low. When you pass into the background, you are not striking, you do not appear to be striking (behind a smile, there can be a strike behind a smile) there are other things you can do.

We learn from survival strategies. We are our survival strategies.


There is only so much you can take on as there is only so much you can take in.


We can’t take everything on. We can’t take everything in.


Lorde, Audre (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You. London: Silver Press.

Posted on March 23, 2020 by feministkilljoys:


Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed is an independent feminist scholar and writer. Her work is concerned with how power is experienced and challenged in everyday life and institutional cultures. She has recently completed a book entitled Complaint! which will be published by Duke University Press in 2021. She is currently writing The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, which she hopes to follow with The Complainer's Handbook. Her previous publications include What's The Use? On the Uses of Use (2019), Living a Feminist Life (2017), Willful Subjects (2014), On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), The Promise of Happiness (2010), Queer Phenomenology: Objects, Orientations, Others (2006), The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014, 2004), Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000) and Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (1998).