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Sensuous Knowledge: A Conversation with Minna Salami

By Andy West.

Photo Credit: Alan Howard

Minna Salami is a Nigerian-Finnish and Swedish writer and lecturer, and the founder of the multiple award-winning blog, MsAfropolitan. Her debut book, Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, is recently published by Harper Collins and Zed. Andy West spoke to Minna Salami about her new book.


3:AM Magazine: You make a distinction in your book between what you call europatriarchal knowledge, which facilitates oppression, and sensuous knowledge, which is emancipatory. What are these two types of knowledge?

Minna Salami: Europatriarchal Knowledge is rooted in the idea that knowledge is something to acquire, own and possess, and subsequently that quanitification and the deductive method are the only worthy ways of knowing. I think this takes away the humanity of knowledge. It creates systems that are measurement and hierarchy obsessed. I was just reading an article about how councils around the UK are using algorithms to determine whether to grant benefits or not. I would say that this is an example of Europatriarchal Knowledge. The people who most need a human touch, who need to be heard, are being met with a machine. The machine may say yes or no. If it says no then they have nobody to have a dialogue with. It’s these ways that Europatriarchal Knowledge oppresses people. But, I’m not arguing against reason or deductive knowledge. Rather, those things are so important that we need to create a passion for them and humanise them. That’s what Sensuous Knowledge is. Making knowledge something that feels alive, like a friend, and a collective artwork, rather than something to control or worship.

3:AM: You really admire Lauryn Hill’s album Unplugged, where she appears in her less slick, more clownish incarnation. You also mention the clown Anne Pauline van der A. Why do you think the clown speaks to you as a feminist?

MS: Hill’s clownish incarnation appeared after the Unplugged album. As that album was so meaningful to me, I became intrigued with why she seemed to choose a clown persona following the harsh criticism the album received. Clowning contains an element of recreating the self. So many concepts of womanhood have been predetermined by others. A lot of liberation lies in taking the freedom to define yourself. So the clown became an interesting concept through which to think about liberation. For example, for women its pre-decided that they must be a sex object, but the clown plays with not being sexy.

3:AM: Some feminists like Soraya Chemaly draw attention to the revolutionary power of rage. You emphasise the revolutionary power of joy. When I read your book there was a very strong moment where you described being raped. But what was even stronger than that was how over time you came to view that event as a lesson in joy —or what happens when people lack joy. What is it about joy that is so politically powerful?

MS: I think Sensuous Knowledge was the baby that came from the wedding of rage and joy. The first step to countering the destructive system is not allowing it to destroy you. Not allowing it to make you loathe yourself or make you feel unhappy. Joy is a method of resistance. But I understand that joy doesn’t just appear. Joy arrives from a process of passion. I also think it’s incredibly important that women feel and express their rage as I write about in a chapter in my book titled “Of Womanhood”, but I worry that anger can centre the oppressor. Our anger should be about mobilising ourselves, not schooling the oppressor.

3:AM: You mention how bell hooks argues that lived experience has been excluded from academic inquiry, even though sharing personal stories of struggle is essential to liberation. How important was it for you to have your own autobiographical material in your book as part of your argument?

MS: Lived experience is part of what I define as Sensuous Knowledge. The felt and embodied have always been a feminine way of approaching knowledge. Historically it’s been a way for us to make critical interventions to oppression. This has a lot to do with women being excluded from privilege, such as not being allowed to study or write books at different points in history. And for people of African heritage there’s been even more exclusion from those things. So the personal has always been a critical space. I appreciate the type of literature that strives to be strictly objective and academic. But I wanted Sensuous Knowledge to be a holistic reflection of all of life, the mind, body and soul.

3:AM: You saying that makes me think of that Simone de Beauvoir line about how women write the personal and men write the universe. What’s your approach to that distinction?

MS: When men write about ideas there is a personal element to their writing too. There isn’t this position of neutrality that we want to think ideas come from. It supports oppression to think that knowledge isn’t imbued with value systems and political ideologies. Old ideas that black people were inferior or women were hysterical—you had to think that knowledge had no connection to personal experience in order to believe in these claims as scientific.

3:AM: You write sympathetically about the cumulative effects of gender, race, class and ableism with regard to social injustice. So it was noticeable that you don’t use the term intersectionality. What do you think of the term?

Minna Salami, Sensuous Knowledge (Zed and Harper Collins, 2020)

MS: I think there’s a lack of clarity about what intersectionality means. It increasingly means different things to different groups; it means something different to black feminists than it does white feminists. Then something totally different to the big corporations and institutions who say they are intersectional on their advertising. I don’t know what the fuck they mean. Is it just another word for multiculturalism? Is it another way to tick a box? Today, when I read the essay where Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term, I think of how her intention has been misaligned with the subsequent implementation. I wasn’t able to use the word without a clarification of how I used it and that would require a whole book in itself. There is an excellent and thought-provoking book by Jennifer C. Nash called Black Feminism Reimagined After Intersectionality which discusses this.

3:AM: You briefly write about what it means to be a black feminist with a white mother. I also got the sense your mother was present in this book in a more implicit or diffuse way as well.

MS: I think of my mum as the creator of Sensuous Knowledge. I wrote this book because of how many doors she opened for me. She very intentionally imbued my life with all the feminist ways of knowing and being that she hadn’t had the chance to make use of in her life, which nevertheless was ultimately a rich and exciting one. When she died, I unintentionally started to engage more with all the things she’d always loved as if that would bring her closer back to me. She read a lot of poetry. She used to draw and she loved art and aesthetics so I started engaging even more than I already did with poetry and art. Somewhere along the journey of grieving, the idea of Sensuous Knowledge came to me.

3:AM: In a recent interview, Bernardine Evaristo spoke about what it was like to be writing as a woman of colour in 1980s England. She said most of the time she had to look across the Atlantic for inspiration. The last five years have seen a slight change in the amount of books by women of colour published in the UK, though that number isn’t yet representative. You live in London at the moment Minna, but you grew up in Nigeria and Finland and—true to your name Ms Afropolitan—you speak five languages. You’ve also lived in New York. What does it mean for you to be based in the UK during the release of your book?

MS: It means a lot to me on a personal level because London is the city where I became a writer, where I made of room of my own, and which I therefore deeply love. But London is also the capital city of a colonial power and my book is an anticolonial Africa-centred essay collection. One of the things I heard when I was pitching the book to publishers was that it was too African. I found that amusing but also hurtful. We are in the twenty-first century in a previously colonising nation—not that the editors themselves had anything to do with that—but publishers still have this attitude that Africa is irrelevant to a British audience. Some publishers said that if the book had a BAME angle then it might be more marketable. The collective amnesia that these kind of comments allude to made it feel even more important to me to write a book with an Africa-centred worldview and see it published in London.

3:AM: You’ve sold the rights for a TV adaptation of the book. Congratulations. What’s the most important thing you want from the screenwriter who will be adapting your work?

MS: I haven’t sold the rights, but the manuscript was optioned by an American production company. If an adaptation is made, I’d work hard to ensure that regardless of who the director is, that the Africa-centred black feminist spirit doesn’t get watered down.

Andy West lives in London where he is writing a book for Picador about teaching philosophy in prisons. He has written for The Guardian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, The Millions and Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 1st, 2020.