Laura Wright, head of Western Carolina University’s English department, was bothered at a young age because using “he” as a universal pronoun left out everyone who is a “she” – and took lost points on graded papers by refusing to follow the convention. Wright first abstained from eating sausage, then all other forms of meat, and ultimately from animal products altogether after a middle school field trip to a sausage-packaging plant left her with a memory she could not erase: dead pigs hanging on hooks. In her 20s, she struggled with an eating disorder in the face of gender-related expectations, and she struggled to make sense of murders and rapes of classmates and a family friend in which the perpetrators had ties to violence toward animals.
Wright reflects on these experiences and what connects them in her essay, “Disordered Pronouns, Disordered Eating,” which was recently published by Lantern Books in an anthology titled “Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and the Sexual Politics of Meat.”
“How do I link these experiences in this backwards-glancing exercise?” asks Wright in her essay. “To my mind, they are all about arbitrary and contradictory rules that are gender specific, about consumption and about violent control.”
Her essay is one of 21 personal stories centered on how the writers were inspired by philosopher Carol J. Adams’ book “The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory.” First published more than two decades ago, “The Sexual Politics of Meat” draws connections between the consumption of animals and the oppression of women and became a foundational work in the fields of ecofeminism, animal studies and food studies.
Wright, an associate professor of postcolonial literature, said the book, which she read when she was a doctoral student, gave her new insight into some of the most intense and traumatic times in her life and helped set the trajectory of her scholarly work. She was struck by Adams’ presentation of concepts in the book such as the “absent referent,” linking it to her opposition to “he” as the universal pronoun. Wright quoted Adams in a portion of her essay about language being used to characterize “meat” as distinct from “animals.” Wright included a quote from Adams – “Through butchering, animals become absent referents. Animals in name and body are made absent as ‘animals’ for meat to exist” – in her essay.
Although an author of dozens of scholarly articles and several books, including the forthcoming “The Vegan Body Project: The Cultural Construction and Performance of Vegan Identity,” Wright said the essay was one of the most difficult yet most important pieces she has written. She sees her contribution as an example of activist scholarship – her model of critical engagement. Wright said she has long been interested in the links between that activism and between her lived experiences and her scholarship. She traces her early scholarly interest in literature by women – and particularly literature by women from underrepresented groups – to being a woman and wanting to share women’s stories that often go untold. In addition, she has been an animal advocate since her teen years.
“When I was working on my PhD, I wanted my scholarly work in some way to represent and perhaps further my activist stance – both with regard to animals and with regard to women,” said Wright. “As a feminist and an ethical vegan, I work very hard to exemplify the ethical positions that shape my scholarly endeavors. This particular essay – like much of my scholarship – is about the nature of various forms of oppression and the linkages between them. To my mind, it’s about highlighting those connections and helping others see them as well.”
Adams said she is moved that the ideas in her book, now more than 20 years later, still speak to and empower women such as Wright.
“Her essay is an eloquent meditation interlacing personal and social issues,” said Adams. “She is a very sensitive and evocative writer, who draws on her background in literary criticism to think about words, texts, bodies and change. She affirms that change can happen.”
Wright will read from her work at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café in Asheville at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 3. A portion of proceeds from the sale of “Defiant Daughters” benefits Our Hen House, a nonprofit organization that produces multimedia resources to mainstream the movement to end the exploitation of animals.
For more information, contact Wright at 828-227-3976 or firstname.lastname@example.org.