Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels on Summoning the Power to Resist
Edited by Katie West and Jasmine Elliott
(Fiction and Feeling, 2018: ISBN 978-0-9957164-3-8)
(Content Warning: brief discussion of sexual and physical assault.)
’At a time when there are forces at work in the world that threaten our freedoms, rights, and well-being, now is the moment to go dark and fuck shit up.’
These are hard times to be different from what is considered ‘normal’. On both sides of the Atlantic, conformity to a version of ‘reality’ which is both terrifying and terrifyingly stupid is being heavily enforced, in politics and the media; complete with threats of, and actual, violence, abuse and death. That’s even if you conform somewhat to the power-entrusted definition of ‘good’: male (or subservient female), white, cisgender, heterosexual.
This is a book by and for those who aren’t.
Originating as a Kickstarter project but now available for general purchase, BECOMING DANGEROUS is an anthology of ‘Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels on Summoning the Power to Resist’. Created in the immediate wake of both the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald J Trump, West and Elliott collect 20 essays by women and gender-queer people on the subject of ritual and (or, as) resistance, drawn from a variety of backgrounds and professions. Not every contributor identifies as a practitioner of magic, although many do… but make no mistake, this is a book for witches.
The first line of West’s introduction makes this clear:
The difference between the witch and the layperson is that the witch already knows they are powerful.
In a world which ‘is very similar in look and feel to a dumpster fire’, the possibility of ritual, something it has always excelled at, is to create a space for personal power, even when the world screams that you are, you deserve to be, powerless. The use of ritual as a technology to, as West puts it, ’resist the onslaught of of a world of irrational happenings and the normalisation of their world on fire’, could not be more timely.
The range of such rituals in the book is wide-reaching. Starting with Cara Ellison’s opening line of the first essay, ‘Scotland is unfuckable’, each contributor’s words are personal, specific to their life and situation, but nonetheless full of possibilities for the reader. (Ellison, for example, brings in the great history of Scottish rebelliousness in the face of oppression into a personal pilgrimage to an all-but-unreachable ruined castle on the Scottish coast, an act which allows them to consider themselves as, like Scotland, not to be fucked with.)
A key essay, one which inspired the collection, is Maranda Elizabeth’s piece on ‘trash-magic’; taking the signs and portents found in urban life and making them part of a daily magical practice – in their case, the abandoned flowers they found in dumpsters becoming an offering to and from the city. (In a typical piece of synchronicity such a book often leaves in its wake, I had literally read an online piece by Elizabeth, whose work I had not encountered before, a matter of minutes before reading their piece in the book.) Elizabeth is disabled, as are several writers on the project; they ask, and try to answer for themselves, a key question:
What does it mean to cast spells as resistance from bed?
What does it mean to be dangerous and in danger at once?
What does it look like, feel like, when our spells come true?
This is a book of many victories, sometimes temporary, in the face of adversity – and these are necessarily shocking at times. From the performance of femininity (from femme queers and gender-shifters well aware of the contradictions of living in patriarchy to a woman who survived being shot in the face) to the brutal aftershocks from rape and assault, there is a lot of pain and loss here. But never hopelessness: one essay that speaks well to this is Marguerite Bennett’s piece on the necessity of accepting loss and death they found in creating a garden in an inhospitable climate.
Sexuality and its power are often front and centre; always an area where power and control are both important and shifting, its often ritualistic aspect is laid bare in pieces such as Mey Rude’s “My Witches’ Sabbath of Short Skirts, Long Kisses and BDSM”, sensuality and transgression in Larissa Pham’s “Buzzcut Season”, skincare-as-rite in Sam Maggs’s “Reddit, Retin-A and Resistance”.
Every essay is deeply personal; every essay has something of value to the sympathetic reader. No two perspectives are the same, which is the point.
In a book which is often explicit about the subject of abuse and its consequences, the editors were thoughtful enough to provide a section at the start of the book which gives clear content warnings for each chapter, so those who could be triggered by discussions of such matters know exactly what they will be confronted with – an approach which I honestly could stand to see in a lot more collections of this nature.
I found a great deal of hope and strength in this book – and although a practitioner of ritual, I am far from the target audience. I can only imagine the impact it could, and should, have on the women and genderqueer folx who need it the most. Forteanism began as Charles Fort seeking out the Damned Things which orthodoxy and the mainstream reject – listening to the voices of those so often Damned can be both instructive and illuminating.
This collection asks necessary questions: How can we understand the possibilities of reality, of our times? And, how can we alter our own perspectives to embrace the possibility of resistance while being true to ourselves, in the face of strife?
West’s stunning cover design depicts a pair of female-coded, long-nailed hands, cupped, rooted and offering a growing plant made of knives. This perfectly captures the intent of the work.
Find your rituals, find your power, find your reason.
(NB: Anyone who has issues with the terminology I use to describe this book and its participants will likely not enjoy it. If you feel the need to share your thoughts on this in the comments, I hope you attempt to do so with respect.)