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Familiar referencing, familial references

The more he is cited the more he is cited
Sara Ahmed, 2018

September 2022

I’m reading Small Fires – An Epic in the Kitchen by Rebecca May Johnson (2022). It’s an honest and hot (in all senses of the word) memoir, utensil-filled, creative, and bodily. It forms a simultaneous investigation of the self and others, anecdotes and recipes that swirl together across the pages in tides of fluidity and energy. There’s a lot to feel/think/cry/laugh about when reading it, but these are things best felt/thought/cried/laughed about by you. And you should! It’s on offer at Blackwell’s but get in touch if you’d like to borrow my copy.

Another thing I’ve been doing while reading it, though, has been feeling a sense of intense — almost physical — familiarity with how Johnson cites sources.

Citation enables a writer (creator) to make visible and known the sources they have used, learnt from, and quoted in their text (or video, or sound, or…). Sara Ahmed explains in Living a Feminist Life (2017) that citation is ‘how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before’. It is also a self-perpetuating cycle, a site of communication not only with the writer’s own readers, but also with any number of possible readers’ readers, and readers’ readers’ readers… and so on.

Within the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence… such and such white man becomes an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were there before. 

Sara Ahmed, 2017

Citation is political, then, because, as has been recorded by fifty years worth of Black feminist scholarship, the majority of academic referencing across disciplines has formed impenetrable cycles of white (dead) men reading white (dead) men reading white (dead) men. Jennifer Nash has extensively drawn attention to the mortality rates of Black women academics that lie behind these violent rhythms of intellectual power, their labour consumed while their names are cited (Nash, 2019). For these reasons, it’s important, Nash tells us, to contextualise, ‘to interrogate our romance with citation as a form of freedom… that causes us to overlook citation itself as both a site of violence and a logic of property’ (Nash, 2020).

Citation is itself destabilised, and in doing so it is freed.

So, with an awareness of the reproductive and perpetual nature of citation and its politics, we come to the possibility of its being free.

These are the thoughts and thinkers I am exposed to as I begin to try to understand why the citational methods visible in Johnson’s text feel so physically familiar, so active. To understand how Johnson destabilises the citational site, I sort her citational methods into (maybe) three different types, with examples:

(1) Direct (if winding) appearances

‘Wiggenstein, via Maggie Nelson’
p. 139

In relation to a direct quote, to contextualise the source of the source, that is to say, the path that Johnson took to get there.

(2) Indirect (stylistic) appearances

after Patricia Klindienst Joplin
p. 18

after Gertrude Stein
p. 18

after Katherine Angel
As above, p. 136

To acknowledge an indirect influence, mainly one of style, often leaning into or adopting/adapting a way of writing or phrasing that was first used by another writer.

(3) Narrative appearances

Eg: there is an anecdote in which the writer tells us about a conversation they had with someone, who then told the writer about another person and creation, which the writer then finds on Youtube.
Eg 2: there is a recipe book that she found in her mother’s kitchen.

To tell the reader about how a particular book, idea, writer, recipe came to appear in the text.


The citations in Small Fires are fluid, physical, always in motion. The three methods provide this motion in different ways: winding stepping-stones made up of texts that mention texts (the via), prepositions (the after), narratives offering snapshots of elsewhere-ongoing lives. The familiarity, I think, comes from the honesty of this way of citing. The sources are not particularly relational, they are not uniquely in conversation with each other, nor are they remarkable for how they interact with the world. They are simply made visible; cycles of knowledge are themselves acknowledged.

This, for me, is a feminist citational methodology.

Johnson’s text also demonstrates how sites of knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing might be expanded beyond those typically acknowledged in formally published texts (that is to say, other formally published texts). Some examples of non-traditional sites of knowledge-production or knowledge-sharing in the text include:

  • a diagram drawn by the writer on Word
  • another author’s tweet in which they give additional context, thoughts, background (and accessibility) to their elsewhere-published words
  • the same author’s twitter thread in which they expose the politics of translating texts

It is the constant motion of the text, its liberation from genre, that enables these non-traditional methods of knowledge-sharing to take up space on the page, and so in the bookshops. The various paths taken by Johnson to get to the words she is writing are traced in the words themselves: the recipe books in her mother’s kitchen, the Tweets she traces on a lunch break, are made visible. It is this, I realise, that makes the referencing, both direct and indirect, woven throughout the text and footnoted.

They are (a version of) the paths that every writer will take, but only some will acknowledge.

Without use a path can disappear
Sara Ahmed, 2018

Works referenced (and those thought about):

Sara Ahmed, “Institutional as Usual”, on the Feminist Killjoys blog, 2017.

Sara Ahmed, “Queer use”, on the Feminist Killjoys blog, 2018.

Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. 2019. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781478002253

Jennifer C. Nash, “Citational Desires: On Black Feminism’s Institutional Longings” in Diacritics, Volume 48, Number 3, 2020, pp. 76-91. John Hopkins University Press. https://doi.org/10.1353/dia.2020.0020

Ann duCille, “The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies” in Signs, Volume 19, Number 3, Spring 1994, pp. 591-629. Published by Duke. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174771, via Nash, 2019.

Krishonna Gray — the “Gray Test”, via Nash, 2019.

Gayle Wald, via Nash, 2019.

Cite Black Women collective, via Nash, 2019.

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