10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Carol J. Adams

Carol J. Adams. I mean, where do I even start?

I remember the first time I saw The Sexual Politics of Meat, the book that got Carol noticed as a writer and thinker of courage and clarity. I was a student in Lawrence, Kansas and browsing the bookstore on campus. I was in the feminist theory section, a familiar area to me, and as my eyes glanced over the titles, also familiar to me, a book suddenly seemed to jump out, its bold red cover with the vintage illustration of a pin-up model segmented into parts, like in a butcher shop poster, the words “What’s your cut?” completely unnecessary but included nonetheless. I grabbed it and read it with the hunger of someone who finally was getting the nutrients she had been so deprived of without even realizing it.

A vegetarian since 15 and a feminist in earnest since college, this book was a lifeline, giving me a place where my own emerging thoughts about feminism and the intersections of oppression had good company with an invaluable mentor. Not at home with other vegetarians (who were clueless about feminism) and feminists (who dismissed cruelty to animals), I finally felt like I had found a shelter from a storm too few seemed to want to notice.

Reading The Sexual Politics of Meat, I got angry. I cried. I wanted to highlight the whole book, it was gem after gem after gem. The images haunted me, singed into my mind’s eye. The “hiding in plain sight” of objectification rattled me, made me unable to not see it. Once I finished the book, I put it away for a bit because I really didn’t have the tools for living in this culture with my sharpened awareness and not want to rage at everyone I met, everything I saw. I experienced deep grief, too. I actually put the book away for more than a bit: I put it away for some years and by the time I returned to it, I was vegan. Reading it after my vegan consciousness had been raised, it was a whole new experience with even deeper layers of complexity and unearthing the trauma of objectification. And, yes, with it came more rage and grief, grief and rage. This time, though, I was older, and had community, resources and outlets. I was finally ready to not be destroyed by this book and its deceptively gentle and nurturing author.

I was lucky enough to meet Carol in person some years later still, this time at a conference not long after my son was born. I remember sitting exhausted in the car, ready to return home but trying to hold it together, and Carol leaned in the window, reminding me to stay hydrated, to take care of myself, to get sleep. And that was my take away from meeting Carol for the first time: her fierce, unswerving intellect and honesty, but also her nurturing spirit and true sisterhood. A few years later when Carol was in Chicago for a talk, we met for dinner and she asked me how I was doing — like really doing — as a caregiver for my ailing mother and, when I smiled and tried to redirect the conversation, she fixed me with that unflinching, knowing gaze of hers that told me in no uncertain terms, she saw through my deception. Just like the Carol who stuck her body in my car window to insist on me taking care of myself, she, once again, demanded I speak honestly about my life.

I was — and remain — completely in awe at my good fortune to know Carol and to consider her a friend. She has shaped my thinking and, as a mentor to so many these days, has helped to guide the vegan movement toward more thoughtfulness, honesty, inclusive compassion and anti-oppressive advocacy. Her insistence that a movement that looks the other way from oppression is in direct conflict with the vegan ethos and what she calls “the feminist ethic of care” is a vitally important reminder that veganism, at its heart, is a social justice movement and we should never lose sight of that. Her eagerness to support those whose voices have been dismissed or silenced and, rather than rest on her laurels, use her reach to insist on accountability for those who have oppressed is consistent with the whole of her work: courageous, honest, thoughtful, inclusive and compassionate.

If you are in Chicago, please join us Friday, September 28 from 6:00–7:00 in Chicago at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstores, 5751 S. Woodlawn, where I will be conversing with Carol about her two new books and discussing so much more. It’s free and it’s going to be amazing. Please join us!

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

The night my pony died when some teenagers were target practicing in the woods near our pasture, I bit into a hamburger and thought, “I am eating a dead cow. I wouldn’t eat Jimmy, so why I am eating a dead cow?” And I knew I had to become a vegetarian. I was 22. As I worked on The Sexual Politics of Meat, and the connections between women’s and other animals’ oppression, I realized dairy and eggs needed a term to capture female reproductive exploitation, so I coined the term “feminized protein” after a 19th century term “animalized protein.” My veganism followed shortly thereafter. (There’s a wonderful animation of my story on my website that was created by the talented artist Suzi Gonzalez.)

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

Invite me into their kitchen to cook with them. Before I was vegan, I think I would have been suspicious of arguments. I distrust evangelism of any kind.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

First, I want to point out that sometimes communicating our message as vegans is a fraught experience and we have the choice to say “No, I am not going to explain to you why I am vegan while I am eating.” In Living Among Meat Eaters, I suggest that more important than knowing what to say, is knowing when to stop a conversation. We vegans are so earnest; we think every question has to be answered. But we are sometimes being toyed with, and it is better to refuse this kind of verbal mistreatment. (I am going to shamelessly plug this book for new vegans; I have heard from some people that it helped them so much they read it every year.)

Whenever I can, I try to combine humor with my explanations. I want people to see I am at ease about my veganism. I feel this is often what they want to know — are you at peace being a vegan in this hostile nonvegan world? — though their question might be about something very different.

In this essay on burgers I did for the New York Times this past summer, I included a sentence that read, “And then the reveal, as I tell them that no animal died for their sins.” I liked the chance to sort of subtly poke meat eaters. But it was also a reminder to vegans — sharing vegan food you prepared is a form of communication.

I am in the privileged position to say, “Read my book, and then let’s talk about it.” Because after all, the major way I have communicated my veganism is through my writing and this is why, even in this interview, I am offering links to some of my writings!

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

The connections between a vegan ethic and other social justice movements….and our great food!

5. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Consistent anti-oppression. I think the way the animal rights movement handled the #ARMeToo and #TimesUpAR issues offered insights into how NOT to handle serial sexual exploitation. The fact that two men publicly accused of sexual exploitation feel they can re-enter the movement, or some form of it, without having actually been held accountable is an injustice to all their victims and to the entire movement. (I’m talking, to begin with, about Paul Shapiro and Wayne Pacelle but there are others, as well.) That some vegans who could have helped to hold them accountable are instead helping to publicize or enable their new ventures is very disturbing.

Earlier this year, Julia Feliz, Carolyn Bailey, Meneka Repka and I wrote a “Vegan Bill of Consistent Anti-Oppression.” I would urge everyone to take some time reading it. It shows the problem with single-issue veganism and offers a robust and compelling alternative.

6. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Single-issue veganism, including vegans who think veganism is the answer to all health issues. Single-issue vegans often protected serial sexual exploiters in the movement because their works was “so important to the animals,” as though this is some sort excuse for immoral behavior. It isn’t.

Single-issue veganism tolerates self-aggrandizing men who position themselves as indispensable while defining how we talk about animals. Single-issue white vegans in the movement often wish to protect their white privilege. They criticize vegans of color and simply DON’T GET IT that the problem of meat and dairy is the problem of Western colonialist white male supremacy establishing and then imposing this diet on others.

Patti Breitman, Virginia Messina and I address all the problems with believing veganism is the answer to all health issues in our book Even Vegans Die.

The result is that the vegan movement is not consistently a safe space — especially for many vegans of color; vegans with health issues; and women and non-dominant people of all genders. This harms individuals, weakens veganism, and needless to say, doesn’t do a whole lot of good “for the animals” either by excluding a variety of voices and experiences and allowing a normative whiteness and maleness and “health stereotype” to define veganism.

7. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

I am vegan because I want to do the least harm possible. Veganism is a social justice movement that through its practice also resists climate change, food injustice, and challenges misogyny, white supremacy, and xenophobia. In our new book, Protest Kitchen, Virginia Messina and I highlight all the ways that veganism is part and parcel of social justice movements. (People can also check out our blogs that make some of these connections.

8. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

In terms of learning to cook vegan, I am indebted to early, creative cookbook writers like Jo Stepaniak and Jennifer Raymond. Stepaniak’s contribution to how to create a cheesy flavor is a forerunner to all that has come since then. Raymond’s The Peaceful Palate is such a great cookbook — it remains a go-to resource in my kitchen. Also, college students in the 1990s. When I spoke on their campuses, they always shared recipes with me — from brownies to tempeh reubens. Now we are so lucky to have such creative chefs expanding our palates — there are so many, but I want to do a shout out to Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby of Vedge and Jason Sellars of Plant. (And an incredible “lox” and cream cheese bagel Erica Kubersky gave me at MooShoes.)

I have also benefited from learning from an incredible group of scholars and activists, and specifically from editing anthologies with Josephine Donovan and Lori Gruen.

The work of vegans of color is indispensable. To begin with, Dr. Amie Breeze Harper in Sistah Vegan and her online talks ,Aph and Syl Ko in Aphro-ism, Claire Jean Kim’s Dangerous Crossings and Julia Feliz’s Veganism in an Oppressive World: A Vegans-of-Color Community Project.

I’m indebted to Martin Rowe and Gene Gollogly at Lantern Books for their commitment to publishing emerging vegan voices. And I’ve learned from people from all over the world who have sent me examples of the sexual politics of meat — they help keep my feminist-vegan theory up-to-date.

9. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Reading poetry restores my sense of the beauty of words.

Walking dogs keeps me connected to the everyday joys of being an animal in this world.

Listening to audio books (great fiction or a good non-misogynist mystery) helps me feel less overwhelmed by a cruel world.

Cooking offers a sensuous experience of sights, smells, and rhythmic actions that nurtures me.

Writing in a journal provides a safe place to be at home with myself.

Reading new vegan cookbooks helps me relax at night.

Please, vegans, take care of yourselves. Our work is challenging, sad, traumatic and exhausting. Self-care is not a luxury. Virginia Messina and I offer some suggestions for self care here.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…”

…radical compassion. Radical (from root) because compassion is at the root of veganism. Also, I am constantly being radicalized by compassion. I’ve written about this here, but I discovered that my veganism deepened during a decade of caregiving of elderly parents. There are many reasons for this (which I explain in the article), but basically, two kinds of care giving interwove.

Radical compassion doesn’t mean I’m not at times very angry. It just informs what I do with that anger — at least, I hope, most of the time!

I don’t see being compassionate and protesting current regressive politics as antithetical — we want our culture to be compassionate, too.

Compassion is radical, as well, because it keeps me discovering deeper parts of myself. Veganism isn’t an end point of existence, “oh I’m vegan and I don’t have to worry about anything else.” Veganism is an opening to a way of being in relationship with the world.