Recently, I’ve been knee-deep in the relationship between anger and grief, in the way that they feed each other, and in the way it is so difficult to manage either one let alone both. I’ve walked alongside anger and grief not just this semester, but it seems for all of my young adult life. I did not have the language for it, the words to justify and advocate for it, until I came to Princeton. It’s ironic that the institution which taught me the language of my inner turmoil also fueled the need for such language even more.
On November 7th, Judith Butler, renowned third-wave feminism theorist, gave a guest lecture in McCosh 10: Fury and Justice in the Humanities. They focused on the transition of the lawless Furies into the systematized Eumenides, and what it means for the Furies to settle into a new justice system. I’m not a classicist—and neither is Butler, to be frank, as they reminded the audience throughout the lecture—but I was struck by Butler’s connection between anger and grief. “Where there is fury, there is grief,” Butler said.
I was raptured by Butler’s discussion of this relationship. And yet, despite this concept of fury and grief being what I thought was one of the most compelling points, I was disappointed that the idea seemed to die beyond the prepared pages of the lecture. Butler deflected a question asking them to elaborate more about the work of grief in their research. “I’m not theorizing about grief,” they said before proceeding to a tangential point in order to seem “responsive.”
Despite this, my primary takeaway was in fact a theory about grief, and a theory about grief that goes beyond the Furies, one that bleeds into how I now seem to navigate everyday life.
I’m taking a class on Latinx autobiographies this semester. The works seem to have a common thread in which the authors channel an anger from their youth into a book in their adulthood. I don’t think their anger has simmered, it’s only become more articulate and more productive.
Anger is the song of marginalized communities. It is the chorus which raises voices and fights.
“To my sisters of Color who like me still tremble their rage under harness, or who sometimes question the expression of our rage as useless and disruptive (the two most popular accusations)—I want to speak about anger, my anger, and what I have learned from my travels through its dominions,” Audre Lorde writes in her 1981 speech “The Uses of Anger.”
Anger is relatable. It’s a fire catching from person to person. And like Lorde I am so tired of muzzling it. But I cannot forget Butler, now, either. I cannot unlearn that my fury is not just something that sparked and never died. It is born out of mourning.
“You can be anything you want to be,” if you’re a straight white boy with resources. A mixed, low-income girl is being misled; she’s being told that hard work will solve everything, when in reality that mentality will lead to burnout sooner than any form of success.
Princeton was a dream, the dream. But that dream crumpled when my burnouts were answered with more work instead of space for healing, when my peers entered a never-ending period of grieving, when I struggled to justify how the institution viewed me. I was left angry with the administration, with a lack of action, with how little this institution seems to care about its students unless it comes back with a pretty check.
This campus is just a microcosm of the larger issue because leaving Princeton will not suddenly resolve my grief, quell my rage. As naive as it seems, I’m still grieving the world I thought I could dream.
I’ve reflected before on my expectations for Princeton, about the school I had imagined myself attending. As a low-income, Latina-Asian woman, this school was originally an idea sprouted from an encouragement to dream big. I worked tirelessly in high school and even my burnout became systematic. Every fourth quarter, between the release of the last newspaper issue and the beginning of AP exams, I would fall ill with a stress fever. My body would collapse and force me to take a break, at least for a week.
When I first came to Princeton, I genuinely thought my mental health had improved because I had lightened my list of responsibilities considerably. I worked hard on saying no. The stress fevers stopped. All my interactions with administrators and professors were kind, and perhaps it was because at the time I didn’t have any problems yet.
It’s when the problems arose that I was faced with bureaucratic systems, wild goose chases to find the right person to ask for help, and the ever-infuriating statements of “According to our policy” or “It’s out of my hands.” When I informed a dean that I needed to take a few days off due to a personal emergency and was returning home, the response claimed my mental health was important, but my decision was inadvisable. I emailed back stating that my tickets were already purchased.
The school I imagined cared about intellectual curiosity, about exploring, about passion, about community. All these phrases are on recruitment materials. My imagined school exists on paper. My imagined school was the school they wanted everyone else to imagine. But the school in reality cares more about returns and the future than the current population’s well-being.
During a community reflection meeting in one of my extracurriculars, I started crying. We went around the table, and everyone was invited to say anything that they wanted to put out into the community. We’re a small group—nine students and three staff coordinators. I could have said anything, as if they had simply asked me how I was instead of what I wanted to put into the space. Instead, I fumbled over my anger and gave up after a couple of sentences. “I’d actually like to pass.” For the next hour, I acted as a secretary, typing up notes of what my peers said as silent tears started falling onto my keyboard. I pretended they weren’t there. So did everyone else.
In the moment, I was angry that I couldn’t even get a complete sentence out to contribute, but it was also one of the first signs that I hadn’t let myself feel grief. I wanted to build on a point that the school doesn’t show any empathy, and I started by talking about how I felt when I first came to campus, but I shut up when I felt the tears welling up.
There are so many levels of grief. I’ve lost family and a dear mentor this semester. But I also had assignments due and midterms and the looming threat of doing nothing after graduation. It’s business as usual on campus, so I bite my tongue, my exhaustion, and my grief and keep moving forward. Or at least, I do until suddenly I can’t even make it through a meeting without crying. It’s not just people I mourn, but I’ve also realized a piece of it is mourning the school I thought I was attending freshman year, because that school surely would’ve realized I was drowning and pulled me up not down.
Near the end of their lecture, Butler posed a question about inclusion: “What society do we want to be included in?” When it comes to Princeton, the university bears so many flags of DEI efforts and pitches “inclusion” as a buzzword to seem like an inviting space for marginalized students. For marketing purposes, to be “inclusive” is to seemingly be politically correct, which means you get more donations. But inclusion is a tricky word. Butler agrees, as do many people of color I encounter. I didn’t quite understand it until the professor of my night seminar right after the guest lecture highlighted the problem with white feminism. Where white feminism strives to have women gain the same rights as a man in a patriarchal system, women of color feminism seeks more radical, systemic critique and change. Butler grappled with inclusion in a similar fashion, claiming that inclusion was in fact a form of inaction.
I work in worlds re-imagined. I specialize in speculative fiction because it provides the opportunities to use fiction as a mode to bust down systemic issues and rebuild with limitation. Fantasy and science fiction taught me to dream, not to dissociate. The speculative doesn’t act to be included. It challenges you to imagine what could be instead, to create that society that you want to be in.
At this point, I find it hard to imagine the society I want to be in. I find it hard to look past this cycle of grief and fury, grief and fury. The burn of Princeton’s reality still feels too raw, and I’m not excited for what comes next. I’m exhausted. I’m counting down the weeks until the semester is over, but I dread it too. The orange bubble isn’t isolated in the fact that my mental health, that my peers’ mental health isn’t the priority.
For now, I’m giving myself the space to feel what I’m feeling. In my exhaustion, I go to bed earlier. I leave campus more frequently. I take breaks. And in these spaces, I let myself grieve. I let myself be. But I won’t forget that anger. I can’t let it burn out. I let it fuel my writing and give it a life of its own. And soon I’ll let it fuel something more, and let it motivate me to build that better world. For now, I just need the space to mourn.