March 8th is International Women’s Day. And what better way to mark it than by recommending some excellent women writers? On the basis of pretty subjective criteria, I’ve compiled a list of a few female writers that in different ways deal with gender and women’s issues in their texts.
Joumana Haddad (1970-)
A poet and journalist, Haddad became the editor of the first erotic magazine in Lebanon, Jasad magazine. Haddad has a distinct feminist vision: to show that there exist Arab women who are quite different from the stereotypical silent, suffering Arab woman.
In her most recent English book, she brutally murders one of the Arab world’s most symbolic female characters, Scheherazade. Starting as an angry reply (the undertitle of the book is “confessions of an angry Arab woman”) to a Swedish journalist’s comment about not being “familiar with the possibility” of liberated Arab women, the book is also a memoir, dealing with issues of identity and individuality, as well as the liberating force of literature. As Lebanese American novelist Rabih Alameddine has said of I Killed Scheherazade, “Joumana Haddad is a revolutionary, this book is the manifesto.” And it’s well worth a read. (Buy it here.)
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Probably the ultimate English high-brow Modernist snob, and firmly positioned in the Western canon, Woolf doesn’t really belong here on the New Narratives blog, you might say. But she played an important role feminist literature by focusing on the difficulties faced by women who wanted to write. And she writes well. Her famous essay «A Room of One’s Own» introduces an imagined sister of Shakespeare, Judith, who, without the money or freedom to pursue a writing career, had a fate a lot bleaker than her brother’s.
Her novel Orlando, a mock-biography following Orlando from a young boy to a grown woman over the course of several centuries, deals with issues of gender and sexuality in a way that was quite daring for its time. But Woolf got away with it because of her playfulness with the subject, using humour and irony to visualize the impact of rigid gender roles. (You can buy Orlando here.)
Ama Ata Aidoo (1942-)
Aidoo is a Ghanaian writer and academic. Much of her writing deals with the role of women, and the effects of (post)colonialism in Ghana. She has written both novels and short stories, poems and plays. The publication of her play “The Dilemma of a Ghost” was the first by an African woman dramatist.
The short story collection “No Sweetness Here” looks at how race, gender and power intersect, and include stories about divorce, prostitution and the influence of Western beauty ideals and consumerism in post-colonial Ghana. What is the position of women in a post-colonial society where the «big man» is no longer solely the white man, but also wealthy black men? Why do many black women wear wigs and whiten their skin? These are some of the questions Aidoo asks in these sharp and straight-forward stories. (Buy it here.)
Jhumpa Lahiri (1967-)
A daughter of Bengali Indians, Lahiri moved to the United States with her family at an early age. The theme of immigration and navigating between cultures is a recurring theme in her books. Although she doesn’t write specifically about gender, many of her stories investigate the intersection of gender roles and norms as well as perceptions of marriage and family life in the different cultures.
Her most recent book, the short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, focuses on second and third generation immigrants. She continues her style from her first short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, of connecting the different stories. She makes an ever closer connection in the three final stories of Unaccustomed Earth, which from different perspectives relate the growing ties between Hema and Kaushik. She writes unique stories from children’s perspectives, about the meeting of old and new, and responsibilities to different cultures and traditions. (Buy it here.)
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Lorde was not only a poet and writer, but also an activist. She challenged white feminists, and brought the aspects of race, class and sexuality into the feminist struggle. As a black lesbian poet in the United States Lorde felt «triply invisible». Issues of identity is a recurring subject in much of her work.
Her autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name mixes poetic beauty, incredible events and brutal honesty. Through vivid pictures and a sensual language, she describes growing up black in Harlem with parents who tried to shield her from the extensive racism, her path to writing and coming to terms with her sexuality. (Buy the book here.)
Gerd Brantenberg (1941-)
Brantenberg became active in the women’s rights movement in the 70s, and her much of her work focuses on gender and sexuality, patriarchy and heteronormativity. In Norway she is probably best known for her biographical trilogy following Inger Holm through her childhood and adolescence, as she grows into her lesbian identity. But these aren’t among the English translations of her books.
Her novel Egalia’s daughters, on the other hand, is available in English. It is a humorous satire on patriarchy, set in the fantasy land Egalia, where men are “the second sex”, and women oppress men through strict gender roles and beauty ideals. In her over-the-top style, Brantenberg has even subsituted all words that are normally given in masculine form with feminine counterparts, and vice versa. (You can buy it here.)
What women writers or books about women would you recommend?