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Read these women!

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?

Our next publication will be in April

The theme for our next publication is “discrimination“, something both women and minorities might experience. Have you read a good book dealing with this issue? Or do you want to share your own (real or fictitious) experiences?

You are free to contribute essays, articles, book reviews, free texts and anything else you want to share with us on this topic! Send in your contribution by March 20 to our e-mail new.narratives1@gmail.com

Until our next publication you can follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook!

What’s the truth about Uncle Tom and Mowgli?

A new series of literary events, dedicated to close readings, started last week at Litteraturhuset. The first objects of discussion were Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Kipling’s The Jungle Book, both recently in new, complete Norwegian translations.

While scholars Jon Haarberg and Arild Engelsen Ruud gave us the context for the books, about the time in which they were created and their reception, authors Jan Grue and Ole Robert Sunde contributed with some new interpretations and impressions of the books in our context. Here are some of the things they touched upon.

Too old or not old enough?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was dealing with a specific, «pressing» problem, that is why it seems outdated today, says Jan Grue. The political goal of abolishing slavery in the US has been accomplished. While race and ethnicity are still hot topics, both in the US and in Norway, some of the language and observations made in the book come off as pretty stereotypical, even racist, in today’s context.

Grue offered the opinion that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at once «too old» and «not old enough» for us to appreciate it.

We are used to stereotypical characterizations in literature. We accept Richard III’s «deformed, unfinished» appearance as connected to his character because it was written a long time ago, but when Uncle Tom’s obedient character is tied to the colour of his skin, we spot racist and discriminatory descriptions more easily.

«Boyology»-tales from the arch-imperialist

If you haven’t read The Jungle Book growing up, you might have seen the Disney movie, with the little boy Mowgli growing up among the animals in the jungle, eventually becoming their leader and even defeating the tiger Shere Kan. Originally not a single story, but a collection of stories in two books, The Jungle Book might be read quite differently if we know the context in which it was written, Arild Engelsen Lund says.

Kipling, living much of his life in British India, was a strong advocate for the British Empire and its colonial project. The time the Jungle Book stories first appeared in print coincided with a rise in Indian nationalism. The British, and Kipling among them, saw the Indians demanding independence as ridiculous, much like the monkeys are portrayed in The Jungle Book. So, is Mowgli the British imperialist conquering exotic lands and taking charge among the animals, the natives that are «half devil, half child»? Or does Kipling’s eloquent writing justify his imperialist views?

More than one truth

The Jungle Book and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are two books that many have grown up reading, but at least the Norwegian versions have been what one might call «light» ones, for a long time author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s name wasn’t even connected to the Norwegian Uncle Tom text. Jon Haarberg explained that the first Norwegian translation of the book was anonymous – as was its first, praising review, oddly enough. Much of the political and religious message of the novel was cut in the translation, as it was adapted into a harmless children’s book.

The Jungle Book was soon acknowlegded in Britain’s literary canon – a book all children should know, or at any rate all boys. In fact the book greatly influenced Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement, who named the junior movement Wolf Cubs after Mowgli’s adopted family. The stories of the Jungle Book were treated in much the same way as Uncle Tom, with several editions abridged and adapted for younger readers. And with several comic books and movie adaptations, the symbolism and layers that might be found in Kipling’s text are maybe less evident.

The new, complete Norwegian translations are a reminder that there could be more to the books than we remember. Going back to the original texts of the stories we’re familiar with, we might discover the truth about Uncle Tom or Mowgli, or maybe we find that there is more than one truth?