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?

A few words on the 22/7 attacks

I know that most of you are aware of the terrible tragedy Norway has suffered the past days. The editors of New Narratives, along with the rest of you, grieve over the loss of the 76 people who died (so far) as a direct result of the terrorist attacks. Our thoughts are with the deceased and those personally affected.

As a promoter of multiculturalism working in Oslo, the heart of the attacks, I felt it necessary to say a few words concerning the tragic event. The fact that so many people have stood together and shown solidarity in such difficult times gives me hope for a better tomorrow. Although right-wing extremists such as Anders Behring Breivik spew hatred and the belief that the West and Middle-East are at war, Norwegians have chosen to attempt to stand together as a nation. This makes me incredibly proud.

Breivik murdered followers of a political party because he felt it supported multiculturalism to the point that it was destroying a nation. Although most of us will agree that immigration has not been without its challenges, what he claims is far from the truth. It is true that Norway could work on improving its immigration and integration policies. It is also true that Norway could work on accepting cultural differences so it can change and grow as a nation as a result of this. But the most important fact is that we are trying, and will try even harder after the attack to prove Breivik and other right-wing extremists wrong. New Narratives will work to increase its efforts to embrace multiculturalism and distance itself from extremists, and hopes you can help be a part of that change.

What is multiculturalism? Olav Kobbeltveit examines this thought here. He describes it as being two things: integrating and assimilating other cultures into our own, yet celebrating cultural differences and recognizing that we can all learn from each other. “More cultures gives us a richer society,” Kobbeltveit writes. This principle is what we should draw on for inspiration.

Where do we go from here? In an excellent article, Ahmed Moor writes about where the dichotomy really lies. “The combatants are not Islam and the West. Instead, the war is between the normal, sane people of the world and the right-wing zealots who see doom, destruction, hellfire and God’s Will at every turn […] Anders Behring Breivik, Mohammed Atta and Baruch Goldstein are all cut from the same rotten cloth. Anwar Al-Awlaki and Glenn Beck – the peddlers of the faith – all share the same core afflictions,” Moor states.

Aslak Sira Myrhe, the director of the House of Literature in Oslo, has penned a piece for the Guardian about the recent terrorist attacks in Oslo, and how experts and the media were quick to blame “the Other” – Muslims. Challenging state leaders to act, he writes: “When the world believed this to be an act of international Islamist terrorism, state leaders, from Obama to Cameron, all stated that they would stand by Norway in our struggle. Which struggle will that be now? All western leaders have the same problem within their own borders. Will they now wage war on homegrown rightwing extremism? On Islamophobia and racism?”

So in a strange space of grief, regrets, and thoughts of improvement, I ask you all to think of where you stand in all of this. Will you be helping rebuild Norway into a renewed land of peace and democracy, or stand on the side of the hate-mongers?