About women by women
It is a privilege to be able to read, understand and appreciate the depth of women’s writing and the expanse of their ideas. But it was several years before I would understand the bias against women’s writing— and in extension, their characters. A popular bookstore raised an outcry when it shared how men are quick to admit they do not read books by women, and research revealed a price disparity in men’s and women’s books of up to 45 %.
It is not only dry data. In conversation, male acquaintances are quick to defend themselves and say they read and like books by women. Yet, why is it that their book recommendations and references are dominated by men, and names of women do not flow from the tongue as smoothly as the men’s?
We never feel the need to categorise men’s writing, but how quickly books by women are tied to the limitations of ‘romance’, ‘feminist’, or ‘women-centric.’
So often, women’s writing is casually dismissed as confessional and emotional, as though it were not the most difficult thing in the world to be honest and arouse feelings – which is only a fraction of what writing by women achieves. While ‘women’s writing’ is itself a term fraught with several connotations, not all of them appreciative, it has become more crucial than ever to read, talk about, widely share and appreciate the fabulous works of these writers.
“I do not wish (women) to have power over men; but over themselves,” said Wollstonecraft 230 years ago. When I read this piece, I was astounded at how fiercely a woman had rebelled during such oppressive times, and saddened by how little has changed in the lives of women. It is the collective voice of an entire generation, fueled by the accumulated rage of several centuries. While some ideas in the essay seem misogynistic today, Wollstonecraft’s powerful roar still resonates within many of us. This angst with the world is also duplicated in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, while Chimamanda Adichie harnesses Wollstonecraft’s urgent call for transformation in her treatise ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’
It is difficult to decide what is more touching in Beloved - style or content. It is an anguish against racism and rage against lopsided history, told through the unforgettable story of a family of slaves. It is also a story of strong mothers and stronger daughters who leave their dreams, voyages and poetry scattered on each page. It is traumatic in content and enviable in style, just like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, published more recently in 2016.
Anne Zaidi has done the unthinkable with this volume that attempts to capture two millennia of women’s writing in the vast literary world of India. Rather than consider it an all-exhaustive anthology, Zaidi thoughtfully terms it a tribute to the sisterhood that wrote steadfastly amidst all odds, and was rarely given space in major literary collections. This is a prototype, a diverse read and a labor of love that other countries would do well to follow.
Why are women so angry all the time, a lot of men like to ask. Why have women become so ‘radical’ and ‘fierce’? Kim Jiyoung, now nearly 40 years old, will tell you why. As she navigates childhood, adolescence, marriage and childbirth, she talks artlessly but passionately of the injustices she and her sisters undergo each day. This is the book that abetted the #MeToo movement in Korea, and resonated with millions of women around the world who felt the writer was recounting their own memoir.
This is an ordinary tale of normal people connecting with each other in unexpected ways – but it contains a tiny microcosm of Nepal within itself. All the characters that we watch on television or read about in papers or write a case study about, Thapa manages to bring into the same story. The novel is a critical analysis of Nepal as a failed state, a farce on its development aid, a study of its exclusionary norms and practices, and a celebration of the ordinary joys of life amongst this wretchedness. It is Nepal as we know, love, and hate.
Roxane Gay writes stories, but they are not imaginary – they are as true as our lives. In Difficult Women, she brings together all those women that society finds tiresome or troublesome. These women might crave money and power, or nurse a kink, or worship their bodies. They are all given a safe space, they are all lent voices to speak up. Read this to experience the convergence of the most unapologetic and ferocious women in your lives, which might include yourself.
Three women, all in the twentieth century, but detailing incredibly different experiences. The grandmother behaves like a dainty queen as a warlord’s concubine, the daughter does not stop toiling while pregnant, lest she be considered a burden to the ‘party’, and the granddaughter has to forgo her studies to serve the nation. It is a critical look at Mao’s China, and the impacts his dictates had on citizens, particularly women. It is a true story, but with far more unbelievable twists and turns than fiction.
The sheer canvas of this novel will take your breath away. It fiercely mocks every single thing that imperialism prides itself in. It is a love letter to the beautiful and prosperous land of Congo (then Zaire), and a satire on the white savior complex. It is basically a topsy-turvy account of a missionary family’s struggle in Congo, but is an analysis and commentary on so much more: racism, materialism, gender norms, religion, fanaticism, matrimony and relationships. It is, most bitingly, a revolt against white supremacy, and the exploitation of Africa by the West. The novel deserves to be read for an example of an impassioned, critical, and intelligent display of wisdom and justice.
This underrated gem is an engrossing account of the devastating aftereffect of the civil war in Sri Lanka. In a searing tone that stays with you long after the novel is finished, Chandran traces the lives of three generations that are led astray by the struggle for power and identity. Her attempt is to recreate the war as a more objective, balanced, nuanced history, with careful observation of socio-cultural and state-inflicted inequalities that led to the eventual deadly eruption. It is a difficult work to read, and a tad dramatic, but an important and absorbing one. Another remarkable novel along the same theme is Madhuri Vijay’s ‘The Far Field.’
This is a coming-of-age novel of the quintessential middle-class Kathmandu girl. It is clever in its use of language, unerring in its imitation of the mundane nature of everyday life, and interesting in its fresh approach to a novel. Tangled with the girl’s lives are so many other tales: that of her migrating grandparents and hardworking parents. It exposes the insecurities and contradictions and duplicities within all of us, and brings us so much closer to the land. If you read only one book in this list, read this – because it is the present and future of Nepali women’s writing.