International Women's Day and the Importance of Reading Works Written and Translated by Women
The global celebration of International Women's Day was held this week and I have been reflecting on the specific message the IWD committee announced for 2021, which was Amplifying All Voices. I like this message very much as it is anti-"Lean In" feminism (where a woman is focused on playing in the system to succeed for herself), but instead is a means of linking arms with other women to ensure that the wisdom, ideas and decisions made by peers and friends who identify as women are shared broadly and often. In this way, we are watching out for each other and taking an active part in supporting each other's growth.
But, how does this relate to a blog about reading and books, you ask? Well, I have been a reader my whole life. It is only in the last decade or so that I have made a concerted effort to focus on and find women writers, and more recently, women translators. It was in large part due to taking on challenges like the Read Harder challenge by Book Riot, and then finding the Reading Women Challenge and podcast. (Incidentally, The StoryGraph site does a remarkable job with supporting challenges and offers a wonderful alternative to Goodreads as a reading tracking solution.And it's co-owned by a Black woman.) Previous to doing those challenges, I allowed my options to be influenced by things like the New York Times Book Review, by algorithm suggestions in Goodreads/ Amazon, by friend suggestions, but never once stopping to question the biases at play with any of those. I was simply not exposed to the plethora of women writers out there because of those biases.
Literary fiction was dominated by men most of my adult life, as were many other genres.** It follows that I wasn't exposed to women writers with the same frequency or with the same accolades as I was to contemporary male writers. That is even more true for Black writers or of other underrepresented minority groups. And since I wasn't going to school anymore, I certainly wasn't being exposed to any back listed authors that were no longer being reprinted and placed on the shelves of large book chains (think Anita Brookner, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Taylor, Rumer Godden, Muriel Sparks, etc.). These were considered niche authors that I had to stumble upon through an author interview or some kind reviewer referencing their work in relation to the book of the moment. In essence, they were relegated to side note references.
Why does it matter? I didn't truly understand the implications of my reading primarily men until I started to make a concerted effort to read literary fiction by women. It was also around the same time that I started to read The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, and Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. What hit me immediately was the complexity of relationships and the dynamic use of language. This was so much more than a good story told well. These books were telling me fundamental, deep and often contradictory truths that come only from experience. The authenticity was evident in the words, in the decisions what to tell vs. hold back, and how intimately they would focused on their characters.
I was a convert immediately. From there I was sure that those books couldn't just be anomalies. So I looked for more like the Ferrante series. I was hungry for complicated, contentious, deeply transforming books about women and their relationships. I was pointed to The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix. Again, I was astounded by the level of storytelling I found. And by then I was angry that I wasn't hearing more about these types of authors.
Doing a focused reading period where I read only a type of book, as we tend to do on BookTube, be it nonfiction in November, Victorian classics in October, or any of the other month themes, has helped me see the richness more clearly. When you zoom in and tighten the aperture on a theme, the nuances, comparisons and differences stand out more clearly. You can speak with more confidence on how these books work together as a set. Ironically, by zeroing in and by reading so much literary fiction by women, I find that my personal scope and understanding has expanded, instead of narrowing, and I am continually reminded of how many different ways women live and exist in the world.
Since then I have read primarily women authors because I often find a depth, insight and awareness there that moves me to think differently about other women's experiences. I have shifted my focus to read more diverse "own voices" works and translated fiction, especially the magic of reading a book from a woman writer and a woman translator. On top of that, reading something like Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (a Black English lesbian woman about a large cast of Black English women) for the BookTube Prize judging, as I did last year, or even Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (a trans woman writing a story featuring a very complicated relationship between a transwoman, her ex-partner who detransitioned and a cis Asian woman) just recently has only deepened my commitment to the richness found in exploring works by all women.
I am even more delighted that there are literary prizes that are focusing on diverse authors. Just this week, the Jhalak Prize longlist was announced and I was so pleased that I was aware of at least 4 of the books on the list. And later today, the Women's Prize For Fiction will be announcing their longlist, which I am sure will contain some surprises and hopefully some works I have loved this last year.
So as I think about the theme of Amplifying All Voices this Women's History month, I can't think of a better, more personal way to me than reading and sharing my love of women authors and translators.
I would love to know if there was a specific woman writer that resonated with you? Was there a specific book by a women that opened you up to new ways of thinking? And do you have any recommendations for me of books by a woman that you think is complex, rich, dynamic and challenging?
Happy reading, friends!
**Here is an interesting article with some stats at the changes in publishing women over the decades. And I really like the work that VIDA has done to highlight that women's works were not being published or reviewed in the past, but with their, and other organizations, focusing on this as one diversity measure, progress is happening.