It´s International Woman´s day! Usually for this day I would do a list of articles concerning Women´s rights and liberations across the world, but this year comes a decision to change things up a bit. Instead I will list a few feminist books and stories that are more than worth checking out. In order to explain what, in this list, is meant by a feminist read I´ll make a short explanation: it is a story that has three dimensional female characters and either deals with the subject of female liberation or deals with the subject of female oppression. Let´s get started.
Quick Note!: Most of these books can be triggering due to dealing with rape and violence.
1.“Changes: A love story” by Ama Ata Aidoo: This is a classic work of African literature, and for no small reason. The book takes place in the 1990´s Accra, Ghana, where the independent Esi decides to divorce her husband due to having endured a rape at his hands. After that she falls in love with a Muslim man named Ali, which leads her to question whether or not she should become his second wife. “Changes” was published in 1993 and was one of the first African books that dealt with women trying to balance home life with work as well as the stigma of being an independent woman. But it also openly deals with marital rape and its aftermath, which even to this day is still a taboo subject in much of literature and culture (including western). Esi´s struggles against expectations are shown in a complex light; while she is determined to keep her job and independence she finds herself still inclined to forgo her autonomy to please Ali and others. The book is honest and human. As the saying goes, the personal is highly political, especially for Esi.
2.“Purge” by Sofi Oksanen; This novel takes place in both modern times free Estonia and the Estonia of WWII, when it was under Russian occupation. The story is about an old woman meeting a young woman; Aliide Truu, a woman who was rape and sexually tortured by KGB agents in her youth, and Oksana – a youth who has escaped from the hands of traffickers. Oksanen delves deftly, but horrifically, into a story of two forms of sexual violence; that of politically motivated rape and that of modern day sexual slavery. The novel is heavily disturbing, but the characters, especially Aliide, are wonderfully complex and the illustration of female oppression is powerfully exposed. It´s best to not say too much, since the plot´s enigmatic structure makes it a book best to read blindly.
3.”The Ribbon Maiden”: This fairy tale, which originates from the Chinese ethnic minority of the Miao, is about a woman who people proclaim as the maker and creator of the most beautiful sowing and ribbons found in the land. The emperor, wanting this skill only to himself, has The ribbon maiden kidnapped and held against her will unless she makes him a continuous supply of the elegant ribbons. She submits to the emperors demands, but due to her great talents she is able to make the emperors bondage of her backfire on him. The tale is laden with female power – from the Ribbon Maidens wish to return home so she can reunite with her female friends, to her refusing to submit to the bully emperor. It is impossible not to cheer on this woman as her many gifts, and powerful sowing, defeats her captors and manifests her freedom in the face of oppressions both political and ideological. A really, really cool fairy tale.
4.“Blood and Guts in High School” by Kathy Acker: The most absurd and weird novel on this list tells the story of a woman who endures emotional abuse, trafficking and abandonment. The writing is surrealistic and the story is told in a nonsensical order, with Ms. Acker´s own NSFW yet creative drawings. The prose is a surging gush of rage and aggression, delivering a punk-themed punch to the capitalist patriarchy. Beautifully random.
5. “Ladies Coupé” by Anita Nair: This book is formed of an assorted set of narratives focused on diverse women of Today´s India. A woman aboard a train contemplates if she should run off with a younger man she´s in love with or stay with her conservative family instead. Finding herself in the company of a group of women during her trip she asks for advice. What follows are a myriad of tales of life and struggle – the serene joy of learning to swim, of getting the last wondrous laugh against a bully husband, and the lonely tragedy of being impregnated via rape. The tone continuously pivots from the lighthearted to the cruel throughout the entirety of the narrative, with both the epic and minute of characterizations. Despite some stories being tragic, the novel leaves a clear hope in the end, depicting a happier life just around the corner.
6.“From a crooked rib” by Nuruddin Farah: This novel takes place in 1980´s Somalia, where a nineteen year old girl runs away from home to escape an arrange marriage, only to find herself having to marry other, equally unpleasant men, in order to survive. Beyond all hope, and needing both men to ensure her social and monetary survival, she navigates a precipice to keep secret her twin marriages from both men (she hasn´t legally divorced either one of them). Farah illustrates the economic and political challenges facing women in Somalia and minutely exposes how the social mores, and legal system is biased against women (and laying bare double standards applied to men, as opposed to women, when it comes to marriage and relationships). While the heroines husbands both indulge openly and continuously in second wives and many lovers, the protagonist finds herself mercilessly slut-shamed, tormented and ostracized by the community for falling outside of the hallow prescripts of monogamy. “From a crooked rib” was Farah´s debut novel, but you would never guess that.
7.“The Butcher´s Wife” by Li Ang: Based on real events, this story is about a Taiwanese woman, Lin Shi, who after taking years of absolutely ruthless abuse kills her husband in self defense. The story begins when the protagonist’s parents, fearing Lin Shi’s youthful behavior as signs of uncontrollable and uncontainable sexuality, marry her off to a local butcher, who it turns out is fond of making Lin Shi scream in agony. He abuses her both physically and sexually, and when she starts to defend herself he starves her. One of the toughest books I´ve ever read, but none the less this novel remains gripping and spellbinding. The novel not only showcases abuse, but critiques neighbors and family members that enable abuse through ignorance and acceptance, as well as showing a side of the local Buddhist religion which is not a flattering depiction to say the least. Thought-provoking yet brutal.
8.“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros: The story of a Mexican-American family is told in a series of drabbles in this short book. Through the narration of the adolescent Esperanza these petite deft drabbles explore poverty, culture, sexual assault and hope. The stories are like extended poems, with heartbreaking scene after heartbreaking scene. From Esperanza witnessing her father grief stricken by her grandmother’s death to Esperanza being sexually attacked by racist white boys, the novel makes a depressing, memorable quick read.
9.“The House of Bernarda Alba” by Federico Garcia Lorca: This was not only an unusual play for it´s time for its open brutal criticism of Spanish honor culture, but is also remarkable by even today´s standards in being a play with a all female cast with no speaking roles for men, as well as dealing with female sexual frustration. The play is about a classist, narrow minded mother who rules over her five daughters with an Iron fist, never allowing them to socialize with others in the town or marry. This leads to a major conflict when a young man arrives and three of the same sisters are smitten with him. Things become especially disturbing when the youngest daughter is implied to be pregnant without being engaged. The sisters play off each other perfectly, and the deep seated melancholy and sense of being trapped in being an “honorable woman” echoes through the story with great strength.
10. “Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El-Sadaawi: the angriest and fiercest work in this list by fair, El-Sadaawi´s classic novel tells the story of a woman on death row that has killed her pimp. The woman details her life from girlhood to the point where she ended up in prison, describing her ordeal with female genital mutilation, male betrayal and violence. Through the course of the novel the protagonist makes abundantly clear how she has come to be so angry and uncompromising with the world she lives in, where, beginning with her birth as a woman, she was set up for pain. The woman´s narration bursts with a fire at the face and fact of an unjust world. It is provocative and unapologetic, an instant masterpiece.
That´s a few recommendations. What feminist novels, short stories/ fairy tales or graphic novels do you readers recommend? Comment done below and A Happy International Women´s Day to all sisters, Cis to Trans, out there!