Maya Jones serves up some alternative summer reading.
I finally finished my literature degree. Three years of reading Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, of trying to understand Swift’s misogyny and failing to excuse Wilde in the name of Art. I cannot count the number of essays I have written exploring the fragile masculinity that seeps out of these writers’ works. They are all great writers, but they are not why I chose to study literature.
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite women writers who have fought their way on to my reading lists over the years – believe me, there are only a few. Their works have provided a refreshing antidote to the whiny white, male voice which seems to permeate all periods of literary history, and is often worshipped in the academic classroom. The writers below speak of feminism with pride, women’s suffering with knowledge, and female friendships with love. These women are the reason I love literature.
So, if you are wondering what to do with the long summer ahead – or, in my case, your whole life – pick up one of these books and be inspired by the mind of a great woman. As for me, I plan to say fuck you to the literary ‘classics’ for a while and use my newfound freedom to explore all the modern feminist literature that had no place on my course. I guess that’s better than binging Harry Potter, right? Happy Holidays!
George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss (1860)
Yes, I was sceptical at first too. The Mill on the Floss is a long book and the only aspect I could recall of reading Middlemarch was endless swiping on the Kindle and a desire to power through the literary ‘canon’. But Eliot creates a defiant, witty and headstrong heroine in Maggie Tulliver. She is relatable precisely because she makes mistakes and lacks perfection. While Eliot’s feminism is debateable, Maggie remains one of my favourite literary characters. Warning: expect to shed tears!
Audre Lorde: Sister Outsider (1984)
As a white woman, I found this collection of essays a brilliant source for broadening my understanding of the different intersections of oppression that women of colour face. Lorde’s prose is beautifully lyrical, easy and enjoyable to read; you can dip in and out of this collection, reading the essays in no particular order. I cannot do justice to Lorde’s writing so I will leave you with a quotation from my favourite essay, ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’:
‘When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of its assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives’
Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman (1969)
There’s a reason we read three Atwood novels over the course of my women writers module. Now that The Handmaid’s Tale (one of the best, eerie dystopias of the twentieth century) has been adapted for TV, it is the perfect time to explore the rest of Atwood’s novels. The Edible Woman is a great place to start. Atwood’s first published novel is a fascinating story that tackles the relationship between women, consumerism and meat eating. Beware: the gruesome descriptions of steak might even turn you vegetarian!
Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (1997) and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017)
For twenty years, the writing world has celebrated Roy as an activist and essay-writer while eagerly awaiting her second novel. Now, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has finally arrived and I know I am not alone in feeling sheer excitement (and not just because I am going to watch her speak in Bristol). I read The God of Small Things as a fresher and it is a book I know I will return to again and again. The story follows the lives of two twins growing up in India, their separation and their reunion. I had never heard of Roy before university and am eternally grateful for the discovery.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain: Sultana’s Dream (1905)
Writing my dissertation was inevitably going to feel liberating after three years of set texts. I chose to look at Hossain’s satirical utopia Sultana’s Dream, which imagines a place called Ladyland where women occupy the public sphere and men are kept in the purdah system. It is a short, funny story that subverts gender stereotypes, tackles colonialism and the patriarchy in India and, most importantly, provides a gateway into exploring a remarkable woman’s life. Hossain devoted her life to helping Muslim girls access education and her achievements are celebrated each year on Rokeya Day in Bangladesh. Sultana’s Dream was also written before such classics as Herland and is a must if you are generally interested in feminist utopias. Read Motichur for a selection of her essays translated into English.
Illustration by Billie Gavurin