What does ‘feminism’ mean today? This is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, an eloquently argued essay based upon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Tedx talk. This 42-page booklet offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century – a clear and easy read to hand to those friends who just don’t understand what you really mean when you say, “I’m a feminist.” Perhaps you don’t quite understand yourself. Within these pages, you will find an approach rooted in awareness and inclusion and an artful explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for both men and women alike. It’s a rallying cry for why we should ALL be feminists. Full of wit and humour, best-selling novelist, Adichie, uncovers insights like the following: The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we 'should' be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn't have the weight of gender expectations.
Author: Alice Hoffman
Year Published: 2011
Genre: historical drama
Set in 70 AD just after the fall of Jerusalem, The Dovekeepers retells the tragic story of Masada, a small Jewish stronghold on a mountain outside the Judean desert. Nine hundred Jews held out for several months against the Romans, but by the end of the siege, only two women and five children had survived. The tale is told from the perspective of four extraordinary women whose lives become inextricably intertwined when they become dovekeepers at Masada – Yael, the unwanted daughter of an assassin, Revka, a baker’s wife who has witnessed unspeakable brutality, Aziza, the daughter of a warrior, and Shirah, a wise and powerful woman who some suspect is a witch.
In Aziza’s section, Hoffman investigates the tensions between traditional gender binaries and what happens/doesn't happen when they are transgressed. Aziza has lived an unconventional life; although born female, to help her survive in the harsh desert as part of a mountain Moabite tribe, her mother brings her up as a boy. But before she arrives at Masada she reverts back to her female ‘identity.’ However, as the Romans begin their siege, Aziza once again transforms herself into a ‘man.’ Compared to her sister Nahara who joins the Essene people and lives “as if she was nothing more than a passive and beautiful ewe” (p. 284), Aziza is a force to be reckoned with.
I loved the sense of 'humanity' in this novel and the way it celebrated the feminine. By allowing some characters to move beyond gender boundaries and enact and play with both the masculine and the feminine, the agentic and the communal, Hoffman has created a story which transcends time boundaries.
The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Year Published: 1963
Genre: slice of life
Many would describe The Bell Jar as a thinly veiled autobiography about Sylvia Plath’s own struggle with depression. The vivid descriptors and uncomfortable honesty she uses to describe Esther Greenwood’s mental health experiences uncover what can only be described as a clear insight into the confusion of anxiety and depression. Esther is a young woman in the 60’s full of potential and promise having just received a summer internship in the bustling city of New York after winning a fashion magazine contest. Intensely introspective and often paralysed with indecision, she “wants to do everything” but soon finds herself back in her dismal hometown with a mother who doesn’t understand and a future as bleak as her aspirations to be a poet. After the failure of her calculated suicide, she experiences terrifying treatment in one asylum followed by better treatment in the next, finally re-entering the world “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road.” The novel ends with the chilling realisation that Esther Greenwood really is just like the rest of us, caught in a bell jar, with equal possibility to find ourselves in a life full of opportunity and success or one with seemingly no purpose or meaning.
A personal note: "The Bell Jar" assisted my understanding that anxiety and depression is incredibly wide-spread, something that can happen to anyone. You don't have to live in poverty or abuse to experience it and loneliness can be the biggest enemy if you're surrounded by well-meaning people who just don't 'get it'. I promise, reading this book will help you understand - perhaps even yourself, but at the very least, those that you love.
The God of Small Things
Author: Arundhati Roy
Year Published: 1997
Genre: slice of life
They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.
Arundhati Roy’s sole work of fiction, The God of Small Things, invents a new kind of language to describe the details that create us, shape us, and destroy us. The year is 1969. The setting is Kerala, the southernmost tip of India. Twins, Esthappen and Rahel, live in the aftermath of their family’s dysfunctional wreckage. The caste system hides those they truly love and duty twists those they are told to love into shadows of their true selves. A Christmas visit from their uncle’s ex-wife and daughter changes their life in an instant. Told from the perspective of a child, this masterpiece reveals the painful effects of trauma inflicted upon innocence too soon. Parts of this novel made me feel sick, riveted, heartbroken, but always deeply touched. Roy possesses a heightened awareness of the world in which we live and portrays it wondrously throughout this palpable tale.
Childhood tiptoed out. Silence slid in like a bolt. Someone switched off the light. Not death. Just the end of living.
Author: Charlotte Rogan
Year Published: 2012
Genre: dramatic fiction
As the Empress Alexandra sinks in the middle of the Atlantic in 1914, a group of thirty-nine men and women find themselves fighting for their lives on a lifeboat built for thirty. Told from the perspective of Grace, a newly married social climber whose dubious motto is “God helps those who help themselves,” the novel explores the power struggle between an experienced sailor/saviour, Mr Hardie, and two calmly formidable women, Mrs Grant and Hannah. As the survivors impatiently wait for rescue and struggle to make sense of their own ethical obligations, the antagonism between the stranded men and women progressively worsens. At times a supporter of both Mr Hardie and Mrs Grant, Grace becomes an acute observer of the emerging leadership crisis, shedding light on the role of the imaginary and symbolic in constructing the idea of an ‘all powerful’ leader and the importance of 'followers' in either saving or damning him/her. In highlighting the conflicting gendered expectations women face when they take up the ‘leader’ role, The Lifeboat offers a sobering ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ take on women’s leadership.
The Invention of Wings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Year Published: 2014
Genre: historical/biographical fiction
The Invention of Wings traces the life of Sarah Grimke (1792 – 1873), abolitionist speaker and American women’s rights activist, and her childhood slave, Hetty (‘Handful’). Brought up in a wealthy Charleston household, Sarah, at the age of eleven, is given Handful as a birthday gift. This event sparks a flame of resistance in Sarah, setting her on a dangerous path that begins with teaching Handful to read (a serious crime in antebellum South Carolina) and culminates in her outspoken public opposition to slavery and inequality. However, having been told her whole life that being a woman means she has no right to ambition, Sarah struggles with debilitating self-doubt and anxiety as she attempts to establish and ‘story’ herself as a credible female leader. In parallel to Sarah’s remarkable re-invention from a timid and fearful young woman to a force for change, Handful narrates her side of the story. Handful possesses incredible resilience and strength, exercising moments of bravery and independence despite the strict confines of her life. Neither Sarah nor Handful are heroines in the conventional sense of the word, instead, the value of this novel lies in the way it traces the processual steps a woman must take to both become and see herself as a leader, proposing an alternative to the debilitating question: “Who am I to do this, a woman?”
The Woman's Room
Author: Marilyn French
Year Published: 1977
Genre: feminist fiction
Published in 1977 at the end of the ‘sexual revolution,’ The Women’s Room sparked outrage for its controversial and forward-thinking ideas on women’s rights and desires (addressing the ‘what women want’ question). Set in 1950s America, The Women’s Room follows the life of Mira Ward, a conventional and submissive young woman in a traditional marriage, and her gradual feminist awakening. Now considered a ‘classic’ piece of women’s literature (although I doubt many women my age would have even heard of it), French suggests in her opening introduction (written in 2006) that it is just as relevant for today’s audiences (think white, middleclass women) as it was 38 years ago. She notes that “despite many easements on female life in the west, the world’s ethos has moved in the opposite direction – toward more hostility between the sexes” (p. xvi). I’m not quite sure this is the case and whether or not The Women’s Room transcends time boundaries in quite the manner French intends (there is a fair amount of material which is concerned solely with issues addressed by second-wave feminism), however I did find this novel much more engaging and interesting than Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) which follows a similar coming-of-age, 'awakening' premise.
One of the best things about this novel are the lively discussions French crafts between Mira and her female friends at Harvard. These scenes make you wish you were part of their dynamic group! Underpinning all their debates is, as Val succinctly observes, the issue of equality between the sexes: “The simple truth – that men are only equal – can undermine a culture more devastatingly than any bomb."
Disclaimer: please interpret the nature and aesthetic of this flatlay image ironically.
Author: David Mitchell
Year Published: 2004
Genre: science/post-apocalyptic fiction
Six lives with interlocking stories that span a time period from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future. Each amazing adventure is written with a unique feel and genre, completely different from one another and yet eerily alike. You’ll spend the first half of the book utterly enthralled but hopelessly confused. Unravel the link between stories alongside the characters as you are boomeranged back to where you began. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and made into a major motion picture, David Mitchell’s impressive work of fiction will engage your moral senses and cause you to compare the enthralling vision of humanity’s will to power portrayed in Cloud Atlas to the world in which we now live. “Everything is connected” – you’ll leave these pages with the unwavering belief that this is indeed true.
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Year Published: 2005
Genre: Historical fiction
A beautiful, bittersweet, coming of age narrative from the view of a 15-year-old Nigerian girl living behind the high walls of her family compound. Her father, a devout Catholic, while generous and revered in public is severe and fanatical at home. When a military coup puts them in danger, Kambili's father sends her and her brother away to live in the starkly different home of their aunt. Her house is full of lively laughter and Kambili is given a taste of what a life of love and belonging could look like beyond the confines of her father's authority.
"This is a book about the promise of freedom; about the blurred lines between childhood and adulthood; between love and hatred, between the old gods and the new." The author's words move effortlessly, capturing the reader in the whirling mind of Kambili as she grapples with faith, family, and the intertwining of the two.
Adichie creates a story full of authenticity and truth. When Kambili struggles to speak the words she wishes to say, I feel her suffocation. When she is pulled between two worlds, I recognise her confusion. And when she is given the chance to finally live, I see the simultaneous joy and pain.