Maya Kokerov takes us through her recommendations of books by women you should be reading this year.
March was Women’s History Month, a month dedicated to commemorating and celebrating not only women themselves but the vital role they have played in shaping history, culture and society. Sadly, March also transformed into a moment of deep reflection on the systemic discrimination and violence which women are victim to daily. Sarah Everard’s murder, in the week around International Women’s Day, was a tragedy that touched many women and sparked national protests. The way these protests were handled by police, particularly at Clapham Common, caused outrage along with the sobering statistic that 97% of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime.
Conversations about what men can do to protect women’s safety are being had in more mainstream spaces, such as social media, and the victim-blaming mentality thrown onto women is starting to be slightly more challenged, if not completely unshackled. Although the books in this list are superb, regardless of the author’s gender, this is a particularly poignant time for everyone, especially men, to be reading books written by female authors.
While it’s often speculated that men read generally fewer books by women, a 2018 study found that books by women are priced 45% lower than those written by male authors. Is it really surprising that women still opt for male pseudonyms in the 2020s? It’s not just about reading the ‘classics’ penned by white feminist thinkers writing in their 19thand 20th century bubbles. It’s 2021 and that means it’s about time we moved outside of the
echo chambers in our heads created by the English schooling curriculum. Yes, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are bucket-list books with so many interesting themes and beautiful language that you should try to read in your lifetime. But we also need to be just as fervently reading the voices of marginalised women; Black women, gay women, trans and non-binary women, and working-class women.
The attention has usually been given to white female authors. A contemporary example of this is Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; an incredibly ground-breaking, feminist book which kindles conversations about women’s autonomy but does not mobilise any discussions of the intersections between race and gender, which are so entrenched in Western society. In fact, it absolutely dismisses the idea of race and swerves to avoid any kind of confrontation, just as the popular Hulu series adaptation does. Of course, I highly recommend that novel but we’ve heard so much about it that we should turn our 2021 reading glasses to some less mainstream literature. We also don’t only need to read books by women about feminism or women’s issues, but it’s a good place for people to start in order to hear stories from the sources of these thoughts.
Toni Morrison – Beloved (or literally anything by Toni Morrison)
Toni Morrison is one of the most ingenious contemporary novelists. She is a Black literary icon
who strove not to write “watered down”, “universal” stories but rather wrote specifically for Black
people, often telling the narratives of Black women. Beloved is the story of a runaway slave, Sethe, who is haunted by a painful secret which begins to literally unravel as, having been haunted by her baby’s calamitous ghost, a mysterious teenage girl arrives. Set in the Reconstruction era, it is loosely based on a real event; an African American mother being forced to choose between two painful options for her children and especially her baby, Beloved: slavery or death.It may seem trite to recommend starting with Beloved, given its status as one of America’s most important works of fiction and Morrison’s most critically acclaimed novel. But the complex narrative structure, magical realism and evocative language will leave you gasping to re-read it— and trying to understand it. It’s not an easy read but there’s a reason why so many, including myself, cite it as one of their favourite books. Viscerally bringing themes such as the dehumanisation of racism and slavery, motherhood, masculinity, and home, if there was ever proof of the power literature wields, Beloved would be it. Some argue that Songs of Solomon is an even more beautiful work, which I recommend you also read and can even start with for something slightly less heavy.
bell hooks – Black Looks: Race and Representation
I couldn’t resist adding some theory to this carefully honed list. Black Looks is a collection of critical essays which challenge the representation of blackness, Black subjectivity and whiteness. It aims to subvert spectatorship. The essay ‘Eating the other: desire and resistance’ is a particularly enlightening must-read that interrogates how people of colour are othered by being seen as exciting or ‘spicy’ in post-racial discourse via exotic or primitive fantasies that
reinforce the status quo. It’s particularly prevalent in 2021, where cultural appropriation is being called out with celebrities and influencers alike.
Maggie Nelson – The Argonauts
The Argonauts is about love without being a love story. Nelson challenges the societal norms of sexuality, reproduction, family, love, and identity as she dips in and out of narratives about domestic life while being married to a trans man as well as theoretical discussions that also touch on psychoanalysis. A variety of genres are explored in this ‘autotheory’ memoir which thoughtfully looks into the challenges of both pregnancy and motherhood through a queer perspective.
Ursula Le Guin – The Word for World is Forest
This short science fiction novel is the second part of a series by Le Guin called HAINISH CYCLE. It is placed after The DIspossessed but it can also be read completely separately as a stand-alone story. Set around 3 centuries into the future, humans (called ‘Terrans’) have colonised a planet which locals call Athshe, a word they also use for forest. The Terran colonists introduce greed, destruction, and the endangerment of forests, which the native people (Athsheans) hold so dear. The colonisers enslave the Athsheans (called “creechies” by the humans), an inherently peaceful humanoid race who practice lucid dreaming. That is, until one bold act of resistance sets forth a strong revolution. This elegant novel was said to have inspired Avatar but doesn’t contain the same colonialist fantasies represented in the film. It has also been read as a commentary on the Vietnam War. To 21st century readers, it’s particularly relevant with environmentalism and extinction rebellion on the rise. As COVID-19 has forcefully demonstrated how unsustainable our lives are, this novel will resonate with all who wish for a hopeful ecological future.
Zadie Smith – White Teeth
This lively novel follows Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, two World War II veterans who lead England’s transformation along with their families. In a modern setting, the first-generation immigrants ambiguously reflect on their old lives as well as the current lives of their families in the Caribbean and Bangladesh. Filled with cheeky lines, Smith fearlessly breathes life into characters of so many different races, genders, religions, and ages. Set in the 2000s, reading White Teeth in 2021 is a reminder of how racist, terrible ideas have a long history. It suggests that, while we need to be careful not to repeat this, we can also relish in the hope offered by the empathy, wit, and openness of Smith’s writing.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg – My Own Words
Rather than an autobiography, this collection of essays, speeches, and statements from the prolific writer and public speaker date from her childhood to her later life. The Supreme Court’s former influential justice discusses gender equality, politics, being Jewish, law, and the value of looking beyond the US.
Amanda Gorman — The Hill We Climb and Other Poems
Amanda Gorman, a poet, activist, and budding phenomenon, made waves with the indelible reading of her inaugural poem. Her writing and performance of The Hill We Climb affirmed “what poetry can do” to young laureates. This collection includes similar powerful and energetic poetry which is equally captivating.
Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other
The idiosyncratic prose rhythms of this intimate novel enliven the stories of twelve modern British characters of very different generations and classes, most of which are Black women. Winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, Evaristo delivers hope and joy through these beautifully crafted stories of identity, race, humanity, and womanhood which are interwoven with hope and joy.
Kara Cooney – When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt
This women’s history book is a different kind of read which explores the powerful female rulers who had an edge over many of the ones who followed them. What was it about ancient Egyptian society that allowed queens to dominate politically in ways which the patriarchy forbade during many other historic periods? These fascinating stories present a riveting explanation of why we should care about this phenomenon of female power and what we can learn from it.
Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
I’ve always had a penchant for myths, legends, and fairy tales, especially those involving damsels and princesses. Instead of pandering to your inner child, Carter’s infamous collection of lyrical short fiction is all closely related to fairytales or folk tales — with often terrifying twists. Carter’s 1979 creation of feminist mythology will speak to a gen-z crowd who can very openly embrace the bad girls and enchantresses that cunningly knock the virtuous princesses out of their places as protagonists. These dark, and sometimes erotic, retellings subvert the tales we feel so familiar with, from Little Red Riding Hood to Puss in Boots. All are masterly written with a delightfully Gothic twinge.
Vivek Shraya – I’m Afraid of Men
As a trans artist and author, Shraya’s poignantly explores feeling too masculine as a woman, after previously feeling too feminine as a boy. Her raw writing delves into the societal pressure to perform gender within cisgender binaries in order to survive in a dangerous world filled with homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. This vulnerable and timely essay offers encouragement to embrace what makes you authentically yourself and to have the courage to
defy others’ perceptions of your own identity.
*Bonus (for when you’ve finished reading): Free The Tipple
A cocktail recipe book with a variety of flavourful drinks named after inspiring and iconic women,
from Frida Kahlo to Beyoncé.
I’m sure there’s many more must-reads that I’ve missed but the difficulty of refining this list
was promising. The rise in popularity given to books by women and feminist literature itself
shows there’s an increasing shift in how much we value different genres authored by all kinds of
Words by Maya Kokerov
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