From the beginning of 2022 till March 8, 2023, International Women’s Day, I have read 103 books. Thanks to Goodreads, I can meticulously keep track of all the books I read. I was initially astonished by the number and then curiosity overtook me – I wondered if I had read enough books written by women. I began noting down the titles and found that, barring books written by men and translated by women, 51 out of the 103 books I had read were written by women in English or in other languages and translated into English. That’s almost 50 per cent. Much to my relief, it was not a bad number.
As I was making the list, I realised I had read authors born in the late 19th century (Dorothy Strachey, Agatha Christie) to those born in the 1990s (Lillian Fishman, Tirzah Price). Naturally, the next thing I was wondering about was – what are women writing about? And how are they keeping up with the times?
The personal and the public
A very small fraction of my reading comprised works of nonfiction, but interestingly enough, all the titles I read in the category were written by women. For the longest time, one of the foremost concerns for women writers has been the place of women in the power hierarchy at home and work. Think of the thousands of hours women spend in domestic labour in exchange for no monetary compensation – gratitude from the rest of the family is rare too.
Now try to understand what expending one’s physical and intellectual capabilities in endless household drudgery can lead to – a diminished enthusiasm to live life on one’s own terms. Nilanjana Bhowmick studies this dreadful affliction of middle-class Indian women in her book Lies Our Mothers Told Us. She points out that the ambitions of men (and sometimes younger generations of women) are often paid for by the freedoms of women.
It has been 75 years since India’s independence, and much has changed over the years. Yet, despite the astounding progress made by this young nation of ours, we still remain a country where the disparity between the haves and have-nots grows wider every year. In Independence Day, Veena Venugopal speaks with elderly Indians who witnessed the birth of the country and how the nation has upheld its promises (and betrayed them) since then.
An example of this is Anita Agnihotri’s novel The Sickle (translated from the Bengali) wherein she writes about the criminal negligence faced by agricultural labourers in some of India’s poorest villages. Another example in fiction is Breast Stories by Mahashweta Devi (translated from the Bengali by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) where one of the stories laments the State-sponsored violence against the poorest of the poor in India. A few of these larger systemic failures of the State – ones that affect personal and public freedoms – are also examined by Rukmini S in her critically acclaimed book Whole Numbers and Half Truths.
Existing as a woman has a lot to do with the corporeality of the female body. It is a contentious vessel – at least for male lawmakers and custodians of culture. From the physical anatomy to the regular rigours of bodily functions such as menstruation, everything about the female body seems to be enshrouded in mystery and curiosity.
While Farah Ahamed deals with the diverseness of menstrual taboos and cultural practices (including those faced by transpeople) in South Asia in Period Matters, art historian Catherine McCormack turns an unflinching eye on the treatment of female bodies in the “masterpieces” created by male artists in her book Women in the Picture. Both books encapsulate a very particular rage of being denied the agency of your own body and having a say on its functioning – a rage that almost all women are familiar with.
Sonia Faleiro brilliantly takes this forward in Beautiful Thing, where she writes about her time with bar dancers in Bombay before the profession was branded illegal. In Rijula Das’s novel A Death in Shonagachhi, the murder of a prostitute upends the lives of all the women in the infamous red-light neighbourhood of Kolkata. The horrors of domestic abuse and the protagonist’s sexual exploitation from a young age irrevocably damage her self-esteem in The Bread the Devil Knead (by Lisa Allen-Agostini), which examines the everlasting effects of sexual abuse. The conundrums of the female body and the desire and detestation associated with it are truly ironic, and these writers point it out in their respective books.
Jhumpa Lahiri delves into the creative pursuits of writing – and translation – in her book Translating Myself and Others. She uses academic theories and personal experiences to elaborate on her dual roles as an author and a translator. In her memoir, My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff reflects on her first year in the publishing industry where she came in contact with the legendary reclusive writer JD Salinger. Slow Days, Fast Company is Eve Babitz’s collection of essays inspired by her life in Los Angeles in the 1960s – she writes about the nightlife, her romantic and platonic relationships, and the roles they played in shaping her as a writer.
Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux’s memoir A Girl’s Story (translated from the French by Alison L Strayer) revisits her childhood and the first instances of violence, shame, and betrayal that led her to write. The close glimpses into the writing (and publishing) life of the writers offer an interesting perspective on a profession historically dominated by men. Writing is serious business and more so for women whose stories are a lifelong effort to balance the scale of gender inequality.
The plurality of love
To live is to love. And what is a life without love and loss? One can even argue that very few human emotions have provided such fertile ground for storytelling. Olivia (by Dorothy Strachey) and Attachment (by Florence Noiville, translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan) are two very diverse portrayals of young love. The former is about a schoolgirl’s love for her female teacher and the inevitable heartbreak that awaits her while the latter is about a 17-year-old girl’s obsessive love for her 49-year-old male teacher, which also inevitably leads to heartbreak. Though similar in themes, Olivia and Attachment are profound explorations of first love (and heartbreak) in both queer and heterosexual relationships.
Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman’s The Very Nice Box features a bisexual woman who loves and loses when the truth about who she thinks is her dream man comes to light. If love has somehow come to fruition after all its trials and tribulations, the next step (and quite unimaginatively at that) is marriage. The marriage might or might not last – it’s a gamble that so many of us willingly participate in.
If Monica Ali’s Love Marriage deals with the impossible complexities of South Asian “love” marriages, then Ivana Sajko’s Love Novel (translated from the Croatian by Mima Simic) is a scathing depiction of a married couple at the end of their tether with each other. In Bani Basu’s The Fifth Man (translated from the Bengali), a married couple’s relationship becomes all the more frictional when they are visited by their former lovers. Oh William! (by Elizabeth Strout) can be seen as the final book in this ill-fated series – what remains of a marriage after it has ended. Buku Sarkar’s Not Quite a Disaster After All explores a failed romantic relationship and a failed marriage in the same book through the narratives of two women. The complete range of one’s romantic experiences have been written about with great wit and empathy from diverse sexual, cultural, and gender perspectives.
While we are talking about romantic relationships, I am also interested in the portrayal of the extremities of female sexual experiences in contemporary literature. In Lillian Fishman’s debut novel Acts of Service, the trinity of social media validation, polyamorous relationships, and experimenting with one’s sexuality leads the primary character into one royal mess. Small Pleasures (by Clare Chambers) is a novel about a woman who is convinced she has given a virgin birth and a journalist’s quest to get to the bottom of it. The dissociation one often experiences following a traumatic sexual assault makes for a particularly inventive story.
But love is more than sex, marriages, and break-ups. Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a heartfelt tale about the everlasting love between a pet and his human, while Aruna Nambiar’s Weird Women’s Club is an ode to female friendships. In The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki writes from the perspective of a young boy who has recently lost his father whom he loved dearly. The material objects and memories that we associate with the loved one who is no longer with us often become our source of comfort. Jokha Alharthi’s Bitter Orange Tree (translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth) tells the story of a woman and her love for an elderly woman who became her grandmother not by blood but by choice. The plurality of love and its many forms in these novels illustrate the broader human need to forge connections with other people and things (living and non-living) to live a wholesome life.
The toll of family
Ellena Ferrante’s novels (translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) The Lost Daughter and The Lying Life of Adults are unapologetic depictions of the frayed familial relationships and the toll they takes on one’s social and emotional well-being. Meg Mason explores something similar in Sorrow and Bliss as her protagonist tries to make sense of her personal and professional failures from the perspective of her childhood and her relationship with her parents.
This exploration continues in Leesa Gazi’s explosive novel Hellfire (translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya) in which a woman is allowed to explore the streets of her hometown Dhaka on her own for the first time when she turns 40. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is a sweeping tale told over generations and geographies about the everlasting obligations to one’s family. Ashapurna Debi’s stories in Shake the Bottle (translated from the Bengali) shreds apart the veneer of bhadralok culture in middle-class Bengali families where women are forced to remain in the shadows while the men venture out into the world for wealth and fame. The nuanced critique of familial relationships and what it means for women to shoulder domestic responsibilities generation after generation encourages the reader to question gender dynamics and see how they affect a woman’s agency in their own family.
Some of my favourite – for the lack of a better descriptor – twisted stories have been written by women. Confessions (by Kanae Minato, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder) is a diabolical tale about a mother’s revenge for her murdered child. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a modern-day Gothic horror featuring a reclusive family hiding deadly secrets. Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat is a surreal story where the biggest question is whether the protagonist’s death was a murder or a suicide. It is a deep dive into the unreachable recesses of the human mind. Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero) is an unsettling story about the relationship between an author, his characters, and the reader.
Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (translated from the Japanese by David Boyd) is a surreal novella about three workers employed in a factory where none of them knows the purpose of their jobs. Slowly they start to get confused about where the factory ends and where the life outside of it begins. Set in the real past and dystopian future, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao is a book that cannot be contained by one genre. She takes on the burning issues of caste, capitalism, and unchecked technological advancements in one heady novel. A similar feeling of headiness is experienced while reading Janice Pariat’s Everything the Light Touches which traverses continents and centuries as we follow characters as diverse as botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century to present-day protests in Shillong to protect the city’s green cover.
The interconnected lives of twelve seemingly unconnected characters come together to form a remarkable (but often ignored) view of a sprawling metropolis in Annie Zaidi’s disquieting novel A City of Incident. An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (translated from the German by Jackie Smith) is yet another book that delightfully refuses to be slotted into one genre. The author ventriloquises lost objects and interrogates the very nature of language and memory in this wildly innovative book. The disregard for traditional modes of writing and the bending of the rules of genre to their will shows that women authors are unafraid to experiment with their craft and challenge the reader’s imagination.
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These (though primarily featuring a man) is about the dubious shelters run by Irish churches for destitute girls. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s epistolary novel Address Unknown is a chilling imagination of the early years of Nazi Germany. Though not strictly historical fiction, these novels took me back to a time when politics was especially menacing for women and minorities. It’s difficult to shake off the atrocities of the past and it will do us well to remember the cruelty humans have meted out to each other and hope such injustice is never repeated.
If women have written masterfully about serious issues of families, politics, sex, and history, they have also written light-hearted and fun books with equal aplomb. Tirzah Price’s Pride and Premeditation situates a murder mystery in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice universe. Harini Nagendra’s The Bangalore Detectives Club is the first in the series of a woman detective solving crimes in pre-partition Bangalore. Perhaps the greatest detective-story writer of all time, Agatha Christie’s final Poirot mystery Curtain bids a fitting adieu to the inimitable detective with a delicious murder mystery.
The choice to read women need not be made with effort. Books written by women are easily available to read and are no longer confined by genres (or the lack thereof) or languages. Books written and translated by women cover a wide range of topics and styles (as illustrated by the examples above) while bringing in the unique perspective of gender that is often missed by male authors writing on similar topics. No matter the kind of reader you are, there’s a possibility that a woman author has already written your favourite book – and all you have to do is read more (and more) women till you find it and perhaps discover a few more favourites along the way.