This post is part of our International Women’s Day celebration. See all the posts here.
Whenever I get the bright idea to write lists of my favorite women writers, I quickly remember that it’s much more complicated than “I love Toni Morrison!” Who, to be clear, I dearly love, but she is one of the women writers who did not make my list.
This list of women writers from all seven continents* was inspired by International Women’s Day, but really came to life when I realized I was sorely deficient on reading books by Australian authors.
(The * is for Antarctica. After some fun fact-checking and Wiki-history lessons, I realized that no one is currently from Antarctica, as in born and raised—they just visit, and write, and do science experiments. And freeze.)
So my list comes to this: women writers from all seven continents whose books (mostly fiction, nonfiction and young adult) I’ve read, and loved, and look forward to reading. Once I got to this down on paper I discovered I really like books of short stories/vignettes/tales from different points of view, so I’ve already learned something about my reading preferences.
When I think of lyrical I think Sandra Cisneros and remember what it felt like as a young woman to read this extraordinary writer for the first time: it was like reading in a language I didn’t know that I knew. Her poetry is humanely sublime, and her stories make you feel like a character in her book.
For a taste of her fiction, try The House on Mango Street, vignettes of a young girl growing up in the urban side of Chicago. For the poetry, Loose Women and My Wicked, Wicked Ways bring out the Beyonce and electrify you. Cisneros released a new book in 2015, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, that is currently waiting patiently on my TBR.
Backlist: Mariah K. Young, Masha’allah and Other Stories. I admit a huge bias here: Young is the winner of the very first James D. Houston award “for fiction that captures an engagement with life and literary exploration of California and the West,” two of my favorite places to read about. (California love 4eva!) Plus, I really love the way the word/title, Masha’allah, just rolls off my tongue, and its deeper meaning. (An Arabic phrase you use to express joy, respect.) The short stories in Masha’allah revolve around undocumented immigrants and hustlers in Oakland—regular people just trying to scrape together a living, making it one day at a time. It’s just so real life and well written, and I wait anxiously for more from Young.
For more suggestions, check these lists of 100+ Contemporary American Women Fiction Writers, 7 Female Canadian Authors You Need to Read, 14 Aboriginal Women Writers to Read This Summer, and Book Rioters’ Lists of Our Favorite American Authors.
Isabel Allende is my ultimate favorite in this category, someone whose books I pick up and read, and read, and read again. Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) comes in a very close second. But there are way too many countries and writers in South America to stop here, and most of you will likely know Allende & Esquivel, so instead, try these two:
Valeria Luiselli, born in Mexico, raised in South America and now living in Harlem, says wistfully, “I would love to be considered a South-African-Indian-Mexican-American writer.” A statement that’s also a clue to her writing style, which blurs through the regular categories: she’s described La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth– translated by as a “collective novel-essay.” Told from the POV of a self-described auctioneer relating the story of his life, Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez, his chapters are titled/labeled to note when the story he tells veers off from what really happened. Such as “The Circulars,” “The Allegorics,” and “The Chronologic.” I love stories that you can read in order, out of order, one at a time or all together, and The Story of My Teeth hits the spot. Luiselli wrote it at an art space located on the property of a factory in Mexico City; it’s written for and with the assistance of the employees, so the book turns into a real collaboration of stories to make one long, not totally reliably narrated, bittersweet novel. It’s sublime.
Also check out Luiselli’s first novel, Los ingrávidos (Faces in the Crowd, also translated by MacSweeney), where the protagonist works at a publishing house specializing in literary translation—and makes up a famous translator in order to get her obscure poet’s work to sell more copies. As you do.
Backlist: If you like Julio Cortázar, you’ll love fellow Argentinian Samanta Schweblin. She’s award-winning, translated into more than a dozen languages, and her stories are just weirdly awesome. Case in point: just when you think you’re reading a regular old story about divorced parents trying to deal with their young daughter, Schweblin inserts a twist. Little Sara, sweet young Catholic schoolgirl, eats birds. Not like, I’m gonna eat a chicken burrito. Nope. She sees live birds, in cages, and devours them, whole and still tweeting. Ew! And wow. You can check out a preview of the story Pájaros en la boca (Birds in the Mouth – translated by Joel Streicker) from the book of the same name, here.
If you’re reading this on Book Riot, then you probably know of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a bookish household name. Her novel Americanah describes in flashback and forward Ifemelu’s journey from Nigeria to the U.S. and back. A writer herself, Ifemelu shares in lol detail her observances of the peculiarities of Africans and African Americans and their interactions, customs and airs. Americanah is a page turner, a critique of culture clashes and a modern day trans-continental love story.
But then there is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, whose stream-of conscious prose is like a punch in the gut after the smooth flow of Adichie, and for good reason. We Need New Names is narrated by Darling, a young girl in a shantytown in Zimbabwe, who watched as her community was bulldozed, the men (and teachers) all leaving for better jobs and lives in South Africa, the women staying at home under tin-plated-roofs to scrape for food and watch the children, all in the name of revolution. Darling and her friends—including Bastard, Godknows, and 11 year old, pregnant by her grandfather Chipo—spend their days stealing fruit from the neighborhoods with mansions, avoiding all adults, and preening for the cameras when the well-intentioned folks from NGO come to snap pictures of native Africans living in the bush for the folks back in the states. Darling doesn’t give a shit about anything except eventually making it to America to join her aunt, and living a better life. So her words and the writing is blunt, to the point, and bleak. The children congregating, having adventures and trying to survive on their own gives a Lost Boys/Peter Pan feel. But these children do grow up, and must figure out what to do with their fractured lives.
Backlist: Round out your African novels with Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. Explore Ghana, London and New York through the stories of the Sai family, whose patriarch, Kweku Sai—world renowned for his surgeon skills, not as well loved by his own family— has just died. The family comes together to mourn, and everyone has stories, secrets and love to share. Described as “a portrait of a modern family” Ghana Must Go will leave you in tears.
For further reading, check out our own Swapna’s African Reading List, including writers of all genders, Valerie’s What To Read if You Loved Americanah, 7 Great Novels by African Women Writers, and A New Generation of African Women Writers Make New Waves.
You might recall Arundhati Roy, Indian author who is best known for her novel The God of Small Things. I loved that book—and not just because it’s about twins. It’s about the the small things that make you go crazy and affect your life in ways you never expected; about the rules we create to decide “who can be loved, and how much”; it’s about a multi-generational family torn apart and coming back together.
But my heart belongs to Nayomi Munaweera, whose debut novel, Island of A Thousand Mirrors, a passionate tale of two families living through Sri Lanka’s civil war, won me over with its lush, vibrant wartime story, told through the trials of a Romeo-and-Juliet couple whose families hail from opposing sides of of the war. It is just breathtaking and heartbreaking and makes me think of cool, dark rooms and people escaping from hot, sultry summers. Bonus, you get to learn a bit about the civil war, through characters you really care about.
Munaweera’s second novel, What Lies Between Us, takes advantage of her Sri Lankan roots and current San Francisco residence, and explores the story of a young woman who grew up happy and carefree in Sri Lanka, until tragedy strikes and turns her world upside down. In the aftermath, Ganga and her mother are ostracized in Sri Lanka, and seek comfort and a new home in the U.S. It’s about trauma, family, faith and the ties that bind us to people, and home.
Backlist: Bangladeshi Tahmima Anam’s stunning debut novel (the first in a proposed series) is about the rise of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh. The Golden Age follows Rehana Haque, a widow, mother and student who is suddenly caught up in the Bangladesh war for independence in 1971. Rehana lost her children for a time when they were young (first line of the story: “Dear Husband, I lost our children today”) and she was a new widow, unable to take care of them; so when her son joins the guerilla fighting, Rehana too is caught up in the resistance, hiding guns and supplies at home, taking care of injured fighters, and trying to protect her family and keep them together. Sequel The Good Muslim was published in 2011 and I’m still waiting for number three to drop….
For further reading, see “There aren’t a lot of you out there”: What? Let’s fix our female Asian-American writer blind spot now and for a contemporary list featuring male and female authors, 32 Essential Asian-American Writers You Need To Be Reading.
Here’s where I started checking my bookshelves and college reading lists and came to a full stop as I realized I just do not know about Australian writers! But luckily the Book Riot Bat Channel is always on hand in case of emergency, so I got some excellent recommendations from “a very readerly Australian,” Keryn Stewart. So, a personal thanks to Keryn from me, and a groan from my TBR list, which is now just totally out of control.
I seem to be on a theme of short stories that can be read together or singly, and the book that immediately captured my attention and made me want it right now is Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight, which is on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist. Described as “a mesmerising collection of moments from adolescence through adulthood,” these ten stories are all about falling in love, losing your virginity, your first home away from home, dealing with cancer—what it means to be a coming of age, with a nice Australian backdrop. The fact that it sounds like or could be a YA-ish collection just made me want it all the more.
To get a glimpse of the history of Australia through its citizens, Keryn suggested an historical fiction from Kate Grenville: The Secret River. Part of a trilogy about early Australia (along with The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill) The Secret River is set in the nineteenth century on the Australian frontier just outside of Sydney. In England, William Thornhill steals a load of timber and as punishment for the crime is sent to New South Wales, like many other convicts at the time. After a time he’s pardoned, gets himself some prime riverfront land and starts to dream big—until he realizes the land is already owned by original inhabitants of Australia. WHAT WILL HE DO?? (To my U.S. history-steeped mind, boy does this sound familiar.) Keryn notes that the book is “outstanding and one of the best explorations of colonial Australia I think you’ll ever read. But is also a beautifully written page-turner. If you are just going to read one Australian book, I’d put this high on the list.”
My Backlist: Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss. Because this could be my anthem. I’m dying to read the Australian/Aboriginal woman’s memoir on stuff like the color of your skin as identity, stereotypical notions regarding race/ethnicity, and mostly, how Heiss coped with it all.
Keeping up with Keryn’s Backlist: Charlotte Wood’s new novel The Natural Way of Things, highly lauded young novelist Tara June Winch’s Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, Sally Morgan’s autobiographical work My Place, a classic about rediscovering her heritage through the lives of her mother and grandmother. In YA, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi is “one of the defining books of my adolescence,” and in scifi/fantasy, Margo Lanagan’s “beautiful and dark and slightly twisted” Sea Hearts aka “The Brides of Rollrock Island,” a novel about selkies.
And for more excellent recommendations, try the Australian Women Writers Challenge, then check out the winners of The Stella Prize, “a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, and championing diversity and cultural change.”
So again, no one truly lives in Antarctica, or claims it as a homeland. It is a place of exploration, scientific experiments and research, and artists’ retreats. The Antarctic Artists & Writers Program “provides opportunities for scholars in the humanities (painting, photography, writing, history, and other liberal arts) to work in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.” Which sounds pretty cool to me. Except the cold. I’m from California, I don’t do cold well.
But that means there is a good chunk of writing from/about Antarctica by women. Including Chasing the Light: A Novel of Antarctica by Jesse Blackadder, based on the quiet-as-it’s-kept true story of the first woman to set foot on Antarctica in the 1930s. After three women work their way onto a Norwegian ship, they have to keep it together long enough to beat each other to claim the “first woman here!” prize. There are vivid, dramatic accounts of whaling, the ship voyage over icy seas, and struggles with the menfolk to even get to the Southern tip of the world. Interesting note: Blackadder (real last name) is an Australian writer, who won the 2011/12 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship and got to travel to Antarctica, where she researched the details for her novel. I honestly can’t think of a better way to be introduced to writing about Antarctica.
And I have to give an honorable mention to Kathleen Keeley’s Molly Finn and the Southern Ocean, the fourth book in the Molly Finn YA series. Molly is a (wait for it…) MERGIRL!!! (Side note: I’m calling mermaid’s as the next YA craze, following in the esteemed line of vampires, werewolves, and zombies.) Through the Molly Finn books, Keeley strives to get young readers to understand issues like our impact on the environment, the ebb and flow of life under the sea, and how sea creatures struggle to survive in our changing ocean world. This fourth book in the series isn’t out yet, but till it comes you can catch up with Molly Finn and the Seven Seas Fountain.
And for young readers, or people like me who enjoy a good picture book, The Island That Moved is written by NSF-sponsored Meredith Hooper and illustrated by Lucia deLeiris, and tells the story of a little island traveling over millions of years to its current resting place as the Antarctic peninsula. Learn about plate tectonics! Enjoy the awesome illustrations!
Backlist: Sarah Andrews’ forensic geology mystery novel, In Cold Pursuit, about a woman who arrives in Antarctica for a master’s thesis, and finds her professor dead; Jennifer Armstrong’s Jennifer Armstrong’s Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance.
My all time favorite in this corner of the globe is A.S. Byatt, and we don’t talk about her enough anymore so she’s making my list. She writes wonderfully long family-portrait style books that feature the English countryside as a character in a way that Sex & the City fans will appreciate. Start with Possession, one of my favorite books of all time, combining the story of two academics researching their way towards true love. And Byatt’s teeny tiny books of short stories are just art pieces, inside and out. Check one out to get a short, sweet taste of Byatt’s stuff.
French writer Marie NDiaye is a hero of mine for publishing her first novel at 18. Essayist, playwright, and children’s novelist as well as a fiction writer, NDiaye’s Trois Femmes puissantes (Three Strong Women, translated by John Fletcher) took the book world by storm and won France’s most prestigious book award. Moving between France and Senegal, the novel tells stories of immigrants and survival, facing and coming to terms with festering familial wounds and surviving, and resilience in the face of a world that keeps throwing crap at you. It’s also a testament to finally putting your foot down and saying no: to an abusive father, a selfish boyfriend, to anything standing in your way.
Her 2013 novel All My Friends (translated by Jordan Stump) offers the same unflinching examination of human narcissism through relationships, and how they can disappoint when the real thing doesn’t meet our lofty expectations. You don’t want to read NDaiye if you need to feel uplifted about our interactions with others– you read her to get a reality check and remember that you don’t have it so bad, after all.
Backlist: British Sara Wheeler is a double entry, as the book of hers I’m most in love with is a product of the The Antarctic Artists & Writers Program: Terra Incognita recounts this biography/travel writer’s adventures in the deep South, and almost makes me want to see it for myself. And Austrian Nobel winning playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek, who I’ve always wanted to read due to her reputation for writing lyrical novels (she’s got a background in music) that irritate readers with their obscenity and sarcasm. The heroine of The Piano Teacher (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) is a 38 year old woman who lives with her mother, but visits peep shows at night and takes a 17 year old student as a lover, in a dark twisted fantasy relationship. Better than reality TV.
So that’s my suggestions for women writers all over the world, and it’s by no means all inclusive. Who are your favorites?