In addition to the fact that it was International Women’s Day yesterday, March is Women’s History Month in the United States; and, while this might not be directly pertinent to us as South Africans, it’s a great excuse to celebrate women’s unique contributions to politics, art, and in this particular instance, literature. ‘Women’s writing’ is an oft-contested moniker: it’s irritating to infer that women’s writing has to be judged on its own terms, as though it is inherently remote from – and implicitly inferior to – that of men. Conflating certain works on the basis of writers’ genders also effaces the reality that a white woman from the global north and a woman of colour from the global south are unlikely to work in the same idiom, simply on the basis of their gender identities.
On the other hand, though, women do experience the world in ways that are particular to women, and distil their experiences accordingly; and women who write have had, and do have, a far harder time procuring recognition than their masculine counterparts. As such, it’s important for us to pay attention to the trajectory of contemporary women’s literature, irrespective of how galling we might find the epithet. So, based on a survey of recommendations and reviews, Wanted has compiled a shortlist of some 21st Century women’s fiction you can’t afford to miss out on.
1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Yanagihara’s devastating chronicle of love, abuse, and the ineluctable complexity of human relationships captivated a global audience of readers when the book was released in 2015, sky-rocketing the American author into international renown.
2. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
An essential component of any good bookshelf, Adichie’s masterful narrative weaves together the contingencies of three lives during the Biafran war, with extraordinary finesse, compassion, and historical sagacity.
3. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
Arguably Atwood’s finest work to date, The Blind Assassin is a brilliant instance of meta-fiction, imbued with Atwood’s characteristic originality, abruptness, and grim profundity.
4. What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt has a uniquely brilliant aptitude for writing about art, and What I Loved paints a thoughtful, moving picture of the relationship between artistry, identity, loss, and prosaic domesticity.
5. The God of Small Things, Arundathi Roy
Given that, last year, Indian wordsmith Arundathi Roy lately released her first work of fiction in 20 years, it might be a good time to revisit the novel that made her famous. The God of Small Things is a heart-wrenching exploration of family, romance, and the unspoken rules that govern – and confine – the terms of human existence.
6. On Beauty, Zadie Smith
British novelist Zadie Smith confronts the ramifications of racial identity, ideological friction, and the acrimonious hypocrisy of academia, in the context of a mixed-race family living in the figmental university town of Wellington.