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In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8th March, the women workers of Verso and New Left Review share some of our favourite feminist books in tribute to the radical roots of the observance.
– Jo Spence/Rosy Martin, Mother as Factory Worker, 1984-88
Essays, Criticism, Theory
A classic work of gender and queer theory. Butler recently said in interview:
Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore “unreal.” That was never my intention. I sought to expand our sense of what gender realities could be. But I think I needed to pay more attention to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported. I did not mean to argue that gender is fluid and changeable (mine certainly is not). I only meant to say that we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization. I join in the struggle to realize such a world.
Love for Sale: Courting, Treating and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945 by Elizabeth Alice Clement (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)
A fascinating materialist history of dating, and the economics of dining out, evening entertainment, dresses, stockings, and more. Clement explores the history of “treating” in industrializing New York City in which working-class women now employed at shops and factories during the day informally paired off with men to afford nightlife fun in (implicit or explicit) exchange for sexual relationships.
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis (Haymarket Books, 2016)
In this collection of essays, interviews, and speeches, Angela Davis reflects on the importance of Black feminism, intersectionality, and prison abolitionism for today’s struggles, and analyzes struggles against state terror, from Ferguson to Palestine.
Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici (PM Press, 2012)
Written between 1974 and 2012, the essays collected in this volume represent forty years of research and theorizing on questions of social reproduction and the transformations which the globalization process has produced. Starting from Federici’s incendiary writing around the Wages For Housework movement, the range broadens out to the international restructuring of reproductive labour, the globalization of care work and sex work.
Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher (Zed Books, 2014)
Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China is a a compelling and innovative sociological enquiry into the political economy of gender in contemporary China.
Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant(Verso, 2014)
“To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.” Melissa Gira Grant
A political critique that takes sex work out from under its usual autobiographical (and voyeuristic) lens, Playing the Whore situates it firmly as a form of labour that demands political attention. Holding the media to account for perpetuating some of the most harmful myths about sex work and sex workers rights, Gira Grant argues that separating sex work from the “legitimate” economy only harms those who perform sexual labour.
The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Hoschchild (University of California Press, 2012)
A landmark examination of gendered emotional labour of pink-collar service workers and the instrumentalization of our emotions in the world of work. Emotional labour, Hoshchild argues, alienates us from our feelings and estranges us from our expressions of feeling, like a manual worker who becomes estranged from what he or she makes.
Read more about emotional labour: Love’s Labour’s Cost: The Political Economy of Intimacy By Emma Dowling
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Ten Speed Press, 2014)
Sister Outsider is an absolutely essential collection of fifteen essays and speeches from 1976 to 1984 including and the origin of the “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Audre Lorde, both the ‘sister’ and ‘outsider’ of the title, explores the complexities of identity, drawing from her personal experiences with oppression, including sexism, heterosexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and ageism. In response to the tendency of mainstream feminism to deny difference between women, thus replicating hierarchies where the most privileged dominate, Lorde argues that difference—and the anger of the oppressed—can be productive for liberation. Sister Outsider presents groundbreaking work that is strikingly relevant today, and is all the more valuable for challenging its readers to question and scrutinize their own complicity in structures of oppression and the privilege that blinds them.
Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, ed. by Katherine McKittrick (Duke University Press, 2014)
Katherine McKittrick spills open Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter’s inquiring body of work. Wynter’s decolonial, radically futuristic writing interrogates the exclusive category of “human” and provides blueprints for how to dismantle white supremacy
This Bridge Called My Back, ed. by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (SUNY Press, 2015)
Arguably one of the most influential feminist anthologies ever published, and deservedly. Originally released in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back is a testimony to women of colour feminism as it emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Through personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art, the collection explores, as coeditor Cherríe Moraga writes, “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—systemic to women of color oppression and liberation.”
As Angela Y. Davis writes: “This Bridge Called My Back … dispels all doubt about the power of a single text to radically transform the terrain of our theory and practice. Twenty years after its publication, we can now see how it helped to untether the production of knowledge from its disciplinary anchors—and not only in the field of women’s studies. This Bridge has allowed us to define the promise of research on race, gender, class and sexuality as profoundly linked to collaboration and coalition-building. And perhaps most important, it has offered us strategies for transformative political practice that are as valid today as they were two decades ago.”
Combining the energy of the early seventies feminist movement with the perceptive analyses of the trained theorist, Woman’s Estate is one of the most influential socialist feminist statements of its time. Scrutinizing the political background of the movement, its sources and its common ground with other radical manifestations of the sixties, Woman’s Estate describes the organization of women’s liberation in Western Europe and America. In this foundational text, Mitchell locates the areas of women’s oppression in four key areas: work, reproduction, sexuality and the socialization of children. Through a close study of the modern family and a re-evaluation of Freud’s work in this field, Mitchell paints a detailed picture of patriarchy in action.
Read more: Looking back at Woman’s Estate
Juliet Mitchell reflects on how the joy and practical experience afforded by Women’s Liberation—and its tensions with other protest movements of the time—inflected the writing of her book in 1969-1970.
Angry Women (RE/Search publications, 1991)
In this illustrated, interview-format volume, 16 women performance artists animatedly address the volatile issues of male domination, feminism, race and denial. Among the modern warriors here are Diamanda Galás, a composer of ritualistic “plague masses” about AIDS who refuses to tolerate pity or weakness; Lydia Lunch, a self-described “instigator” who explains that her graphic portrayals of exploitation stem from her victimization as a child; and Wanda Coleman, a poet who rages against racism and ignorance. Goddess worshipper and former porn star Annie Sprinkle enthusiastically promotes positive sexual attitudes; bell hooks eloquently discusses societal power structures in terms of race and gender; Holly Hughes, Sapphire and Susie Bright expound on lesbianism and oppression; pro-choice advocates Suzy Kerr and Dianne Malley describe their struggles for reproductive rights.
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts (Vintage, 2000; 1997)
A necessary biopolitical history of systematic reproductive violence against Black women in the US, both legal and social — the reproductive “property” of women in slavery, the ties between the early birth control and the eugenics movements, welfare, and the race and class implications of reproductive technology new and old.
Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto Sterling (Basic Books, 2000)
Fausto-Sterling is a biologist who explores the social construction of gender to show not simply the truism that gender is a separate category from biological sex, but more importantly that the science behind what is known as “biological sex” is already constructed in a historically politicized context so that there is much more physiological fluidity and variety and source of definition than typically acknowledged. An important history of intersexuality as well as technology and medical intervention.
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000; 1988)
In this short memoir Kincaid welcomes you to Antigua, her home. You, the well-meaning but ignorant tourist arrive on her island and are shown the sights of an island that is “too beautiful” in a way that seems “unreal”, particularly when seen in contrast to its current state of poverty and dilapidation, and history of slavery. First published in 1988, A Small Place is an angry autobiography that challenges its reader to reconsider the behaviour of the tourist as well as more broadly considering the role of the coloniser in a stark and often unusual way.
Disavowals by Claude Cahun (Tate Publishing, 2008)
A brilliant book of ‘cancelled confessions’ based on Cahun’s 1930 bookAveux non avenues, Disavowals is the first English translation of her writings. Throughout the book she explores ideas around gender-bending, humour, narcissism the self and sexuality; using photomontage and statement Cahun presents herself as resistant to identification itself, instead maintaining “the mania of the exception.”
King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes (Serpent’s Tail, 2009)
Charting Despentes’ journey through poverty, rape, sex work, pornography and then fame as the director of Baise-Moi, it’s a furious, polemic-come-memoir as provocative and contentious as it is illuminating. Feminist fire for the soul.
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock (Atria Books, 2014)
Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness defines her womanhood as a journey too vast and expansive to be limited by biological essentialism. Mock’s womanhood is self-determined and powerful; cultivated through community, third gender traditions such as Hawaii’s Māhū, blackness, and the cultural impressions of Destiny’s Child and Janet Jackson.
Written in the months preceding her untimely death at the age of 48, Love’s Work offers up the richest autobiographical details of Rose’s life, focusing on several friendships and love affairs, as well as her fiercely intelligent relationship with the study of philosophy. Love, for Rose, is merciful and important but never eternal, requiring the hard work of the mind and body for sustenance. This is a book for anyone with an interest in the qualities and connections between love, death and learning.
A moving and funny account of a blossoming feminist consciousness during the 1960s by the pioneering feminist historian and activist. Sheila Rowbotham’s memoir is a feminist bildungsroman threading together the films, books and memories created by women that influenced her. Set in the exhilarating sixties, Promise of a Dream portrays the idealism and the ambiguity of the era, including the deep-rooted sexism of the New Left and the hippies.
– Looking back at Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World: Rowbotham looks back at the world of Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World‘s birth in the Women’s Liberation movement, as she sought to situate her feminist politics in relation to the changing shape of capitalism to forge a new way to describe the interaction between inner perceptions and external material life.
– Looking back at Women, Resistance and Revolution
Women, Resistance and Revolution was Rowbotham’s first book written in the summer of 1969 when she was 26.
Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (Zed Books, 2014)
A leading figure in the 70s Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur was placed on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list in 2013, 40 years after she received a life sentence for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, and nearly three decades after she escaped prison and was offered political asylum in Cuba.
This courageous autobiography explores her childhood and political activism, as well as the endemic racism and abuse she experienced in the American prison system, her many legal battles, and American civil rights.
Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan (Post Apollo Press, 1973)
Etel Adnan’s poetic novel takes place in Beirut during the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Sitt Marie Rose, a Christian fighting for Palestinian liberation, embodies Adnan’s dream of a feminist anti-war movement.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (Headline, 2014; 1979)
Black feminist science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s Kindred is simply devastating. In this genre-bending novel of speculative fiction, time travel transports a self-possessed and strong woman protagonist between 1976 and an early 19th century Maryland plantation for a nuanced, gripping and complex portrayal of the effects of chattel slavery on generations.
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (Penguin, 2005)
The Hearing Trumpet is British-born Surrealist Leonora Carrington’s best-known work written in the 1960s and first published in 1974. This riotous novel is full of rebellious joy in the trailblazing feminist magical realist vein of Carrington’s artistic practice. Deaf, bearded Marian Leatherby, 92 years old, has been committed to an institution for the elderly where another resident gives her a forbidden book recounting the secret life of a great woman. The surreal adventures that unfold with a delightful coterie of witchy women have rightfully earned this book a place in the subversive, anti-institutional feminist pantheon.
Read more: “I have no delusions. I am playing”—Leonora Carrington’s Madness and Art
Joanna Walsh examines the intertwining of madness and art in surrealism and how Carrington refused the surrealist romanticisation of female madness, describing her time in the Spanish asylum in terms of a forced incarceration. Through her life and work, Walsh traces Carrington’s rejection of patriarchal authority through her political activism and through the creation of dreams, myths and symbols centred around the feminine in her art.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Pantheon, 1985)
The Lover draws on a love affair between the 15 year-old Duras and a wealthy older Chinese man. Set in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh, Duras’s luminous novella is a deceptively simple exploration of the complexities of race, gender and class told through the eyes of a nameless ‘I’ from an impoverished colonial family with a widowed and mentally unwell mother and a bullying brother. Enchanting and heartbreaking, this representation of an illicit affair is also a provocation to the constructed palace of memory: Duras would write the story over and over again in her lifetime, completing The Lover aged 70. Born in Indochina, Duras left for France at the age of 17 where she was to become involved in the Resistance (while working for the Vichy government) and the PCF, from which she was expelled. Awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1984.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa, 2005)
As in all of Ferrante’s brilliant books, Days of Abandonment strikes right at the heart of the quotidian misery of domestic life. Intensely claustrophobic, and claustrophobically intense, it follows the near-breakdown of a woman whose husband leaves without warning. Set almost entirely within the walls of her apartment, it is an almost unbearable confrontation with the pressures and resentments of motherhood, grief and sexuality. Visceral, dizzying, terrifying—this slim book does more in 192 pages than most in double that.
Airless Spaces by Shulamith Firestone (MIT Press, 1998)
Airless Spaces comprises Firestone’s first collection of fiction—stark, sad and sometimes sly short stories about “airless spaces”: mental illness and the institutions that seek to contain and cure it. The author of the feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex (Verso, 2015) paints compelling portraits of those in mental hospital, precarious lives after hospital, “losers”, suicides and obituaries of people she knew, including Valerie Solanas.
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Serpents Tail, 1983)Michael Haneke made a beautiful and stark film from this novel, homing in on the mother-daughter power dynamics at the heart of the story, but in the adaptation he necessarily lost much of what makes this novel so brutally intense – its setting in the haute-bourgeois Viennese music conservatory, the linguistic experimentation that boils over with a feminist rage. Preoccupied in everything she does with the social division of power, Jelinek writes unflinchingly about sex, a perfect antidote to all those Bellow and Roth sex scenes you’ve had to endure.
The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle) by Ursula K. Le Guin (Atheneum, 2012; 1971)
Set in the Place of Tombs, a society of women and eunuchs, The Tombs of Atuan follows the life of Tenar, renamed Arha (the eaten one) after she is made high priestess to the Nameless One. She is confined to the underground labyrinth temple, where light is forbidden and no one but her is permitted to enter. However, when she captures and holds prisoner the wizard Sparrowhawk (of the previous Earthsea book) who is trespassing in the labyrinth she begins to question the fierce structures of her dark world.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber, 2014)
“The answer to every single question is Fuck.”
The uncompromising, fragmented prose in this outstanding novel unravels a relentless story of Irish girlhood; full of emotional betrayals, physical abuse, and staggering twists that will have you gasping for air.
That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time. Thin tight gelled hair. Moustache brown eyes. Clark Gable-alike when he was young, she said. But every man was I think then, when she was growing up. Under the thumb of him. Under his hand. Movie star father with his fifteen young. His poor Carole Lombard fucked into the ground. Though we don’t say those words. To each other. Yet. They were true God fearing in for a penny in for a pound. Saturday til afternoon dedicated for praying with his wife – when none of the little could enter without a big knock. Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. With their babies and babies lining up the stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up. Twenty years in bed and a few after this before she conked.
The Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (Penguin, 2000; 1934)
In depicting the disturbing journey from the Dominican periphery to the heart of empire, The Voyage Out turns Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on its head. Rhys depicts London in all its brutality – its deep class-structures, casual cruelty and grey banality. As with all her novels, this takes the vantage point of the dispossessed, women locked-out, caught somewhere in an ambiguous zone verging on prostitution. Deceptively unremarkable sentences capture the captivity of women, and the longing, rage and desperation to be free.
Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hetata, and foreword by Miriam Cooke (Zed Books, 2015; 1975)
Reissued by Zed Books this year as part of a gorgeous set of three new editions, this classic feminist work is still as powerful, relevant, and compelling as ever. Described as a “blood-curdling indictment of patriarchal society” by the Guardian, is it easy to see within just a couple of pages why Nawal El Saadawi is one of the most influential feminist thinkers in the Arab world. What’s harder to understand is why she has been left out of the western feminist literary canon for so long.
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (Capuchin, 2010; Simon and Schuster, 2010; 1940)
The eponymous man of this novel is NOT a paedophile, he’s an arch-idealist bureaucrat in Washington who subjects his family and his writer-to-be daughter to the same chipper narcissism as he does his all-American fellow-patriots. It’s a reign of terror. This book operates at such a pitch of psychological violence to have you gasping for air, and rooting for Louie’s escape.
– A reading list of Verso titles for International Women’s Day
– Staff Picks: Books of the Year 2015—Chosen by Verso
– Download our free Feminist Radical Thinkers sampler ebook!
by Maria Popova
A visionary fable about equality delivered through a comic Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.
In 1928, nearly a century before the internet cat memes reached their crescendo, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág won the prestigious Newbery and Lewis Carroll Shelf awards for her children’s book Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture-book still in print. But Gág’s visionary storytelling presaged social phenomena far more consequential than Buzzfeed. Her most prescient book was her penultimate one, Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (public library) — a proto-feminist story published in 1935, two decades before the second wave of feminism and more than 75 years before Lean In.
Gág, who inspired beloved artists like Maurice Sendak and who did for picture-books what Nellie Bly did for journalism, tells an old fable-like story relayed to her by her grandmother — a witty parable about gender equality in work and housework, written mere months before George Orwell contemplated the subject.
Gág tells the story of the peasant Fritzl, who works the fields all day long, and his wife Liesi, who tends to their humble house:
They both worked hard, but Fritzl always thought that he worked harder. Evenings when he came home from the field, he sat down, mopped his face with his big red handkerchief, and said: “Hu! How hot it was in the sun today, and how hard I did work. Little do you know, Liesi, what a man’s work is like, little do you know! Your work now, ’tis nothing at all.”
“’Tis none too easy,” said Liesi.
“None too easy!” cried Fritzl. “All you do is to putter and potter around the house a bit — surely there’s nothing hard about such things.”
To prove her point, Liesi suggests that they swap roles for a day, so that Fritzl can “putter and potter around” for a taste of her life. Naively, he agrees.
At the crack of dawn, Liesi sets out for the fields with a jug of water and a scythe, while Fritzl begins “frying a string of juicy sausages for his breakfast.”
But as he holds the pot over the burning fire, he is lured by fantasies of a cold glass of cider. And so begins his Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.
When he heads to the cellar to help himself to some cider, the dog runs off with the sausages. Fritzl chases after it, only to shrug “Na, na! What’s gone is gone.” in defeat. He returns to the house, only to find that he had forgotten to the bung back in the barrel and the cider had flooded the cellar.
“What’s gone is gone,” he sighs once more and moves on to his next task — churning butter. Stationing himself under a tree, where his little daughter Kinndli is playing in the grass, Fritzl begins to churn as hard as he can, only to realize he had forgotten to give the cow water on this hot summer day.
Once at the barn, he figures he should also feed her, but instead of taking her to the meadow, decides to keep her close by and let her graze on the grassy roof of the house, which is built on the side of a small hill.
But just as he returns to the churning station, he sees little Kinndli climbing on, then falling off the churn, spilling all the half-churned cream onto herself. Already exasperated, Fritzl leaves the little girl to dry in the sun and moves on to another urgent errand — making dinner for Liesi, as the day had progressed and she would be home soon. Gág writes:
With big fast steps Fritzl hurried off to the garden. He gathered potatoes and onions, carrots and cabbages, beets and beans, turnips, parsley and celery.
“A little of everything, that will make a good soup,” said Fritzl as he went back to the house, his arms so full of vegetables that he could not even close the garden gate behind him.
As he stations himself in the kitchen to begin cutting and paring away — “How the man did work, and how the peelings and parings did fly!” — he hears a strange sound coming from above. The comedy of errors is about to climax: To keep the cow from strutting on the roof, Fritzl ties a rope around her belly, drops it through the chimney, and loops the other end around his own waist.
He merrily continues making the soup, when suddenly…
Before long, there came Liesi home from the fields with the water jug in her hand and the scythe over her shoulder.
But Hulla! Hui! What was that hanging over the edge of the roof? The cow? Yes, the cow, and halfchoked she was, too, with her eyes bulging and her tongue hanging out.
Liesi lost no time. She took her scythe — and ritsch! rotsch! — the rope was cut, and there was the cow wobbling on her four legs, but alive and well, heaven be praised!
Liesi walks over to the garden only to find the gate open, with all their pigs and goats and geese gone. Nearby, she spots her little daughter sticky with semi-dried butter. She sees the dog laying in the grass, looking “none too well” from his mischievous sausage feast. She discovers the cellar flood, with cider “all over the floor and halfway up the stairs,” and the kitchen, covered with produce peelings and filthy pots.
Finally, she walks toward the fireplace — anyone with even a basic understanding of physics can guess what happened to poor Fritzl once the cow was set free from the rope:
Hu! Hulla! Hui What was that in the soup-kettle? Two arms were waving, two legs were kicking, and a gurgle, bubbly and weak-like, was coming up out of the water.
“Na, na! What can this mean?” cried Liesi. She did not know (but we do — yes?) that when she saved the cow outside, something happened to Fritzl inside. Yes, yes, as soon as the cow’s rope was cut, Fritzl, poor man, he dropped down the chimney and crash! splash! fell right into the kettle of soup in the fireplace.
Wág’s refreshing inversion of gender stereotypes shines once more as Liesi plays the knight-in-shining-armor part and rescues her husband from this domestic nightmare of his own making, pulling him out of the pot “with a cabbage-leaf in his hair, celery in his pocket, and a sprig of parsley over one ear.”
The story ends with an exchange partway between morality tale and political statement:
“Na, na, my man!” said Liesi. “Is that the way you keep house — yes?”
“Oh Liesi, Liesi!” sputtered Fritzl. “You’re right—that work of yours, ’tis none too easy.”
“’Tis a little hard at first,” said Liesi, “but tomorrow, maybe, you’ll do better.”
“Nay, nay!” cried Fritzl. “What’s gone is gone, and so is my housework from this day on. Please, please, my Liesi — let me go back to my work in the fields, and never more will I say that my work is harder than yours.”
“Well then,” said Liesi, “if that’s how it is, we surely can live in peace and happiness for ever and ever.”
And that they did.
All these decades later, Gone Is Gone remains an absolute delight, layered and lovely, as does the rest of Wág’s work. Complement this particular gem with Susan Sontag on how gender role stereotypes limit us.
It was announced yesterday that Canadian short-fiction writer Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Munro published her first collection of stories nearly half a century ago and has since published over a dozen books. Her latest, Dear Life, won the International Man Booker Prize and is to be her last book. The 82-year-old is only the 13th woman to ever win the prestigious award (shameful, considering this is the 106th time it’s been awarded) and the first ever Canadian.
For anyone who has read Munro, the award comes as no surprise. Dubbed the “Chekov of Canada”, her particular brand of psychological realism is frequently set in small towns and expresses the enormity of everyday life. In her stories, people face life-shattering events, suppress relentless yearnings, experience personal revelations, and are haunted by their memories. For the right reader, a Munro story can be life-changing.
Munro should be honored not just for her immense talent, but for the stereotype-busting subject matter she chooses. Her writing is often dark, gruesome and unabashedly “unfeminine” in the traditional sense, refusing to shy away from the grit and small tragedies of human existence.
Munro’s win is not just a triumph for women, it is also a triumph for the genre of short fiction. Many are delightfully surprised to see the under-appreciated art form get the recognition it deserves, especially because the Nobel Prize historically favors poets or novelists. Too often the short story is demeaned as novel-writing practice or deemed unmarketable in the publishing industry. Munro, writing almost exclusively in this powerful, condensed genre, has broken down barriers for future generations of writers and brought renewed attention to the form.
If for some reason you have yet to engulf yourself in one of Munro’s collections, immediately locate the most comfortable chair in the vicinity and start reading. A Munro story is by no means a feel-good fairy tale, but, if you’re like me, you will be forever changed after you enter her world of strained human interactions, quiet desperation and irrefutable truths.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Albert Vataj via Creative Commons
Melissa McGlensey recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in English and Spanish with a minor in creative writing; she is currently interning at Ms.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THREE REMARKABLE, BUT LITTLE KNOWN, WOMEN
Today, September 6, we celebrate the birthdays of three (3) remarkable women: Jane Addams, Emily Mudd, and Alice Sebold. If you have never heard of any of them, you are not alone.
Jane Addams was born in 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois into a prominent and well-to-do family. Her father was friends with President Abraham Lincoln. As a young adult, Jane Addams had a difficult time finding her place in life. She graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881, then travelled briefly and attended medical school briefly. When she was 27, while on a trip to London with Ellen Gates Starr, she and Starr visited Toynbee Hall, a facility designed to help the poor. She and Starr were so impressed with the facility that they were determined to open a similar facility in the United States. In 1889 they opened Hull House, the first settlement house in Chicago, and one of the first ones in the United States or Canada. Hull House served the poor and immigrant populations, and grew to over ten (10) buildings with many extended services.
In addition to her work on Hull House, Addams took on many other responsibilities and causes. She began serving on the Chicago Board of Education in 1905. In 1910 Addams became the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (later known as the National Conference of Social Work). She founded the National Federation of Settlements in 1911 and chaired it for more than (20) twenty years.
In addition to being a social reformer, Addams was also a pacifist and peace activist. When World War I began, she became the chair of the Women’s Peace Party. She attended the International Congress of Women at The Hague in the Netherlands in 1915. Addams was president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom from 1919 to 1929. In 1931 she became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared the Prize with Nicholas Murray Butler.
Addams was also a suffragist. She believed that if women were working on improving their neighborhoods it was important that they vote. Additionally, she helped establish the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.
After suffering a heart attack in 1926 Addams never regained her health. She died on May 21, 1935, at the age of 74, in Chicago, Illinois.
Emily Mudd, born in 1898, was a pioneering marriage counselor and family planning advocate. She developed training programs for Marriage and family counselors, and ran the Philadelphia Marriage Council. She eventually earned her doctorate degree, and became the first woman to become a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. She taught the first course at an American medical school dealing with sexuality. She edited the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953 dealing with human sexuality. She later contributed greatly to the work of Masters and Johnson. Mudd died in 1998 at the age of 99.
Alice Sebold, and American writer, was born in 1962. While in college she was brutally raped and sodomized. She reported the rape but the police were unable to locate her assailant. Several months later she saw him, and he was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted. This experience became the focus of her writing. Her first book, Lucky, started off as a novel but became a memoir. Her first novel, The Lovely Bones, about a girl who is raped, murdered and dismembered, became a bestseller and was also adapted into a movie. Her second novel, The Almost Moon, is also about terror. Sebold won the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award for Adult Fiction in 2003 for The Lovely Bones, and the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel in 2002. Sebold lives with her husband in San Francisco.
I really loved reading this essay. Partly because I am an avid reader and it gives me a list of books to read in a genre, which as a straight person, I have read very little. But, perhaps more, because it is beautifully written, and from the heart.