Books By Women: No One Belongs Here More than You

I want this book title tattooed on my arm.

No One Belongs Here More Than You

indexI want to remember Miranda July’s collection of short stories for the rest of my life because this was the book I needed to read. Every story is a testament to loneliness and the struggle toward self love. I found No One Belongs Here More Than You at a Barnes and Noble when I convinced myself, even after reading the first story, that I was not going to buy this book. I was not going to buy this book. I was moving to Chicago in two weeks. Why did I need one more book?

I should have bought the book, but it was an incredible accident that I found a copy at the local library and it was the last book I read while I was still in Georgia.

Nearly all the stories were narrated in the first person and most of them were narrated by female characters. These people are flawed, as deeply flawed in numerous and terrifying understandable ways. The woman who falls asleep while her neighbor has a seizure. The teenage lesbian runaway who works at a Peep Show. The woman asleep with her boyfriend who hears someone coming up the stairs.

Miranda July describes our world with such honesty that the weird and the off kilter I look for in speculative fiction was laid bare in the human mind and the normal progressions of our day to day lives.

This was the best book I have read all summer and I will keep you updated on if I get that tattoo. Because more than the literary merit of Miranda July’s work, the title speaks to an essential feminist concept: you belong in this space (and every space); you have value; your words have meaning. 

I can’t wait to see more from Miranda July who is talented not only as a fiction writer, but also as an artist, screenwriter and film maker. To get a sense of who she is as a person, check out the website for the book here.

Next on my list: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Happy reading!

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Books By Women: Love in a Torn Land Joanna of Kurdistan

A little over a year ago now I studied abroad in Istanbul, Turkey and current Turkish politics is my historical niche. My last semester in college I completed independent research on Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political parties and Turkey’s cultural genocide of the country’s Kurdish populations. Briefly summarized, Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group with a majority of Kurds located in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurds have been systematically discriminated against and outright killed based on their ethnicity, with Saddam Hussein bombarding Iraqi Kurdistan with chemical attacks in 1988 in the Anfal campaign. There is no separate state of Kurdistan. For extensive information on abuses against Kurds, please check out the Kurdish Human Rights Project.

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My research into pro-Kurdish political parties and the knowledge I’ve sought to join the movement for Kurdish rights globally has led me to begin a historical fiction novel set in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1990s and my research for this novel led me to the book: Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan: The True Story of a Freedom Fighter’s Escape from Iraqi Vengeance. joanna of Kurdistan

I’m not sure how to describe this book. On the one hand, it’s a biography, written by Jean Sasson, who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and has written multiple books through interviews with Middle Eastern women. But the book is narrated in first person from Joanna’s perspective. The writing reads as if it were a transcript compiled from the various interviews with Joanna, but to be honest I’m not sure how it was written. I’ve contacted Sasson to ask and hope to hear from her soon.

The writing didn’t have a lot of details which would have drawn me into Joanna’s story of growing up in Baghdad, marrying a Peshmerga Kurdish freedom fighter and surviving the Anfal Campaign. Hers is a story of survival, but I had difficulty investing myself because the writing didn’t put me into the scene. I can’t blame either Sasson or Joanna for this. Sasson explains in an interview on her website, that while speaking with Joanna, Joanna was often too traumatized to provide details, making the writing process far more difficult.

The book provided me with some of the cultural and historical information I need for my own project and it’s a great start for readers interested in modern Middle Eastern history who may not have a strong background.  As you read, you learn about Kurds, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and many details people living in the west don’t have access to or wouldn’t think to ask about. And even if you know some of the facts already as I did, having a human perspective is far more compelling and real than all the statistics and academic research you could ever compile.

I’ll keep you updated if I hear back from Sasson! In the mean time, keep reading.

Up next: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia.

Books By Women: Bad Feminist

Read Bad Feminist. Plain and simple, no strings attached I can safely recommend Bad Feminist to anyone. Roxanne Gay frames her collection of essays as a critique of the concept that there is one singular way to be a feminist and how she doesn’t want to be a feminist icon and put on a pedestal. She knows she can’t be perfect and doesn’t want to be the “popular media feminist flavor of this week” as she explains it. She is human. She is flawed. She (gasp!) shaves her legs.

And she’s a feminist. A self proclaimed bad feminist.

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One of the reasons this collection works so well is because it takes the fear out of feminism without removing the title of feminist or proclaiming an ideology. Roxane Gay is a cultural critic first and foremost. These essays are accessible conversations about why we need more representations of women (especially women of color) in movies and books. You do not need to know feminist theory to understand her ideas and as Gay explains in her introduction, she’s not as well read on feminist texts as she should be. There’s no pressure. You come as you are and take what you take, whether you agree with her critiques of sexual mores, race, and women in literature, you can see how she arrives at her ideas.

And for readers who have read all the feminist theory, Roxane Gay’s book is a great way to introduce yourself to the writings of a feminist of color. Gay doesn’t dumb down feminism or subtract from the need for feminism because her writing is accessible. The accessibility makes her work all the more poignant that, like Bell Hooks wrote: Feminism is for Everybody.

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The best moments in the essays are when Gay speaks about her personal experience, growing up as the child of immigrants, working through sex and sexuality, and navigating her own privilege. Essays like “I Once Was Miss America” capture nostalgia for childhood literary favorites (even when these tastes are embarassingly awful), while analyzing race and the incessant need in literature for flawless Mary Sue women. You finish the book feeling like you know Roxane Gay and have just spent hours and hours on the phone with her, as if you are best friends.

If you have not already read Bad Feminist is is my reading recommendation for the summer, fall, winter or spring. Read this book. You won’t regret it.

Books By Women: The Lady Matador’s Hotel

Suki Palacios is a half-Mexican, half-Japanese female bull fighter. Cristina Garcia‘s novel only gets more intriguing from there. The story chronicles the lives of a cast of strangers (or near strangers) for the few days they all live in an unnamed Hispanic country’s most expensive hotel. The country has recently come out of a long and violent civil war.

Won Kim is a failing Korean businessman, at the hotel with his pregnant mistress. Aura is an ex-guerilla, no working as a waitress in the hotel’s restaurant. Gertrudis is a German international adoption lawyer. Martin is a colonel behind gross acts of violence during the civil war. Ricardo is a poet who, along with his wife, are adopting a baby girl.

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I first read this novel for a course I was tutoring and couldn’t devote the time to it I wanted. I was in the middle of taking my own college courses. When I made the commitment to read books by women for a year, this was on my list as one of the few books I planned to reread.

There are a four things which automatically make this book stand out as an inclusive feminist text.

1. Suki owns her sexuality.

As I’ve noticed as a trend in Garcia’s work (I’ve since read Dreaming in Cuban and will post on it shortly), her female characters do not shy away from sex or taking their own pleasure. For Suki, this means that part of her ritual before a bull fight is to find a male stranger with handsome feet she has sex with. In the novel, he pleasure her in a beautiful jarring scene between Suki and a man from room service.

Throughout the novel, all the male characters want to have sex with her, but Suki is always the one in control of how she uses her body. Better yet, there is no rape or coerced sexuality at all in the text.

2. Garcia plays with gender roles. 

Each character subverts or works from a gender stereotype. Suki, for all her beauty, competes in the masculine world of bull fighting. Won Kim wants nothing more than to study butterflies. Ricardo desires to be a great father, but no one trusts him because he’s male. Martin is the epitome of masculinity and we watch it consume his thoughts and violent desires. Although there are no queer, trans or gender divergent characters, Garcia purposely uproots our ideas about simple gender roles.

3.  Aura.

Aura’s my favorite. Garcia plays on gender expectations (again) when “the ex-guerilla” turns out to be female. Her plot arc, one of the most action based in the novel, is a revenge story which does not rely a gun in a female character’s hand for her to be strong. Her strength comes from her morality and her decisions. As Aura seeks revenge for her brother’s murder she has to really consider the consequences of jumping back into a life where she is a murderer: a life she gave up and does not want.

4. Aura. 

Aura provides the magical realism of the novel, adding just enough magic and mystery that I was engaged with both the characters and the world. Is Aura really speaking to her dead brother on the roof of the hotel? Maybe. Probably. But maybe not.

Garcia is the master of this in-between, ambiguous space. What I love the most is that, like Suki’s mixed heritage, everyone is more than one piece of  their identity. Everyone is messy and struggling. Without straying into dark plots that could never reach a happy ending or even a conclusion, Garcia takes each individual’s struggle seriously even the despicable characters we want to hate. Writing this humanity for even the darkest and most awful characters is what makes this novel a must-read.

Up next feminist nonfiction essays: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Keep reading!

Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

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The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!

Books By Women: Parable of the Sower

Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.

Octavia Butler

In my pursuit to read books by women for a year– and specifically women of color– I turned to Octavia Butler. Last summer I read books one and two of her Xenogenesis Series (also known as Lilith’s Brood) and her short story Blood Child–a pdf is available online.

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When I read Octavia Butler, I’m ready for three things.

  1.  science fiction with the understanding that the genre is perfect for commenting and critiquing our world and culture
  2. a detailed analysis of culture
  3. a diverse cast of characters and a female lead of color

Parable of the Sower lived up to these expectations.

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The book follows Lauren, a teenage black woman living on Earth after the planet has suffered ecological disaster and the United States has all but fallen into anarchy. Lauren lives with her dad, a Minister, and her family behind a walled city, one of the only ways to protect yourself from a world where walking outside of your gate almost certainly means being robbed, raped or killed. I loved the raw and brutal depiction of the United States because the danger was real and very plausible. The narrative brought up issues of modern day slavery where most jobs do not pay or pay in company scrip from company-owned cities and towns. The economic situation pitted the poorest people living on the streets against the less-poor but barely eeking out a living families who live behind walls, like Lauren. The story is a survival story: when Lauren’s walled city is destroyed, can she survive the danger posed by her fellow human beings?

Lauren also has a secret. Though her father is a minister and she was raised Christian, she doesn’t believe in a Christian G-d. Her understanding of G-d is a self-designed religion called Earthseed, told through poems at the start of each chapter.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.
Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower

I’m sure I missed many of the religious references because as a Jew, I don’t know the Christian Bible and often miss Biblical allusions, but someone with a stronger background in religion would, I’m certain, have endless entertainment parsing through the novel.

There were a few things in particular I loved about this book.

  1. Lauren is black but her race is not her one and only defining attribute.
  2. Lauren has sex and doesn’t apologize for it, demean, or demonize her sexuality.
  3. the main characters are racially diverse with multiple characters who are black, white, Hispanic, or mixed. One character never serves to represent their entire race.

I have not read the sequel, Parable of the Talents, but from the summary, it seems as if it will patch up a few issues of the story I struggled with. The novel is a brilliant text and a feminist text, but I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I wanted to be. Especially as the novel progresses and we have more and more main characters to follow I have difficulty keeping up and wished the story were more character driven and less plot driven (though the Xenogenesis series had the same issue). Still, I would highly recommend Parable of the Sower for your reading list to add more female authors of color to your shelf.

Next up: the Poisonwood Bible. Keep on reading!