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Five years ago

Reading intersectionally

Two years ago, I had a long, hard look at how, and who, I read. I was rather disappointed. Reading is at the heart of my identity, both in that I am, to my core, someone who reads, but also in that the books I have read have had a major impact on how I see the world. Alongside this, I have identified as a feminist since I was a kid. Finding out that I fairly consistently read only 20% women was therefore both surprising and dismaying. To make matters worse, the same percentages were present both in my library as a whole and in my list of books to read. Clearly something needed doing.

Last year, at this time, I had spent a year reading 50% women, an experiment which would have been a tremendous success, were it not for the fact that nearly all the women (and men, for that matter) on my list were distinctly of the white & Western persuasion. I resolved to do better.

I decided to keep reading 50% women while also reading 50% non-western authors. I limited "non-western" to the world outside of Europe & the Americas, and likewise excluded authors of Western descent (so no Coetzee, Camus or Kipling in this group).1 The purpose was to break out of my rather insular way of reading. I believe in literature as a political agent, and the choice to have my world described and shaped almost exclusively by Western European voices is one I am not entirely comfortable with.

Before I set out, I considered the danger of reducing non-Western authors to something I would have to get through in order to read others, or authors read only for their nationality. I concluded, however, that this would be a real problem if I thought non-Western authors were not capable of the same level of writing as Westerners.2 As it is, my main problem is not finding good books to read; it is the choice of which among them I read right now. And having grown up in a culture where white men's writing is favoured, my unthinking response is to read those. This experiment merely required me to think before choosing. That, and digging a bit more for authors on my own.

The books that are recommended to me, be it by friends, critics or book shops, are overwhelmingly written by white men. The preceding year, however, I had found that reading 50% women was not a hardship. And as I sat down to think about potential books, I realised reading non-Westerners might not be as tricky as I had anticipated, either. Non-Western men, that is.

A quick search of the Nobel database turns up 14 women and 98 men. Out of those men, 10 fit my criteria. Among the women, not a single one. Not one. Likewise, most lists of recommendations might include a handful of (white) women and non-western men. The Guardian's list of the 100 best novels of all time (all time, mind you; not their list of novels in English), included all of 12 women and 4 non-westerners (if we count Kazuo Ishiguro). These two categories did not intersect at all.

This should not come as a great surprise. When structures of discrimination intersect, anyone caught in the crossing tend to disappear in a puff of erasure. But I am a reader and believer in fighting back, so here is a list of some excellent non-Western women writers that I read this year:

Vandana Singh was a find in immediate aftermath of my realisation that I had taught my students almost exclusively white, male science fiction. My awareness that my grasp of the genre was so limited made me particularly anxious to find some of those I had excluded. I will admit to buying Singh's The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and other stories primarily because it had such a stellar title, but I have no regrets. The stories are all different and all good, weaving a dreamlike kind of science fiction with Hindu mythology and a feminist kick (or three). I cannot recommend it enough.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was also on my list, mainly for being unutterably cool. Her "Sultana's Dream" is a science fiction short story, written in 1905, in which the premise of purdah is turned on its head: The women have taken over and the men are locked in their houses, as they are the ones who apparently cannot control themselves if they are around women. The edition I got a hold of also included a lot of her journalistic writing on the subject of purdah, from The Secluded Ones.

Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon had also been on my list for a while, and I finally picked it up. The description that caught me was "aliens come to earth and land in Lagos", and I'll admit my first thought was that I had finally found a proper send-up of the idea that aliens must always land near a major American landmark. The book is much more than that, though, including a scathing treatment of Nigerian corruption, and a fascinating mix of scifi and myths, which should remind me of Vandana Singh, but doesn't.
I have added her Who Fears Death and Book of the Phoenix to my list.

The Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things had been waiting around in my bookshelf for a while. This was not because I had no desire to read it, but there was always another book I felt I had to read first. Once I started it, I had serious trouble putting it down. There are so many stories interwoven and so many trials and tribulations, Roy should get a medal just from keeping it from being confusing. I have always been an opponent of the "it is sad so it must be deep" school of thought, so I am not sure how to tell you that it tells of terrible things in a language that makes you want to read it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had also been on my radar for a while, mainly becuase of Half of A Yellow Sun. I picked up The Thing Around Your Neck first, however, and it was a lovely introduction to Adichie's writing. You can read one of the stories here. The hints of Biafra in one of the stories left me little choice but to pick up the novel in short order. I did not regret it.

Shailja Patel is perhaps my favourite find this past year, and I would never have read her Migritude if I had not specifically asked people to recommend non-Western women writers. It is a collection of poems on and around growing up an Indian in Kenya and again migrating to the US, originally performed on stage with a collection of saris. I am not generally one for poetry, but this was excellent. I kept stopping people and making them read sections of it. The poems come accompanied with a shadow book, in which they are discussed and placed in a context. I want more books like this one.

Ghada Samman was also a requested recommendation. I read her Beirut Nightmares, which is utterly claustrophobic. It consists of a series of nightmares, some of which are dreams, others the reality that surrounds the narrator trapped in an apartment for two weeks during the Lebanese Civil War. It is utterly depressing in the way it slowly grinds down the veneer of civilization as the situation becomes more dire. But it is well worth a read.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran I bought for its title and read for its take on literature. It is Nafisi's memories of teaching English Literature at the University in Tehran before and during the Islamic revolution, up until the point where her situation become untenable. This is interwoven with her memories of a small study group with some of her female students, in the privacy of her own home, in which they discussed English books, both mired in and somewhat liberated from the strictures of the new society that surrounded them. All this is looked back on from her new life in the United States. I kept wanting to read this out loud to people. You must read it. If nothing else, then for the trial of The Great Gatsby which she orchestrated at the University.

I could go on at length. I won't. You have books to read. Let me just quickly also mention the following:
Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, set in India, bordering on Nepal, which like so many of the books I have read this year deal with migration and the colonial aftermath.
Mahasweta Devi's Imaginary Maps, a collection of four short stories in which the exploitation and life of the tribals stand front and center (even when one is apparently about a pterodactyl).
Kamila Shamsie's historical novel, A God in Every Stone, which made me want to become an archaeologist again.
Fatima Bhutto's The Shadow of the Crescent Moon which tells the story of three brothers and two women over the course of a day in a village in Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan, as "the war on terror" and sunni/shia tensions make life difficult.
NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, which seemed like a harsher version of Aidichie.
Susan Abulhawa, whose Mornings in Jenin and The Blue Between Sky and Water provide the story of Palestinian women caught up in a history which does not see them.
Sei Shonagon, whose Pillow Book is over 1000 years old and stands the test of time. And as an added bonus, you can read it alongside Murasaki Shikibu, her contemporary, who did not at all approve of Sei Shonagon or her book, but whose Tale of Genji is sometimes presented as the first novel.

I declare my experiment a conditional success. There are so many lovely books I would never have found if I were not specifically going out and searching for them, purposefully choosing them above those lifted out again and again as must-reads by my surroundings. And while it took much more thinking and searching for recommendations on my part than it should have, it was worth it. Even apart from the books I have read this year, the very act of seeking them out has made me aware of a wider field of literature. Currently on my to-read list are
Nawal El Saadawi, whose Woman at Point Zero I have always meant to read but never did.
Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account.
Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor
and Assia Djebar's Fantasia and So Vast the Prison
Feel free to provide me with more titles and authors if you have them.

But I called it a conditional success. It is not a sustainable way of reading intersectionally. I ended up not reading books by Samuel Delany, for example, because according to the very simple rules of the game, he was a Western man and no different from Joyce. My system took no account of black writers in the West, paid no attention to sexuality, or class. Then again, I have no desire to read by the rules of demography. Not quite. But I do think it is useful to poke and prod my reading habits now and again. Maybe even turn it around and shake it for a while. You never know what will turn up.

1 Excluding the Caribbean and Latin America from the non-Western category may or may not be valid. I did it because Latin America has been on my literary radar to a greater extent than other areas, and the point of the exercise was to force me to read beyond what I already did.

2 I believe in affirmative action, and quotas for women in boards. This is because I do not believe women and non-white people are less capable than white men, and consequently any system that calls itself a meritocracy but recruits overwhelmingly white men must be the result of positive discrimination in favour of those white men. The same goes for literature.
Tor, Jørgen, Ragnhild likes this


Turns out I read approximately 15% books by women last year, if you count books co-authored by a man and a woman. Not particularly impressive. This year, I think I should try to read the books you read last year. The problem is of course that you read more than twice as many books as me per year, but I guess a selection will have to do.