Literature in Conversation: Everyone’s Stories Have A Right To Be Told

Words: Sophie Henderson
Featured Image: Alexa Coe

It goes without saying, literature has transgressed the boundaries of what it means to be diverse, liberated and female. Messages deterring gender convention and racial prejudice were embedded in the pages of the novel long before they made it to political and social debate.

Writers such as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison opened up that conversation, and the same focus on equality continues to strengthen to this day. Groundbreaking work has, surely, paved the way towards change – but is the literary establishment still dominated by white, male writers? And despite being so readily available, are feminist texts getting the recognition they deserve?

In 2012, Roxane Gay reported that nearly 90 percent of books reviewed in The New York Times were written by white authors. Two years before that, The Guardian found that seventy-five per cent of the books reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement were written by men – 1,036 compared to 330 – with 72% of its reviewers men.

These instances should have brought out about rapid change, but just last year, Undergraduates at Yale University launched a petition calling on the English department to abolish a prescribed reading list made up almost entirely of white, male writers.

Needless to say, empowering, diverse feminist has evolved and expanded over time. We stand in a position of hope, yearning for longevity. The right fiction is out there, but its more a case of finding the work, pinpointing its value, and choosing to read our own version of ‘bestselling’, regardless of what the mainstream media dictates.

This list compiles a mere fraction of the best contemporary, cultural feminist written works. However, be it prose, poetry, drama or non-fiction, the list can expand, and should further expand through time.

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie – Americanah (2013)

Hailed ‘Cerebral and utterly transfixing’ by The Boston Globe, Americanah grapples with a plethora of subjects – migration, academia, Obama politics, love, and the shifting meanings of skin colour. It was written by of one of the most successful, transgressive novelists of today, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Also responsible for the book-length essay ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ and TEDx talk of the same name, she has much to say on the ethicality of fashion. Adichie has taken to to promote #MadeInNigeria, pledging to wear only Nigerian brands for her public appearances, supporting sustainability at a grass-roots level.

Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Readers of Jane Eyre often have the same thought – why is the ‘mad woman in the attic’ mad? Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea answers that question, giving voice to Bertha, and re-writing her Caribbean tale within a modernist critique. It makes a powerful statement as Rhys undermines hierarchy, signifying that all women are equally worthy of telling their story. It’s also worth noting that Rhys lived in total obscurity when writing the novel.

Maya Angelou – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969)

A compelling, poetic autobiography, Angelou’s work is vital reading for anyone eager to understand the plight of the African American. Entirely true, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first in a seven-volume series, delving into the historical significance of race and trauma.

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

In Atwood’s dark, dystopian landscape everything is unusually subtle and powerful. The Handmaid’s Tale enacts a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state, and its interest lies beneath the surface. The novel is hugely influential in recent conversation, perhaps due to the success of the American television series (that, or our global political state).

Additional titles include: Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State (2014), Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929).

And, in terms of non-fiction: Naomi Wold’s The Beauty Myth (1990), Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism (2012), and Angela Davis’ The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues (2012).

In 2017, femininity, diversity and authenticity are celebrated. Everyone’s stories have a right to be told, and the novel cannot restrict.