I didn't think to write this post until late in the day yesterday, which was of course actually International Women's Day, and then I worried that I was too late to do it. But then I thought, eh - it's probably yesterday somewhere, right? And then I thought - heck! It's suddenly about 85 years ago here in America, and that settled it: I had all the time I needed.
First of all, I love that International Women's Day received so much attention this year. It offered me the opportunity to think about the girls and women of my literary life whom I hold most dear. Here are a few. Do you have a few, too? Who? Tell me!
Helen Keller. I must have bought my first book about Helen Keller through the Scholastic Book Club in first or second grade, and I had to have read it at least 40 or 50 times. I can still see the cover of that poor book in my mind's eye, its creased and somewhat mutilated cover, with a blue sky and rolling green hills, and an illustration of Helen herself (after Annie Sullivan awakened her, of course - all sweet looking and pigtailed, holding Dolly). Her story moved me so deeply, and inspired me so much as a child. Blind and deaf - and a college graduate, a motivational speaker, an independent and principled young woman. Beautiful, well-mannered, and with a gentle sense of humor. I used to wrap a scarf over my eyes and ears and walk through the house, trying to absorb it with just my fingertips, ever more impressed with Helen's poise and perseverance. And the best part about Helen was that the more I learned about her, the more amazed I became at her strength and courage. She was an outspoken political activist, a socialist and advocate of women's rights, who showed me that ambition was alright for girls and women. She lived what she believed and did it all without losing faith in herself, in her support network, in humanity. Whenever I'm having a tough day, Helen invariably surfaces in my mind and gently but firmly urges me onward. Such an extraordinary woman. I wish I could have met her. My first personal hero, and she's never left my heart.
Madeleine L'Engle. "It was a dark and stormy night." So begins the phenomenal adventure A Wrinkle in Time. L'Engle takes the most mundane of opening lines and leads her readers by the hand into a world of terrible and astonishing adventures. She never fails to crack her characters wide open, relentlessly exposing their most humbling faults and imperfections - and then building on those very vulnerabilities to give us girls and women (and stars and monsters) who are strong and brave and talented not in spite of those flaws, but because of them. No one had ever dared me to look at my faults like that before Meg Murray came along (followed close behind in my literary life by Vicki Austen, the teen girl at the center of L'Engle's beautiful "Meet the Austens" series, which featured the most functional and finely-made family I'd ever encountered, and they made my heart beat a little differently forever after); no one had asked me to really look at my faults at all, really. Don't we all want to present our best selves? And don't we often offer our children our own rose-colored views of them and their accomplishments in order to encourage them? Of course we do. But L'Engle challenged me to try something new, and I find myself thinking of her work more often as my children grow and step more completely into themselves, learning of their own blind spots and beauties and rough bits and all the good stuff that we often don't learn to embrace until we're far along the timelines of our own lives, if we're lucky enough to ever learn to embrace it at all.
Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek spilled itself at my feet the first time when I was a second year college student. It was a revelation. I had no idea people could write like that: bold and thoughtful and quizzical and true. It was my introduction to the literary essay, and I fell in love with that format and never really looked back, now that I think on it a little. Dillard's work sets the well-known Proustian adage* on fire: she doesn't just offer us the opportunity to look at the world through her new eyes - she beguiles you to do the same. A snail, a lake, a bloody catprint on the windowpane: Dillard gives us flights of fancy one moment and measured scientific consideration the next, then skips off through the looking-glass of her Although Pilgrim remains my favorite, I have a soft spot for An American Childhood, which made me laugh out loud and left indelible pseudo-memories in my brain. Dillard's mom refused to change her address even though they moved several times...and the post office just rolled with it! She used to trap the baby's drawstring under her foot so that the baby just kept crawling and crawling and crawling to nowhere! Dillard herself had to take social dancing and etiquette lessons (and despite the damp palmed horrors of it all - or maybe because of that - I knew I had missed an excellent opportunity) and had secret spaces for writing and reading and drawing! Annie Dillard is just the best. I hope I never meet her because then I might have to admit that the memories I adopted from her aren't really mine. I think she'd understand. At least, I imagine she would.
Bonus! I simply must pay homage to the literary character who lives most deeply in my literary heart of hearts:
Harriet the Spy. Man. If there was one literary character I encountered in my childhood who I really, really, REALLY wanted to be, it was Harriet the Spy. But she shocked me to no end, so I knew I just couldn't be her. I guess she was my secret alter ego. I mean, Harriet wrote all sorts of things (and so did I), but she wrote about people she KNEW - and she wrote mean things! Petty things! Even about Sport and Janie, her very best friends, and even about Ol' Golly! (Insightful and astute things, too, of course, but that didn't shock me.) I could hardly believe my eyes. And she SPIED on people - not the run-of-the-mill creep to the top of the stairs and listen to your parents kind of spying, oh no - she spied on strangers. She crept around the outsides of their homes (and even hid in the dumbwaiter at the rich, stupid lady's house! The nerve that girl had!), peering in their doors and windows - even in through their skylights, for Heaven's sake. Harriet the Spy just sort of blew me away. I didn't know a girl could be so - so singular. So remarkably herself. Harriet. I love her still, of course. And I think I've learned to let my inner Harriet really shine, which makes 9 year old me remarkably proud.
A list of women authors I've really enjoyed as of late (in no particular order, really):
2. Nnede Okorafor
3. Fatima Mernissi
4. Deborah Harkness
5. Chimananda Ngozi Adichie
6. Jesmyn Ward
7. Maria Semple
8. Liz Moore
9. Samantha Mabry
10. Liane Moriarty
(Match them with their pictures and then you can click through to see what they've written!)
Oooh! One last thing: Peek inside my Bookbag!
Yup! A sneak peek of what's coming down my personal pipeline: books by women that are already up to literary bat or are warming up in my book batting cage. After writing up that favorites list, I see that I really need to add some Central/South America and Asia authors to my (already-teetering) TBR pile. Any suggestions?
1. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
2. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
3. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
4. We Too Sing America by Deepa Iyer
5. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
6. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
7. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
8. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
9. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
10. The Gardens of Consolation by Parissa Reza
11. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie
12. What I Told My Daughter: Lessons from Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of of Empowered Women by Nina Tassler
...And now, I gotta jet. As you can see, I have a lot of reading to do! Thanks for stopping by!
* "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." - Marcel Proust