Wednesday 28 March 2018

Recommend Groundbreaking Women Writers

The history of literature is full of groundbreaking women—authors who go where no one has trod before, whose pens carve grooves in which later generations can only aspire to follow. Women have always written. Sometimes they have done so under pseudonyms. Sometimes they have not been published or preserved (and very often they also have); they have surely been underrated, but they have always written. And many women writers have kicked ass so hard that they have left the world of literature irreparably changed behind them. We’d like to hear your recommendations of women writers who have literally set the standards for authors who follow them—whether they were the first to write in a certain field, or inventors of a new genre, or just someone you can’t imagine the world of literature without, leave a comment below telling us about her and why she was so great.

To kick off, we’ve asked a few authors, editors, reviewers, and other friends for their suggestions. Read and enjoy.

Omi Wilde (story; story)

I was a poetry-enraptured kid when I first learned about Enheduanna, first author known by name to history, but I’m still in childish awe at the way her words echo across 4300 years to reach me. As a princess and a priestess in what we now know as Iraq, she was powerful religiously and politically. Her poetry wove together two religions, creating a new pantheon from among the gods of the Sumerian and Akkadian peoples. As the daughter of an Akkadian ruler and a Sumerian priestess she embodied the unification of the two cultures that she strove towards and her work ensured the stability of her father’s empire. In this, we might consider her to have been the first propagandist as well, but long after the rise and fall of empires it is her poetry and her impact on the form that has endured. “They approach the light of day, about me, / the light is obscured / The shadows approach the light of day, / it is covered with a (sand) storm.”

Further reading: Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poetry of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna (UTP 2001) by Betty De Shong Meador.

Cait Coker (TFF Reviews)

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623-1673) was a British aristocrat, philosopher, scientist, playwright, proto-feminist, and one of the earliest science fiction authors. She was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, and she published The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World in 1666. Usually shortened to just The Blazing World, the book tells the story of a young Lady who discovers a utopian society of talking animals in a parallel world, possibly making it the first example of portal fiction. Becoming Empress there, the girl decides to invade the imperfect real world and remake it in a utopian image; the novel is therefore a fictional counterpart to Cavendish’s political treatise Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, also published in 1666. Though she published a dozen works during her lifetime, she was often dismissed and satirized as “Mad Madge,” especially in misogynist plays satirizing popular women writers. Cavendish’s reputation was largely erased and languished until Virginia Woolf wrote an essay about her in The Common Reader, which started to recover her reputation as an early professional writer. In the decades since, Cavendish has had a scholarly revival in the field of women’s writing, if not in popular science fiction.

Alessandra Cristallini (blog)

In 1816, a nineteen year old girl created science fiction. She is Mary Shelley, and she is my literature heroine. Frankenstein may be regarded as horror in popular culture but if you read it you will discover a novel that has very little of the “evil scientist mad with ambition and hunted by torches and pitchforks in some creepy castle, preferably in the Carpathians” trope. No. At its heart, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale, and not a hopeless one: this is where Mary Shelley’s greatness emerges. Just like modern sci-fi authors she was inspired by the most debated scientific discoveries of the time, with all the mistakes, hopes and dreams that came with them. She saw how science and technology were making lives better, but in a costly way for the people and the environment. She didn’t write an anti-technology story but rather a tale about how progress should be kept in check carefully before we destroy ourselves—and humanity with it. She saw the importance of modern science and realized how life-changing it was going to be. And that's how science fiction was born.

Maria Grech Ganado (profile; interview)

As was common in Victorian England, Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights (1847) under the male pen-name of Ellis Bell. Initially the uninhibited “savagery” at the Heights, as opposed to the orderly calm of the Grange (a merging of Gothic style with that of Jane Austen), shocked its critics. Today, the novel is regarded globally as one of the best ever written. First assessed as chaotic, the novel's two parts are seen now to constitute a cogent, dialectically balanced structure, influenced, perhaps, by translations of German rather than French literature after the Napoleonic wars.

Philosophical, social and even political studies of the novel’s theme argue that it goes far beyond the intensity of the Heathcliff/Catherine relationship, despite this being the nub of the plot. Catherine/Cathy’s pivotal name returns to “Earnshaw” after going twice through “Linton,” whereas “Heathcliff” dies out completely. It is the only name which “earns” the union of the Heights and the Grange. Patterns of natural attributes, both elemental and animal, also become symbolic (e.g. storm/wolf vs calm/sucking leveret), major relationships reflect elective affinities, prose is rendered poetical and one is bound to discover something new every time Wuthering Heights is reread.

Clare McKeown (@ClareMQN)

Although it’s a feminist classic, I only recently read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” for the first time. Gilman published the short story in 1892 after her experience of being subjected to an extreme “rest cure” for a severe mental health crisis, most likely post-partum depression or psychosis. Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a first-person tale of Gothic horror, and in it, she broke ground by daring to challenge the dominant narrative that “hysterical” women needed to be controlled by men who knew what was best for them.

Gilman, like many of the early feminists, was decidedly not intersectional. As Lindy West points out, one of Gilman’s later works in particular, the feminist utopian novel, Herland, is “rife with gender essentialism, white supremacy and anti-abortion rhetoric.” However, West holds, as I do, that we can learn by engaging with the work of early feminist thinkers, even when we must acknowledge where they fall short.

Gilman broke ground by asserting that women are capable of knowing our own minds and our own selves, and responsible health practitioners need to listen to and respect women. Unfortunately, women today still struggle to have our physical, emotional, and psychological pain taken seriously by medical professionals. Reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 2018 reminded me of how far we have come, and how far we still need to go.

Lisa Timpf (Goodreads; TFF reviews)

During her 70-year writing career, Andre Norton penned well over 100 novels as well as several short stories, and edited and compiled a number of anthologies. And yet, many of her readers may have been unaware they were reading a book written by a woman. The ambiguity was intentional, and a function of society’s expectations at the time Norton launched her career. In 1934, Norton published The Prince Commands, a work of historical fiction. Fearing that the then mostly-male audience for juvenile fiction might be hesitant to pick up a book written by “Alice Mary Norton,” she changed her legal name to Andre Alice Norton. Most of her works were published under the name Andre Norton, although she also used the pseudonyms Andrew North and Allen Weston.

After focussing mainly on historical fiction early in her career, Norton branched out into science fiction, exploring themes such as time travel, humankind's first voyages to other planets, telepathic communication between humans and animals, and quests for artifacts related to “Forerunner” species. She also wrote a number of fantasy novels, including the Witch World series.

Norton is credited with helping to pave the way for female science fiction and fantasy writers who followed her, by showing that a woman could write such works, and do it successfully. Her vivid and imaginative settings, the universality of her themes, and her ability to tell and pace a good story made her popular with generations readers, some of whom became writers in their own right. Norton’s legacy lives on in the form of the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, which recognizes outstanding works of science fiction or fantasy geared toward the young adult market.

Regina de Búrca (twitter; TFF)

I will be eternally grateful to Ursula K. Le Guin’s pioneering writing for changing the way I think. From the ethnically diverse society in her Earthsea novels, the environmental decline in The New Atlantis to the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin tackled the deep inequality, shortsightedness and greed of our world by creating and exploring others. Her work fearlessly faced issues of gender, sexuality, race and the environment among other topics, advocating justice and independent thought. She questioned widely-accepted notions about sexuality and gender from a critical perspective and never backed down from speaking her truth or standing up for what she believed in. Her prolific work subverted literary genres and conventions while blazing a trail for other women writers. Earlier this year we lost a true visionary when sadly, she passed away, but her groundbreaking legacy lives on, continuing to lead the way.

Now leave a comment and tell us of your favorite groundbreaking women authors—who changed the world of literature so much that you can’t imaging reading, or writing, if she hadn’t existed?


Digital Dame said...

Jane Austen, Anne McCaffrey, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton. Just some of my favorites. :)

Djibril said...

@Digital Dame: thanks! Care to tell us a bit about why any one of those is groundbreaking/genre-making for you?

Joyce Chng said...

I would say one of the first Singaporean women SFF writers I read was when I was much younger was 'Star Sapphire' by Han May (Joan Fong). I was like "Wow, a woman SFF writer IN SINGAPORE." Of course, by now, the genre has made headway in my island state... But it's always good and humbling to remember the groundbreaking pioneers. :)