“I’ve been reading books by women,” a friend told me over coffee. This was before the lockdown, before any of us knew the terms ‘furlough’ and ‘social distancing’. I’d never given much thought to the gender of whoever’s work I was reading, but these words sparked an urgent realisation. I only ever read books by men. Why should that be? Was I a slave to marketing in my favoured genres, or did I harbour a hidden bias that assumed women only wrote romance, YA and ‘women’s fiction’, the latter being a phrase I consider to be aggressively divisive? Who is my favourite female author, I wondered. I came up blank, and that startled me. I had to fix it.
On my friend’s recommendation, I read Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector, and I absolutely loved it. Her prose was so beautiful and profound and rich. For a long time, I carried the book around with me in my bag because of this; because it inspired me to write and to be proud of my depth.
I read The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa next, and then Henry and June by Anaïs Nin. Both were beautiful experiences. M Train by Patti Smith. Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker. Green Girl by Kate Zambreno.
It’s the strangest thing, but when you start reading books by women, you are led to more books by women: if not through advertising algorithms then through the authors themselves. One will mention another – or several others – as being their inspiration or their contemporary. They will present seemingly lonely aspects of themselves but link them back to the female experience, to the collective mode of art, and thus the reader is thrust into a flow.
So I read Samantha Shweblin, Anna Kavan, Akwaeke Emezi, Doris Lessing, Audre Lorde, Amy Scholder, Violet LeVoit, Tea Hacic-Vlahovic, Mary Gaitskill, Ursula K Le Guin, Hitmoi Kanehara, Han Kang, Jenn Ashworth, Ann Quin, Daša Drndić, Elisa Gabbert, Monique Quintana, Autumn Christian, Lindsay Lerman, Micaiah Johnson, Mariana Enríquez, Chris Kraus, Abi Palmer, Renee Gladman and Bae Suah.
And, inside them, I found the most stunning, powerful subjectivities. I found the kind of prose I keep only for my journals because I’ve been told it is self-indulgent or navel-gazing or purple by people who don’t understand it. I found honesty, and I found affinities, even (especially) where I didn’t expect them.
I don’t think any of these things are exclusive to female authors. Perhaps it’s to do with the little niche I’ve fallen into: away from plot-driven narratives and towards the expression of internal worlds. But still, there’s something special here: some hidden essence I’ve been missing for most of my reading life. And it’s an addiction, of sorts, that is feeding my confidence and will to write what I believe I was always supposed to. I am hooked into the stream.
I’ve been reading books by women, and now I can’t stop.