A collaborative article by Annyston Pennington, Cole Bubenik, and Frances Molina
As the summer comes to a close, we asked our staff members to talk about some of the women writers they have recently read in an effort to explore both, the dense world of female writers, and our own staff members’ personal preferences. We’re presenting their responses here in a reoccurring series which we’re tentatively calling “Women We Have Read.” We hope you enjoy.
Annyston Pennington, Staff Writer
Since I’ve been musing on her a lot lately as I’ve been trying to push myself back into working on fiction, I’m recalling an author from my early days, all the way back to Elementary school and onward, contrary to the article prompt. Madeleine L’Engle of A Wrinkle in Time fame has had so much influence on me as a writer and reader that I can’t help but look at her books on my shelves now and sigh in nostalgic fondness. The first book of hers I read was A Ring of Endless Light in, like, fifth grade, which at this point I only remember vaguely as having something to do with dolphins and seizures.
Nevertheless, I fell in love with her balance of poignancy and the bizarre with a dash of the supernatural that made her stories feel like folkloric science fiction (if that makes any sense at all). This aspect of her writing is probably more obvious in A Wrinkle in Time and the subsequent series since L’Engle somehow combines physics, theology, dreamscape, family dynamics and makes it work. And, like, really work. I remember reading A Wind in the Door and just sitting on my bed with my mouth a little slack as she described the “singular cherubim” with its many wings and eyes. It felt like I was experiencing some sort of artistic revelation in which I saw my own little fantasies and dreams reflected in published text. It was something like magic, really.
Those books sent me on the downward spiral into combining legend and realism in my own projects that has been a joyful exploration of my personal beliefs and an understanding of the world around me. To cease typing gibberish, what I love about L’Engle’s work is that she made me think. She made me reconsider what fiction could be and what stories I could tell and be taken seriously. Her writing reads as if she does not give a damn what is expected of her as a female writer and instead delivers exactly the stories she means to tell, disembodied brains, unicorns, mitochondria and all.
Cole Bubenik, Co-Managing Editor
Okay, so if I had to go with “traditional” or “conventional” female writers, as in big name writers that are currently working in the field and have published books, the last work I’ve read by a female would be either Zadie Smith’s “Moonlit Landscape With Bridge” or Karen Russell’s “The Bad Graft” or Sleep Donation. Both writers are simply phenomenal, I really can’t express how great Russell is to me. I’ve written about her novella Sleep Donation on the blog before, so I don’t need to go into too much detail on why she’s great, but there’s something about her prose which just reminds me of the magic of childhood, or perhaps simply the sheer palpable beauty and misery of growth.
Zadie Smith is a different writer entirely. I am about half-way through her novel, White Teeth, and mainly I just can’t finish it because the size scares me (massive novels give me anxiety). Smith’s writing is equal parts political and humorous, she, especially in “Moonlit Landscape With Bridge” draws upon the traditional crafts of storytelling while also engaging in more magical or mystic tropes. That’s what appeals to me most about both writers, and if I could be so bold, female writers as a whole. There’s an effort to escape the “reality” of the world for another seemingly hyper form of reality in which truth brushes up against the complex world of mystic-fiction. It’s in those moments where the deep nature of the human condition really unravels and I find myself truly connecting with the characters on the page.
I love reading women writers though. I try to read more from them because I think they’ve got something more interesting to say. That’s likely sexist, coming from a man, actually there’s a good chance it is, but sometimes I get so bogged down and bored by the things conventional male writers talk about. I think a lot of female writers aren’t scared of investing themselves in themes of sex and sexuality, of gender, masculinity and femininity, domesticity and anti-domesticity, and that’s what interest me as a short-story writer, so I tend to just consume that sort of stuff in large volumes.
I do read a lot though; I consume a lot of material on a day-to-day basis, it’s just hard for me to finish novels, but I still read a lot of other stuff. The Nib has a great comic called“Trigger Warning: Breakfast”which is technically by an anonymous user but seems to take the point of view of a woman so I’d recommend it and consider as a female artist. Comic artist Yumi Sakugawa continually does pieces over at The Rumpus that I enjoy, but one recently We Used to Be So Close really got to that inner romantic in me. Mitsu’s Lessons I Learned as A Dominatrix: 10 Things That Don’t Exist is another great read on sex, sexuality, and intimacy both physically and emotionally (I could plug all of the Rumpus but that wouldn’t be fair, just go read it). Hobartpulp continually has some amazing web-features for female poets, short story writers, and my personal favorite, non-fiction. In no particular order I’d recommend readingGames of my Youth: True Animal Crossing by Tabitha Blankenbiller and Obsolete People by Tovah Burnstein. I could go on, like I really could. Just typing these reminds me of so many others that are well worth your reads, but I’ll stop it here as I’m already rambling and save some for the next post.
Frances Molina, Staff Writer
When I was a little girl, my mother and I communicated through books. Books we read, books we wanted to read, books we lent to each other. We told the stories back to each other in fragments and talked about the characters as if they were people we knew. My mother never wanted to discourage my curiosity so when she saw how quickly I grew bored of the young adult genre, she didn’t hesitate to recommend more mature novels and memoirs. And while she was careful never to censor the material she gave me, she did keep one book in particular from me: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. At the time she thought the book had been too racy for my preteen sensibilities – a fact that she finally admitted with some embarrassment this past year when I took up the book on my own.
It was my first taste of Kingsolver’s extensive body of work and it left me simultaneously satisfied and hungry for more. Much of the books by women writers I had read in the past were romance novels or stories full of misery and pain. But Prodigal Summer was something entirely different. Yes, there was romance. Yes, there was pain. And hell yeah, it was pretty racy. But the plot was exceptionally human. That was what struck me the most. The prose was simple and uncomplicated and the characters felt real. They were imperfect and lonely, hopeful and stubborn, even cruel. Kingsolver possesses a vast and intimate knowledge of people and their relationships and she writes with a voice that urges you to appreciate the world the way she does: with compassion and with reverence.
What’s more, I enjoyed reading Prodigal Summer because it helped motivate my writing. Most if not all of my creative writing projects have featured a woman as the main character and narrator. So when I began first notes for a story that would have a man as one of the major narrators I will admit that I felt nervous about writing him fairly and accurately – whatever that meant. But in times of insecurity, I turned to Kingsolver. Many of her novels have men as the main characters and she wrote them with as much authenticity and humanity as her female characters. There was no dramatic difference between her men and women characters. Rather than writing each character as distinctively masculine or feminine, she wrote them as distinctly human – something I feel all writers, feminist writers especially, can appreciate.