As a student of English literature, several seminal texts such as Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Beauvoir’s The Second Sex among others made up my list of essential readings. While these texts have been enlightening to read, it is crucial for us to look beyond them to understand feminism in our own socio-cultural and geographical context.
Women in Asia, the Middle-east and Africa face double marginalisation on account of their race as well as sex. The emergence of black feminism as a challenge to mainstream white feminism that either marginalised the voices of women of colour or subsumed it within its larger discourse, was a watershed event (or rather a gradual process) in the history of feminism. Given below is a list of women authors whose writings have established the contours of feminism for us, as post-colonial subjects and as women of colour. This list, however, is not exhaustive and I have incorporated authors whose readings have helped me comprehend feminism better.
1. Toni Morrison
Nobel Laureate Morrison is an American novelist. Born in the African-American community, her works draw upon her own experiences of growing up in a racially segregated America. One of the key authors to bring ‘Black Literature’ to prominence, Morrison’s novels are lyrical, marked by experimental narrative styles and strong women characters subverting the patriarchal and racist society of which they are a part. Morrison’s Beloved is a revisionary slave narrative that is both terrifying and beautiful and employs the stream of consciousness style of writing. Song of Solomon is a linear narrative with a male protagonist and explores the complex relationship that Macon Dead, grandson of a former slave, shares with his family and the white society. Her other works The Bluest Eye and Sula are equally riveting reads.
2. Audre Lorde
She calls herself a ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’. Lorde’s prolific literary career exhibits a long-drawn fight against ingrained sexism, racism and homophobia. She empowers the female body in her writings and the admirers of her work include her contemporary feminist poet Adrienne Rich. In her collection of essays and speeches Sister Outsider and poetry collection The Black Unicorn, she subverts racial and sexual binaries. Zami is a lovely autobiography that traces the life of a young, blind girl growing up in Harlem and explores the themes of isolation, lesbianism and disability.
3. Jean Rhys
I will confess that the only work of Rhys I have read is her famous postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea. A response to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the novel magnificently exemplifies Bill Ashcroft and Gareth Griffiths phrase ‘The Empire Writes Back’. Rhys dismantles binaries of barbarity and civilization and madness and rationality, the former associated with the racial ‘Other’. The novel delves into themes of miscegenation, madness, the loss of Antoinette’s Creole identity as Rochester (unnamed in Rhys’ novel) robs her wealth and sanity. Set in the picturesque backdrop of the Carribean, Wide Sargasso Sea captures vividly the life of Antoinette before she was transformed into the vile Bertha Mason of Bronte’s novel.
4. Nawal El Saadawi
Hailed as the ‘the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World’, Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist author. In her non-fiction texts, she critically attacks religious fundamentalism in the Middle East, which intertwined with modern-day capitalism, is at the root of all oppression. She has also spoken against female genital mutiliation and veiling. Her novel The Fall of the Imam, translated from Arabic by her husband Sherif Hetata, explores the life of the tyrant Imam and the brutal lynching of a woman.
5. Flora Nwapa
Considered a literary forerunner for many succeeding women authors in Africa, Nwapa was also one of the first women publishers in the continent. She chooses the novel form over short story, though many African women authors prefer the latter. Nwapa’s stories are ‘matri-focal’ and capture the strong spirit of women protagonists under duress. They defy convention by marrying outside their community or by gaining the upper-hand in marriage through their financial acumen. Moreover, her stories depict a role inversion – men are prostitutes and kept-men, women control finances and are the dominant ones in sexual relationships.
6. Chimamanda Adichie
Young Nigerian author Adichie inspired us all with her Ted Talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. My personal favourite is Half of a Yellow Sun, that explores the tumultuous relationships of two upper class Nigerian twin sisters vis-a-vis their patriarchal family and lovers in pre and post war-torn Nigeria. The massacre of the Igbo community and a painful secession form the backdrop of the novel. Her other novels, Purple Hibiscus and Americanah also revolve around powerful women protagonists attempting to reconcile personal relationships in an unstable socio-political world order.
7. Alice Walker
The name needs no introduction. Walker’s prize winning novel The Color Purple is a part of university curriculum across the globe. The epistolary novel traces the journey Celie, a timid God-fearing woman who is raped by her stepfather and then forcibly married to a cold stranger who is never named. The novel is about Celie’s transformation into an economically, mentally and socially independent woman who comes to terms with her sexuality and religious belief as she searches for her long lost sister. The novel deals with a myriad of themes such as sexual violence, arbitrariness of law, repression of female sexuality and the nature of language itself to question oppression.
Her collection of essays In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose is a powerful read and gives an insight into Walker’s sexual politics and the concept she has famously coined ‘Womanism’. A lesser known novel Possessing the Secret of Joy tells the story of Tashi, a minor character in The Color Purple, who undergoes facial scarring and mutilation as a part of her community ritual and her harrowing memories of the same.
8. Urvashi Butalia
Feminist author and publisher Urvashi Butalia is no stranger to Indian readers. Her most famous work The Other Side of Silence digs the unheard tales of women survivors of the Partition, who faced double violence during the exodus, one from the perpetrators of violence from the ‘enemy’ community and the other, their own ‘guardians’ – fathers, brothers and husbands, who slaughtered women to protect their ‘honour’. The accounts are chilling and grisly. This book is a reminder that in all religious, racial and political conflict, the worst victims are women.
9. Mahasweta Devi
The short story collection The Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Gayatri Spivak) is a vocal critique of institutionalised patriarchy. Using the breast as a motif of empowerment in all the stories, Devi narrates the stories of three women, all oppressed in varying degrees in a patriarchal paradigm. Her women protagonists hail from marginal sections of society. Their tales expose the power dynamics of sex, economics and culture which collectively tyrannise them all.