Today is March 31st, and Women’s History Month is waning. Here’s the fun thing about women, though: our contributions to society are not limited to a 31-day time period. I know. Shocker.
With that radical reasoning in mind, I’ve compiled a list of five* of my favorite women writers from American history and today. Feel free to enjoy their poetry, stories, and novels in April. Or May. The summer months, too. Hey, if you’re feeling ambitious, try all year round.
Phillis Wheatley might be the most important person in American literary history, which is probably why she is never mentioned in public schools. Wheatley was the first-ever African American published poet and the second published woman in America, right after Anne Bradstreet. I might have forgotten to mention: she was born in Africa and sold into slavery at seven years old. A couple of other notable facts: she published her first poem in a newspaper when she was only twelve and her first book at age eighteen. Oh yeah, after she wrote a poem in support of George Washington, he invited her to his home so that he could personally thank her. No biggie.
All this from a teenager who was named after the inhumane ship that took her across the Atlantic and turned her into property.
Let’s skip forward to the 20th century (sorry, Dickinson and Alcott). I first read Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in a class I took my first semester of college called “God, Sex, and Violence in American Literature,” after which I decided to study English. O’Connor suffered from lupus and passed away when she was only 39 years old, but she spent her life writing some of the wittiest prose on the grotesque** I’ve ever read. She once wrote in a letter, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”
She was also really into peacocks.
Ask me what my favorite poem is, and I’ll answer without hesitation. It’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Anne Sexton version. Here’s an excerpt:
Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.
You can read the rest of the poem here, but I suggest picking up a volume of her collected works. Sexton’s reimagined fairy tales are only a few of her gems. Like her friend Sylvia Plath, she’s well known for writing her confessional poetry during a time when women who challenged the idea of the housewife were considered total nut jobs Also like Plath, Sexton committed suicide; she dressed herself in her mother’s coat and took off her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, and locked herself in her garage, killing herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. She was in and out of mental institutes for her entire life, but her writings on her private life are actually fairly representative of many woman who felt trapped in their prescribed gender roles and later embraced second-wave feminism.
Karen Tei Yamashita
Now, contemporary writers. I read Yamashita’s novel The Tropic of Cancer in my capstone on global literature during my senior year. This book is the literary embodiment of post-modernism. Instead of a table of contents, it has a grid outlining which parts of the book are written from which character’s perspective, and potentially, you could read it in any order. Yamashita is Japanese-American, born in California, and The Tropic of Orange is set in a Los Angeles that isn’t white washed with so-called “beautiful people.” Her characters are Hispanic, Asian-American, black, poor, rich, and all in the throes of magical realism. It’s a book that’s as entertaining and nuanced as it is socially aware, and it doesn’t romanticize multiculturalism for the sake of self-righteousness.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you’ve listened to Beyoncé’s song ***Flawless, then you’ve heard Adichie’s voice. Beyoncé actually samples a TED talk given by Adichie titled We Should All Be Feminists. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” she says. “We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’” Adichie is not technically American, as she was born in Nigeria, but I’m including her on the list anyway. I’m about to finish her novel published last year called Americanah, written about race relations in the States from the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant to comes to Philadelphia for university. The book is brilliant, and I plan to write about it as soon as I’ve had time to process it. Immigrants like Adichie are the new Great American Authors.
By the way, anyone who is terrified of the prospect that WASPs*** might soon become a minority and actively tries to preserve “Americanness” by restricting immigration is delusional. So what? This is a nation of immigrants, built on the labor of slaves. Grumbling about Spanish labels on foods is so passé.
Remember. “A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” – Gloria Anzaldúa
*A difficult list to narrow down, obviously. Perhaps this would be better phrased as “five women writers who I’ve been reading a lot of lately but sometimes you’re just strapped for time.”
**Note the banner and subtitle at the top of my blog: The Pleasure of the Grotesque.
***WASP: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant