Having secured a writing space to call my own, I know my place. In this chaotic space, relatively-free from domestic distractions, I mostly write non-fiction pieces. I’ve published one novel, and have been clawing back time to finish another.
Women are writing across all genres and subject matters. Works of fiction by women can be powerful. From books that unashamedly focus on everyday life to those that shake perceptions, reveal the unspoken, and stare political opponents in the eye.
Publishing or reading novels by women is no longer frowned upon. Some of these books provide motivation to keep going, ideas for breaking down barriers, and an image of a fairer society to strive for.
There are many woman-authored books with strong female protagonists from my childhood, but the ones that most stand out are the Pippi LongStocking series by Astrid Lindgren. Pippi showed me that it’s possible to be uniquely you. Be a rebel, have fun, walk your own path, but remember to help others – Pippi did not leave others behind.
Reminiscing about younger-me wanting to be like Pippi, I discovered that Astrid Lindgren (1944 – 19993) was also an inspiring person. She was vocal about women in politics, children’s rights and civil rights for African-Americans, and was against corporal punishment. Awarded accolades in her lifetime, Astrid Lindgren even has an asteroid named in her honour.
Recently I re-re-read Toni Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved. I now understand why Baby Suggs chose to spend her last days on earth pondering colours. Starting with blue, gone before she reached red. There has been too much red. Beloved tells the grim story of a traumatised runaway-slave that kills her toddler to save her from a life of chains.
Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. Very few writers can capably use storytelling to combat white supremacy and injustice with as much clarity and fearlessness as Toni Morrison does.
Although her books often tell stories at the intersection of sexism and racism, Toni Morrison ‘…does not write “ist” novels.’ In an interview Toni Morrison was asked why she distances herself from feminism. She replied:
In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book — leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. I detest and loathe [those categories]. I think it’s off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I’m involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.
Closer to home, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is the second novella in a trilogy written by my maternal aunt Doris Nugi Garimara Pilkington (1937 – 2014). The book retells how my grandmother Molly escaped a church-run institution for children, after being incarcerated under the government’s racist child removal polices. These practices occurred nationally, from the early 1900s to the 1980s, and those taken are the stolen generations.
Aunty Doris became a published author later in life. Receiving the 1990 David Unaipon Award led to the publication of her first novel, Caprice: A Stockman’s Daughter. Whenever I worry about running out of time to reach my goals, Aunty Doris’ success gives me hope. And whenever I feel like everything is too difficult, I remember the tenacity of my grandmother and know the strength of my ancestors’ flows through me.
A space to write is essential, even if it’s just a small corner of the kitchen table. Many of us write in difficult circumstances: decades of juggling demands on our time, giving birth, dealing with grief and loss, worrying which bills will be late this month, and being just so so tired. Some women are writing whilst in toxic relationships or dealing with attempted sabotage from exes. And then there’s women writing in exile or incarceration.
Recently, author Susan Abulhawa was detained by the Israeli government and refused entry to Palestine. An American-Palestinian writer, Susan Abulhawa is a human rights advocate, the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, and a Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) activist. She was to be a guest at the 2018 Kalimat Palestinian Literature Festival.
In her statement to the Festival, Susan Abulhawa says:
I want to leave you with one more thought I had in that jail cell, and it is this: Israel is spiritually, emotionally, and culturally small despite the large guns they point at us – or perhaps precisely because of them. It is to their own detriment that they cannot accept our presence in our homeland, because our humanity remains intact and our art is beautiful and life-affirming, and we aren’t going anywhere but home.
Set in Gaza, Susan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water is a tale of four generations of Palestinians living under siege – refugees in their own lands. Amongst the atrocities and destruction inflicted by the Israeli government, the Baraka family love, laugh, give birth, grieve, and resist.
And at the centre of everything are women.
I was there with the women in my life. I was in the colors. In the mulberries, magentas, and corals of a tired sun. In the blue between sky and water.
I was there watching. Their conversations and laughter anchored the ground in place, tucked the shore under the water, and hung the sky and decorated it with stars and moon and sun. All of this happened in Gaza. It happened in Palestine. And I stayed as long as I could.
To prepare for this article, I made a stack of novels by women that centred girls and women. Choosing these four was hard. However, it was a chance to re-visit these books. I still remembered what they showed me about life, of love and hate, overcoming oppression — and about myself.