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Books for bleak times: a reading list from six British feminists

We asked Caroline Criado-Perez, Sarah Ditum, Helen Lewis, Nimco Ali, Joanna Walsh, and Bidisha which books inspire and empower them during bleak political times.

Sian Norris
1 June 2017

Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood. Photo: SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

After Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States in November 2016, two classic non-fiction books by women started to sell… and sell… and sell. The first was Rebecca Solnit’s manifesto Hope in the Dark. First published in 2004, it argues that political protest can take a long time to manifest results – but is not worthless. The second was Hannah Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in the wake of World War II.

Readers have also turned to fiction written by women, including Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a near-future America ruled by a theocratic dictatorship. The main character, Offred, is one of many women “handmaids” forced to bear children for the ruling class. Sales of this novel also soared after Trump’s election. A TV adaptation of the novel is now streaming on the online service Hulu and is on the UK’s Channel 4 too.

In moments of crisis the need for empathy and understanding becomes acute. It’s one of the reasons I often turn to Atwood when the world looks bleak. Her work so often focuses on women’s stories and experiences. I draw strength and determination from that moment of recognition – when elements of my own experiences living as a woman in an unequal society are reflected back at me. I also find myself rereading a novel written in secret by a woman more than 150 years ago: Jane Eyre.

In moments of crisis the need for empathy and understanding becomes acute.

Amid rising right-wing populism, and a global backlash against women’s rights, the wisdom embedded in books by women writers provides clarity, hope and inspiration on how to act and react in the world today. As Jane, a heroine who rebels against attempts to mould or change her, declares: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

What are you reading? Is there a book that has empowered you in particular?

I asked six British feminist writers and activists for their answers. I chose these women because each, in her own way, is campaigning or writing against the assault on women’s rights by right wing populism, or is using her platform to highlight women’s contribution to history and culture.

Caroline Criado-Perez: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy

Caroline Criado-Perez

Caroline Criado-Perez. Photo: Tracy King.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a writer and feminist campaigner. Her first book, Do It Like A Woman profiled various women activists who are changing the world. An activist herself, Criado-Perez successfully campaigned to feature a woman on UK banknotes, and has spoken out on issues of violence against women and women’s equality. She’s reading Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy – a story of survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

“Atwood is just so brilliant at visualising the logical (horrifying) extension of where we are going,” Criado messaged me. “And even when the book isn’t directly about women, as in the trilogy, you can always rely on her to weave in the impact on women of the world and powers around us with a light but devastating touch. I never read Atwood without feeling *yes*, that’s what it feels like.”

Sarah Ditum: Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

Sarah Ditum.

Sarah Ditum. Photo: Darren Strange.

Sarah Ditum is a writer and journalist who regularly reviews books for the New Statesman, Guardian and Spectator. I was keen to know what she finds hope in. Her answer? Persepolis, a memoir by Marjane Satrapi. Published in 2000, this graphic novel set in Iran tells of a girl’s coming of age under an authoritarian regime.

Ditum explained her choice: “It's such an intimate rendering of what it means to live in tyranny, the tiny acts of submission that lead to a defeated life, the profound loneliness of exile, the joy in resistance even if that resistance is only drinking and dancing in a blackout-curtained room.”

Helen Lewis: Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven

Helen Lewis. Charlie Forgham-Bailey

Helen Lewis. Photo: Charlie Forgham-Bailey.

Deputy Editor of the New Statesman Helen Lewis told me she is about to re-read the dystopian novel Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. A word-of-mouth hit when published in 2014, it tells the story of the end of civilisation after a deadly flu virus sweeps the world, and the intertwined lives of a group of survivors.

How can the near destruction of the human race offer hope? “I worried that it would be too bleak, but it’s not,” Lewis told me. “Even after losing the internet, aeroplanes, central heating, processed food and everything else we’ve come to rely on, the novel shows how most people can still carve out a life for themselves and find happiness.”

“The central character Kirsten, who was only eight when the pandemic hit, has a line from Star Trek tattooed on her arm: 'Survival is insufficient.' That’s so true – however tough life seems, we have to make time for art, music, friends, laughter, caring and compassion. Those aren’t luxuries or extravagances; they’re what make us human. Station Eleven makes me feel resilient – and it makes me value how much I have now.”

Nimco Ali: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Nimco Ali is a campaigner against female genital mutilation. Our talk about books leads her to recommend Yaa Gyasi’s debut Homegoing. Published last year, it's a historical novel that follows the lives of women descended from an Asante woman named Maame.

What was it about this novel that appealed to Ali? She explains that Gyasi’s work is “the story of the strength and survival of women. We all have the blood of those who came before and stood up so we can rise too.”

Bidisha: Andrea Dworkin's Right Wing Women

Bidisha is a writer, broadcaster and journalist who has been outspoken on issues of cultural femicide and the silencing of women’s voices in the arts. Her writer of choice is Andrea Dworkin, and in particular her book Right Wing Women, which “always puts me right.” Why? Because “everything she predicted there came true – Reagan, Bush Senior, Bush Junior, Trump, the rollback of women's rights, the mainstreaming of sexual exploitation. It's all there and it's terrifying.”

Published in 1983, Dworkin’s essay collection explores how the American political right mobilises women to its cause. At a time when we are forced to examine why women might vote for Trump, and his fans Coulter and Conway defend his sexism, her writing can help us find answers and advocate for change.

Joanna Walsh: Hannah Arendt's Men in Dark Times

Joanna Walsh.

Joanna Walsh. Photo: Sarah Davis-Goff.

Author and illustrator, in 2014 Joanna Walsh also founded the Read Women project. Initially a self-imposed task to read only women writers for a year, this lively Twitter account is now dedicated to sharing news, articles, recommendations and essays by and about women writers.

She told me she’s also joined the Arendt revival by recently picking up Men in Dark Times, an essay collection published in 1968 in which the philosopher explores the lives of diverse writers and thinkers – Rosa Luxembourg, Pope John XXIII and Brecht – who illuminated the darkness of the twentieth century.

Walsh has also been reading The Posthuman by Rosi Braidotti (2013); Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer (2015), and Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway (2016) – which she says examines our relationship with nature and helps her “cope with dark times, social, political, ecological.”

I also asked Read Women's followers on Twitter for their recommendations with included feminist utopias such as Herland by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, along with other books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Margaret Atwood was again a popular choice. One reader put it this way: “she always conveys that life is never easy for a woman – be that past, present or future.”

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