Ayiti by Roxane Gay

A powerful collection of short stories that explore the Haitian diaspora experience.

For as long as I have seen or heard about Haiti in the media, it has always been a narrow narrative of a nation constantly plagued by extreme poverty, natural disasters, high aid dependence, soaring crime, and an unstable political climate. These views are not incorrect but they do not capture all that is about Haiti and its people.

“Millions in Haiti face hunger in 2020” – CNN

Then Gay comes in with fifteen short stories that vary in length, mostly written outside of the traditional short story methods, and she changes the narrative. Ayiti introduces us to stories we don’t hear about Haiti, it expands and reaches into the people’s lives, their traumatic, triumphant, and resilient experiences.

Many of the stories capture Haitian women’s experiences.

It dispels the many misconceptions that we have of the nation, while honestly and daringly showing us the depth of some of its people’s challenges and struggles.

Sweet on the Tongue is a deep and powerful story about a woman’s traumatic experience with rape. It examines the pain, the shame, and the silence, but it also shows the effort to overcome these difficulties, with support and love through such a challenging ordeal.

Motherfuckers is flash fiction, two pages about a fourteen-year-old immigrant who expresses his hate for the US, and his experience being taunted in school for his foreignness.

A woman was conceived in a river where many of her people were massacred and the sharp smell of blood has always been with her, her whole life. In this story, In the Manner of Water or Light, we get a deep and illuminating account of generational impact from what happened in what would be known as The Massacre River, an actual site of executions of Haitian families that did take place.

“The waters did not run deep. It was just a border between two geographies of grief.”

The stories examine what it means to be Haitian in Haiti and America, but one brief and bold story, The Harder they Come shows the experience and behaviour of American tourists in Haiti, from ignoring the troubled Haiti that is “out there” to the sexual encounters with the locals.

“They say they quite like this Haiti, so clean and calm, so pleasant, not at all like on CNN.”

There is so much in this gut-punching, authentic, and haunting collection. There is homosexuality – the hiding that results from fear of what will happen if seen or discovered, but also the boldness in finding moments and spaces to express themselves and enjoy their passions. There is also love and sensuality, deep within the complexities of economic adversities.

Gay is astute at creating these real characters that spring out of the pages and lead you into their world, providing such an intimate experience of their realities. She leaves you with something to think about through her clever, cutting, and compelling writing. It’s a beautiful book and every single one of the stories matters.

Roxanne Gay: TIME

A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir

A Very Easy Death is a poignant day-to-day account of her mother’s last weeks on her deathbed. Simone de Beauvoir writes honestly and compassionately about the race between pain and death that her mother goes through.

A Very Easy Death

After a fall, a fracture of the neck of the femur is diagnosed. With more problems arising they finally discover cancer. At 78, Mme de Beauvoir has been widowed for more than twenty years and has two daughters.

From what seemed to be nothing to serious, Mme de Beauvoir’s body sinks into a devastating hole of rapidly deteriorating health. The doctors’ efforts to keep her alive through surgery and medication seem cruel than helpful, as her mother’s suffering intensifies. Simone bears witness to all these moments of how the illness tortures her mother.

“For the first time I saw her as a dead body under suspended sentence.”

This raw story really shows the tragedy of dying and how worse it is to be dying than death itself. It also shows how lonely death can be, and how helpless the ones close to the dying person can be. The false hopes and the witnessing of pain and death playing a brutal game of tug-of-war. De Beauvoir records her despair, one greater than she had felt when her father and other family members died.

“Death itself does not frighten me; it is the jump I am afraid of.”

It’s intelligently written, as one would expect nothing less from Simone de Beauvoir. It’s brief and powerful, moving, and shocking. Beautiful and tragic at the same time.  

Simone de Beauvoir: Britannica

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

By Mona Eltahawy

A fascinating and shocking call to end misogyny in the Arab world.

“Why do these men hate us?”

Mona Eltahawy was shocked into feminism and she shares her experience living in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. This book is an essential read that zooms into the brutal injustices against women in the Middle East and North Africa. Mona dismantles religion, belief, Western involvement, politics, and many aspects that tie into the misogyny that prevails in these places.

Headscarves and Hymens

On veiling, she points out how many girls and women, just like she did, go through a personal struggle with their hijab. She shows how they can defend it even when in private it’s a burden or a struggle. In some places, even though women will claim their covering is a choice, they do not have much of a choice, and in other places, women are aggressively pressured to cover up.

The violation of women in these regions goes way deeper than one can even begin to imagine. It spreads and pours into so many facets of the girls’ and women’s daily lives. Eltahawy shows how these violated women and girls have no platform to share their experiences and nowhere to find solutions.

Headscarves and Hymens

There are many examples and stories she gives to highlight the daily traumas that women go through and the forces used to keep the treatment of women as second-class citizens in place, as well as aggravating the problems they face.

The veiling of women is used as a way to tell women to cover up for their own safety against harassment and assault in the street. The onus is on the women to protect themselves instead of men being told not to commit these crimes. However, in some cases, not even a hijab can stand between the victim and the perpetrator.

There are so many heartbreaking and horrendous concerns that she shares, such as rape in its many forms and how it is handled. For example, where a girl or woman is raped, the punishment for the rapist is to marry her. This also serves to “save” the victim from committing a crime of honour. The few outcomes from reporting a crime of assault do not include true justice for the victim. They could be killed by their own family for bringing shame to the family. They could be sexually assaulted by the very police they run to.

Then there’s the purity culture. She discusses the obsession with virginity as well as the use of female genital mutilation to keep girls sexually in control and make them suitable for marriage. It’s so saddening how the mothers or the figures that these girls could run to are the same figures who are right there when it happens, accomplices to this crime.

I absolutely fell in love with all the feminists and figures that inspired her and the ones she mentions throughout the book, who protest and stand up against this overpowering and dangerous hand that is so determined to squash women, to silence and control them. I also love how she advocates sexual freedom. Eltahawy shows the importance of sexual liberation and how suppression through violence, through language and through practice creates a negative experience for women and problems when they need to voice these negative experiences.

Read the It’s Not About the Burqa review here.

This book is packed! It’s heavy but every bit of it is necessary and deserving to be said. There’s a whole lot more to discover, to learn, and to help rethink some of the ideas we have about female oppression and the role of feminism. I admire her level of bad-assery and her determination to speak up – loud and clear.

She does not limit such treatment of women to the Arab world and does state that it happens in many societies and cultures, but this is her focus, experience, and knowledge, and she does it incredibly well.

It’s a powerful read. It’s a must-have and worth revisiting.

Mona Eltahawy: Twitter

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence”

Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a novel set in a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife married to Richard, a Conservative Party politician. It’s the middle of June in London, after World War I. She is preparing for her party in the evening and begins with buying flowers in the morning for the event. A former suitor and old friend, Peter Walsh pays her an unexpected visit, a visit flooded with heavy emotion and related thoughts of each other.

The story shifts to a number of both related and unrelated characters, but the most prominent of these is shell-shocked War veteran Septimus Warren Smith. We see him waiting for his appointment, and later the visit to psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. Sir Bradshaw’s solution for the suicidal Septimus is to have him in a mental institution in the country. Later that day Septimus jumps out the window and kills himself.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The party guests include people from Clarissa’s past; Peter himself and the once-notorious friend from her youth, Sally, who arrives unexpectedly. Sir Bradshaw arrives late and his wife explains that it was due to a patient’s (Septimus) suicide earlier. Clarissa is not pleased with the news of the suicide being told at her party, but when she finds herself alone thinking about the suicide and her own life, she understands why the young man killed himself.

There are a number of issues explored in this novel, including the political air following the war and the British social system, but what stood out for me was the mental illness and internal struggles of the characters. In this single day of preparing for her party, we learn about who Mrs Dalloway is, through bits that are knitted from her past to the present, and the person she is when she’s with different people. There’s a tussle for balance between what goes on inside her and the reality in the external world, and the result is trouble with communicating what she truly feels. She makes up for this with, for example, giving a good party and being the perfect hostess.

Insanity

We also catch parts where she appears to be dissatisfied with her own appearance and qualities, where she compares herself to a woman she greatly admires a lot, whose qualities she considers ideal. Clarissa also goes through moments of travelling back to the past with questions and sometimes wishing to have a second chance to live her life again, differently.

Woolf’s writing is not linear and she connects all the dots that paint the whole picture of this particular day through minor characters and the atmosphere in London on that day, but the most distinctive (apart from Clarissa) is Septimus, a foil character. Septimus also gives a deep depiction of mental illness and a struggle with communication and inner turmoil. His mental state shows his internal disintegration as a result of the residues from the war, and his show of protest to being confined is through death, Mrs Dalloway understands how where she struggles to communicate, Septimus’s protest through suicide was his form of communication. She’s left feeling that, unlike him, she lives with this internal confinement and accepts it as her lot, her life as is.

Mrs Dalloway shows why Virginia Woolf was known as a ‘fine stylist’. This one day is neatly laid out into a full, satisfying, absorbing, and intelligent novel. It’s long enough to fill you up and short enough to maintain interest until the end.

Image: Britannica

The Things I Lost To The Silence

A short story

When Auntie died Mama stopped talking to my sister and me, for a week, three days and nine hours. When she heard the news, her phone slid off her slim long fingers and fell into the bowl of carefully chopped spinach that she was going to fry with red onions, garlic and tomatoes. A favourite.

Lulu quickly grabbed the phone, the voice on the other line repeating, ‘Hello? Miriam, are you still there?” But Miriam wasn’t there. She sat on the blue kitchen chair, the one with a shifting seat, and she was gone for a week, three days and nine hours.

Lulu told Uncle that Mama couldn’t come to the phone and promised she would get her to call him back. We don’t know if she heard Lulu tell her to call back, or if she heard us when we spoke to her that evening, the next morning, the whole of the next afternoon, until we gave up in the evening and avoided her silence.

In that week, those three days and nine hours she hardly ate and when we bumped into her and forced to look at her face, we noticed how the bags under her eyes were oppressed by something heavier than grief. If we did happen to lock eyes we saw the accusation, as though we had unknowingly conspired with death to take her sister away.

Each time she came home from the police station without a permit to go bury her sister, the silence took on more flesh, fattened its belly with the awkwardness that stretched its legs in our living room. We weren’t allowed to travel until the end of the Lockdown but the regulations did allow for a few people to travel between provinces for funerals and burials.

There was a time in that week, three days and nine hours when she looked like she was coming around, they had given her hope about the permit. We also felt that hope when for the first time after Auntie died, Mama cleaned the house and cooked a meal that tried. She still didn’t speak but we were hopeful. When she came back the next day, it wasn’t the permit that was the problem anymore and that wall that had slowly started to come down quickly rebuilt, higher and thicker. Only fifty people could attend a funeral and so, we’d find out after two weeks, three days and nine hours, just when Mama was about to get her permit the list of funeral attendees had been filled and submitted. She couldn’t go bury her sister.

*

Where she was you’d find me. Where she was and I wasn’t, was surely where I’d eventually be. Miriam and Ouma, three years apart but everyone called us twins. Our mother dressed us the same until we sort of became individuals with different shapes and tastes, and one too tall and skinny while the other petite, and so couldn’t always find clothes that matched. Nail on a finger. Tongue and saliva. Heart and blood. We shared trouble as we shared delights. Until she shared too much of my delight, grown women we already were and she took off with Mike who left me with the twins. No, Mike and I never were never married. No, we didn’t live together. Yes, we had only been seeing each other for a few months when I fell pregnant, what’s your point?

When he left I had the queasiness, the thickening waist and my stomach didn’t take too well to the smell of fried fish, cabbage or beer. Ouma said they had history way before we’d met, but I would’ve known because weren’t we as fused as blood and heart, saliva and tongue? I would have known. When I met Mike she was the first person I told and I thought the way she kept on scrubbing the same spot of a burnt porridge pot was only because she had to get it clean before our mother and father came home. When we lay on our thin mattress in the kitchen that night, as I tried to tell her I thought that she really was too tired to keep her eyes open although it was her ears I needed. She said she didn’t know how she could’ve told me when I’d been so excited. And so I didn’t speak to her, for a week, three days and nine hours.

*

When Auntie died Mama stopped talking to my sister and me, for a week, three days and nine hours. The silence couldn’t grow any further and the day it burst, she found us sitting outside hanging clothes on the line and asked, “How are you hanging so many bloomers at once, have you girls been keeping them in the basket again?” She was back but not fully back. A full return would’ve continued and scolded us, and dished out punishment that would last for a day or two. She quickly forgot about the bloomers and told us to wake her when supper was ready.

So many things had grown in the silence. Sometimes those things would break in through the window while we laughed and talked over a cup of tea or a bag of peanuts, and she’d stop mid-sentence and leave the room, only to return to us hours after we’d accepted she was gone again. Her coldness yo-yoed so much that a year or so that later when it stopped it made us uncomfortable. A year or so later, with neither hint nor warning, she returned to the mother who was chopping spinach which she was going to fry with red onion, garlic and tomatoes, just before that phone call. It made us crawl back into our shield and we avoided her because we didn’t know what to do with that mother. That mother would be followed by a week, three days and nine days of silence, and a year or so of a rickety home. A year or so later, was after we had gone home to visit Auntie’s grave. She’d gone alone ten times before we returned home, and that’s when she chopped spinach again and expected us to welcome its estranged taste.

*

For twelve years, I fed on the closeness of my daughters to remind me of the taste of what Ouma and I had had before their father left me. For twelve years, I’ve watched them become entwined, stitching into each other’s lives and beings. So, when the phone slid from my hand and fell into the bowl of spinach I’d just chopped, my eyes met them and all I saw was what I had lost, long before today and wouldn’t be able to get back. The fear of having to bear their bond while ours was lost clasped my teeth and neither word nor sound could reach them.

I chewed on so many thoughts from the past and each day I could feel the rotting chunks of if’s and could-haves growing blisters on my tongue. If she hadn’t wasted time chasing after Mike, who eventually left her as he had left me, we would’ve made time to stitch back what was broken. But what if they had loved each other even after he had left? That thought sat in my throat for twelve years and all I could give her was my silence.    

When we could finally travel, a year later, I went to see Ouma. There she was choked by the earth that buried her, no fresh flowers on the mountain that blanketed her bones. I went for ten days and each day I told her she needn’t have died for me to forgive her. With permission from time, we would have found our way back to what we had always been. We would have returned to what my girls have.

We’re back home and today I feel the wound accept itself as a wound. A wound I can strap on my back and carry with me wherever I go, and when it hurts a little more, I can rock it, sing a soft lullaby and hush it to sleep. A wound is better, way better than the cavity left behind by loss. A cavity dug by confusion, anger, misunderstanding, denial and all sorts of things the heart feels but doesn’t have names for.

If I carry it long enough it will outgrow the comfort of my back and bosom. So I picked up the chopping board, the knife and the bowl. When I cut up that spinach and asked the girls to bring the red onions, garlic and tomatoes, the wound left and re-invited that cavity. When the girls took steps away from me without moving I knew that while I chased Ouma’s vanishing footprints they had slowly grown tired of waiting for my return. The knife slid from my hand and fell into the bowl of chopped spinach and I knew I’d lost my girls to the silence.

My Book Wish List

Since my focus has been on reading more books by women, for women and about women, I’ve noticed how lacking my bookshelf is. It’s really not supporting my mission, so my collection is about to change. Some of the authors I’m adding to my wish list are popular and some I discovered through research.

Here are some of the books I want to add to my reading list.

Sojourner Truth

She was a women’s rights activist and abolitionist, who was born into slavery but managed to escape. The book I’m adding is The Book of Life.

“You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway”
― Sojourner Truth

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was a civil rights activist, feminist, poet and essayist. Some of her titles that I wish to read are; Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, and The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
― Audre Lorde

Alice Walker

Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet, essayist and activist. I want to read her famous book The Color Purple and some of her other works, Possessing the Secret of Joy and In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.

“Resistance is the secret of joy!”
― Alice Walker

Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler was a science fiction author and from her list I’m adding, Kindred, Parable of the Sower and Bloodchild.

“I found that I couldn’t muster any belief in a literal heaven or hell, anyway. I thought the best we could all do was to look after one another and clean up the various hells we’ve made right here on earth.”
― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents

Nawal al Saadawi

She is an Egyptian writer, feminist and psychiatrist. I want to read God Dies by the Nile, Woman at Point Zero and The Hidden Face of Eve.

“She is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it.”
— Nawal El Saadawi (Woman at Point Zero)

Roxane Gay

She’s a feminist, social commentator, editor, professor and writer. I am adding Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body and Ayiti.

“I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”
— Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist: Essays)

Betty Friedan 

Betty Friedan was a women’s rights activist, feminist and writer. I have always wanted to read her book, The Feminine Mystique and I am definitely adding it to my wish list.

“Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves? Who knows what women’s intelligence will contribute when it can be nourished without denying love?”
— Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique)

Ama Ata Aidoo

She is a playwright, poet and author. I’m adding The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, Changes: A Love Story and An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems.

“Humans, not places, make memories.”
— Ama Ata Aidoo

bell hooks

bell hooks is a feminist, social activist, professor and author. I want to read Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, and Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood.

“No black woman writer in this culture can write “too much”. Indeed, no woman writer can write “too much”…No woman has ever written enough.”
— bell hooks (remembered rapture: the writer at work)

Virginia Woolf

Woolf was an English 20th-century author and I’m adding A Room of One’s Own to my list.

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”
— Virginia Woolf 

Janet Mock

Janet Mock is a transgender rights activist, director, producer and writer. I want to read her book Redefining Realness.

“I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. – Janet Mock

Zora Neale Hurston

She was a writer and anthropologist, and it’s definitely time for me to read her book Their Eyes Were Watching God.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
— Zora Neale Hurston

Margaret Atwood

She is a literary critic, essayist, novelist, poet and activist. I also want to hop onto that The Handmaid’s Tale train, and add The Testaments while I’m at it.

“I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary.”
— Margaret Atwood

There are more authors I want to add, but as I keep reading and learning, I’ll keep adding more to my shelf. One can never read too many books. I’m excited and can’t wait.

What are you adding to your wish list?

It’s Not About the Burqa

Mariam Khan, freelance writer, editor and feminist, has compiled essays from seventeen Muslim women in the UK, who challenge some of the stereotypical views we have about Muslim women and their communities.

How many of us look at Muslim women and think of oppression, silence, abuse and misogyny? I read this book because I wanted to hear from the Muslim woman herself, and It’s Not About the Burqa, though not representing ALL Muslim women, shed light on many issues I had never thought about. Issues that a lot of us do not care to consider. The women in this collection speak about feminism, racism, sex, sexuality, faith and other issues that concern Muslim women in the West.

Some of them take us through a journey of how they found their voice, and how they shed identities that were given to them by the communities they came from and the ones stamped on them by the rest of society. Sufiya Ahmed shares her experience of discovering Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, Khadija bint Khuwalid, who was not a silenced and oppressed housewife, but rather a successful businesswoman and the wealthiest merchant in Mecca at the time. Not only do you find such stories in the history of Islam women, but the essayists share how the Quran, contrary to the spread laws or rules of tyrannising women, supports and empowers women.

What I found the most interesting is how these Muslim women discuss the balance between identities, and how they’re expected to only be one thing, get rid of one to become the other. Things such as being queer and Muslim, being feminist and Muslim or being black and Muslim. I had never thought about it that much but it made me realise how mainstream feminism can be so damaging instead of freeing. For example, one essayist discussss how feminism talks about equality and liberation of all women, and yet will expect a Muslim woman to choose between her faith and being a feminist, which becomes pointless because it is doing the very thing it claims to fight against.

There’s also so much about how representation of Muslim women has gone wrong, in the way that it’s done by fashion designers, or on magazine covers, where what they are doing is representing a Western model and ideal of a hijabi. There is also the idea of representing only what Muslim women look like but when they have to speak for themselves, their vocal representation is not given a platform.

It’s Not About the Burqa also challenges members of their communities themselves, to stop doing things that give the rest of the world the wrong perception of the religion, giving them even more armour to attack their identities and their faith. They do not deny the existence of things such as misogyny, as they do exist in so many other cultures and religious communities.

I appreciate the honesty of the essayists in admitting their inability to speak for all Muslim women, because it’s impossible. They’re all different, from different communities and with different experiences and cultures. However, as Muslim women they should be able to create a platform where Muslim women are not spoken for. We cannot say Muslim women are silenced by their religion yet not give them a platform to speak.

This is a well written, edifying, enlightening and empowering book. It’s also light, you can breeze through it, it doesn’t burden you with complaints and noise. No, it’s bold and it challenges the narrative about Muslim women.

I want to say feminists will love this, which they’ll do, but I think anyone with good sense and who wants to see all people given a chance to be fairly represented, seen and heard will enjoy this.

It’s really not about the burqa, or the hijab, abaya or dupatta. It’s so much more.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila

‘The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria’

Two years after Book Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls, Helon Habila travels to Chibok town, in Northern Nigeria, to track down the survivors and the bereaved families of the girls. On 14 April 2014, this once peaceful and sleepy town was rattled by the terrorist group Boko Haram when they took the girls, with only a few managing to escape on the way. When Habila visits the town he witnesses how ruined, sad, and depressing the place is – bullet holes on some houses, some roofs still burned down, and the abandoned street sides. It’s also not easy to get into Chibok as access is restricted.

On the day they took them, the Boko Haram members told the girls that they were soldiers, there to protect them from the terrorist group, and herded them into trucks. When Habila returns the second time to meet the girls who’d managed to jump off the trucks, they tell how the terrorists called them infidels and that they ought to be married. The terrorist’s ideology is against most aspects of modernization, Western influence, including Western education.

Habila’s account of this tragedy includes the state the parents are in. Some have died from stress-related illnesses, while some have carried funeral rites, seeking closure. Helon Habila also goes to the place that is the Heartland of Boko Haram and visits some of the landmarks in the Boko Haram war. His investigation has heart-breaking results, some revealing the state of displaced women in refugee camps, not all refugees but some are housewives impoverished by the war.

I learned a lot from this short yet powerful book. Habila’s account of this tragic story enlightens us on not only the kidnappings but also the way it was handled, the lack of concern for the masses, the manner in which an intense and sensitive issue like this can be mishandled in a place that is rife with corruption and focused on showcasing itself as an economic success.

Reading The Chibok Girls has also highlighted how the effects of terrorism spread out beyond the victims themselves. There’s a continuous pain that is left behind, permanent for most. There are still over a hundred girls missing, and the ones who were released carry scars with them. These girls were forced into sex slavery, starved, raped, abused, impregnated… I also learned how vulnerable women and girls are in times of war. However, another thing we may overlook, which I gathered from the account of one of the girls who managed to escape from the trucks, is how young boys are also recruited into the terrorist group and trained and turned into killers.

This is a heart-rending yet necessary book. In the midst of tired and recycled stories told in news reports, The Chibok Girls is much needed.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I Am So into Women

Exploring Women in Literature

I recently visited one of my favourite bookstores (where they’re a quarter-to giving me a mattress and a blanket), looking for non-fiction books by women. Bookstores are usually therapeutic for me, but this time I left frustrated and disappointed. In 2020, a lot of books I find by women are mostly fiction books. I don’t know how the stats stand but I later went to a bigger store, that has way more titles and I had the same experience.

I was looking for female non-fiction because I wanted to hear the voice of someone whose experiences I can relate to. We know that historically women have been kept out of everything and have had to fight to break down walls and burn gates. We’ve been misled to believe that men are the ones who created and shaped the arts, and well, everything in this world. It’s not that women never had anything to contribute, they were just not allowed to do it, they were not allowed to even dream of doing anything but stand and watch.

I spent a little time in the Classics section and was surrounded by Plato, Aurelius, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Twain, Salinger, Orwell, Achebe, Mphahlele and many others. Yes, there was Shelley, Woolf, the Brontës, Rand, Dickinson, and a few more, but the gap was still big. Male authors still dominate bookshelves. Even when I moved to business and self-help, the highly praised books are from names like Kiyosaki, Carnegie, Hill, Gladwell, and a million others. This is also frustrating because as great as these books are, when we women read them we often have to find ways to alter the message to make it apply to us, and sometimes, given the challenges we have, it is close to impossible.   

So all this frustration led me to think about what it is I want to read, what kind of messages I want to collect, what kind of solutions I’m looking for, and who I should get them from. I do not disregard men’s work, not at all. I have read many books by men that have helped me improve my life in tremendous ways.

However, I love the voice of women. I want to hear women and I want to hear about them. I want to read women. Give me women, please! I have read so many books by men with families whose success stories show that they were able to do things, have the time and energy to do them because their partners were taking care of everything else. I want to read about that woman, with kids and a home to run, and how she did or does it.

It’s not just in self-development books or classics. Across genres, the same problem exists. And so, on my quest to find these intelligent, brave, successful women, I’m going on a quest to read more women’s books.

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I want to read their biographies, their poetry, their tragedies and achievements, their struggles, and their successes. But I will not limit myself to only those stories, I do believe that there are male writers who have supported the voice of women in literature and there are men who have portrayed powerful and positive images of women. I am for that.

I don’t want any of that damsel-in-distress bullshit. I want to see women characters who show real women who don’t need to be saved. I want to dissect this vexatious yet interesting area of literature. The world should be seen through the eyes of the very people who live in it. Women, as members of society, should be able to express their existence in the same way as men do. In this open and inclusive manner, we can fully understand the world and understand each other.

When I made this decision, I went through my own shelf and saw how male-dominated it is. I’m ashamed. Honestly.

So I don’t think I’ll be able to read or write about women in literature following historical timeline. It will be challenging to find relevant books if I do it that way and it will be boring. Instead, I’m starting where I am, and from the unread books I have, what better way to start with women from cultures, traditions, and religions that are known or said to be oppressive? We’ll figure it out through the readings. So my first part will be on Muslim Women in Literature.

I have, on my shelf:

  • It’s Not About the Burqa edited by Mariam Khan
  • Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila (I said I’ll include a few men who do justice to women’s voices
  • Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
I have no idea how that book ended up upside-down 🤦🏿‍♀️

I’m starting with Muslim women because, I already have these books so it was an obvious choice, and also, because it’s so easy for the rest of us to look at Muslim women and conclude that they’re oppressed and miserable. I’d rather find out first, preferably, from them.

So, here we go.

I’ll repost the review of Infidel. I had already started The Chibok Girls and stopped because it was depressing, but it’s short and I’m almost done. And I don’t think there’s time to be depressed, if you go into something that talks about injustice, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, abuse…it will be depressing. It’s inevitable.

So let’s do this.

To women!

Poetry: Divan of Shah by Shah Asad Rizvi

 “Gratitude

is the key

to all doors

of peace.”

Divan of Shah is a collection of poetry that explores the dance of love, life, consciousness, and all things that truly matter. It’s been long since I’ve read poetry that doesn’t sound like its authors attended the same workshop, so reading this was refreshing.

The collection is made up of just a little over a hundred poems, with structures that bounce from short to long, and breaks of wise and beautiful quotes. This tender anthology is an honest display of love in its rawness and vulnerability.

The poems take us into a bold journey of love – a love of life, of self and other. There are some elegant and exquisite poems that I found deeply romantic and mood-elevating. There’s a lot of dance in the poems and when you drink enough to understand the context you’ll find how well he writes about dance beyond the physical. There’s the experience of dance within, of feeling, of the soul, and celebrating the dance of life as a gift.

“One step at a time

stumbling on struggles

and courage turns the tide,

we dance the dance of life”

It is quite long, and it took me double the time I’d thought it would take me. However, if it’s not borrowed then there is no need to hurry it. Take sips of it and enjoy every depth and breadth of it.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

You can sit with us.