Virago is a British publishing company, founded in 1973, with the intention of giving voice and publishing presence to female authors. Since then, the mission statement has expanded to include authors and reprinted works with a broader positive intention; LGBTQ texts; books written by non-binary authors; works which reflect a diversity of neurological conditions and mental illnesses; and lots more. You can find Virago online here, where they have a fascinating timeline of their own history.
Virago recently released their #BooksForChange initiative on twitter, to get people talking and sharing ideas and recommendations for books that changed their lives. So today, I’m sharing the list they published with some of my own answers- it’s supposed to be a month-long challenge, so today I’m going to write up the first seven and next week you’ll see the next seven, and so on. Basically, be prepared for a bit of a ramble.
ONE – The book that made me a feminist: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.
I don’t think that there is any one book that made me a feminist. My feminism is part of my broader beliefs, as a Socialist. The equality of genders is part and parcel of my belief that all beings are born equal, regardless of gender identity, sexuality, race, ability, legal status etc. So, instead, I’ve listed the book that made me feel both more consciously, actively feminist, but also more comfortable in my feminism.
Sylvia Plath made me more aware that feminism didn’t need to be a bad word, and that being an angry, fight-y woman was important. It made me feel secure in my own beliefs, and in my own mind. This book also reminds me that politics is not always fought on a barricade; it is most often fought in your own mind, and in the minds of those around you whom you can reach and influence. Politics is not always a stage, but is instead present in every decision you make, and every word you write. It reminds me that you aren’t always able to stand up and shout, and that you don’t need to feel guilty if you can’t. It reminds me that there are many fights, and that they are all good fights.
TWO – Hidden from history: Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It
The title is too perfect to resist.
Sheila Rowbotham is an academic legend and a huge hero of mine. in this book she explores the different effects that changes in the process of production have on middle-class and working-class women; why birth control and the organisation of working women have been perceived as threatening to traditional male control of the family; how paid work and work in the home are intricately related and determine the social valuation of women – and why these and similar issues have continued to arise in different forms throughout modern history.
If this seems like it might be a bit heavy to get into, you could try her more recent, more accessible work Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century.
THREE – Stories of girlhood: Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
I often found stories of ‘girlhood’ or ‘childhood’ desperately boring, even when I was a child. This is the best kind of girlhood, because it documents all the points that it becomes difficult; Cassandra is still young, but fights against a genteel poverty, against expectations of her family, against a distant and strange father, against the difficulty of new love and fresh feelings, and she comes out of it so whole, and so much more self-assured. It’s genuinely touching, and even though it is a kind of coming-of-age, end-of-innocence story, the protagonist’s unique character and compellingly unusual way of thinking make this book feel very youthful.
You can find a much fuller review of I Capture the Castle here, which I wrote a few months back.
FOUR – Read in one sitting: Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
I didn’t predict the twist, and that made this book genuinely mind-altering. I’m not going to go into any detail, to protect you from spoiling this book. I usually hate hyperbole in reviews, and try really hard not to fall into that trap, but this was a genuinely unexpected 180-degree turnaround. After the dots connected in my brain, there was no way I was putting this book down.
It’s a story of family dynamics in mid-90s America, with weird individuals and the strikingly-described settings of university campuses and middle-class homes. It’s about a family which doesn’t talk about the fact that protagonist Rosemary’s sister, Fern, is gone. Not missing, or lost, or dead. Gone. Rosemary doesn’t talk about her family with anyone, until now. She’d like to see her brother more often too.
FIVE – #ShePersisted: Coretta Scott King, My Life, My Love, My Legacy
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
I’m sure you already know, but this quote originated recently, when Sen. Jeff Sessions attempted to quash opposition in the Senate. Specifically, Senator Elizabeth Warren stood to read the letter written Civil Right’s activist Coretta Scott King about Sessions, in King she explained:
“Mr. Sessions’ conduct as a U.S. Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.”
NPR, the Guardian, and other newspapers have made King’s statement available to read online; try here to get the whole document. The attempt to ‘silence’ someone as important as Warren for acting within her powers as a Senator is as frightening as it is infuriating, and it is a powerful symbol of the autocratic tendencies of Trump’s administration. The power behind persisting should never be underestimated, and it should never be forgotten in history. Indeed, Coretta Scott King’s book is a lesson in persistence, and how it shapes your legacy and future politics.
SIX – Favourite First Line: Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace
“Here then is where our story starts, in a run-down theatre on the Rue de Temple, with a boy called Yann Margoza, who was born with a gift for knowing what people were thinking, and an uncanny ability to throw his voice.”
SEVEN – Short Stories: Shirley Jackson
I’ve talked about Shirley Jackson a lot on this blog, which is surprising because she’s still relatively new to me. There’s something about her writing that appeals to me far more than any one author has done before- the wistful, if angry, magical realism and the stifled, aggressive female characters, probably. Usually, I fall for individual books, and I find it difficult to say that I enjoy or support the entire publication history of any one author.
“Grace Paley once described the male-female writer phenomenon to me by saying, “Women have always done men the favor of reading their work, but the men have not returned the favor.” -Jackson
Shirley Jackson was bad-tempered, mean, obsessive, controlling and she wrote in no small part out of a sense of dissatisfaction for the world around her, and a spite directed at the environment that she felt was letting her down. She hated small-town mentalities, and pettiness. She hated anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism and misogyny because she couldn’t understand how anyone could begin to discriminate on such meaningless details.
Her short stories are marvellous. The most famous is probably The Lottery, which was published in 1948. It’s quintessential Jackson, featuring a creepy New England town rife with close-minded suspicion and bizarre ritualistic behaviour. It’s a little bit Stephen King, it’s a little bit Kafka, and it’s totally terrifying because she makes it so much more plausible than either of those two could. Her writing rings with the truth of someone who has lived these circumstances- if not necessarily the horror, then at least the surroundings and the people and the mentalities. Short stories are dismissed so often by our value-for-money society, and by the intellectual snobbery which still prizes verbosity over meaningfulness. Overturn that snobbery, and introduce yourself to Shirley Jackson. They’re short stories, so it won’t even take long.
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