Excellent Books About Unforgettable Women #WomensHistoryMonth on #WorldBookDay

Today I saw the twitter hashtags #WorldBookDay and #WomensHistoryMonth prompting some interesting references to notable women, so I decided to look back at books I have read and reviewed here at Word by Word and show you a selection that highlight a few important women in our recent history, some you may not have heard of, all of whom have made significant contributions to our world. Click on the headings to read the reviews and share your recommendations.

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, Wangari Maathai

The first woman who came to mind and whose book I want to recommend is Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, One Woman’s Story. Kenyan and one of a group of young African’s selected to be part of the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ , she and others were given the opportunity to gain higher education in the US and to use their education to contribute to progress in their home countries. Maathai was a scientist, an academic and an activist, passionate about sustainable development; she started the The Greenbelt Movement, a tree planting initiative, which not only helped save the land, but empowered local women to take charge of creating nurseries in their villages, thereby taking care of their own and their family’s well-being.

“We worried about  their access to clean water,  and firewood,  how they would feed their children,  pay their school fees,  and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had a choice: we could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could  try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in. This was not a remote problem for us. The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived. We owed it to them to do all we could.”

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, which motivated this story to be written thanks to others who pushed her to share it, thankfully, for she was an extraordinary and inspirational woman, who sadly passed away from ovarian cancer in 2011.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks is perhaps one of the most famous women we’d never heard of, a woman who never knew or benefited from her incredible contribution to science and humanity. A young mother in her 30’s, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and despite being eligible for and receiving medical care at the John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, a medical facility funded and founded to ensure equal access no matter their race, status, income or other discriminatory reason, she died soon after.

Before treatment, samples of her healthy and cancerous cells were taken, part of a research initiative in search of ‘immortal cells’ that could be continuously replicated. It had never been done before, until now – the newly named HeLa cells would become one of medicine’s significant advances.

Rebecca Skloot heard about the HeLa cells in biology class in 1988, became fascinated by them, she focused her research on finding out about the woman behind this important advance in medical science. This book tells her story and rightly attributes her a place in history.

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was a university student at Oxford when World War 1 began to decimate the lives of youth, family and friends around her. It suspended her education and resulted in her volunteering as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. Initially based in a military hospital in London, events would propel her to volunteer for a foreign assignment, taking her to Malta and then close to the front line in France for the remaining years of the war.

Her memoir is created from fragments of her diaries, sharing the angst and idealism of youth, and later looking back from the wisdom of middle age, for she was 40 years old before her tome was published.

War changed her, she could no longer tolerate the classrooms of Oxford and the contempt of a new youth.

‘I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and ‘stand-offish’ to my ruthless and critical juniors.’

She changed her focus from literature to history, in an effort to understand and participate in any action that might prevent humanity from making the same terrible mistakes that had caused the loss of so many lives. She became an international speaker for the League of Nations.

The book was made into a dramatic film of the same name in 2014.

Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is best known for her incredible series of seven autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), narrating her life up to the age of 17. She became a writer after a number of varied occupations in her youth.

This book was her last memoir, not one in the series, but one that could only be written from afar, from the wisdom of 80 years, when she could look back at a torturous youth, at a neglectful mother and see her with love, compassion and forgiveness.

‘Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.’

Stet, An Editors Life, Diana Athill

Diana Athill OBE (born 21 Dec 1917) is someone I think of as the ordinary made extraordinary. She was a fiction editor for most of her working life, forced into earning a living due to circumstance, for while her great-grandparents generation had made or married into money, her father’s generation lost it. She clearly remembers her father telling her ‘You will have to earn your living’ and that it was something almost unnatural at the time.

War removed her chance at marriage and she appeared to reject it after that, revelling in her freedom and independence, though others suggest she was scarred by the intensity and pain of her first relationship. While the first part of the book focuses on her life, the second half recalls some of the relationships she developed with writers over the years, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane.

The more extraordinary era of her life was still to come, for in her 80’s she began to write memoir, and achieve notable success, her book Somewhere Towards The End won the Costa Prize for Biography in 2008. Now 100 years old, she hasn’t stopped writing yet.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Diana Athill: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people’
The former editor on regrets, the advantages of old age and why she’s still writing at 100

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Have you read any good books about notable women we might remember for #WomensHistoryMonth?

Buy a copy of one of these books via BookDepository

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.

 

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit writes reflective, thought-provoking essays, which often connect her intellectual curiosity with where she is in her life now. In an earlier work Wanderlust, she ponders the history of walking as a cultural and political experience; facing the unknown, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost; her mother’s Alzheimer’s, regression and how she spent that final year in The Faraway Nearby.

Now a new collection of essays, the title The Mother of All Questions, from an introductory piece on one of her pet frustrations, that all time irrelevant question that many professional women, whether they are writer’s, politicians or humble employees too often get asked.

But it is the timely and questioning opening essay ‘A Short History on Silence’ that  binds the collection together and should be the question being asked. It is an attempt at a history of silence, in particular the silencing of women, the effect of patriarchal power, the culpability of institutions, universities, the court system, the police, even families, their roles in continuing to ensure women’s silence over the continual transgressions of men.

Rebecca Solnit has been writing about this issue for many years, trying to create a public conversation on a subject that many continued to insist was a personal problem – yet another form of silencing.

As she wrote in Wanderlust (2000)

“It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness out of doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wished to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem.”

She makes a distinction between silence being that which is imposed and quiet being that which is sought.

What is left unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in the words on the page…Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history’

The list of who has been silenced goes right back to the dawn of literature, it goes back millennia, classics scholar Mary Beard noted that silencing women begins almost as soon as Western literature does, in the Odyssey, with Telemachus telling his mother to shut up.

It continues through the years with the woman’s exclusion from education, from the right to vote, to making or being acknowledged for making scientific discoveries to campus rape and the introduction of sexual harassment guidelines as law and the unleashing of stories and the wave of voices coming out of silence that sharing on social media has spawned, generating a fiercely lively and unprecedented conversation.

80 Books No Woman Should Read is her response to a list published by Esquire magazine of a list they created of 80 books every man should read, a list of books, seventy-nine of which were written by men, with one by Flannery O’Connor. It speaks of the reader’s tendency to identify with the protagonist, only the books she mentions from this list that she has read, she often identifies, not with the protagonist but with the woman, noticing that some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.

Not surprisingly, her essay (first published at Lithub.com) elicited a significant online response, prompting a reply from Esquire, admitting they’d messed up, saying their article had rightfully been called out for its lack of diversity, and proactively inviting eight female literary powerhouses, from Michiko Kakutani to Anna Holmes to Roxanne Gay, to help them create a new list. You can see the list here.

And in the essay In Men Explain Lolita to Me she expounds further on empathy:

‘This paying attention is the foundational act of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one’s own, of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own experience. There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance to cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.’

I haven’t read Men Explain Things to Me, although I heard Rebecca Solnit speak about the leading and infamous anecdote it retells when I went to listen to her at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

That talk coincided with the publication of  The Faraway Nearby (link to review) the book that traverses her uneasy relationship with her mother and how the approach of death forces her to contemplate it, how it may have shaped her. I liked the book, but I loved listening to the author in person, she has such an engaging presence, is a captivating speaker, a performer of the reflective and spontaneous.

The Mother of All Questions is a culmination of Solnit’s and many women’s frustrations in the world today, where being a woman living in a patriarchal culture, no matter which part of the world, brings challenges that must reach a breaking point. It is a conversation that is happening everywhere that hopefully will bring change for the better, as many voices come together in solidarity. It is an acknowledgement both of how far we have come and how much we have still to do, to change the culture of silence we have inhabited for too long, to safely be ourselves.

I highly recommend picking up one of her works, if you haven’t yet read her.

Light is the New Black by Rebecca Campbell

If you have achieved things because you were capable, but they left you feeling unfulfilled, if you’ve ever felt as though there is something else you are supposed to be doing in this life but didn’t know exactly what, if you enjoy the feeling of being guided by your intuition when it proves to be spot on, if you sense that we are more than just a physical body here for one lifetime, then this book will appeal to you.

Rebecca Campbell was born in Australia and had a traditional upbringing and education before moving to London to pursue a career in creative direction in the advertising industry.

Since she was young, she had always been interested in a more spiritual perspective of existence, thus while gathering her more traditional qualifications, she took every opportunity to read, study and attend events related to that interest.

She had only one friend her own age Blair, whom she could speak candidly about her  spiritual life and in 2011 she received a call to say he had been diagnosed with an incurable leukaemia. It was one of a series of events that occurred at that time, that would trigger her to quit her job and seriously begin to put her heartfelt callings of the soul ahead of her ego-lead rationalisations of the intellect. Once she’d decided not just to listen to this yearning, but to act on it, doors opened and opportunities arose, as if they’d all just been waiting for her to show up and become available to them.

“My inner light was burning bright. I was home. Now that I had found it, there was no way I was going to let it go. I vowed to say ‘YES’ to every little call from my soul, regardless of how much logical sense it made. I vowed to do everything I could, never to turn my back on myself again.”

In Light is the New Black, she shares what happened around her when she decided to stop ignoring those signs and synchronicities and followed the quiet inner voice of her intuition to make the shift which has led her to become the inspirational writer, speaker, spiritual mentor and intuitive guide and teacher she is today.

What began as a collection of Rebecca’s Thoughts that she shared on Instagram, morphed into this book, where she shares moments of her life that she now recognises as being part of the invitation to make a shift, of her awakening to a more soul centred way of being in the world.

“There is a shift happening right now where anything inauthentic can no longer survive. The things in our lives that don’t serve us are crumbling. Relationships, jobs, social structures, or anything built on shaky ground is destined to tumble down. It’s happening to bring  us back home to who we truly are, so we can live a life that is in alignment with who we truly are, and who we came here to be.  But when you’re in the thick of it, it can feel like a personal attack from the Universe.”

In effect, listening to that voice within, developing it, following its guidance and surrounding ourselves with others who understand it, is about taking steps towards raising our own consciousness to a higher vibration and when we do that there is a ripple effect, on others around us, which in turn helps raise the consciousness of the planet.

We all know that feeling of despair at the problems of the world, of the planet and our own obstacles and challenges, and while we may think there is little we can do to help the planet, raising our consciousness and listening to our intuition from a viewpoint of doing no harm and having intentions for the highest good of all, is indeed something.

It is not necessary to know what our purpose is, or even to know what steps we must take, we have to learn to get out of our own way, to stop trying to decide and force the outcome, quiet the mind and allow that voice of intuition to guide us to the next step.

Rebecca Campbell #LightIsTheNewBlack

“You can’t hear the calling of your soul if you don’t create space in your day to listen to it.”

The best way to create the space for listening with a quiet mind is to have a regular meditation practice, any meditation practice, you start with something and if it suits you stick with it, if it feels hard and isn’t conducive to you wanting to do it every day, find another one. The important thing is to show up. Every day. Rebecca Campbell (and many other intuitives) see meditation as one of their non-negotiables. I totally agree. Meditation is a mind medicine, it’s a little bit magic.

Personally I never sit in the lotus position, I sit in a chair, lie on my bed, I can be anywhere, just close my eyes , open my meditation app, allow thoughts to come and go, opening to the allure of emptiness, that space that opens the channel to guidance.

“Don’t be attached to the outcome. Your job is to work out the what. The Universe’s job is to work out the how.”

This is an excellent book, with so many snippets of advice for learning how to get more into alignment with your life purpose, in other words, just being who you really are, not hiding your light under a bushel, breaking off the straight-jacket of conformity in the eyes of our culture, society and other people’s expectations, which we so often conform to at the expense of being ourselves.

“When we are in alignment, everything flows. When we are out of alignment, there’s a feeling that something isn’t quite right.”

I loved this book, I can relate to making a significant change in how I wanted to live my life and spend my working days, leaving behind my traditional education (a degree in Commerce/Marketing/Economics) and corporate job in my twenties to pursue a year of studies (in London) in things that I loved and wanted to be doing and learning forever; I studied Traditional Chinese Medicine & Aromatherapy, Therapeutic Massage, did a course in Creative Writing and another in Setting up a Small Business. I followed what lit me up and tried hard to let go of the expectations attached to the traditional education I’d had. And then spent years trying to fully embrace it, I wish I’d read this book back then.

Perhaps living far from home makes it easier to do this, I remember that I kept my interests and studies hidden from my family during this time, mainly because I could only afford to ingest encouragement and not fear or questioning about what I was doing or where it was leading. I just knew that I had to do it, that I wanted to do it and that all would become clearer as I progressed. I needed the freedom to pursue this mix of interests without anyone feeding negative or fear driven thoughts into it. And I didn’t want to be doing a job just because I was capable of it. I’m still learning that lesson!

Highly Recommended!

I’m definitely going to read her next book, Rise Sister Rise: A Guide to Unleashing the Wise, Wild Woman Within which focuses more on the rise of the feminine, on those aspects of women that have been long suppressed by the patriarchal model we have lived under for eons and how the world is beginning to change as more women connect and together begin to heal those ancient wounds, to value once more that innate wisdom of the feminine.

“It’s about co-creating a whole new archetype of woman – a woman who does not keep herself small in order to make others feel more comfortable.”

Buy a Copy of One of Rebecca Campbell’s books via Book Depository

Claudine and Annie (Book 4) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After her abrupt departure from Paris back to her father’s home in Montigny, to the village home where she grew up, I was curious to know what was to come of our troubled Claudine and her errant husband.

It was something of a surprise to realise that in this fourth book, we are back in Paris, but in the home and seeing through the eyes of a weeping Annie who is the narrator of this fourth book in The Complete Claudine series.

Annie is weeping because her husband of four years Alain, whom she known since she a child and rarely left his side, is about to depart on a boat for Brazil, due to notice of a recent inheritance which necessitates his going there to relinquish assets, prize bulls or something or other!

“Before I had turned thirteen, he was already the master of my life. Such a handsome master! A red-haired boy, with a skin whiter than an egg and blue eyes that dazzled me.”

Annie writes in beautiful notebook he gave her for the purpose of keeping her ‘Diary of his journey’. She reads the list of duties he drew up for her, with his usual solicitous firmness, in which we see reference to Claudine among those she has permission to call on and with which frequency:

“Only one call on Claudine and her husband. Too fantastically unconventional a couple for a young woman to frequent while her husband is away on a long journey.”

However he is more than happy that she spend time with his sister Marthe, about whom he writes:

“My dear Annie will give me much pleasure if she frequently consults my sister Marthe and goes out with her. Marthe has a great deal of good sense and even common-sense under her rather unconventional exterior.”

Annie’s perception of herself at the beginning is defined only in terms of her husband, and her husband’s interests are solely related to himself and how he wishes her to be.

“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”

She even goes so far to refer to herself, as if it were a term of endearment as his ‘little slave girl’, a term her husband often called her, of course he says it without malice, with only a faint contempt for my dark-skinned race.

This passive, domestic Annie, grieving for her master husband is something of a disappointment, after the more confident, sensuous and outspoken Claudine, but I’m thankful there is at least an acquaintance, which promises Annie’s potential awakening.

In fact, Annie’s awakening and change in perception begins, soon after, when her sister-in-law makes an unkind comment on a portrait of her brother, likening him to a cockerel, an image thereafter Annie finds hard to remove from her mind, it serves to lift a little the blinkers from her view of this husband.

Parisian friends depart for the summer, to a thermal spa for the cure, to the annual opera festival in Germany, and it is here we see glimpses of Claudine and her husband, showing her grown in confidence within her marriage, having negotiated a way to curb their potentially destructive impulses.

Marthe’s husband is a novelist she continuously pushes to write faster, to hurry deadlines to meet the many financial commitments required to keep their lifestyle in the lavish manner she is accustomed to.

While Annie is able to confide in Claudine, the behaviour of her sister-in-law is too much for her and she decides to return to Paris to consider and prepare for the return of her husband, to make sense of how his absence has changed her.

“To free myself from the obsession – was it really to free myself?…I jumped out of bed and ran to look for Alain’s latest photograph that I had hidden between two sachets.

Whatever had happened? Was I actually dreaming? I could not recognise that handsome young man there. Those harsh eyebrows, that arrogant stance like a cock! No, surely I was mistaken or perhaps the photographer had absurdly overdone the re-touching?

But no, that man there was my husband who is far away at sea. I trembled before his picture as I tremble before myself. A slavish creature, conscious of its chains – that is what he has made of me ..Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory of our past as a young married couple that could delude me again, that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”

Colette and Willy

Claudine and Annie is very different to the first three books and while I don’t know why Colette turned to an alternative narrator and wrote about such a submissive character, it makes me ponder a corollary with her own life, as she was a free-spirited child, close to nature, who married young to an older man, who put her to work on these novels.

It is said she was no great writer initially, but that he turned her into one, locking her in her room until she turned out something, which he faithfully edited and published in his own name. After thirteen years of such an apprenticeship, she was undoubtedly disillusioned, divorced him and then fought to be recognised for the work she had produced. She was also determined not to be financially dependent on a man.

Claudine and Annie strikes me as a novel of resistance, but using a character that is almost unrecognisable, the alter-ego of Colette perhaps, that aspect of her that was suppressed and oppressed all those years, whose slow awakening allowed her to see that man before her for who he really was, her slave master.

I was asked which of the series had been my favourite and I find I am really unable to choose as they go together so well and should be read as one.

Clearly, as this review suggests, the first three have a particular harmony as they are all narrated by Claudine and more centred around her life and growth, this fourth book is less about Claudine and we see her only from afar, as a confidante of the troubled Annie, however it deserves its place as I suspect there is more to Annie than the character on the page, for me it was read with a question hanging over it in relation to the life Colette was living at the time.

I loved Claudine at School for her exuberant overconfidence and love of nature, Claudine in Paris for her naivety and prudence, realising there was much about life she had still to learn and Claudine Married for the melancholy of marriage, of the realisation of her false ideals and indulgence of strong emotional impulses.

And where to from here? Well, I will be continuing to read a few more women in translation during August, but will also be looking out for La Maison de Claudine (My Mother’s House), a memoir of Sido (her mother) and her own provincial childhood.

Further Reading

An Introduction to the Author, Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 3 – Claudine Married

Claudine at School (Book 1) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

In the young Claudine, the author Colette (who we met in my earlier post An Introduction to Colette), introduces us to a tomboyish, nature loving, confident girl raised without a mother, cared for in some respects by a maid, just as she had turned fifteen and is finishing her last year in school, with external exams approaching.

“Two months ago, when I turned fifteen and let down my skirts to my ankles, they demolished the old school and changed the headmistress. The long skirts were necessitated by my calves; they attracted glances and were already making me look too much like a young lady.”

Her father is an eccentric, slug loving academic, with his head in his manuscript on the Malacology of the Region of Fresnois, who seems barely to notice that there is a girl turning into a young woman in his midst.

“He is entirely wrapped up in his work and it never occurs to him that I might be more suitably brought up in a convent or in some Lycée or other. There’s no danger of my opening his eyes!”

While she excels at school with little effort, she is rebellious, provocative, manipulative and despite the trouble she causes and schemes she comes up with, there is no other place, except perhaps the woods, that she would rather be. School excites her, not for its lessons, but for the human drama that there is an endless supply of, and the chance for her imagination to stretch its bounds.

“Those French compositions, how I loathe them! Such stupid and disgusting subjects: “Write, so as to draw to your own physical and moral portrait, to a brother whom you have not seen for ten years;” (I have no fraternal bonds, I am an only child.) No one will ever know the efforts I have to make to restrain myself from writing pure spoof or highly subversive opinions! But, for all that, my companions – all except Anais – make such a hash of it that, in spite of myself I am the ‘outstanding pupil in literary composition’.”

Claudine develops an attachment to one of the Assistant teachers, nineteen year old Aimée and in order to spend more time with her exclusively, organises private English lessons at home. This seems to turn the new Headmistress against her even more so than was initially apparent, revealing a complex female tension within the school, tolerated only because of the Headmistress’s special relationship to the District Superintendent of Schools.

Her closest companion might be her beautiful intelligent cat Fanchette, who loves her disinterestedly, despite the miseries she inflicts on her.

“You amused me from the moment you came into the world; you’d only got one eye open when you were already attempting warlike steps in your basket, though you were still incapable of standing up on your four matchsticks. Ever since, you’ve lived joyously, making me laugh with your belly dances in honour of cockchafers and butterflies, your clumsy calls to the birds you’re stalking, your way of quarrelling with me and giving me sharp taps re-echo on my hands. Your behaviour is quite disgraceful: two or three times a year I catch you on the garden walls, wearing a crazy, ridiculous expression, with a swarm of tomcats around you.”

The year passes with the continued dramas between the students, Claudine reconciles herself to friendship with Luce, the younger sister of Aimée, who complains incessantly of mistreatment by her older sister, whose sole attentions are for the Headmistress.

The girls take the train to go and sit their exams, requiring an overnight stay in another town and the daily stress of being called to present for the oral part of the exams, waiting for the night-time listing of who has been called back to present and at the end who has passed.

Never one to conform, Claudine refuses to take part in some of the collective activities and amuses herself by sneaking out and finding her way unaided to friends of the family, who are both shocked and delighted to receive her. Her somewhat privileged life, bereft of expectation, serve to make her school days full of opportunity to exercise her wit, charm, cunning and mild cruelty against her teachers and with her fellow pupils, as she proves herself more than a match for them all.

Her carefree days are about to come to an end however, as her father makes plans for them to move to Paris, the subject of the second novel in this volume The Complete Claudine, Claudine in Paris where she learns she may not have quite the same freedom to roam, as she has had in the countryside, for reasons her father appears mildly reluctant to expand on.

Further Reading

An Introduction to Colette

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris 

 

Reading Women in Translation #WITMonth

August is the month when the annual reading challenge #WITMonth or Reading Women in Translation takes place, initially begun three years ago by Meytal at Biblibio.

I’m not a big fan or participant of reading challenges or lists, as I love changing my mind and being spontaneous about what I read next, however I do like to follow this one and read the reviews and keep up with what is being published as well as reading more of those I have discovered. And this is a challenge that is making a big difference in the reading and publishing world, so the more we read and demand books like these, the more expansive the selection will become.

I recently wrote an article about how I have become quite a fan of reading literature in translation, which was published by Tilted Axis Press in their lead up to WIT Month. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so by following the link here. At the end of the article I mention a number of titles I’ve really enjoyed, with links to my reviews. Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution.

This year I’ll be reading a few titles from my current bookshelves and another title from one of my favourite authors Maryse Condé. Below is a summary of the author, translator, the language translated and what each book promises:

The Complete Claudine by Colette tr. Antonia White (French) – Colette began her writing career with Claudine at School, which catapulted the young author into instant, sensational success. Among the most autobiographical of Colette’s works, these four novels are dominated by the child-woman Claudine, whose strength, humour, and zest for living make her a symbol for the life force.

Selected Letters by Madame Sévigne (Marie de Rabutin-Chantal de Sévigné) tr. Leonard Tancock (French) –  One of the world’s greatest correspondents, Madame de Sevigne (1626-96) paints a vivid picture of France at the time of Louis XIV, in eloquent letters written throughout her life to family and friends. A significant figure in French society and literary circles, her close friends included Madame de La Fayette and La Rochefoucauld, she reflected on significant historical events and personal issues, and in this selection spanning almost 50 yrs, she can be humorous, melancholic, profound and superficial. Whether describing the new plays of Racine and Moliere, speculating on court scandals including the intrigues of the King’s mistresses or relating her own family concerns, Madame de Sevigne provides an intriguing portrait of the lost age of Le Roi Soleil.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó tr. George Szirtes (Hungarian) – When Ettie’s husband dies, her daughter Iza insists  her mother give up the family house in the countryside and move to Budapest. Displaced from her community and her home, Ettie tries to find her place in this new life, but can’t seem to get it right. She irritates the maid, hangs food outside the window because she mistrusts the fridge and, in her naivety and loneliness, invites a prostitute in for tea.  Iza’s Ballad is the story of a woman who loses her life’s companion and a mother trying to get close to a daughter whom she has never truly known. It is about the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime.

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein (Italian) – Following her mother’s untimely and mysterious death, Delia embarks on a voyage of discovery through the streets of her native Naples searching for the truth about her family. A series of mysterious telephone calls leads her to compelling and disturbing revelations about her mother’s final days. I’m keen to try this after reading all about it in Ferrante’s nonfiction book Frantumaglia, which I read and reviewed earlier this year.

Maryse Condé

Ever since discovering Maryse Condé via the old style Man Booker International Prize, when it was a two yearly prize for an author’s entire works, I’ve been reading through her novels and stories, as suggested by the author I started with her Tales From the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood, Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, Segu,  and A Season in Rihata.

These are the books I still have on the shelf, and I’m already halfway into the novel the author said at a visit to our local library last year was the favourite of her novels, The Story of the Cannibal Woman, set in Cape Town, and centering on the life of a widow of a multicultural couple, reminding me of the character Hortensia in Yewande Omotoso’s excellent The Woman Next Door, which I just finished reading.

The Story of the Cannibal Woman – One dark night in Cape Town, Roselie’s husband goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back. Not only is she left with unanswered questions about his violent death but she is also left without any means of support. At the urging of her housekeeper and best friend, the new widow decides to take advantage of the strange gifts she has always possessed and embarks on a career as a clairvoyant. As Roselie builds a new life for herself and seeks the truth about her husband’s murder, Conde crafts a deft exploration of post-apartheid South Africa and a smart, gripping thriller.

Crossing the Mangrove – Francis Sancher, a handsome outsider, loved by some and reviled by others, is found dead, face down in the mud on a path outside Riviere au Sel, a small village in Guadeloupe.  None of the villagers are particularly surprised, since Sancher, a secretive and melancholy man, had often predicted an unnatural death for himself.  As the villagers come to pay their respects they each, either in a speech to the mourners, or in an internal monologue, reveal another piece of the mystery behind Sancher’s life and death. Retaining the full colour and vibrancy of Conde’s homeland, Crossing the Mangrove pays homage to Guadeloupe in both subject and structure.

Children of Segu – Sequel to her masterpiece Segu, this fascinating story continues as brother fights brother and the powers of the globe threaten to change their world forever. If you enjoyed Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi, defintiely check out Segu.

Conversations With Maryse Condé by Françoise Pfaff– an exploration of the life and art of Maryse Condé, including conversations about Condé’s geographical sojourns and literary paths, her personality, and her thoughts. Their conversations reveal connections between Condé’s vivid art and her eventful, passionate life. In her encounters with historical and literary figures, and in her opinions on politics and culture, Condé appears as an engaging witness to her time. The conversations frequently sparkle with humour; at other moments they are infused with profound seriousness.

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe, the youngest of eight children and her essays of childhood provide an excellent base for understanding the motivations that underpin much of her writing, firstly to get to know her family influences and aspirations and why she knew nothing of their origins (a past and ancestral pattern her mother was desperate for them to leave behind), her discovery of the turning points in the history of the Kingdom of Segu in Africa and the exploration of racial, gender and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales, often focused on topics with strong feminist and political concerns. As she herself said:

“I could not write anything… unless it has a certain political significance. I have nothing else to offer that remains important.” extract from an interview with Rebecca Wolff

Further Reading

Who, What, When, Where: A Guide to #WITMonth 2017 – via WomeninTranslation.com

8 New or Forthcoming Books by Arab Women – via ArabLit.org

Have you read any of these?

What books have you decided to read for WIT Month?

Do you have a favourite to recommend as I’ll be topping up my shelf for next years reading!