By Carole Reedy
Over the past 200 years, women worldwide have offered fresh perspectives despite the prominence of men in most fields. In the 21st century, we’re seeing an emergence of women in politics, as heads of states, in science, and in the arts. Here are a few women writers who have enriched our lives, not only with their writing, humor, and intelligence, but with their ability to reflect on and express in words what it means to be a woman and, importantly, human.
JOYCE CAROL OATES
Oates must be one of the most prolific woman writers of all time. She’s published more than 50 novels as well as essays and short stories, and she’s still writing at age 80. Some of her finest works are introspections of young women, teenagers, and the dispossessed. Personal favorites include her early works, such as Wonderland, Expensive People, and A Garden of Earthly Delights. Oates’s novels often bring different perspectives to current events, such as Black Water (Chappaquiddick), The Sacrifice (manipulative preachers, police, and parents), and, my favorite, the brilliant My Sister, My Love (a retelling of the JonBenét Ramsey murder that to this day, exactly 20 years later, remains unresolved). Oates has won numerous prizes in her 50 authorial years, and there is talk of a Nobel Prize in her future.
As most of us know, George Eliot is the pen name of the famous 19th century writer, Mary Anne Evans. Although she claims the switch to a man’s name was made to ensure her novels were taken seriously, it’s speculated that she also may have wanted to keep her identity secret due to the scandals in her life, the main one being her 20-year cohabitation with the married George Henry Lewes. Later she married John Cross, who was 20 years younger than she.
Compiling this list of writers put me in a quandary. Which of the 19th century woman should I include: Jane Austen, Emily Brontë , Charlotte Brontë , Kate Chopin, Christina Rossetti? Finally, for several reasons, I chose Eliot, the decisive factor being that in 2017 I see many young people here in Mexico City reading the author’s famous Middlemarch on the bus, which both pleases and surprises me. In addition, many older friends have picked up a copy or are reading or re-reading it on their Kindles. To this day, nearly a century and a half after its publication, it is still considered by many (including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis) as the greatest novel ever written. It is long and tedious at times, so if you want a taste of Eliot in a shorter version, try The Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede, or Silas Marner.
The recently published The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector has pulled this fascinating woman back into the spotlight. Her life story is as compelling as her writing. Born Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector in 1920 in what is today’s Ukraine, the family, after suffering through the pogroms during the Russian Civil War, fled to Brazil when Clarice was an infant. They all changed names, and Chaya became Clarice. Her mother, who was paralyzed and also had been raped during the pogroms, died when Clarice was nine. With her father and sisters, she moved around Brazil and eventually to Rio.
Near to the Wild Heart, her first novel, was praised from the beginning, and to this day it is a highly lauded novel of world literature. One critic said the book “had shifted the center of gravity around which the Brazilian novel had been revolving for about 20 years.” Her introspective style permeates that novel as well as her subsequent works. In addition to nine novels, Lispector has written children’s literature, nonfiction journalistic pieces, and short stories. The new edition of the short stories is well worth a read for their raw emotion.
Born in Ukraine in 1948, Alexievich is the first writer from Belarus to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she was awarded in 2015 for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” She’s also the first person to win the award for her journalistic style. Most of Alexievich’s books center around the memories of witnesses in dire situations, such as war. War’s Unwomanly Face (women’s memories of WW2), Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, and The Last Witnesses: The Book of Unchildlike Lullaby (children’s memories during wartime) are just a few of her popular titles, the content being evident. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster also is among her work that’s been translated into both Spanish and English, among other languages.
Unlike others on this list, you may not be familiar with Luiselli. She’s a young Mexican writer (just over 30) who has taken the world of literature by storm, receiving kudos worldwide. Luiselli was born in DF, but has lived in Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa, and India, and now lives in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She has been published in The New York Times and Letras Libres and writes a weekly column in El Pais, the justifiably lauded daily newspaper of Spain. Her novels include the recently applauded The Story of My Teeth, and her debut novel Faces in the Crowd. Both have been translated into English, as has her debut book of essays, Sidewalks. Luiselli, in a tweet to The Guardian reviewer Mina Holland, reacting to Holland’s observation that the author had omitted a concrete conclusion, tweeted back “I don’t believe in the ‘grand finale.’ I hate Wagner.”
The last four years found many women and men eagerly awaiting each English translation of her Neapolitan Novels. Apart from her compelling story and style, Ferrante has kept her true identity a secret from everyone except her publisher. Ferrante is a woman who believes that a work should stand on its intrinsic merits and not be boosted by clever advertising or promotion. Simply said: The four books in the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) delve deeply into the lives of two women and their families and friends in Naples. Ferrante weaves the stories from different points of view in a style that compels the reader’s opinion and emotion to change and evolve, just as her characters do.
This poet, essayist, and translator is one of just 14 women to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the past 115 years. In 1996 Szymborska won the coveted prize for “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Her work has been translated into many different languages. Despite her commercial success, she deduces in her poem “Some Like Poetry” that really no more than two out of a thousand people care for the art. Her final poems were published after her death in 2012 at age 88.