At the end of Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, she assembles a “survival kit”: what can support feminists who are trying to live fully and freely, as themselves and in community? Into her kit go feelings, time, humor, bodies – but first of all, books: “you need to take them with you; make them with you,” she writes.
I would put Ahmed’s book into my survival kit, not least because it has other marvellous books tucked into it, including Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, bell hooks’ Feminist Theory, and Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter. In writing After Sappho, I was experimenting with the shapes that feminist lives might take; what would a loose circle of turn-of-the-century women in Europe need to read, I wondered, in order to write their own lives? (Two things I learned from Sara Ahmed on this count: cherish the collective, and smuggle in more books than are officially allotted.)
For those who have been deemed at best a nice footnote and at worst an unseemly form of trouble, writing can be a feminist experiment, a way of prying open what is possible in narrative. In the spirit of books that fearlessly break open the forms they’ve inherited, live-wire life-writing, and feminist thinking so capacious that it barely fits between covers, this is a list of 21st-century experimental feminist books that inspire me. Perhaps some of them will make their way into your survival kit, or perhaps you will have to reinvent the form for yourself.
1. The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand
Brand astonishes me and drives me to look up words such as “brindle” and “xylem”. Is it because she is a poet that she can revivify language like this, while moving so fluidly through histories, music, and philosophy? The Blue Clerk is a sort of dialogue between a poet and a person – the blue clerk – who receives the waves of her writing, every memories, the questions that wash up onshore. The book unfolds in meditative fragments titled “verso”, and I have come to believe that Brand can see through a written page to its hidden side.
2. Float by Anne Carson
Float is not really a book; it is an assembly or an archipelago of chapbooks. “Reading can be freefall,” it notes, and I often fall back buoyantly into a poem or lyric essay from this collection (Cassandra Float Can is one of my favourites). float manifests many things I adore about Carson: wit, juxtaposition, exquisite phrases, intellectual depth, strangeness, sharp moves from line to line – plus a poem called Pronoun Envy.
3. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
This is such a profound and intelligent book that you don’t expect a section titled Dream House as Stoner Comedy. But it is also a book that knows how to pick up cliches, worn-out genres, and the concept of memoir itself, in order to dismantle them all in prismatic sections. Looking back on the abuse she has survived, Machado reflects on the complexities of being a queer woman in the midst of stories that are already so established, so inadequate; she invents her own meta-genre of telling a life.
4. Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge by Renee Gladman
Although this is the third book in Gladman’s series about a mythical city called Ravicka – a place where architecture speaks and “yellow” is not enough of a word to describe the sky – a reader can easily begin here. Ravicka is imaginary and utterly strange, but also familiar: it is a way to dream about streets, ruins, books, and bridges. Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this book wanders through impossible cityscapes, as Ana Patova goes walking and writing (and is occasionally knocked down by the “migrating buildings” that cross her lawn).
5. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Danielle Dutton should get extra credit: in addition to writing this highly imaginative life of the 17th-century writer Margaret Cavendish, she also runs Dorothy, the press that publishes Renee Gladman; both are feminist works I deeply admire. Like her earlier book Attempts at a Life, Margaret the First is keenly detailed, furnishing its worlds vividly with “double black violets” and “a watery dress”. A novel, a biography, a charming romp, and an intellectual history, this is a book I think Virginia Woolf might appreciate.
6. The Color Line by Igiaba Scego, translated by John Cullen and Gregory Conti
It was exciting to see this ambitious novel by one of Italy’s most important writers come out in English; when I read it in Italian, I was struck by the deft interweaving of through-lines between artistic, political, and personal histories. Blending real and re-invented lives, Scego creates a portrait of two Black women, centuries apart, making their way in Italy; each one confronts questions of seeing and being seen. In its reckonings with racism and colonialism, The Color Line explores the potential for artists to reclaim line and color in the name of justice.
7. The Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
A riveting, meandering, infectiously idiosyncratic narrative voice allows Pond to go absolutely anywhere; I began this book with no interest at all in oatcakes, cows, or the best method for sweeping leaves off steps, and yet could not tear myself away, even during a discussion about boiling a pair of pliers. In Pond, Bennett made it look easy to write a stunningly original book about a woman thinking; her more recent Checkout 19 is an equally insightful, absorbing novel about a woman reading and writing.
8. The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis
Traversing The Silk Road involves moving simultaneously through many layers. It is much like our lives on this planet, where the permafrost is melting but we also fall in love, where plagues stalk the land but somebody also needs to make dinner. The novel is peopled by an endearingly mortal set of siblings – it’s the Cook who obligingly makes dinner, the Archivist who goes weak with love, the Topologist who leaves her guidebook on a cafe table – and it is set in a mystical limbo of landscapes. This is a beguiling novel of journeys beyond individual selfhood.
9. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
I have heard that, in a disheartening moment before publication, someone told Ellmann that her book was too big. Ducks, Newburyport is 1,000 pages long, composed almost entirely in one continuous sentence, and it is note too big It is the perfect size to express the interiority of a woman who has to live in the middle of America right now, with all of her thoughts, fears, kids, pastries, musings, and general detritus of the mind.
10. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman
A luminous beacon for what life-writing and archival scholarship might become, this is an ideal book for readers who think that academic writing is boring and dry. Saidiya Hartman calls her style “close narration”, and she brings the lives of turn-of-the-century Black women and girls so close that their silk ribbons flutter off the page, along with their struggles and desires. There are bean soups and racist violence, operettas and tenements; above all, there is an immense tenderness in recovering and rewriting these stories, restoring their rightful protagonists to the centre.