Happy Women’s History Month to all the incredible women who have made our national story, and to all the innovative women who are continuing to make our story. In celebration, here is a list of eleven women novelists, comic and graphic artists, essayists, and activists who are creating heartrending, essential stories that you can read now. Pro tip: many of them have books coming out this year, so you can dig into their backlist titles AND have something hopeful to read in 2017.
- Rebecca Solnit: Dubbed the “Philosopher Queen” by ELLE Magazine, Rebecca Solnit writes approachable, intelligent pieces on motherhood, “mansplaining” (a term she coined), politics, gender binaries, and more. Her indie bestselling title Men Explain Things To Me is also now available in Spanish as Los hombres me explican cosas. In the floodbreak of the 2016 election, her title Hope in the Dark resonated with folks across the country, building to the March 7, 2017 publication of The Mother of All Questions, where she writes lines such as “Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
- Angela Davis: Davis has been woke before anyone knew what that meant, and she’s still writing about it. With decades of thoughtful activism under her belt, Angela Davis has a depth of experience so essential for today’s people when it comes to our dialogue: race, gender, prison rights. If this doesn’t have you interested, read this: in 1969, President Ronald Reagan requested that she be barred from teaching at any university in the State of California because of her membership with the Communist Party. She was part of the Civil Rights Movement and tied to the Black Panther Party. Her Freedom Is A Constant Struggle hit multiple indie bestseller lists in 2016, but you can’t stop there—dig into her older titles, and you’ll find gold: The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues is a collection of her speeches on racism, community, freedom, and politics, and she’s a bit of a Frederick Douglass expert, having penned additional essays for an expanded version of Douglass’s masterpiece: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself.
- Arundhati Roy: If you don’t know this incredible novelist for her, well, novels, you’re likely not paying attention. But as Signature noted in a long piece in early February, instead of riding on her fame for her first novel, The God of Small Things, in the last four years, Roy has become something of a political activist, writing about “power and powerlessness,” including India’s 1998 nuclear testing and its efforts to become a nuclear superpower, the American bombing of Afghanistan, fascism in India, and her ponderings on meeting with Edward Snowden. Before grabbing a copy of her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, read her searing works of nonfiction: Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Field Notes on Democracy, The End of Imagination, and Things That Can and Cannot Be Said. In her newest title available April 11, The Doctor and the Saint, Roy strips down the cultural sainthood of Gandhi and examines some of the uncomfortable and controversial truths about the political thought and career of India’s most revered man.
- Valeria Luiselli: If you thought 2016 was rough, you have bookends of Valeria Luiselli to remind you of the goodness of 2015, and look forward to 2017. Mexican born Luiselli wowed almost everyone who read The Story of My Teeth in 2015. The New York Times called her story of the traveling auctioneer Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez “deeply playful,” and her novel addressed ideas about art and objects, even as the hilarity of Highway’s tooth collection of the famous (Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf included) ensued. But in 2017, Luiselli is taking on immigration, and there’s nothing fictional about this. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions is available starting March 28, and is Luiselli’s record of conversations with undocumented Latin-American children facing deportation. This essential book humanizes these young migrants and highlights the contradictions of the American Dream, and the fear and racism so prevalent for the people who try to make this their home. More Luiselli titles to add to your list include Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks.
- Gabrielle Bell: “Quiet, pensive cartoonist creates fantastic, heartrending cartoons that stun world” could be the headline for Bell’s artistic career so far. Bell grew up in an isolated rural community, and then took art classes at community colleges, working dead-end retail jobs while she started her career as a cartoonist. Her titles include The Voyeurs, Truth Is Fragmentary, and her first full-length graphic memoir Everything Is Flammable publishing April 18 from Uncivilized Books. Whether you’re into graphic novels or not, make time for Everything is Flammable: spanning a single year, Bell tells the story of returning from New York to her childhood home in rural Northern California to help her mother put her home and life back together. In the narrative, Bell keeps acknowledging her issues with anxiety, financial hardships, memories of a semi-feral childhood, and her always tenuous relationship with her mother. Don’t take my word for it: Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) is also a fan: “Bell’s pen becomes a kind of laser, first illuminating the surface distractions of the world, then scorching them away to reveal a deeper reality that is almost too painful and too beautiful to bear.”
- Bae Suah: If you’re trying to diversify your reading list, look no further than this heavy hitting Korean writer, who has recently been translated into English. In Korean, her name is “Suah Bae,” and she started writing stories as a hobby. The stories took on lives of their own, and now she’s been translated into English multiple times (thank goodness!). A Greater Music follows a young Korean writer as she evaluates her romance with her rough and tumble metalworker boyfriend, and her deep feelings for her past lover, a woman named M. Her most recent title, Recitation, explores the emigrant experience through the ideas of memory and personhood. Read more about Bae Suah in this interview from 1 Brooklyn with her rockstar translator Deborah Smith (who also translated Han Kang’s Man Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian), and stay alert for her collection of short stories, North Station, publishing from Open Letter this October.
- Jane Mai: If chic comics, feminism, and Instagram game had a love child, it would probably be Jane Mai. Mai is a freelance illustrator and comics artist from Brooklyn, and her “autobio with a bite” See You Next Tuesday is relatable for any twenty-something female. She doesn’t just tell her own story. On May 16, her collaboration with An Nguyen and Novala Takemoto So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture publishes, and you won’t find a better cultural critique in comic form.
- Carmen Boullosa: This Mexican writer is a literary powerhouse: poet, novelist, and playwright, Boullosa is the trifecta, and her work is more relevant than ever. Her first novel translated in English is Texas: The Great Theft, which reimagines the 1850 Mexican invasion of the United States (complete with colorful ranchers, cowboys, and dancehall girls). She views border history through distinctly Mexican eyes, which couldn’t be a more critical perspective in our current dialogue. Lucky for us, Boullosa is still writing. Her title Before is part revenge novel, part ghost story, and all coming-of-age. Her newest title Heavens on Earth publishes June 20, and beautifully challenges the primacy of recorded history, transcending the barriers of time through vivid, urgent prose.
- Sofia Samatar: Of all the writers on this list, Sofia Samatar could be the one whose college writing class you’d most like to take. This Somali-American professor and writer creates incredible fantasy worlds in her novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, and her first collection of short stories, Tender, is out April 11 from Small Beer Press. When asked why she writes fantasy, Samatar had a lot to say, “I’m this person from a mixed background, you know, Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite, that you don’t see a lot of, and that it maybe encourages me to imagine other ways of being.” Cliff note: her fiction is replete with strong female characters.
- Bernice McFadden: Her latest novel, The Book of Harlan weaves a young musician’s journey through jazz, Harlem, Paris, and life in a Nazi concentration camp. Bernice McFadden won the NAACP Image Award for The Book of Harlan, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in her oeuvre. The author of nine critically acclaimed novels (pro tip: get a copy of Gathering of Waters immediately), McFadden started out adult life thinking she wanted to work in fashion (obviously, she’s still got the style—check out her NAACP award photos). After years of bouncing around to different big-industry jobs, McFadden landed on a year of unemployment, which launched her love of writing, and the world is better for it. Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, and The Warmest December are more required reading from this lifetime storyteller.
- Ursula K. LeGuin: LeGuin deserves many awards for her 87 years of life, many for her writing, many for her informed, gracious perspective on current events, including a recent letter to the editor explaining the difference between science fiction and alternative facts, which Entertainment Weekly covered in February. Since she started writing, LeGuin has been bucking the male stereotypes of the fantasy world, and winning awards doing it (including multiple Hugo awards, a Newberry Medal, a PEN award, a World Fantasy Award, and a National Book Award). The New Yorker covered her life and work in an in-depth feature last October, titled “The Fantastic Ursula K. LeGuin.” For a deep reading experience of LeGuin, check out Words Are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books, 2000-2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week.
Three More Books You Actually Can’t Miss for WHM:
Rad American Women A-Z: A new classic, Rad American Women A-Z has spent time on the New York Times Bestseller list, been excerpted on Buzzfeed, inspired Halloween costumes, and is genuinely loved by librarians nationwide. If you don’t have a copy (or know another female who doesn’t) it’s high time you picked up a copy of this.
The Crunk Feminist Collection: From prison abolition, to beauty parlor politics, to Rihanna, The Crunk Feminist Collection brings essays from the Crunk Feminist Collective together in print for the first time. With essays like “Sex and Power in the Black Church” and “Dating with a Doctorate (She Got a Big Ego?)” there’s very little that the Crunk Feminists won’t cover. Self-described as “critical homegirls,” the authors tackle life stuck between loving hip hop and ratchet culture while hating patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism. This published in January, so get your copy now!
And the Spirit Moved Them: The Lost History of America’s First Feminists: Written by activist Helen LaKelly Hunt, this takes modern feminism back to its roots before the suffragettes. Before Seneca Falls, black and white women joined forces at the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention in the first instance of political organizing by American women, for American women. These women challenged slavery and the patriarchy, and they created a blueprint for today’s intersectional feminism. With a foreword by the legendary Cornel West, this book is sure to make waves, and remind us where we’re coming from.