8 Essential Books To Read This Women’s History Month
from Flora Nwapa, Warsan Shire, Bessie Head & more.
from Flora Nwapa, Warsan Shire, Bessie Head & more.
Women are the backbone of every society. As the world pushes further into a modernist future, the perspective and practices of women remain crucial for widespread development. As models of both humane and intellectual natures, the particular histories of Africa and diaspora Black communities owe a huge debt to the contributions of women.
In its small way, Women’s History Month attempts a reciprocation of the loving values we’ve been passed down from women. Across family, art, science, and politics, there are several personalities whose work establish their importance. In the field of literature, there’s no underplaying the gargantuan role women have played. From its earliest periods, scholarly and literary work, having been dominated by men, were prone to gloss over the perspective of women.
However, taking on the essential mission of writing history in their own words, many women over the years have constructed in-depth profiles and ideas which continue to influence the world. Focusing on inimitable voices which have created strong works, this list highlights eight books that explore themes of women’s history, gender politics, and feminist values. Whether through the worldbuilding scope of fiction or hard-wrought academic-style essays, here are 8 essential books for essential reading through March and beyond.
Until her death in 2021, the Egyptian author Nawal El Saadawi was considered a giant of world literature. Prior to her earliest books in the late fifties, no other writer combined such a layered understanding of the patriarchal Arab society and constructing intimate women characters. She also published searing works of sociopolitical natures which often led to fall-outs with the Egyptian government, the likes of ‘Women and Sex’ and ‘The Hidden Face of Eve’ being forward-facing in their ideology while embracing a biting stylistic verve that would go on to become El Saadawi’s trademark.
‘Woman at Point Zero’ was the most acclaimed of her fiction—a slim, remarkable novella narrated from the viewpoint of its protagonist Firdaus, it has become a classic work in feminism. Firdaus is to be hanged the next day for murdering a pimp, and on the night before her execution she relates her story to a female psychologist whose occasional insights embeds the book with another layer. Exploring the unjust nature of Arab culture in its treatment of women, ‘Woman at Point Zero’ goes on to confront difficult subjects of sexual and social liberation.
For decades, Ogundipe’s scholarly work was geared towards recognising and re-evaluating the spaces women uphold in society. It’s a vision immediately present in ‘Re-Creating Ourselves’, a multi-layered discourse to feminist thought. “The essays in this book,” she notes on the Introduction, “attempt to answer some of these questions as they problematise the questions and reflect the dynamic contexts within which we tried, in the cataclysmic seventies and the more circumspect eighties, to re-vision our lives, re-create ourselves and re-examine received ideas and theories.”
The book delivers on that promise, pairing theoretical criticism with more practical notions of womanhood. Molara charts an expansive terrain, pairing the intellectual and political traditions of the African continent with those of the diaspora Black world. Among other subjects, she highlights the role of women in famous literatures, considers the responsibilities of a female writer, dissects the relationship between women and religion, and ends the collection with a nod to the political, on “African Women and the Myth of Democracy.”
In 2011, the Somali-born poet Warsan Shire shook the world of poetry. Her chapbook ‘Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth’ was representative of a new generation of African poets who were writing the private tensions of their heart with the encompassing allure of communal allure. Shire would explore migration through the specific lens of being female, and prior to the mid 2010s, had assumed a respected position within literary circles. She also wrote and voiced the empowering poetry you’d hear on Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’, an album heavy in its ethos of feminism.
Making her full-length debut, ‘Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice in Her Head’ continues in the feminine-focused direction of Warsan’s early works. Her style broadens out to incorporate external voices, pulling from stories of women across the different societies she’s so far called home. She’s especially considerate of generational qualities, charting the similarities and differences between the lives of mothers and daughters. “Mama,” she writes in the title poem, “I made it out of your home, alive, raised by the voices in my head”.
Set in the eighties, ‘Ogadinma’ has been hailed as a prospective feminist classic. The titular character faces hard circumstances in the book’s early parts, with a rape culminating into a pregnancy no one wanted. Forced to relocate to Lagos from her family home in Kano, she refuses to marry an older man, thus marking the start of her independence. A vivid, sometimes brutal evocation of patriarchal societies and the need for feminine autonomy, the book takes from the narrative ideology of classic African feminist writers such as Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta.
Ukamaka Olisakwe belongs to a generation of women writers such as Chinelo Okparanta and Sefi Atta who’ve utilised fictional material to explore femininity and its supposed limits. A graduate of the University of Iowa’s acclaimed International Writing Program, she has orchestrated important projects within academia and the broader literary landscape. The magazine which she founded—Isele—is a tribute to her late grandmother who was nicknamed ‘Isele Nwanyi,’ a dancer and performance poet. After seeking submissions that “subvert the tropes and narratives associated with and definitive of womanhood”, the magazine published The Woman Issue in 2021.
Although Bessie Head was born in South Africa, she is widely recognised as Botswana’s greatest writer. This is because she moved to the country during her formative years as an intellectual, evolving past the poor conditions that had surrounded her birth. Like many writers, Bessie tends to wean the details of autobiographical life into her fiction, emboldening her work with social realities.
‘A Question of Power’ is hardly Bessie Head’s most famous novel but its subject matter explores a mental aspect of life which is relatively uncovered by African women writers. Based on her own life, Head produces a mindbending novel which has the mixed-race Elizabeth at its centre. The child of a deranged woman, the truths of her background send her spiralling into a breakdown, she leaves South Africa with her son and arrives at the village of Mothabeng in Botswana. A portrait of the challenges faced by mentally challenged women, the psychological leanings of the book is enriched with complex romantic flourishes.
Published in 1966 by Heinemann, ‘Efuru’ was the first African woman-authored novel written in English. It’s a classic whose influence trickles down to almost everyone on this list while Nwapa, who never claimed the ‘feminist’ tag during her lifetime, was a source of inspiration in the writing of profound female characters.
The storyline of ‘Efuru’ has all the conventions of feminist literature; unsatisfied in her marriage to two husbands, she leans into her spiritualist calling as a worshipper of the lake goddess. Overlapping with the precolonial Igbo society present in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart,’ the novel took on the essential mission of establishing the lifestyle of women and the patterns of their independence. In the elevated tier of feminist books like Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long A Letter’ and Emecheta’s ‘Second Class Citizen,’ it’s a moving narrative with distinct style.
For a debut novel, it’s unbelievable the sort of acclaim that follows ‘Stay With Me’. Constructed on strong feminist ideals, novels like Yvonne Vera’s ‘Butterfly Burning’ and Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ were already present on the literary scene, but Ayobami Adebayo extended their scope with taut prose and locally-weaned philosophy. As a result, ‘Stay With Me’ possesses a singular narrative you can never truly predict until you read the book.
Following the story of Yejide and Akin, the novel charts their relationship’s evolution from university lovers to married couple. With external forces spurring them to recreate after four years of marriage, their inability to do so leads Akin’s mother to bring a second wife, literally, to their doorstep. The book evolves then into a spiritually-streaked exploration, leading to disturbing and profound realisations about the demands of family. Ayobami’s second book ‘A Spell of Good Things’ has recently been published and if it’s anything like ‘Stay With Me’, then readers are in for a feast at the literary table of emotions.
An encompassing book which includes many great women writers—Imbolo Mbue, Bernadine Evaristo, Yewande Omotoso, Taiye Selasi, Zadie Smith, Ayesha Haruna Attah and several others—the ‘Daughters of Africa’ anthology is, quite simply, essential reading. Its editor Margaret Busby is a Ghanaian-born writer who became the United Kingdom’s youngest and first Black woman publisher after graduating in the sixties. Ever since, she’s been a valiant curator of excellent women artists, and here she focuses particularly on women of African descent, regardless of where they were born in the sprawling diaspora.
A dazzling potpourri of stylistic conventions, the over 200 contributors on this book incorporate genres such as poetry, short stories, drama, autobiography, oral history, letters, diaries, novels, memoirs, journalism, speeches and letters, among many others. For anyone seeking to better understand the overlapping ebbs of ideas between Black women across generations and geographical lines, ‘Daughters of Africa’ is an important book to read.