Lip Lit: Where to find strong females in literature?
Most readers could name a book that changed their life. For many women, it will be a book that got them thinking about the kind of woman they wanted to be, and they probably read it during a time of major change in their life. These are the books that are more influence than entertainment.
Twenty years ago (quelle horreur! I cannot be that old now!), my eyes were opened to the possibilities for women by Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Bharati Mukherjee’s Wife. I would never have found these books on my own, in the only chain bookshop in a country town. It was because they were on the HSC reading list that I had the chance to read them.
These were not so much feminist literature as pre-feminist, and their stories resonated with young women who were still working out what they wanted from life. The female protagonists struggled to break free of a rigid role that didn’t suit them, but hadn’t yet found their own way.
Acknowledging that the status quo needed to change was a big step in itself.
Twenty years later, I wonder what’s out there to inspire young women and tell the stories in their hearts?
The bestseller lists did not inspire me. Hermione Granger is a smart sidekick, but Harry Potter is the hero. Bella from the Twilight series is an banal emo whose biggest decision is whether to shag a vampire or a werewolf. The female protagonist in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, is preoccupied with the kind of globe-trotting navel-gazing that only the extremely privileged can afford. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a grown-up and modern Pippi Longstocking with a healthy dose of kick-arse, is a rare exception, but is also painted as a damaged and damaging woman.
I found hope among Australian writers. In 1997, Australian Nikki Gemmell’s Shiver told the story of Fin, a woman who ventures into the men’s domain of Antarctica. While not overtly exploring what it is to be a woman, Fin does challenge taboos.
Also published in 1997 is Plains of Promise, the first novel by Indigenous Australian Alexis Wright. Plains of Promise was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, The Age Book of the Year, and the NSW Premier’s Awards. Wright’s novel is an interwoven tale of two women, crossing time and culture, and a story of a young woman trying to find her place.
Jane Caro’s Just A Girl, published in May 2011, is a fictionalised account of the rise of Elizabeth I from illegitimate girl to Queen of England. And Leslie Cannold’s The Book of Rachael, also published in 2011, imagines the story of Jesus’ sister who is in love with Judas. Both novels deal with betrayal, the role of women, and power. The historical context provides a palatable escape from reality, and a less confronting model within which to explore the interaction of power and gender.
Even our most traditional non-fiction, craft books, are getting a modern woman’s make-over. Sew La Tea Do and its sequels, by Melbourne mother and maker Pip Lincolne, offers instruction for women with little time to spare and no interest in store-bought style perfection. Similarly, mixtapezine was an independent craft and pop culture zine running from 2007 until 2010. Each issue was a mix of craft tutorials, recipes, eco-improvement, and profiles of non-famous women who like to make things. But unlike glossy home and cooking magazines, the style was very much for women who are richer in ethics and optimism than in disposable cash or spare time. A wealth of independent publications are emerging that share the philosophy that creating, and seeking to improve our world and our selves, are worthwhile pursuits.
I won’t waste energy lamenting that there are not more strong women protagonists in bestselling novels. Bestsellers are merely a literary reflection of mainstream culture. Contemporary non-mainstream fiction is where you’ll find the stories that explore where our culture could be headed, for better or worse. There are some fantastic females in this category, which is why I keep coming back for more.
By Emma Davidson