I’m trying to remember the last time I read a book by a man. Or, for that matter, the last time I watched something that didn’t have a female character in a dominant role. It seems that, perhaps unconsciously at first, I’m moving away from things created by men, or at least things that have a dominant male perspective.
That might seem pretty reductive, to some. Surely only viewing the world through one lens is restrictive, no matter which one you choose? That would be true, if I hadn’t spent an inordinate amount of time limiting myself in the first place. I did a literature degree, so spent many hours poring over the words of the great white dead men, the stultifying literary canon that has been trotted out to undergraduates for far too long, giving us the false impression that these are the only voices worth hearing.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to do the same for my students. The new English Literature GCSE specification gives you an incredibly narrow scope, with three female 19th century novels and two post-19th century writers from other cultures. Everything else is British, male and white. We do out best at Keystage 3 to vary their experience, but it’s uncomfortable, teaching at a hugely diverse school, where children grow up encouraged to see literature and poetry as the property of someone else, an other they can’t relate to. Hardly inspiring for the next generation of writers.
It’s the same reason I didn’t bother watching Narcos, or anything past the first episode of True Detective. So many crime films, gangster films, edgy thrillers, they don’t give me anything I haven’t seen before. Men dominate the screen, and women are merely victims, decorations or plot points, with the occasional ethnic minority or diverse sexuality character slipping in as a token effort. It’s not the world I live in, it isn’t the kind of woman I am, or want to be, so I’m pretty bored of the world being reduced to that.
So I’m listening to some different voices for a while. On leaving University, I travelled to Asia. There, I discovered that there was a plethora of voices, telling their own truths, their own histories, an entire world I hadn’t yet been exposed to. For I while I read exclusively non-Western books, simply to counteract the massive bias I’d experienced up to then. However, I still found one thing to be true – most of these writers were still men.
You could argue that, seeing as I read fiction almost exclusively, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. These are just made up stories, works of imagination, so why does it matter where the person comes from, or what their gender identity or sexuality is?
But, of course, all of these things shift your perspective on the world. Americanah is the fictional tale of a Nigerian immigrant in the US, something Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has experienced, and therefore wanted to explore. Many of Margaret Atwood’s books are rooted in her Canadian childhood. Ali Smith’s gorgeous book How to be Both, explores the limits of gender, particularly the constraints of being female, something she can all too easily understand.
Even in the world of speculative fiction or fantasy, a female perspective will have different priorities, other ways of imagining the created world that cannot be experienced fully if we only hear from one section of society.
All too often, ‘women’s fiction’ is a byword for romance novels, or ‘beach reads.’ Books that deal with that strange term ‘women’s issues,’ as if relationships, parenthood or domestic life is purely the realm of feminine experience. Or, for that matter, as if these are the only things that books by women deal with.
Frankly, reading 50% of the population of the world is hardly limiting, especially seeing as, within that, I am making sure my scope covers women of all ethnicities and gender identities.
If literature is a window into the world, then I’ve spent far too long looking at the same view. It’s not unreasonable to want a different outlook, for a while.
Are there any female authors missing from my booklist? Give me a few suggestions in the comments.
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