In a culture saturated with top-ten lists of everything from books to bikes to baby names — what can we do to right the gender imbalance in publishing besides tabulate our absences?
VIDA decided to start by excavating the spaces behind the lists. We asked our board members and a few other contemporary authors to share sentences about a literary woman we feel is too little mentioned. Our short anti-list is hardly comprehensive, yet seen as a whole the variety and breadth is exciting, and inclusive of poets, memoirists, literary journalists, playwrights, experimental and lyric fiction writers, children’s book authors, and even a couple of editors.
Please explore, enjoy, and share these names and works, and perhaps even consider using this roster as the seed of a diverse reading list for a class syllabus or book group, and help us change the landscapes of literary influence one passionate book discussion at a time. Free free to comment with additions of your own.
—Barrie Jean Borich, VIDA Editorial Committee Chair
Kamala Das (1934-2009) Once called the ‘Sylvia Plath’ of India, Kamala was an all but unheard of feminist voice from south India who rallied to make no shame of celebrating women’s sensuality and the deep undercurrent of sexual and romantic yearning that ran through most of her married life. With the support and understanding of her husband, Kamala wrote poems at night once the family went to bed, typing on the very table where she cooked intricate meals. In addition to poetry, Das was a triple threat, writing fiction and several memoirs– the most famous of which recalls her childhood in an artistic but emotionally distant family; her unfulfilling arranged marriage to an older man shortly before her 16th birthday; and the emotional breakdowns and suicidal thoughts that punctuated her years as a young wife and mother.—Aimee Nezhukumatahil
Jennifer Tamayo: Writer, performer, and scholar Jennifer Tamayo’s Red Mistakes Read Missed Aches Read Mistakes Red Missed Aches was selected by Cathy Park Hong as the 2010 winner of the Switchback Books Gatewood Prize. Hong says of the collection: “[w]hile Tamayo’s poetry deliberately disorients, you can still trace the life stories of a mother and a daughter who struggle for livelihood and legitimate citizenship in a nation swept up in xenophobia; you hear a voice of resistance and resilience from the invisible underclass of the undocumented Latino immigrants.” By interrogating violence, exploring resistance, and occupying a nexus of gorgeous miscommunications, Tamayo also unpacks body and heart, revealing the red thread that stitches together all our rent pieces—Danielle Pafunda
Zetta Elliott, author of Bird and A Wish After Midnight, writes with compassion, wisdom and incredible insight into the history and the ongoing struggles of black communities. Her stark, powerful prose tells it like it is, bringing to life minority experiences that have gone un-talked-about in teen literature for far too long. Her talent for giving voice to previously “unheard” characters and her passion for bringing these relevant stories to the young readers who need them most makes Elliott a powerful and invaluable force in young adult literature today—Kekla Magoon
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is an artist extraordinaire. The award-winning author and poet of more than 45 books for children and adults is also an accomplished performing artist, fiber artist, and jeweler. Nikki’s inspiring flow of creativity stems from her strong faith, passion for storytelling, and deep roots in Harlem, New York, where she was born.—Mitali Perkins
When I first read Alexandra David-Néel’s memoir, My Journey to Llasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City, I was astounded. In lively, intimate prose, David-Néel narrates her four-month trek through the rugged, high mountains of China to the capital city of Tibet—a city off-limits to foreigners—which she began in 1923 at the age of 55, disguised as a beggar. The author of more than 30 nonfiction books, David-Néel is said to have influenced beat writers and modern day philosophers, but the work of this extraordinary woman has for the most part been lost to time.—Cheryl Strayed
Carrie McGath is the author of a collection of poems, Small Murders (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2006) and three self-published limited-edition chapbooks. Her book Ward-Eighty-One is a response to photos by Mary Ellen Mark taken at the Oregon State Hospital—photos of women who have endured intense suffering, internal, external, or likely both. In this collection and others, McGath reimagines a world that opens to grand possibility while simultaneously remaining painfully claustrophobic, and therefore married to a new kind of truth.—Monica Drake
I encountered Janet Lewis’s poem “Lullaby” when reading Alan Shapiro’s wonderful book The Last Happy Occasion. Like many readers, I had no idea who Lewis was, as her writing career existed quietly for many years in the wake of her husband’s (Lewis was married to the influential critic/poet Ivor Winters). I love this poem for it’s formal rhythmic ease and transparency of voice. I love the invention of taking one of our culture’s most foundational stories and humanizing it so completely. For me, the poem illuminates my own sense of motherhood –specifically, it’s intimacy and interconnectedness. But in its choice of subject and character, Lewis’s poem also hints at the growing disconnectedness most mothers eventually face. So the poem reminds us of the uncomfortable, ironic bargain mothers enter into: if we’re lucky, our children will leave us for their own singular destinies, great or small.—Erin Belieu
Sarojini Naidu (February 13, 1879 –March 2, 1949 ), also known by the sobriquet The Nightingale of India, was a child prodigy, Indian independence activist, and poet who wrote in English. She is remembered as a virtuoso of English metrical forms and romantic imagery in her poetry, and her mastery of such difficult poetic constructs as the dactylic garnered a lot of praise. Naidu’s early poetry evidences the strong Western influence on her Brahmin upbringing, as crafting poems in traditional English metrical forms, she concentrated primarily on Western themes and images.—Supriya Bhatnagar
Some might be hesitant to admit this, but I’ll just come clean: it was that evil empire, Amazon, that brought me to the work of Amelia Gray but if that megasite could manage to recommend to me the work of a writer with sentences like, “The girl with Rapunzel Syndrome claimed she ate her hair out of heartbreak,” then maybe it’s possible—maybe?—that we can’t entirely hate it; after all, Amelia Gray’s stories are filed with women who inadvertently give birth night after night, in which jokes are exploited and deepened (a penguin and an armadillo walk into a bar), and in which fables are re-told and newly invented,. so perhaps it’s possible for Amelia Gray to have the wider audience she so clearly deserves (her two collections have been well reviewed, with the second, Museum of the Weird, having won the prestigious Ronald Sukenick/American Book Award Innovative Fiction Award, and so her unique sensibilities have not been lost). I’ve had a long-standing conversation with a fellow female writer about why it’s more difficult for women writers of experimental fiction to “break out,” and we’ve long since conceded that we’ll be having the same conversation in twenty years; maybe we will; maybe the tide has turned; and maybe—just maybe—Amelia Gray will be one of those who breaks out. After all, she has a first novel coming out this month called, Threats, and I know this because Amazon told me, so, I’ll just give my passing thanks to Amazon and go buy her novel at an independent store, all the same.—Laurie Foos
Adelia Prado: This contemporary Brazilian poet, brilliantly translated from the Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson, astonishes and confounds in The Alphabet in The Park, a volume of poems selected from her five books. Prado’s is a work of gesture, association, powerful truth and dark humor; one of my all time favorite lines can be found in “With Poetic License,” when the speaker offhandedly states, “I’m not so ugly I can’t get married.” Merging the sacred with the profane, Prado insists, “Poetry will save me,” making certain her reader understands her statement as far from blasphemy by closing: “What is poetry/ if not His face touched / by the brutality of things?”—Cate Marvin
A gifted minimalist, Gina Berriault is an oft-overlooked predecessor to writers like Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Mary Gaitskill and Mary Robison. Her stories, often set in San Francisco, are written with a mercenary attention to detail and to the complicated ways people make and break connection. As self-possessed as many of her protagonists are, they are also beautifully flawed and their stories are lucid portrayals of female lives.—Carmen Giminez Smith
Barely out of her teens, Nellie Bly—the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran—got a job writing for a Pittsburgh paper in 1885, through sheer force of personality (a brilliant letter to the editor about columns disparaging women caused the editor to call her for an interview, thinking she was a man; the editor tried to dismiss the woman who answered his call, but Bly convinced him she could be a serious journalist). Vivid, personal, laced with her own questions and bodily experiences of abuse and fatigue, Bly’s work anticipated New Journalism by a century; she faked lunacy and had herself committed, blowing the whistle on asylum abuses; worked in a sweatshop making boxes; and traveled around the world in homage to Jules Verne. “I had often wondered at the tales of poor pay and cruel treatment that working girls tell,” she wrote of her sweatshop days. “There was one way of getting at the truth, and I determined to try it.”—Suzanne Paola
When her groundbreaking novel This is My Body, a lacerating roman à clef about her affair with leftist poet and noir novelist Kenneth Fearing, was published in 1930, readers carried their copies in plain brown wrappers. Startling, brilliant, and almost unknown today, leftist-feminist-modernist Margery Latimer (1899-1932) published her work in the same avant-garde little journals where Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and William Faulkner appeared, but her career –two novels and two collections of short stories– was cut short when her marriage to Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer ended with her death in childbirth at the age of 33. Nimble, fluid, muscular, and shocking, her work is gorgeous and audacious and political and smart.—Joy Castro
I don’t recall the first time I heard a Judy Grahn poem, or if the first one was “Edward the Dyke” or “The Common Woman Poems,” or if I read them in mimeograph form, or in a Women’s Press Collective volume illustrated with woodcut prints created by the poet’s lover Wendy Cadden, or on the vinyl recording of lesbian feminist poets circulating between the women I knew in the early 1980s. Judy Grahn is not under-recognized among my generation of lesbian and feminist authors, frequently in years past reading to auditoriums of screaming, boot-stomping woman-identified fans, yet much of the larger literary world is unaware of her impact. Her influence on me was this: “A Woman Is Talking to Death”—a poem I consider the lesbian HOWL— was, from the moment I read it first, both my personal anthem and my bloody bridge into the understanding that women’s literature could be about the lives we were living and had lived, that stories about race, class and sexuality—as subject or experience—could not be extricated from one another, and that everything is related to everything and can’t help but intersect in the most vulnerable regions of our cities and our bodies. —Barrie Jean Borich
Margaret Anderson, who, in 1914, bought a good gray suit and solicited money from readers across the country to establish the Little Review, is best known for standing trial for publishing the first thirteen chapters of Ulysses in this country. But she is under-remembered for the magazine’s other accomplishments; along with her on-again-off-again partner, Jane Heap (who co-edited the magazine until its demise in 1929), and her sometimes foreign contributor, Ezra Pound, she brought the work of such writers as W.B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Emma Goldman, Sherwood Anderson, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Hilda Doolittle, as well as such artists as Picasso, Picabia, Ernst, and Stella to American readers. In other words, Modernism as we know it was not only chronicled, but also shaped, by the dedication of two women who lived by the magazine’s initial slogan—”making no compromises with the public taste.”—Judith Kitchen
Adrienne Kennedy: a writer with a fearless capacity to explore theatrical form, who challenges perceptions about identity and gender and constructions of persona. Kennedy changed the way plays could behave and misbehave, and she has taught a generation or two, who know her work, what it means to be an artist committed to social and spiritual transformation.—Lisa Schlesinger and the VIDA Playwriting Committee.
Magdalena Zurawski writes complex, patient, lyric fiction in a world that often prefers its fiction easy to categorize, easy to understand, and easy to forget. Precise, considered, and compelling, her first novel, The Bruise, deserves the attention and recognition often bestowed upon far less innovative works—Susan Steinberg
Ellen Raskin was best known for her brilliant 1979 Newbery Award–winning novel The Westing Game, a puzzle-mystery that presents more nuanced depictions of class, race, money, sex, pathology, and shame than I find in most grown-up contemporary novels. Raskin was also a brilliant and prolific illustrator and graphic designer who managed every bit of all her books, inside and out, down to their typographic dingbats— after she judged the original page trim too short, the first printing of The Westing Game was pulped on her request. She lived in a haunted house on Gay Street, in Manhattan’s West Village, and I visit it often—Sarah Manguso