These feminist novels written by women are a must read for any bibliophile.
Literary works remain one of the most important sources of documented history in capturing the ethos of a bygone era. Literature can ensure that often marginalized voices do not remain ignored and forgotten. And gripping novels can only add to feminist literary work.
So whether you want to pass the time, find solace in a corner of your home, or gain knowledge, these feminist novels should be at the top of your list.
Boob Stories by Mahasweta Devi
Originally published in Bengali, the book is a collection of stories about breasts, but rather than invoking symbols of eroticism, sexuality, beauty or motherhood, the book tells three separate stories about politics of the body and the increased need for women to have bodily autonomy.
Mahasweta Devi’s characters are often at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy and her work is devoid of any romanticism of their plight. Translated by feminist critic, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, her thought-provoking essays enlighten audiences about how oppressed women have the most to lose from patriarchal structures within class and caste systems.
The first in the series is a story of Draupadi, who is a tribal woman who fights against Senanayak, an army officer after being captured by him. The backdrop of the story features genocidal violence against women during the 1971 war between Pakistan and Bangladesh. It can be seen as a rendition of the epic Mahabharata where Draupadi’s eldest husband plays her. As the army chief tugs on his saree, we can see more of the connection. But this time, Krishna is not there to save her, and she gathers the courage to launch a counter-offensive.
Second in the narrative is “Behind The Bodice” which is about Gangor, a migrant worker whose breasts are an object of desire for a favored photographer, Upin with an insane obsession to photograph Gangor’s breasts. And the last story in the novel is “Breast-Giver”, the story of Jashoda who has to become a nursing nurse for a wealthy family.
These stories speak to the systemic oppression women face and are a powerful exploration of violence against women’s bodies.
Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook
The book is an honest reflection of womanhood in 1960s London. Published in 1962, the novel follows the protagonist, Anna Wulf, and her attempt to journal her experiences in four separate notebooks.
It includes commentary on sexual liberation, communism, colonialism, racism, motherhood, mental illness, and how it all intersects. It is progressive for the time in which it was published.
Although it was criticized by men who thought Lessing was a “feminazi” (a pejorative term that equates feminists who want equality with Nazis), it was relevant reading for many women, which has that the book was acclaimed.
In the first black-covered notebook, she recounts her African experience of the previous year. The red notebook relates her political life and her disillusionment with communism, in the yellow she writes a novel in which she relives part of her life, and the blue is a diary. Finally, she tries to collect the threads of the four books into a golden notebook, while falling in love with an American writer and facing mental agony.
This book offers a nuanced reading of feminism.
Hanged by KR Meera
The Grddha Mullick family traces its lineage back to the ancient executioners who shaped the history of the subcontinent.
To date, the youngest member of the family, a 22-year-old Chetna, is appointed as the first female executioner, succeeding her father. The result is a media frenzy that drives the protagonist to seek her own path in a male-dominated world. On the day of her first performance, she transforms into a charismatic performer, freeing herself from the shackles of her patriarchal family and her past.
Many questions arise while reading the book – “Will she add laurels to the past of her illustrious family?”, “Can she bring herself to take a life?”, and many other gripping ones that unfold in various intriguing sub-plots.
One would expect the book to be horrible to read, but it’s a well-crafted story that tells the story of Chetna’s coming of age.
Originally published in Malayalam, it can be counted among the few regional works that attempt to explore another state. The book sparks a conversation about Bengal, its history and its present.
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Swarnalata by Tilottoma Misra
The book is an underrated gem that deserves more fame. Set in mid-19th century Assam during the Bengal Renaissance where archaic practices were being challenged, the story traces the tales of three women – Swarnalata, Tora and Lakhi.
These women belong to different classes of society, but see their lives intertwined. It traces the fascinating lives of these women, showing how female education and widow remarriage reforms took center stage during this time.
It also depicts forced labor, peasant resistance against colonial exploitation, and the influence of Christian missionaries on the culture of Assam.
Considered one of Assam’s best historical novels, the book features Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet, alongside fictional characters, creating a perfect blend of history and fiction.
It is a masterful tale of the courage of three women in a conservative society. It received the 1995 Ishan Puraskar from the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad and has been translated into Bengali and Hindi by the National Book Trust.
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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is about a dystopian future world where women’s reproductive capacity and bodily rights are taken to another level.
Set in the New England region, the book is about the patriarchal and authoritarian state known as the Republic of Gilead, which overthrew the US government. Defred is the protagonist and narrator who is a “maidservant,” women who are forcibly assigned to breed babies for the ruling class.
It explores themes of subjugation to a patriarchal society, loss of agency, suppression of individuality, and lack of reproductive rights for women, akin to the current state of states- United.
The novel echoes the importance of women’s resistance to gain independence from the draconian forces that rule them.
Atwood has received several laurels for his work, such as the 1986 Booker Prize. The book has also been adapted into a television series.
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