Books

Women of the Year

2018. People, mostly women and about half the men, wore black to the Golden Globes in solidarity with victims of sexual assault and in protest against the predatory behaviour of those in power against the women who still have to claw their way around various industries on less pay and more unwanted attention. Feminist social activists walked the red carpet. Saudi Arabian women after the spectacular driving victory of last year now get to celebrate at football games. Iranian women are protesting for their choice to wear a hijab. Annual women’s marches are spreading across the globe like wildfire. The Doctor is a woman for the first time. Emma Gonzalez is leading the charge on “The March for Our Lives”.

Women are finally vocalizing universal truths that were thought to be common knowledge, like Natalie Portman befuddling her poor male co-host with her unamused jibe at the “all-male nominees” for best director in the year of Wonder Woman (highest grossing superhero movie), Lady Bird (Best Motion Picture), Mudbound (Best Picture) and Detroit (Outstanding film nominee), none of whose female directors were even nominated for a Golden Globe award.

In the same vein, a Google employee was fired for saying that maybe women are biologically less capable of being software engineers. Really strange since the history of software is female-dominated. This is of course at the time when “building a computer” was all about hardware and the “softer”, cerebral work was meant for women. Which is why Ada Byron, Lady of Lovelace (or, Ada Lovelace) is the writer of the first computer algorithm (ever, not “first woman”, dear male friend who made it a point to ask me this), and why “computers” was a job description for a mostly female workforce in laboratories around the world and during WW2, which is supposed to have reduced the length of the war by two whole years.

But perhaps it is unsurprising that sexist-Google-man doesn’t know the history of his own job considering that an expert at the Computer History Museum claimed to a woman who enquired about the ENIAC women, that they were “refrigerator girls”:

“Refrigerator girls” are attractive models who sold refrigerators, with progressively more sexist connotations of the phrase over time.

The women were not refrigerator girls.

They were the programmers of the ENIAC, the first super-fast computer built.

The description on the Computer History Museum’s website is still “An ENIAC engineer and programmer verify the configuration near the multiplier racks.”

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I am conflicted about gendering literature.

On one hand, I don’t like the notion of examining the demographics of the authors that I read. A good story can come from anywhere! But… I did notice that in consciously choosing to read books from around the world over the last couple of years rather than ones that I am commonly exposed to, I read new favourites that I might have otherwise missed.

Another compelling argument:

Though, some of my favourite authors have won these prizes: J. K. Rowling has a Hugo, Margaret Atwood a Booker, Arundhati Roy a Booker, Jhumpa Lahiri a Pulitzer, Harper Lee a Pulitzer, Agatha Christie none of the above but is the first Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, Marjane Satrapi none of the above, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie none of the above, Harper Lee a Pulitzer.

The numbers say that while women read more, female authors are less likely to get published, win awards, be reviewed and since reviews boost sales, women are less likely to be read, maintaining the deadlock of “women’s stories aren’t read so why publish them”? (With undertones of the unfounded conclusion “women’s stories aren’t read because they aren’t interesting”).

But.

Instead of making a list of favourite books by women, I thought it would be interesting to examine the representation of women in books that I have read and many that are favourites.

Besides, most of the book lists of “books by women” seem to cater to a tiny sliver of people, usually a certain flavour of American, and for some reason that almost certainly never means me.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

As a child, fantasy was by far my favourite genre. A progression from Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree and Roald Dahl’s The Witches, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter with Eragon by Christopher Paolini and Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer in between releases, even one-offs like Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Neverending Story and Stravaganza – I read so much fantasy that I grew sick of it (Inkheart, Dragon Rider) but I read it all the same. Somewhere even deeper in my pre-series-reading subconscious were surely imprints of Alice in Wonderland, the Mahabharata, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Arabian Nights.

And then I feel like I ran out of books in the genre. Several read too young and failed to enthrall me as they once might have and others petered out. The last was possibly Lord of the Rings.

I’ve dabbled since then of course. A Song of Ice and Fire, Assasin’s Apprentice and The Iron Druid – but they revelled too much in gore and naked women to be interesting.

The differences that I notice between fantasy novels that I read as a child and my choices as an adult:

  • Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl’s stories for young children didn’t focus on gender differences: kids were kids! Bonus: The fact that the children were British children didn’t matter either – the books weren’t less relevant than R. K. Narayan or Ruskin Bond.
  • Harry Potter had a plethora of fantastic characters. The women who stand out are Hermione, Luna, Professor McGonagall, Trelawney, Umbridge, Bellatrix, Molly Weasley, Tonks, Aunt Petunia and of course, Lily Potter. They were such a diverse set of characters! Inspiring, flawed, relatable, aspirational, stern and vile. The men too were so interesting, beloved, and reviled – Harry, Dumbledore, Snape, Voldemort, Malfoy, James, Sirius, Lupin, Pettigrew, Ron, Slughorn, Dudley, Lockhart, Mad-Eye, Barty Crouch Jr., Fred and George, Percy.
  • The Lord of the Rings is a book series that I loved and not the least because I watched the entire trilogy with my best girl friends during a glorious summer vacation at the peak of teenage sisterhood. Compared to the character richness of Harry Potter though, it seems a little sad that the main female character is Arwen whose defining characteristic is that she’s beautiful and brave and serves as the primary motivation for Aragorn to unleash his destiny.
  • George R. R. Martin. Stalwart of the fantasy genre. Lover of unclothed women and gratuitous rape scenes. Somewhere I got it into my head that much of fantasy, particularly Epic Fantasy, especially Epic Fantasy Written By Men tends to follow the same tropes concerning women since Martin sort-of established the field and is the fount of truth and inspiration. My forays into finding the next series to immerse myself in has yet to disprove the hypothesis that is rapidly solidifying into theory. The latest on my list is Iron Druid: of course all the women are hot, of course all of them make out or sleep with the protagonist. Bonus: A good smack of orientalism with Hindu gods and godesses being butchered. I’m really getting sick of that too.

Murder Mysteries

Perhaps a good candidate for my favourite book genre if my taste wasn’t so constrained. Agatha Christie dominates. I can read a Christie any time anywhere. I’ve tried other mystery writers. I loved Secret Seven, Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers by Enid Blyton as a child, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was a captivating read… But I haven’t found any replacements for the Christies that I reread every so often. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was interesting but disturbing with an abused protagonist and a story centered around assault. “Why is it that women are only ever assaulted in books written by men?” exclaims a peeved brain, but the rational part of me knows that this isn’t true. Midnight’s Children is a perfectly fabulous book without it and The Colour Purple opens with it.

Though then again, I read The Sirens of Titan recently. Science Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut. Naked women to entice the protagonist and the only female character in the universe thanks her rapist for “using” her.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.”

I can’t imagine a woman ever writing that.

History

Until I read Sapiens, I had never thought about how humans have been forever changed by the evolution of human females. That for humans to stand erect, the uterus had to shrink, which favoured premature births, which meant that though human infants are weaker and less capable of looking after themselves compared to other mammals, their brains are remarkably unformed which allows them to absorb information and learn things that other mammals cannot, which is the integral piece of our evolution that allows us to invent, create, tell stories and so forth. Fourteen years of a scientific education didn’t clue me in to something so elegant and obvious. [Sapiens is written by a man.]

Unfortunately, Sapiens is the exception and not the rule. It’s a book that is not female-specific but is novel because it takes the holistic view of human history rather than a one-sided approach, and it is only in comparison to this book that I see how inadequate the rest are.

Other books of interest include The Hindus: An Alternative History, focussing on women and minorities , Indian Summer, which is a fantastic book on the last days of the British Raj, The Secret History of Mongol Queens is written specifically targeting female-history. India After GandhiA People’s History of the United States are excellent but I have not read about women comprising a substantial chunk of the narrative in them yet.

So the choices in history that I have are books focussed on women (rarer but growing), books focussed on men (the norm) and the lone Sapiens.


My biggest problem is certainly with Science Fiction and Fantasy. For made-up worlds, the genre is unfortunately the most problematic. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising since it’s the genre that tends to be the closest representation of the society in which it is written. I want to make it a point to at least read N. K. Jemisin and Ursula Le Guin this year.

I wish I could read more Christie-like mysteries, and will try Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh.

For non-fiction, in a pleasant surprise, books by and about women seem fairly easy to come by, so I don’t feel the need to change my diet.

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