Hannibal Lecter, My Father, edited by its author for Semiotext(e) in 1991, was my introduction to Kathy Acker. I was crashing in Edinburgh with a good friend (this was the end of a year’s study in a re-submission) and, having parted ways, left to loiter around the cold sun-soaked city until my train rocked up.
Resting in the shaded foyer of the Portrait Gallery, I scrolled idly through the blogroll of U.K. photographer come cultural-writer Matt Colquhoun (a.k.a. Xenogothic), hitting on a post on the ICA’s (then) recent ‘I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker’ exhibition (linked here).
The post spoke of something transversal— a constitutive interpenetration of different ‘individuals’ —also of sex work, Bataille (familiar at the time through The Story of the Eye) and queer sexuality.
A proximity to William S. Burroughs (I’d burned through Junky during that original submission period) eased me into purchasing Hannibal Lecter, which became a refrain of that summer.
In Acker’s writing there’s something as radiant, but nonetheless harrowing, as the sun that day in 2019.
— I never did make that exhibition though.
Climate change, welcoming refugees and the HIV epidemic are only a few of the subjects covered in Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather, a collection of her non-fiction writings throughout the years. A book containing essays, personal reflections and artist profiles, Laing effortlessly links her contemplations on artworks and their relevance to the modern-day without pretension. From Sally Rooney to Georgia O'Keeffe, Laing provides us with studies on artists (in every sense of the word) that allow us to rethink and reshape our mindsets on the world around us.
A truly incredible woman indeed, Laing teaches us how to use art to build community and form utopias that move further from optimistic daydreams and closer to a feasible reality.
“Generally, I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal freedom for themselves.”
Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, has been described as a masterpiece by critics far and wide. At the age of 27, she is the voice of a generation. Dubbed by the NY Times as ‘the first great Millenial author’, Rooney’s novels – the third of which will be released later this year – capture the highs of millennial life (the iPhone and the avocado smash, no less) but speak to a discontentment at the hands of failed economic structures and gendered power dynamics. Her rich yet fresh prose is abundant with tropes and allegory of the coming-of-age novel that compel us to reflect upon the tenderness of our own youth. Rooney tackles common subjects like toxic masculinity and adolescent anxiety, but questions which are innate elements of our being and which make us a product of the patriarchy. Her nuanced approach to gender and politics is what makes her my favourite feminist author.
“Am I a bad feminist?” asked Margaret Atwood, in a piece for the Globe and Mail.
It’s a testament to the complexity of the feminist movement that a woman like Atwood could prove divisive among activists. Her fiction is driven by the “fundamental position… that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails,” and is filled with multi-layered, often thoroughly introspective female characters. Her best-known work The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a tyrannical patriarchy so vividly that women worldwide have adopted the bright red Handmaid costume as a symbol of outrage against gender-based oppression.
She wrote a book that put Penelope at the heart of Homer’s Odyssey, she’s written about female assassins and sex workers. Atwood may be committed to portraying the fallibility of women, but only in the name of presenting them as interesting, and just as worthy as anyone else of respect.
Few authors are as celebrated for their feminist approach to literature as Angela Carter. Publishing her first two poetry collections - Five Quiet Shouters and Unicorn, as well as her debut novel – Shadow Dance in 1966, Carter launched into a highly successful literary career spanning over 25 years. Ranked 10th in The Times 2008 list of ‘The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945’ and winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Nights at the Circus in 1984, Carter has been justly celebrated for her talents both during her lifetime and after her death in 1992. Perhaps best known for her short story collection, The Bloody Chamber published in 1979, Carter was renowned for expertly combining elements of magical realism with feminist themes, producing brilliantly engrossing narratives whilst helping to bring feminist themes and issues into wider public discussion and debate.
Modernist writer Virginia Woolf called attention to feminist issues in several of her works. Nowadays, perhaps the most influential and the best-known is the essay A Room of One’s Own published in 1929, a year after suffragists won the right to vote for women in Britain. It concentrates on the importance of wealth, stressing that ‘money’ and ‘a room’ is essential for intellectual freedom. She then expounds that the lack of financial independence was the main reason why only few women became great writers. Her essay indicates what struggles female writers faced in the past, yet it still remains relevant today by demonstrating persisting problems. I’m not arguing that nothing has changed over the last 92 years – on the contrary, I think Virginia would be proud to see what we have achieved - but nevertheless, she should continue to be a teacher for modern women.
Since the release of her debut novel, Ricky’s Birthday in 1969, Jacqueline Wilson has inspired generations of young female readers with her stories which have centred around real life issues affecting girls and women in modern-day society. In a career spanning more than 35 years, Wilson has written over 100 children’s books and demonstrated the power of the feminist icon in literature. Many of her books including The Story of Tracy Beaker, have even been successfully adapted into TV series and films. Having led a sheltered childhood, I found that the issues tackled in Wilson’s stories such as bullying, and divorce helped to open my eyes to the many potential challenges of growing up and adulthood. She has taught me about girl power, instilled a life-long love of literature and shaped my views of what it means to be a strong woman. Having paved the way for modern feminism, Wilson is a female author who definitely deserves to be celebrated!
Claire Maggie Dowens