Once upon our travels, we found a zine about a woman who was raised by books. It was a simple photocopy-and-staple zine on pocket-sized orange paper, a woman’s tribute to the books she read growing up and all the fictional girls who gave her the courage to question and to follow no one’s path but her own - Matilda, Hermione Granger, Scout Finch, Lyra Belacqua, Jo March, and many more. We unfortunately lost the zine, but the story stayed with us long after it was gone.
Just like the zine-maker, we are very fond of the strong, smart girls we’ve read growing up. However, as we grow older and come across more books, we are not always comfortable with how women characters are portrayed in literature. A lot of the fictional women we encountered feel one-dimensional, as if they are ancient archetypes defined under the male gaze instead of fleshed-out characters. They are either the damsel in distress, the saintly mother, the spinster, the femme fatale, or even worse, a plot device to move along the journey of a male character. Even the strong heroines feel too perfect; too ideal compared to any of the women we know in real life.
This time, through our fourth thematic collaboration with Aksara, we are highlighting women characters in literature that are nuanced, realistic, and imperfect. These characters, often written by women themselves in the form of a novel, memoir, of graphic novels, are flawed. Like most women are in real life, they are not always sure what to do, make bad decisions, but nevertheless persisted. Their stories are not cautionary tales or heroic narratives, but open-ended stories of women with complex desires and intricate, often contradictory minds.
In these books, we’ll meet women who decide to pursue their desires instead of molding themselves to fit society’s standards, even when they face unintended consequences. They are the women in Angela Carter’s fairy tale retellings who refuse being passive object of desires, Intan Paramaditha’s Kau who chooses to give her soul to the devil and wander the world, and women in Carmen Maria Machado and Helen Oyeyemi’s short stories who pursue relationship with other women without shame, and Mei in Small Beauty who reminds us that not all women are born female.
We have books portraying women’s complex relationship with motherhood. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood reads like a hug for every woman who has struggled with whether or not they want to be a mother. Cyntha Hariadi’s Ibu Mendulang Anak Berlari is a collection of poems about all the anger, pain, sadness, and at times crippling doubt that are part and parcel of motherhood. Ponti and Are You My Mother? articulate the grief and disquiet in mother-daughter relationships.
Most of all, we have women who are adamant that their stories are not over. In In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri taught herself to write in Italian to see what kind of author she will become, abandoning the English that has given her the Pulitzer prize. Clarice Lispector’s Joana asked what comes after happiness. Roxane Gay in both her(essays) and memoir (Hunger) reminds us that women, as all human beings, are messy, don’t have all the answers, and trying to do their best in life. Lillian Boxfish, an 85 year old woman who took a walk alone around Manhattan on a New Year’s Eve, defying that a woman’s world should shrink as she ages.
These ink-and-paper women, and many more in our thematic highlight, are women of their own. Intersectional beings with constellations of identities and influences within them who are imperfect and will continue to evolve, just like women in flesh-and-blood. Flip over the books we’ve highlighted to read a note on why the women in each book are special to us.
We hope you enjoy meeting these women.
P.S: the intriguing header image is courtesy of Ika Vantiani, who facilitated a collage-making workshop on visualizing readers' favorite fictional women to kick off #AWomanofHerOwn.