Being an equality practitioner means that your year is punctuated by various history months and days. March 8 th is International Women’s Day (IWD) and the 21st is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD).
IDERD 2021 is focused on recognition, justice and development: the key components of the International Decade for People of African Descent, which began in 2015. As the Decade reached its half-way mark in 2020, the UN is taking stock of the progress made and deciding on further necessary actions.
IWD is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.
IWD 2021’s campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge, the premise being a challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequity. We can choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.
This last year has without doubt been a personal and global challenge. One of the things it has given me an opportunity to do is to read more. So, here I reflect on
some of the amazing novels I have read by and about women across the globe that both celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness about women’s equality. This itself is a revolutionary act, as I will come to.
My 2020 reads included
Queenie – Candice Carty Williams. Queenie Jenkins is a twenty-five-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither.
Love and other Thought Experiments – Sophie Ward. Rachel and Eliza are hoping to have a baby. Told in ten interconnecting but self-contained chapters inspired by some of the best-known thought experiments in philosophy.
Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens. Kya Clark’s story – a child abandoned and having to fend for herself decoding the world around her.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree – Azar Shookoofeh. Set in Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a thirteen-year-old girl, whose family is compelled to flee their home in Tehran.
Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah. Kim Ayami heads into the Seoul night with her former boss, searching for a missing friend.
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga. The third in a trilogy joining Tambu in middle age living the obstacles facing women in contemporary Harare scarred by Zimbabwe’s war of independence and the long-standing impacts of colonisation.
Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid. Emira and Alix explores issues of women’s status in society, race, friendship and romance, identity and agency, being a parent, class and privilege. Examining emotional labour, the racial dynamics and the interplay with class that are reality of all our lives.
How much of these Hills is gold – C Pam Zhang. One of Barack Obama’s favourite books of the year. Set after the Great American Gold Rush, following the journey of Chinese immigrant children Lucy and Sam.
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste. Set in 1935 Ethiopia. The story of Hirut’s struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid against the backdrop of the Italian invasion helps the reader explore female power, and what it means to be a woman in a time of war.
Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi. Antara finds herself caring for her increasingly debilitated mother and reflecting on their lives and the shaping of their difficult relationship.
I won’t write you a book review or go through each of these in the detail they deserve. But what do you notice as you look through this list? All books written by women, about women, that criss-cross the globe in terms of their authorship and content. This shouldn’t feel revolutionary or unusual, but it is. I have made a conscious choice in recent years to seek out female authors from around the world.
Women (and particularly women of colour) face challenges in the publishing world as they do in so many walks of life. They face struggles in being taken seriously, balancing work and the responsibilities of life, avoiding being typecast into subjects and ideas. Imagine the layers of obstacles and pigeon-holing for women of colour, gay women, trans women, disabled women or if unbelievably (she says tongue in cheek you are more than one of these things!)! Kamlia Shamsie’s great article, ‘let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation‘ examines the gender imbalance in writing by looking at the percentages of female winners of major writing prizes around the world. This article was written in 2015 and may have made some difference as pretty much all the books I read were listed for major literary prizes.
Gender and race imbalances in the publishing industry might be thought to suggest that broader society continues to prefer the (straight, white,) male voice and expertise. I thoroughly dispute that assumption and think that instead it is a result of (straight, white) men still dominating positions of power – from teachers of literature, to judges, critics and reviewers.
America, Africa, Asia, Europe are all represented in these books. They are real stories without stereotypes. Given, for example, that there are around 200 million people identifying themselves as being of African descent living in the Americas and that many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent, it feels right that we should read and learn more about their experiences.
Reading these stories helps us all build understanding and empathy. I have always been a reader, loving how it takes me into other worlds, learning about others’ reality. I am a sucker for story – which is maybe why I only got a D in my English Literature A level – as I was so taken with stories and characters, rather than the literary trappings.
Researchers at the New School in New York City found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling and can “support and teach us values about social behaviour, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.” This suggests that reading can increase a person’s emotional intelligence and empathy, meaning they can better put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
My #ChoosetoChallenge for recognition, justice and development is to ask who are you listening to and learning about? #ChoosetoChallenge: let’s disrupt the accepted norm and ensure that all our stories – from all round the globe and from the huge range of women’s experience is heard.