Championing women writers, broadening the mind

How a simple question began thousands of conversations and got a celebration started

 

Last year the writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh created a series of hand-drawn bookmarks of some of her female literary heroes. Among them were Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir and Deborah Levy, and Walsh began to ask on Twitter: what books by women writers are you reading? Using the hashtag #readwomen2014 and a dedicated @readwomen2014 account, she got thousands of conversations started.

Obscure female writers were resurrected and hundreds of recommendations were traded weekly. The interaction also made people question the insularity of their reading habits. Many found that when they looked at their by-the-bed pile it lacked not just women but anything resembling diversity.

And so a movement was born that was as much about reading as it was about gender. It spawned offshoot discussions about what it means to be a woman writer, how women’s writing is perceived and how frequently – or infrequently, as the annual Vida: Women in Literary Arts report reveals – women’s’ writing is reviewed.

Walsh, urged on by those who saw the merits of the hashtag, encouraged her to drop “2014” and keep the account going in perpetuity at @readwomen. Newly abbreviated, #readwomen entered 2015 the week Nollaig na mBan was celebrated.

My Irish Times colleague Anna Carey and I (as the Anti Room) celebrated Women’s Christmas in association with the Women’s Museum of Ireland at the Irish Writers’ Centre.

Sold out for weeks, the event involved a room full of readers and writers (men included) who had come to talk about women’s writing.

Six “soapbox” guests discussed everything from bodily autonomy to not being a “good girl” and mental health; the main panel discussed the rise of essays and confessional writing. Last October the New York Times published a piece asking if we were in the middle of a golden age for the essay, backing up its inquiry by pointing out women’s dominance in the form.

Writers such as Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay were name-checked, and the piece itself was written by Cheryl Strayed, whose bestseller ‘Wild’ is in a long line of female “wilderness” memoirs. “Confessional” is a problematic term, evoking secrecy, religion, shame and a need to apologise and beg absolution for one’s experiences. It’s also a reductive tag, foisted on Roxane Gay when she discusses race, or how she was gang-raped, and on Jamison when she writes about her abortion. These are cultural, inquiring, academic critiques, but “confessional” is conferred on such writing only when it’s by women.

The Nollaig na mBan night was celebratory and there was a Kris Kindle, in which attendees wrapped up a book they loved by a female writer and wrote a short description on the front. (I gave Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and received Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck.)

We should diversify our reading: more women, more writers of colour, more work in translation. Here’s Ephron’s take on reading: “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

Sinéad Gleeson will chair a #readwomen panel at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire on Sunday, with Anne Enright, Joanna Walsh and Sarah Davis-Goff. paviliontheatre.ie/events

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