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Slow, laboured, but steady progress for women’s writing since the 1980s

Of particular interest is a survey of judges, guardians of the ‘canon’ which for so long excluded women

As students in 1980s Dublin, the part-time job we coveted above all others was Waterstones bookseller, where a respectable £3-something an hour was augmented by a generous 30 per cent staff discount.

When I emigrated to LA in 1989, I bagged my dream job in The Upstart Crow, a bookshop-coffeeshop run by a team of 20-something book-lovers. We organised readings and children’s story hours, doling out book recommendations along with pecan pie and rugelach, and flavoured coffee-of-the-day. Our customers were tourists, locals, and sailors from Long Beach naval base.

One of us married one of them; another took off in a ‘65 Ford Mustang with a photographer who said he could make her a star; the 50-year-old guy from the framing shop next door bent our ears with tales of his bad divorce: every day was a soap opera. But we were also industrious bookstore elves, taking stock, reshelving strays, and eagerly slicing open new deliveries every few days to inhale the smell, like the print junkies we were.

One of the first books I took from these boxes was the mass-market paperback edition of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. This edition was a glitzy thing, red metallic foil lettering on top of Chinatown dragons, and a banner declaring its nine months on the New York Times bestseller list. I started reading on the shop floor where I stood.

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Drawing on her own life, Tan weaves together the stories of four Chinese-American women and their Mah Jong-playing mothers. The novel opens with a worthy myth: a swan carries an old woman from China to America where she will have a daughter, “But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow!”

A few lines later, the woman is now old, and has “a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow”, hinting that the novel’s theme of intergenerational cultural conflict will be approached less than earnestly. Witty and entertaining, The Joy Luck Club struck a chord with this immigrant from a small, monocultural island, introducing an unknown world to me. In its 1993 adaptation, it became the first Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast.

As an American, Tan would not be eligible for the Booker Prize until 2013, but what chance would The Joy Luck Club have had? The year I read it, 1991, was the year that no novel by a woman was shortlisted. Women writers fared better in the second half of the ‘80s than in previous years, however. New Zealander Keri Hulme was the 1985 winner with The Bone People, and Penelope Lively won in 1987 with Moon Tiger. In 1986, Margaret Atwood was shortlisted for The Handmaid’s Tale and again in 1989, for Cat’s Eye; she would be pipped at the post yet again in 1996, with Alias Grace, the year in which judge AL Kennedy called the prize “a pile of crooked nonsense” influenced by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”.

If the Booker is imperfect, it is also an imperfect tool by which to gauge the health of the novel, yet it does provide some useful statistics. Of particular interest is a survey of judges, guardians of the “canon” which for so long excluded women. In the prize’s first decade, there were 15 women judges compared to 34 men, almost exactly half. This ratio improved in the ‘80s, but the balance still skewed male 21:29. It was not until 1983 that women first outnumbered men on any panel, and we had to wait until the 21st century before parity was established (2000-present: 57:57).

Atwood had yet another Booker shortlisting in 2003 with Oryx and Crake before finally winning in 2000 with The Blind Assassin. She won again in 2019, when — in what was criticised by some as spectacular misjudgement, given the shabby treatment of women over the years — it was decided that the prize would be shared between two women, Atwood and Bernardine Avaristo. Who chooses these judges? According to their website, an advisory committee, currently comprising nine men, a male chairman, and three women.

Beloved, Toni Morrison’s 1987 gothic bildungsroman about slavery and its legacy won the Pulitzer Prize and was key to her Nobel Prize win in 1993. Other notable coming-of-age narratives of this era include Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and The Lover (1984, translation 1986), Marguerite Duras’ strange and unsettling tale of a teenager and her much older Chinese lover.

It was her novels I came to first, but Lorrie Moore first strode onto the literary stage in 1985 with her humorous and idiosyncratic short story collection, Self-Help. Our bookshop did a brisk trade in self-help manuals, which we English-lit-types were obliged to ridicule, but Moore took the concept and ran with it, offering advice for women in various untenable situations they might find themselves, including “How to be the Other Woman”, “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce”, and “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)”.

Another newcomer, in 1988, was Mary Gatskill, whose collection, Bad Behaviour, gave voice to young women’s desire, including the socially taboo kind. It is frank and funny and often painful. Evelyn Conlon’s debut collection, My Head is Opening (1987), opened my mind to what was possible for an Irish woman writer, while in 1989, Mary Dorcey broke the silence on Irish lesbian fiction with her collection A Noise from the Woodshed, which went on to win the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Dorcey’s poetry collection, Kindling, came out the same year, but living abroad in a pre-internet age, I did not know this. I was busy discovering the vibrant poetry scene of my adopted city, attending and organising readings, even reading myself. LA’s poetry movement is comprehensively documented in the recent translation into English of Sophie Rachmuhl’s A Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990, which in addition to the better-known Venice Beats, Beyond Baroque and the Watts Writers Workshop, covers Chicano poets, the Woman’s Building, LGBT, Punk and the spoken word. It comes with a fascinating DVD documentary, Innerscapes: 10 Portraits of Los Angeles Poets, featuring performances and interviews with Wanda Coleman, Laurel Ann Bogen, Marisela Norte, Dr Mongo, Kamau Daáood, among others.

I was late to Medhb McGuckian’s écriture féminine; the Irish language poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhaill; and the witty, working-class voice of Rita Ann Higgins, whose first collections Goddess on the Mervue Bus and Witch in the Bushes were published in 1986 and 1988 respectively. Also taking class for her theme, as well as feminism, Dublin, the Troubles, spirituality, and the environment — US environmental poet Gary Snyder was her mentor — was future Ireland professor of poetry Paula Meehan. Meehan’s second collection, Reading the Sky, was published in 1986 and would be chosen by Fintan O’Toole for his Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks project. I came to Meehan through The Man Who Was Marked by Winter, her third collection published in 1991, but it was the mid-1980s that inspired its best-known poem, The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks, when schoolgirl Ann Lovett died after giving birth at a grotto in Longford, and statues appeared to move. The chill of the poem’s opening encapsulates the period and presages the terrible tragedy that is about to unfold:

It can be bitter here at times like this,

November wind sweeping across the border.

Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick.

Meehan’s Virgin gives short shrift to religion — virgin mothers, murder in “the various names of God”, prayers that “fly up like sparks from a bonfire / that blaze a moment, then wink out”. As a plaster icon, she is powerless to help the girl who gives birth alone at her feet. She yearns for a human body, invoking a female sexuality that, in Ireland at the time, coming out of any woman’s mouth, let alone that of Holy Mary, the Blessed Virgin, was shocking.

My time in California came to an end in 1993, when I returned to Dublin to do a master’s degree in women’s studies. There, I would encounter Gloria Anzaldúa’s enlightening feminist anthology, This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour (co-edited with Cherríe Moraga, 1981). It was decades before I got to Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, her seminal 1987 text, in which borders — specifically the US-Mexico border — are not just physical for its Chicana author, but social, cultural, psychological and spiritual.

Anzaldúa draws on cultural, feminist, race and queer theories to find more pluralistic ways of thinking about identity. Mixing essay, poetry, autobiography, history, and manifesto, in Spanish and English, it also points the way towards new ways of writing. I wish I’d had Borderlands for my guide when I traversed the US-Mexico border as a white European tourist with writing aspirations.

  • Paula McGrath is a novelist and assistant professor of creative writing at University College Dublin

Further reading

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989) — Explores the tension between immigrant Chinese mothers and their Chinese-American daughters.

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore (1985) — Witty, droll, short stories at their finest.

A Noise from the Woodshed: Short Stories by Mary Dorcey (1989) — Contemporary lesbian lives are foregrounded in this collection, in lyrical, clever prose.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984, translated to English in 1986 by Barbara Bray) — A dark and haunting autobiographical novella about an affair between a French adolescent and her older, wealthy Chinese lover.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987) — Explores the collective trauma of slavery and the redeeming power of love. A masterpiece.

Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990 by Sophie Rachmuhl (2015) — A comprehensive history of the Los Angeles poetry scene and a must-read for anyone with an interest in spoken word poetry.

As If By Magic: Selected Poems by Paula Meehan (2020) — Treat yourself to this selection of poems from one of our finest contemporary poets.

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E Anzaldúa (1987) — A semi-autobiographical text on borders as the in-between place where cultures collide.