On a particularly warm day in the spring of 2017, I wrote my final university exam. It was for my African Literature course — one I hadn’t necessarily needed to take for my degree, but thoroughly enjoyed taking nonetheless. I took my time writing the exam — the three hour slot was far too generous, but it was a new professor to the school and she was eager to have a successful semester and happy students. I wrote languidly, soaking in my surroundings: the beautiful clock tower that the exam was being held in, the sun streaming in through the windows, the sounds of students chattering outside on the field. I loved the school that had become my home, the studies that had become my passion, and for the first time, I felt sad to move on. I hadn’t expected to love studying literature as I much as I came to, and I felt a deep sorrow that it was ending.
After the exam, I walked home and started packing up the room that had been home for years. It was rather anticlimactic. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I had just graduated from university. I was 21 and about to move to Toronto with all of my earthly possessions packed tightly into the back of my car, my roommate in the front seat, and our cat on her lap. Up until the moment I put my key in the ignition, it didn’t feel real. But, the moment I pulled out of our driveway, I felt alive. The experience was new, exciting, liberating. I felt like I could do anything, be anything — all I had to do was decide where to start. It was like the beginning of any great story — the protagonist is on the precipice of greatness, and you can just feel the possibilities that await them on every page.
Fast forward six months and the excitement quickly faded — I was working in the corporate world where everyone was named Frank or Gary and had children that were my age. I felt like I’d hit a wall — I was stagnant. I bemoaned my new life to my roommate constantly. I longed for the days of sitting in beautiful stone libraries reading and studying, or the conversations I’d have in class about my favourite authors, or when my heart would soar while reading a passage that resonated with me in a special way. I was searching for a way to ignite that passion again, but I felt powerless. I lamented to my roommate about how much I enjoyed studying literature and how badly I missed it until, once she was finally sick of my complaints, she reminded me that I didn't need a class to determine what I spent my time reading. I decided to engage in an activity: I would read only books written by women for a month.
At university, I had often joked about the fact that almost 90% of the literature I was assigned to read was written by men, and predominantly white men. While I made jokes about this unfortunate fact of my education, I felt largely cheated out of a well-rounded education in literature, with the exception of the one African lit course I took in fourth year. I decided that this experiment was going to be my way of rectifying an unbalanced education — I would expand my own horizons. I took to the internet and wrote down the top ten books written by women that were recommended to me. Again, I was disappointed. My recommendations were bland, dated, and obvious. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Emma were among them. None were from this century and none were written by women of colour. I tried again, searching for contemporary publications. This time, the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games books and somehow, Twilight, were top results. I was frustrated — where were all the great books by women?
I started the experiment with the “classics”, but was quickly bored as a result. How many times can one read and reread the Brontë sisters or Austen before lulling themselves into a deep sleep every time they look at the cover? I quickly decided that the best way to go about this was to open up the experiment to the women I surrounded myself with. I followed blogs about literature and independent feminist mags on Instagram. I subscribed to newsletters about women in literature. I went to the library and asked for their recommendations. I started to find what I was looking for: the secret world of women authors made up of the books we hold close to our hearts and share with each other with as much reverence as our innermost dreams and secrets.
In fact, the most unexpected result of this experiment came from the women I spoke to about the project. Talking to other women — my mother, my aunt, my roommates, coworkers, and friends — about their favourite women authors showed me a deeply meaningful side of them. It awoke a discussion I’d never had with any of them about a wide array of topics: love, life, race, where we come from and what that means about us. We talked about pain, healing, feminism, sex, and violence. Each woman’s soul was so deeply tied to the books they wanted me to read. If they were shy when I approached the topic, I understood — they were sharing a part of their soul with me.
These discussions brought a new world of literature into my life. I was encouraged to read Zadie Smith, Roxanne Gay, Joan Didion. I was introduced to new publications from young authors, like Orion Carloto or classics that I couldn’t believe I had missed, like Maya Angelou. Jessica Hopper introduced me the feeling of freedom through her life as a DJ in Chicago; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made me believe in love again through a young Nigerian woman going to school in the US; April Ayers Lawson made me question everything I thought I knew about intimacy through a marriage in the South.
The experience has definitely emboldened me in a myriad of ways. I’ve connected with my own femininity and womanhood, and moreover with parts of myself I didn’t know existed. I wept while reading some novels and laughed until I couldn’t breathe at others. Most importantly, I read novels where the protagonists were decidedly imperfect. It was validating to read about other women who questioned themselves the way I do, or made the same stupid mistakes that I do, or dated the wrong men, said the wrong thing, went the wrong way, like I do. I felt more confident that the inherent fallibility of my existence as a human being was acceptable, and moreover, necessary. I read novels without the perfect endings that Austen and the Brontës created, and I realized that the best stories have no fairytale elements. That more than a Mr. Darcy, I deeply desired the freedom to make my own choices, chase my dreams, fall down and pick myself up again. I realized that I have so much going on within me that I want to share my thoughts, my soul, the way that these authors have.
Finally, I realized that the world is so much wider than I ever realized it was through my formal education of mostly white, male, English literature. Every time I finished one of these woman-authored books, I felt as though I was floating; like I’d done something good for my heart, my soul. Like flossing or drinking eight glasses of water, it was something I needed for survival.
At first, I shied away from telling anyone about this journey. I feared the teasing, the write off that I was some feminazi with too much time on her hands. I didn’t really know where that fear came from within me, and I was deeply ashamed of it. There’s a wider world of literature than we realize, and it’s up to us to dive in, head first; to let go of preconceived notions, of fear of labels or ridicule, and live our lives for ourselves. It emboldened me to challenge others too — I recently asked the young man who sits next to me at work how many of the books he read this year were written by women. His answer was three out of 32. He swore to change that. Hopefully he means to — I’ll check in again.
I enjoyed the challenge so much that I extended it through a year. I'm almost finished now, and have been exposed to a beautiful array of literature that my degree failed to show me. It's been an experience in my own understanding of literature and feminism, and broadened my understanding of the world. I’ve ravenously consumed books by women from across the globe; women that have written 15 novels and women’s first ever publications; books about war, peace, love, hate, happiness, and despair. The common thread through each is the question of identity: who we are, what we owe, what we’re going to do with the life we’ve been given. I’m so grateful for the women who have been brave enough to bare their souls onto paper for us, and in doing so, changed my life. These questions are still unanswered in my life, but at least I’m on my way to discovering the answers, one day, in excellent company.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If I could, Adichie would hold the top five slots on this list. She writes prose the way it is meant to be written. I believe in love, in empowerment, in the pure beauty of those soul shattering moments that this world holds for us because of her books.
Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler
When I was 21, I moved to Toronto with $800 in my pocket and no job, unbeknownst to me, much like the protagonist of Danler’s book. The book confirmed in me that the fears I felt and the mistakes I made were ok, normal, and in a way, necessary.
What we owe, Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde
I picked this book up in Williamsburg on a trip after learning that my parents were divorcing. I was angry at my parents and hurt that this was happening. This book is why I believe that the universe makes things happen for a reason. Bonde’s expression of pain and power in motherhood helped me to understand why my parents need to live for themselves and helped me reconnect with my own mother.
Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
This seems like an obvious choice, but sometimes choices are obvious for a reason. Gay’s Bad Feminist came into my life when I needed it most — it transformed from my commuting read to a book I couldn’t bear to put down. Gay writes about both the personal and cultural in a way that seamlessly integrates the two into one, and in doing so, challenges the reader and herself every step of the way.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
One of my best friends, Maddy, has been a Joan Didion fan since the day I met her. I finally caved and read this book and have never been more furious at myself than I was upon finishing it, recognizing the years of my life that this book could have influenced that I missed out on.
Flux, Orion Carloto
Flux is a book of poetry and prose that reflects on Carloto’s experience with love, loss, and the whirlwind of emotions that accompany change. I initially read this book after my first “real adult” relationship ended; when I didn’t know how to process the pain I felt. Flux guided me through it with open arms. Get a cup of warm tea before you pick this one up.
Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney
My other best friend, Emma, recommended this book to me near the end of my challenge. Rooney’s characters encapsulate exactly what it feels like to be young and an almost-adult. How do we carve our path? How do we figure out who we are? Rooney, who is merely four years older than us, tackles this within her first foray into the writing world. Too impatient to wait for her second book’s North American release, we’ve already ordered it from the UK.
Feel Free, Zadie Smith
After reading this book of essays by one of the greatest writers of my time, I knew it had to be shared. I’ve purchased it for friends and family members’ birthdays and lent out my copy nearly a dozen times. Smith talks about contemporary issues unlike anyone else.
2Fish, Jhene Aiko Efuru Chilombo
Those who know the name Jhene Aiko usually know the singer with the luxurious voice and heart-melting lyrics. They’re missing out on Jhene the poet/author. 2Fish is a collection of poems and stories ranging from teenagedom to adulthood, filled with the emotions that come in and out of life throughout those years.
I know why the caged bird sings, Maya Angelou
Again, a classic. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read Angelou until this year. This autobiography details Angelou’s early years and traumas. She covers racism, rape, identity, dignity, family and literacy in a book that isn’t for the faint of heart but is necessary for the soul.
Sarah O’Flaherty is a writer from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and graduate of Queens University. She is also the co-host of S & M the Podcast.