More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.
Over the last few years, I made a point of including books by women in translation—that is, once I discovered this gap in my reading habits. As I discussed earlier, it’s a tremendous loss to be unaware of these amazing women writing excellent books—a compounded loss, when we consider how many women’s books don’t get translated in the first place. WITMonth[*] goes some ways towards changing that trend as each year passes, which is why I like to remind folks about this event. After all, it’s always a great idea to support women writers. Speaking personally, reading these works has enriched my life, and I’m glad that these books and writers are getting their deserved attention.
This year, however, I found myself looking forward to WITMonth a bit more than I previously did.[†] On Twitter, I enjoyed conversations where people shared their recommendations for books they recently read or favorites they felt everyone should read. There was the joy of discovering people who liked books that I liked as well as the thrill that someone was going to read a book I suggested. It was a stimulating experience that made me ransack my bookshelves and download a few new books.[‡] Perhaps this represents my passion for books or the pleasure of an uncomplicated conversation in a tumultuous year, but I think there’s more to it that I may have overlooked at a different time.
Connection and Community
WITMonth is a connector, both through books and social media. I chatted with folks from England, Australia, and distant parts of my own country about books and why they or I must read them. The act of reading these books, too, forges connections. When I picked up books written by writers from distant times and places, people who speak and live differently than I do, I travel through these experiences—something for which I’m grateful as my opportunities to travel and meet people are limited at present. More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.[§]
WITMonth both celebrates women writers we might otherwise miss without an annual event to bring these books more attention and creates community. And it’s not limited to just one month: we can read these books and continue discussing them online throughout the year.
If you’re looking for great titles to add to your reading list, check out Meytal Radzinki’s web site. As the founder of #WITmonth, her suggestions span the globe.
[†] Though, I confess I read less than I hoped to do. Covid-19’s effect on my reading is to allow time to read in great gulps or not at all. Also, I undertook reading The Tale of Genji, and it is massive.
[‡] My local library had The Perfect Nanny (in England, Lullaby) by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor), a haunting, tragic novel exploring class, race, and parenting. (Warning for violence against children/death and suicide.)
[§] More on this point in an upcoming post, as 2020, also has been a time of unrest and protest for social justice.
This year’s review features books I didn’t choose but read anyway, procrastination, and, as always, the new year’s reading list.
At this time of year, I normally like to compile a list of notable books that I’ve read over the past year as well as create a reading list for the year ahead. However, there’s been a change in plans this year, because I have already shared my shortlist of notable books from 2018 elsewhere. As you may know, I belong to the Women Writers Network, which is a volunteer group running a Twitter account that focuses on supporting and promoting women writers. Helen Taylor (one of the founder members and author of The Backstreets of Purgatory) compiled our favorite reads of 2018. Since my top six books of 2018 appear on this list (you can find the list at Helen’s web site), I thought I’d focus on some very different reading highlights from the past year before presenting my to-be-read list, which I eternally hope to complete by the year’s end regardless of how faithless I was to the previous year’s list. But I digress. Let’s get back to last year’s reading adventures.
The Alternative Reading Highlights of 2018
Over the past few years, I’ve participated in both reading and book photo challenges (you can view my entries to the Reading Women Month book photo challenge and Bookriot’s #Riotgrams here). Although I’ve never per se “won” a challenge by completing all the categories, it’s fun to see what fellow book lovers share. Generally, the highlight of my reading challenges is that they inspire me to stretch outside my reading comfort zone or discover more diverse perspectives. However, this year’s Reading Women Challenge inspired me to stop procrastinating and finish the book that’s lingered the longest on my reading list. I’m pleased to announce I finally read Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller. Despite it being a more challenging read, this fascinating early feminist tract makes a strong religious argument for woman’s self-sufficiency and expanded rights. Partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Fuller’s work in turn spurred suffragists in the United States to demand the vote.
Most Unlikely to Be Read
Book challenges influence my reading greatly, as do Twitter chat suggestions and personal recommendation. One of the more whimsical books I read this year is one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, even had any of these sources suggested it. Though a difficult to categorize book, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going with Your Gut proved to an enjoyable read. Part sentimental, part hilarious, part memoir, and part cookbook, it left me bemused but feeling upbeat. While I’m not sure I’d attempt some of the recipes, I’d definitely read it again.
Most Unexpected Source of Reading Recommendations
Speaking of books I wouldn’t have selected without an outside influence, I curiously have Netflix to thank for my discovering the Phryne Fisher mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. Halfway through the first episode, I already suspected it was based on a book (Cocaine Blues), and the credits proved me right. My thoughtful spouse picked up the first three books for me, which I then read in short order. Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work (roughly the same period, different country, very different detective), these flapper detective novels were a great change from stuffy male detectives. Since the television series diverged a fair bit in places from their source material, I’m glad I saw it before I read it—I happen to be one of those people who usually takes a strong dislike to films/television shows when I read the book first. Either way, I intend to check out the credits in the future, in case they point me to a good book or two.
Hopefully, you’ve found some reading inspiration here, regardless of the source. Here’s to the new year and happy reading!
2019’s Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina Life of Pi by Yann Martel Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) Claudine at School In: Colette: The Complete Claudine by Colette (Translated by Antonia White) Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawkes Pachinko by Min Jin Lee Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw) Waymaking: an Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art (Edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard)
 My review of The Backstreets of Purgatory is here now available here! (Updated: 10 March 2019.)
 Remarkably, I only missed four, one of which was a planned re-read. For the curious, these books are Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw), Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was my re-read, because I wanted to see if I still enjoyed it as an adult.
 In itself, a great way to get reading recommendations.
 These reading challenges include the Black History Month Reading Challenge (two books), Women in Translation Month (2 books during that month, 3 more later), and roughly half (around 13) of the Reading Women Challenge. I’m still working on making my reading more diverse.
 This book was a gift from my oldest brother who chose it because it reminded him of my food-based coffee table books (ie, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure and The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks). Thanks, Jon!
My spouse has long thought I should give this writing event a whirl. I, on the other hand, am less enthused. And not just in the usual introvert-not-interested-in-joining-groups way.
As you may know already, NaNoWriMo challenges it participants to start writing a novel over the course of a month. The goal, of course, isn’t to produce a polished novel, but a first draft—or at least 50,000 words into that draft. Therefore, writers should aim to write at least 1667 words every day of November. While approximately 2000 words seems a reasonable amount to write in a day, I worry about whether I can do so every day.2 Like most writers I know, I squeeze my writing in whenever I can. Committing to a daily word count in practice sounds fine but sustaining that effort for weeks despite other obligations seems intimidating. As far as months to devote oneself to writing go, November is hardly ideal for me.3 But my ability to maintain this writing pace aside, I’m more concerned about, well, writing a novel. Until now, I’ve only written short stories and poetry. While I think my current story is a much longer one, I’m worried that I might not have enough material for a novel.
Despite my concerns, however, I am taking the NaNoWriMo plunge this year. Nothing, I find, motivates writing more than a deadline. As a potential side benefit, I’m hoping that the pressure to meet this goal will inspire me to discover opportunities for writing alongside other commitments. I wouldn’t mind walking away from NaNoWriMo with a better writing schedule. With my writing buddies to cheer me along this month (thereby keeping me accountable), I think I’ll be more likely to keep at the keyboard. But the final push for committing to NaNoWriMo, however, stemmed from my decision to prioritize my writing more and worry less about whether it fit a certain category. Regardless of my story’s final word count, I’m just going to write it. If it proves to be much shorter than I hoped, I’ll start another one. And, as I’ve been delighted to learn, many others look at NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to work on writing short fiction or poetry, while others use this time to edit their work. Although it may not be the official way to participate in this event, it achieves a larger objective: to get out there and get writing. And that is certainly a goal worth accomplishing.
Good luck, fellow Wrimos!
National Novel Writing Month, for anyone who doesn’t know. ↩
My favorite advice for keeping pace with the NaNoWriMo writing goals involves the JUST WRITE mantra, meaning that one should skip both revising and editing, with it being suggested that one should ignore both spelling and grammar errors as well as typos. Ignoring the latter alone would make my draft illegible. (Never mind what the professional editor in me thinks about leaving even glaring errors unchallenged.) ↩
Every Saturday (and one Sunday) is already booked. In addition to two family birthdays (one of which is mine) and American Thanksgiving, I also will be attending a few family events that involve travel. ↩
“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”
Although Clarice Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star (translated by Benjamin Moser), is a slim volume, no less than the creation of the cosmos serves as its opening. Author Rodrigo S. M. (the book’s narrator), unable to decide where he should begin recounting the tragic tale of his young character, Macabéa, chooses prehistory. It’s all the more a remarkable place to start, given that the narrator emphasizes how insignifcant Macabéa is: she could be readily replaced by any other girl like her. But in Lispector’s contemplative work, this signals the novel’s philosophical concerns with poverty, identity, and existence itself. Because if Macabéa is practically interchangeable with countless other poor, northeastern girls of Brazil, she also symbolizes them and becomes something akin to an archetype whose ancient roots are difficult to pinpoint. Rodrigo seems to ask: Have girls like her existed since life has?
“Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”
From this perspective, it’s little wonder that Rodrigo suffers as he writes about Macabéa’s humble life. Lispector’s dichotomous characters illustrate both the difficulty in truly understanding another’s existence and with communication.1 In many ways her opposite (well-educated, clearly older, and affluent), the narrator anxiously strives to pare down his linguistic excesses, because they don’t suit Macabéa’s circumstances. Yet, Rodrigo often fails to retain this simplicity as he expounds on his writing process or as he struggles to explain Macabéa’s “delicate and vague existence”. His attempt to bring himself closer to the virginal Macabéa’s level—by swearing off sex and sports—is undermined as he dines on fruit and sips on chilled wine, luxuries unavailable to her. Here, Lispector entertains the possibilities of empathy while delineating its boundaries. Though pained by his efforts to relate Macabéa’s tale, Rodrigo acknowledges that he writes because he “has questions and no answers”. Macabéa, in contrast, questions nothing and is happy simply because she believes, though not in any specific deity, person, or thing. Rodgrigo’s attempts to define this young woman and her elusive grace seems only to cause him to question himself instead (“Am I a monster?”).2
“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”
As the unlovely Macabéa’s tale finally takes shape, her existence proves to be as undernourished as her body is: orphaned as a child and suffering from rickets, raised by an indifferent aunt, and transplanted from her rural town to Rio de Janeiro, where her life (once her aunt dies) is a lonely one. This young lady’s life is also circumscribed by its material lack. Possessing only three years of education, listening to the radio is a source of unexpected beauty (when she first hears opera) and confusion (when radio hosts discuss unfamilar words/concepts such as “culture”). Lispector’s point that she resembles thousands of girls like her, underscored by Rodrigo’s ineffective guilt that he should do something for this fictional girl, makes a grim point about the haves and have nots.3 Unfortunately for Macabéa, no forthcoming rescue or deeper connection forged with another occurs. Although she briefly attracts the attentions of Olímpico (another northeasterner), he leaves her for her more attractive coworker, Glória. Glória’s guilt prompts her to help Macabéa in some way, but this assistance unintentionally imperils Macabéa. Without revealing too many details, Macabea’s life explodes into that of a “thousand-pointed star” as she departs it, leaving behind Rodrigo—an author powerless to save her—attempting to divert himself from thinking about his own eventual demise.
The Hour of the Star recalls a certain adage about judging books by their appearance. As someone new to Lispector’s work,4 I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a slim book (under 80 pages), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this serious meditation on life, death, poverty, writing, etc., complicating a seemingly simple story. The Hour of the Star is a must for a thinking readers, as it gives its audience much to mull over long after its cover is closed.
In Macabéa’s case, she often is misunderstood or unheard even when speaking quite clearly (eg, “As for the future.”). Also of interest, Rodrigo reveals here that he lived in the northeast as a boy. ↩
Lispector can be somewhat playful in considering identity. Rodrigo, in observing that no one would miss a poor girl like Macabéa, realizes he, too, could be replaced—but only by a man, since a woman “would make it all weepy and maudlin”. Certainly, it’s an amusing idea in an unsentimental novel written by a woman, one that also permits Lispector to draw a line between herself and Rodrigo and subtly indicate that, though they’re both from the northeast, they are not one and the same. ↩
In keeping with Lispector’s desire for empathy (whatever its limits may be), Rodrigo encourages wealthy and middle readers to step outside themselves and attempt to experience her life. He assumes poor readers will need not do so. ↩
Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.
For me, storytelling fundamentally begins with an interruption. At one point in a story, something occurs to interrupt the flow of the main character’s everyday life. This moment is often described as the inciting incident or inciting event of the story. The inciting incident represents a decision, action, or event that introduces the story’s main problem/conflict, thus triggering the rising action of the story. When it comes to writing a story’s inciting event, however, the process isn’t always as straightforward as its definition suggests. Whether a writer diligently plots their story before writing or discovers it as they write,1 creating an interesting inciting incident and inserting it at the right moment can be difficult. Since stories hinge upon their conflict, it’s critical that writers understand how the inciting incident operates in stories (for my purposes, fiction). To this end, I’m going to review some of the general guidelines for writing an inciting incident (with examples of what they look like in practice) as well point out a few tips to identifying whether a story’s inciting incident works well.
Placement: In the Beginning…Somewhere
When formulating a short story or novel’s inciting incident, there are two guiding principles that should be kept in mind. The first is that the inciting incident must occur somewhere in the story’s opening. This point is nonnegotiable. If the inciting incident doesn’t occur in the early portion of the story, there isn’t a conflict to generate the rest of the story. The actual placement, however, is debatable. Some advice places the inciting event roughly halfway between the narrative hook and its first plot point (around the 12% mark of the story). While the placement proffered here seems about right (particularly for writers using a three-act structure to plot their tale), there are stories where the inciting event occurs close to the story’s first plot point (the end of the story’s open) or even much earlier. An excellent example of the latter case is the first lines from Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein):
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me….Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”
Here, Ferrante uses Mario’s desertion as both her novel’s inciting event and narrative hook.2 While this instance demonstrates how writers can be flexible about where they place the inciting incident in the novel’s opening act, most stories will require some exposition to explain why this inciting incident creates conflict for the main character. For example, the narrative hook in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) appears as the first line of the novel, whereas the inciting event (Maxim de Winter’s rather rushed and unromantic marriage proposal) occurs in chapter 6. This pacing makes sense, partly because the narrator needs to shift from present to past (most of the novel is a flashback) and partly because the characters need to meet and become acquainted before an engagement can occur.
Impact: Reacting to Life-Altering Change
The second general principle of the inciting incident involves its impact on the main character/protagonist. As I noted above, stories begin with interruption but not just any interruption will do. The inciting incident must have a significant impact on the protagonist’s life, one that forces them to react (in some cases, eventually react when the stakes are raised) to their new circumstances.3 In Days of Abandonment, Mario’s decision to end his marriage with Olga has obvious, life-altering consequences for her. In addition to dealing with this unexpected and unexplained dissolution of her relationship, Olga is also left to care for the couple’s children and home on her own. She essentially transforms from stay-at-home parent and wife of 15 years to single mother. Regardless of how she chooses to react to this situation (in the novel, initially with disbelief), her life is now headed in a new, uncertain direction.
Tips for Assessing Inciting Incidents
Identifying an inciting incident in a published work is one thing. Creating an effective one in our own work, however, is a different matter. Although I can’t claim to have an exhaustive list of strategies that provides specific suggestions for creating the perfect inciting incident (placement of this moment, for example, depends on the story), asking these questions while plotting/writing a tale can help determine whether its inciting incident hits the mark.4
Is my inciting incident in the story’s opening?
Does the inciting incident divide the story into before (backstory) and after?
How does the inciting incident transform the protagonist’s life?
While the first of these questions is more of a checklist item, the others give some guidance on how to interrogate a work-in-progress’s inciting incident. Since one of the hallmarks of the inciting incident is that it cleaves the story into before (backstory) and after (events that occur in response to the inciting incident), we should be able to distinguish them. And the story should be divisible, as the last question indicates, because the inciting incident upsets the protagonist’s status quo.
Backstory events are, of course, necessary for developing the story (the narrator and Maxim de Winter from Rebecca clearly wouldn’t have wed without having first met in Monte Carlo), but they materially change little for the protagonist (following this first encounter, the pair part and go about their usual business). Similarly, the inciting event causes the remaining events in the story (the narrator and Maxim wed but only because he first proposes). Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.5 If it’s unclear where the division between before and after occurs in a story, the inciting incident is likely weak or absent. When a work-in-progress’s inciting incident fails to alter the main character’s life in some meaningful way (sadly, a problem I discovered in a short story I’m revising), then that incident needs revision. Alternatively, if there are two or more events that could alter the status quo for the protagonist, then the writer needs to choose which option best suits the story and revise accordingly.
When working with fictional stories, there are numerous moving parts to get in order to before a story is sound. Getting a story underway is challenging though necessary, as the opening gets the readers invested in the tale. And the inciting incident is critical for kicking off conflict in a story. With a firm grasp on how the inciting incident works and a few tactics for detecting whether these story elements work or become wayward, writers should find it easier to get their stories on course.
On occasion, online writing advice conflates the narrative hook with the inciting incident, which is perhaps understandable since both occur early in the story and need to be compelling. And, as the Ferrante’s novel shows, they can be one and the same. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the narrative hook presents an intriguing scenario that baits the reader into reading further by making them wonder what occurs next; inclusion of the story’s inciting incident is optional but not required. ↩
Reaction seems to be the main character/protagonist’s fate when it comes to the inciting incident, a point discussed well here. ↩
This method works also well for identifying an inciting incident in other writers’ works, too. ↩
Maxim’s hasty proposal changes the narrator from a lady’s companion to the fiancée of a wealthy man (placing her on the same level as Rebecca, his deceased first wife). Given that Maxim neglects to declare his love for the narrator when he proposes, her envy of Rebecca (she wishes she could have the intimacies she assumes Maxim’s first wife share with him but believes a relationship with him is impossible) to jealousy, since she fears that he only wishes to wed her so that he’s not alone with the grief for his first wife. ↩
And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language.
I think the first translated book I consciously chose to buy, a book I knew beforehand was translated, was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen). It was by no means the first text (either prose or poetry) I’d read in translation, of course. As a young child, I read Pippi Longstocking, likely unaware that Astrid Lindgren wrote it in Swedish.1 As a tween (or thereabouts), I understood the classic tales I read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were written in Greek or Latin originally, though I didn’t appreciate what translation entailed. Through my studies, my awareness of translated works grew and I gained insight into how translation might affect a text’s meaning and the reliability of interpreting it.2 And of course, that also meant I bought many translated works as a student. What differentiated Esquivel’s novel from these other works, however, was that it was (then) a contemporary novel I selected for leisure reading. It had not been assigned reading, as both Wislawa Symborzka’s poems and a heavily abridged version of Les Misérables initially had been. It was not yet a “classic” work that significantly influenced/shaped literature or even a book that a sibling discarded.3 And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language. It’s this latter distinction that strikes me as important.
I’ve made a point to include translated novels in my reading recently, because (as I observed last year) I realized that I typically overlooked such books in the past. Expanding my reading horizons remains important to me, but I’d be mistaken in not acknowledging that most translated novels generally tend to be well written. For publishers to undertake the risk associated with printing a translated novel, that novel must achieve a certain level of acclaim or popularity for people to champion its translation. My experience of attending a twitter chat focused on reading women in translation was enlightening: so many people passionately recommended novels they’d read, attesting to how great, insightful, or thought provoking these books were.4 And I think it’s this promise of remarkable writing that compelled me to read more women’s writing in translation. Two (very different) favorites emerged from those recommendations: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus). While I can’t claim to deeply love every translated work I’ve read since (personal tastes vary, after all), I generally found reading them all rewarding.
But there is one remaining thought that haunts me when I consider reading women in translation, works that one day may be hailed as classics. As I’ve selected books to read or discuss during Women in Translation Month, I found myself thinking about what my intellectual life would be without the many translated works I’ve read. Losing The Odyssey alone would leave a huge literary crater: Neither The Aeneid nor The Penelopiad would exist without it. Translated works shape how we think and how we in turn write just as much as works written in our native language(s) do. I cannot help but wonder what deeper insights we might be missing when we bypass these works. And given how infrequently women’s writing is translated, I suspect that difference here could be significant. It’s among the reasons I intend to continue reading women in translation year-round as well as rate, recommend, and (when I can) review translated works written by women so that I can help publishers and fellow readers see what they’re missing. And the more often we all do so, the more available these excellent works will become to everyone.
At that rather young age, I treated title pages, the locations where both authors and translators get mentioned, as filler to be skipped past quickly. ↩
One of the advantages of older siblings is that their discarded books become your books years before anyone would think to hand you a copy. Mythology was over my head in some places, but I love and appreciate it more and more every time I read it. ↩
In this case, the 2016 Women Writers Network twitter chat for #witmonth. ↩
As it happens, I haven’t read, shall we say, exclusively from said to-read list.
Checking on my reading goals1 seems to be a new habit of mine, one perhaps inspired by my discovery that I have a tendency to plan my reading and then read something different. But this year, I felt that I needed to whittle down my to-read booklist by focusing on books I already own. This decision, fueled by receiving several books as presents for my birthday and Christmas last year,2 became more urgent when I realized how long one book had been on my to-be read list.3 And it’s not the only book I’ve had for a few years but haven’t started/finished. It made sense, therefore, to put a moratorium on book buying, library loans (barring a few pre-approved exceptions), and other acquisitions until I made a good dent in my pile at home. With that in mind, I finished and returned my library books and picked the first books off the stack: Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun by Velma Wallis. Off to a good start in January!
If you’re suspicious that my resolve might be weak, you’d be correct. As it happens, I haven’t read, shall we say, exclusively from said to-read list. Apparently, the long list of books that I want to read continues to beckon and distract me from my reading goals. Fortunately, I have eight legitimate reasons (excuses) for breaking my resolve:
(1) My spouse. (No, really!) He found a book about bees at the Philadelphia Flower Show, one that supported bee researchers (we came this close to getting a beehive). Since it was practically the environmentally responsible thing to do and would make such a great coffee table book (a known weakness of mine), I went and bought it.
(2) Christmas gift card. I received a gift card for a bookstore, and it’d be rude to not use it, especially since one of the book I purchase was written by a fellow Women’s Writer Network member (The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan). It’d be ever ruder not to support a fellow woman writer, right?
(3) Used bookstore credit. After replacing several volumes of Agatha Christie short stories featuring Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot with two volumes that contained all their stories,4 I took the books I no longer needed to resell them at my local used bookshop. It turns out I had some store credit already, and I left with three books (sorry not sorry). So far, I’ve only read one!
(3a) Book replacement? So, I replaced books I owned for omnibus versions containing the same titles. To be honest, this strikes me as being an even exchange. You know what, I’m not counting this one, even if I re-read a few stories.
(4) Crowdfunded books I supported. Technically, I supported Helen Taylor’s debut novel, The Backstreets of Purgatory, roughly a year before I made any promises regarding reading only books I already owned. Although I already bought it, it only arrived a few days ago (and I will begin reading it as soon as I finish the two books I’ve already started). More sketchily, I also supported the Waymaking anthology. However, it has yet to arrive, so it surely doesn’t count until it’s in my possession, right?
(5) Reading for a Twitter chat. As part of my reading for the Women Writers Network Twitter chat on Women Writers and the Environment, I wanted to read a few books on the topic, one of which was on my pre-approved book to borrow list (Silent Spring by Rachael Carson). The other one (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed) wasn’t, but researching is important the way I see it.
(6) Kindle reader. I borrowed my spouse’s old Kindle reader to read library books that were on my approved exceptions list (eg, Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring), because I keep accruing library fines when I miss returning them by their due date.5 Then, I promptly borrowed a few additional books for the aforementioned Twitter chat (research!), a book on my to-be read list from 2016 that I don’t own, and a few titles for the #readingwomenmonth challenge. Who knew the hold list would be fulfilled so quickly?
(7) Book giveaways. I signed up for a book giveaway (see here) for #readingwomenmonth and won! Does it count if I didn’t buy it? Probably, but I’m not feeling repentant.
(8) Book sale. I suppose that’s not a good reason, but it was a book that piqued my curiosity and was under five dollars.
I suppose it’s good to have goals, even you don’t strictly adhere to them. With that said, I have read eight of the sixteen books I resolved to read back in January so far (my total list, not counting re-reads, contains 22 books). It’s entirely possible that I’ll make it through my list and make a considerable dent in all the books (new and old) I have in stock. While my book buying/borrowing ban may not have entirely succeeded, but it seems to help me stay on a track and read several great books I intended to read for some time.
For the curious, I generally switch between reading and writing topics, with a few interesting science books and reviews thrown in. In the spirit of Reading Women Month, my June posts will focus on reading topics, which will include books written about and by women. ↩
Considering that these events are but a month apart, I had a small shelving crisis—but, being a bookworm, it’s the kind of problem I like having. ↩
I’ve finally started Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century. The first few pages were slow going, but it’s picking up. ↩
You wouldn’t believe how time consuming it is to find a story among four or five books, some of which duplicate certain tales. ↩
Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers.
Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers. Recently, the Women’s Writer Network held their second Twitter chat of 2018 on June 5th. This time, our discussion focused on women writing the city, and we had an engaging conversation about how the urban landscape appears in writing. You can check out the highlights here and find our reading recommendations lists here.1 These chats tend to be inspiring, both for generating ideas about and for writing as well as providing opportunities for discovering (or rediscovering) authors. I’ll be sure to announce the next Twitter chat (planning already underway!) when details become available.
Additionally, Reading Women is celebrating their second year podcasting. As I discussed last year, Reading Women, dedicated to reclaiming half the bookshelf, focus on works written by and about women. In additional to the #readingwomenmonth photo challenge (I’m participating again this year), they are debuting a Mrs. Dalloway read along (incidentally, one of the books mentioned during Women Writer’s Network Twitter Chat) as well as other events described here.2
Finally, another opportunity to read more women writers will be in August, which is Women in Translation month. Founded by Meytal Radzinski in 2014, this event seems to grow every year. In addition to Meytal’s 2018 #witmonth resources page, you can check out the Translationista blog run by Susan Bernofsky and the Women in Translation blog (run by women translators) for more ideas and information. I’ll be discussing more about #witmonth when we get closer to August.
The Recs Lists
If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read. Links will takes you to post I’ve written focusing on the books or their writing approaches.
The timing of Angela Saini’s recently published book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story,[*] seems almost prescient following the publication of the Google memo. Once again, science has been invoked to demonstrate that inequalities between men and women exist because of biological difference instead of lingering prejudices about women’s capability. But, as Saini cautions us, such science isn’t without its biases[†] nor is there necessarily consensus on these findings. In Inferior, Saini seeks to provide insights into controversial studies and theories existing in several scientific disciplines that intimate or have claimed that huge biological gaps exist—ones reinforcing damaging stereotypes—and the new research challenging these findings, even when the facts don’t readily dispel such stereotypes.
When they do, however, the results can be quite eye opening. Among the disciplines that Saini investigates, evolutionary biology has greatly altered its view of women, in no small part due to women scientists. Charles Darwin argued that the pressure only men experienced to obtain mates drove evolution, cementing male superiority to women in every way. Men became hunters, while women, passively engaged in childcare, evolved only because they inherited some of their father’s better qualities. For Darwin, men’s preeminence in all fields proved his point.[‡] Recent studies of increasingly rare modern hunter–gatherer groups, however, reveal cultures where men are caregivers and women are hunters, disputing the idea that such roles are predestined. Indeed, scrutinizing these populations (not to mention animal populations[§]) also contradicts the notion that females are universally monogamous.
However, some areas of study still are poorly understood and others hotly debated. Notably, the role of sex hormones (responsible for sexual development and reproduction) remains less clear. Once thought to be the agents that made men masculine (testosterone) and women feminine (estrogen and progesterone), it’s now understood that these hormones are produced by the gonads of both males and females, albeit in differing amounts. While this discovery dismissed the view that masculinity and femininity were opposites, lingering questions about how these hormones interact within our bodies and affect our minds remain. The theory that sex hormones create significant differences between the brains of male and female fetuses, predisposing them to certain roles, is among the more controversial topics. However, it’s important to recall that the roles of culture and child rearing cannot be ruled out in such cases. And while “small behavioral sex differences” associated with testosterone have been demonstrated in young children (72), most studies tend to show more overlap than difference in typical child development.
Inferior serves as a much-needed corrective to assumptions that science provides clear, objective evidence that significant differences exist between women and men. As science strives to gain a clearer picture of women, it’s more than apparent that women are far from inferior. Indeed, the theme of humanity’s plasticity runs throughout Inferior, suggesting that men and women have more in common than not. And that, indeed, is a great discovery.
[*] Saini, Angela. Inferior: how science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. Beacon Press, 2017.
[†] Saini observes that the biases that kept women from participating work likely prejudiced science’s objectivity. Women in science, regardless of how underrepresented they are due to social disparities (ranging from childcare to gender bias and sexual harassment), has influenced how science is performed, with new ideas being considered and old ones challenged, very often by women scientist. (10).
[‡] Saini argues here (and elsewhere when disputing how the Google memo got the science wrong) that Darwin was hardly the only man of his time to conflate structural inequality with biological differences (14–8).
[§] That’s not to say all species engage in promiscuous behavior, just that it’s incorrect to assume that all females are monogamous (136–7).
Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.
I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.
Inspiration and Information
The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]
If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.
The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.
Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge
What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.
[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.
[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.
[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.