In addition to being a month of global scramble to deal with a new virus, March is Womxn’s History Month. While we’re all at home, if we can be, it is a great time to reflect on and question what gendered history is and means. Gender inequality goes far beyond the binary, but it’s important to not just recognize but learn from the women and gender nonconforming folks that came before, however radical and/or imperfect. Be they within a family, cultural figures and artists, imagined or real, the womxn in our lives and histories have a legacy.
All of these books are either recently released or forthcoming, and explore womxn’s familial/intergenerational history and/or broader historical events or time periods. A few are re-releases from women writers no longer living. Stay safe, smash the patriarchy, and keep reading!
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… by Zora Neale Hurston
(Feminist Press, out now)
“Zora Neale Hurston was outrageous—it appears by nature,” Alice Walker writes in her dedication in this newly releases reprint of the first Hurston reader, released in January from Feminist Press. Walker, another pillar of Black womanist literature, edited the original publication in 1979; this version includes an introduction by Mary Helen Washington. Divided into three sections—Autobiography, Folklore, and Reportage; Essays and Articles; and Fiction, I Love Myself… is a veritable trove of one of the most engaging and vital writers of the 21st century. Hurston’s work is broad in scope while also embodying detail. Her creativity, drive to follow her curiosity, and tenacity in telling the truth can be seen in all of her work; this is a welcome new edition of one of the best collections of an author’s writing out there.
Little Gods by Meng Jin
(Custom House, out now)
This stunning debut novel renders an intricate exploration of intergenerational relationships, ghosts, Chinese diaspora, and familial history. The opening paragraph is so hypnotic that it draws the reader in immediately, to a story about a physicist who gives birth alone in a Beijing hospital; her daughter, Liya; literal and metaphorical migration; and the complexities of being human. With notes of art, science, ambivalence, and longing, the prose in this one beams, and the story is as enthralling as the sentences used to construct it.
The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh
(Tin House, out now)
This slim, stunning memoir from poet and translator Koh takes as its springboard the fact that when she was a teenager, her parents moved to Korea for her father’s job and left her and her brother in their home in California. What was supposed to be two years turned into many, and Koh’s mother wrote to her every week. The book includes images of the letters and the translated versions; they act as touchpoints in a vast story about three generations of women and the literal and figurative translation that occurs between them.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
(Tin House, out now)
In this hybrid memoir/biography, debut author Shapland becomes fixated on Carson McCullers, a writer she hadn’t known much about before working at an archive that had a lot of her letters and papers. The book dives beautifully into the nature and meaning of archives, and how queer stories are/aren’t documented. Also, McCullers was a total lesbian romantic and had some queer dramatic flair, and Shapland brings some joy and humor into the narrative that is a relief from the heavy (though necessary) discussion of queer erasure.
Letters From Tove by Tove Jansson, Trans. by Sarah Death
(University of Minnesota Press, out now)
The queer Finnish creator of the Moomin characters was also a prolific writer of letters, among other things, and this latest collection spans six decades worth of correspondence and tells the story of Jansson’s life in bohemian artists’ circles in Helsinki as well as her island sanctuary home. Jansson was funny, tuned into and opinionated about culture and politics, and bewitched by nature. Edited by two of her longtime friends, this book is a foray into a time, place, and sharp mind of one of Finland and the world’s most beloved artists.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
In the opening of this dazzling debut novel, two Chinese-American siblings, one gender nonconforming, steal a horse and flee their Southwestern US Gold Rush-era town with their father’s corpse. Their journey together and apart is so stunningly written and the story so layered and surprising that the reader will not know what hit them. It imagines what else a Western can be, i.e. not just about white cowboys.
After Callimachus by Stephanie Burt
(Princeton University Press, 4/14)
This is a bit of a controversial pick, sonce Callimachus was a man. But critic and writer Stephanie Burt is a woman, and in this book she not only translates but reimagines these ancient Greek poems about sex, gender, death, and technology. Burt brings ancient Greek poetry decidedly into the present day, writing in her Callimachus-inspired poems about someone who uses social media, flies on planes, and most importantly fights the patriarchy. Arguably, it is a feminist pursuit to turn the worlk of an old dead white guy into a modern critique (with plenty of humor) of the structures from whence he came.
Passage West by Rishi Reddi
This debut novel follows a found family of Indian sharecroppers in post-WWI California. Ram Singh leaves his family in India to join his friend Karak and some of Karak’s family in California’s Imperial Valley (how’s that for American language), to work on a cantaloupe farm in 1913. As sharecropper life grows ever more oppressive in the wake of anti-immigrant laws and racism from white settlers, a conflict bubbles up between Ram and Karak too. Passage Westuncovers a little-known piece of American history that all too much resembles present day.
Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins
From the author of the fantastic 2018 essay collection This Will Be My Undoing, this book explores the Great Migration and Jerkins’s own family roots in it. Jerkins argues that, among other things, the Great Migration uprooted Black migrants from their sense of identity and their land as much as it signaled “new opportunity.” Jerkins follows in the steps of her ancestors through visits, oral histories, interviews, and photographs. What results is a vital piece of work the tells an important chapter in a family’s history as well as a country’s history.
Olivia by Dorothy Strachey, introduction by André Aciman
(Penguin Classics, 6/9)
This re-release of the 1949 novel—one of the early modern lesbian novels—is coming in time for Pride month, with a new introduction by André Aciman (of Call Me By Your Namefame). The book is certainly full of tropes; it tells the story of a teenage girl in boarding school who falls in love with her woman teacher. But the fact of its publication at the time, to say nothing of the deft emotional notes it hits, was an important literary moment. It would be another three years before Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Saltwould publish. Oliviais a slim book that is a worthwhile read for this reason alone, but the breathy prose also envelopes the reader into story that might be dated but is nonetheless captivating.