Essential Reading for ‘Millennial Feminists’ – Part 2

Welcome to part two of my recommended books for ‘millennial feminists’. This time, it’s fiction. For part one, which is non-fiction, please click here!

There are many, many books that naturally belong on this list. Well known and well loved novels which instantly capture ideas about feminism and the reality of being a woman. Books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is now more popular than ever due to the critically acclaimed (and now Emmy award winning) TV series. Books like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story which perfectly details the sexist concept of hysteria and how it has been used to silence women. Books like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s vivid re-imagining of her own childhood and her sexuality. Or Octavia Butler’s brilliantly written and wholly absorbing host of novels, particularly her Xenogenesis series, which reaches new levels of sci-fi in her exploration of gender, humanity, survivalism and prejudice. 

The books that have been chosen, however, have all had a personal effect on me and challenged my ideas about feminism, intersectionality, sexuality and identity. So yes, it is a personal list, but one I hope will resonate with many of you too.

That Thing Around Your Neck (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

This selection of short stories is Adichie’s third novel, and yes I am slightly cheating as That Thing Around Your Neck comprises of not one but twelve short stories. Though Adichie may be most renowned for definition of feminism, as used in Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’ record, Adichie has been writing on feminism, both fiction and non-fiction for many years.

Adichie, born and raised in Nigeria, frequently writes about her hometown of Nsukka, the 1967- 1970 Nigerian civil War, Igbo culture and colonialism in Nigeria. Set against these backdrops, her stories explore how women are treated in Nigeria, issues of race and (most predominantly) emigration and the effect it has on identity, family and heritage.

Many of the stories in That Thing Around Your Neck deal with abuse of women – either within family relationships or by society in general. One of the stories which resonated with me the most was the titular story, ‘That Thing Around Your Neck’, which features a young girl who gains an American visa, only to be repeatedly abused by her uncle when she moves there. In Adichie’s works there are often discussions of the elusive American visas, and an idealisation of what life would be like away from the poverty and corruption of Nigeria. Like Akunna, the protagonist of ‘That Thing Around Your Neck’, many of Adichie’s characters discover that America presents them with just as much violence and corruption, but in a different form.

In ‘On Monday of Last Week’ and ‘A Private Experience’, Adichie gives us a closer look at relationships between women of different races, classes and nationalities. She bridges a gap between the interesting and diverse women she writes about, and is constantly toying with western ideas of feminism and racism.

Above all, That Thing Around Your Neck showcases her extraordinary ability to write relateable characters within such a short space of time. Each character in each story felt truly developed and I could identify with their inner struggles even after only a few paragraphs.

The Power (Naomi Alderman)

The sizzle of electricity. The spark of power. The smell of burning. Reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power is an experience for all the senses from beginning to end. I could see the lightning bolts of electricity being released from young fingertips. I could smell charred skin. I could envision the scenes which Alderman conjures up – the inspirational moments and the ones which outline the very worst that humanity has to offer.

Alderman’s story starts out from a very simple premise. Imagine if women developed a power. A power which made them physically stronger than men. What would happen? Through the eyes of orphan Allie, rising politician Margot, fearless journalist Tunde and Roxy, the daughter of a crime boss, we see the world begin to change and distort.

The Power could have been a simple gender reversal story. It could have righted the wrongs for women who had suffered for years at the hands of men. It could have slotted women into ‘male roles’ and had them become pseudo men. It could have shown us a good, kind and moral world where women rule peacefully, now that toxic-masculinity is no longer in power.

Alderman’s cleverer than that, though. She show us how power is transferred (quite literally), how the greed of power seeps into the hearts of men and women alike. She shows us triumphant survivors who can leave their captors, but she also shows us dictators and murderers. The intersections of politics, religion, culture with gender are fully explored with each of the characters. This a fundamental part of why The Power works so well – gender does not exist within a vacuum.

The result is a believable world, fleshed out from every angle. Alderman dissects all of our beliefs and all of our preconceptions to give us a glimpse of a world that (whilst strange) feels somehow familiar. Alderman puts rape culture, misogyny, tradition and oppression under a microscope and reveal the structures that exist within society.

The Power’s strength lies in its colourful and energetic descriptive language.  The words leap from the page, enticing you in. Only pick this book up if you have a 12 hour window free because you won’t be able to stop reading.

Gather the Daughters (Jennie Melmed)

Written on the blurb of Gather the Daughters is a recommendation. “If you liked The Handmaid’s Tale or The Power, then read this book.” So, naturally, I did. Whilst Gather the Daughters does invoke the sort of feminist camaraderie and oppression that The Power and Handmaid’s does, Jennie Melmed’s first novel is a powerful work by itsself, with it’s own story to tell.

The narrative follows four girls, with different chapters outlining their individual journeys. Vanessa, Amanda, Janey and Caitlyn. The girls live on an island amongst a patriarchal community, who are beholden to a Christian-like religion which dictates their every decision. They live a simple life, The religion, and the loyalty their Ancestors, is not dissimilar to most major religion – the women and girls are subservient to the men in on the island and do not hold any positions of power.

The main story involving the four girls begins just before the summer – a time of the year where children are a law unto themselves. They are allowed to run, play and scream – luxuries that they not usually allowed. Vanessa, Janey and Caitlyn enjoy their summer, roaming around the island but Amanda has become a woman and so she must face her ‘summer of fruition’. A ritual where girls who have began their periods must find a husband.

I’d quite like this to stay spoiler free, but I will say this: Gather the Daughters will break your heart. I think it’s also important to mention that Gather the Daughters deals with sexual abuse, particularly of young children. Having said this, Melmed’s discussion and explanation of the abuse is amongst the most tactful I have ever read. It is never said outright, merely implied between the lines of text. Melmed allows us inside her characters minds, and so we don’t need to be told what is going on. We can feel it.

Ideas about conditioning are prevalent throughout the novel, showing how oppression and abuse are born out of systematic misogyny. Other than Janey, who doesn’t even fully understand her own reasons for not complying with the norm, the girls take a long time to realise the harm that is being done to them. They have no language with which to express it, and no environment to express it in. Gather the Daughters lays out the idea of the cycles of trauma and the strength in the unity of all women (or rather girls in this case) to break out of it.

And one for younger readers – Time Zero (Carolyn Cohagen)

Interesting and unique dystopian novels for YA audiences are pretty difficult to come by. Time Zero exists, for me, as a little sister to The Handmaid’s Tale. With many similar themes and ideas, Time Zero builds upon the world that Handmaid’s built but brings to the 21st century. Protagonist Mina is just like any other 15 year old, except for the fact that she lives under an extremely oppression regime, one which aims to keep women and men completely separate. Mina has a powerful secret though, and she is just beginning to wake up to the world she is in.

I would highly recommend Time Zero to all readers, but it’s a fantastic book for younger feminists. Cohagen writes Mina as an average 15 year old, somone whom we can all relate to, and so when Mina begins to question the rules imposed on her, we go on that journey with her.

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