Telling stories is how we change the world and women telling stories is how they change the world. Over the centuries, the voices of women writing fiction have grown stronger and clearer and the works they produce tell us the experiences that come to define ‘female-ness’ in a world that has always been skewed towards the male perspective. Their writings, making important points about sexism, empower other women to recognise and counter sexism when they see it, whether it is Draupadi (The Palace of Illusions) who bears the burden of a war on her shoulders or it is Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale) who refuses to be defined by her womb.
Here then are ten works of fiction that deserve to be read for the feminist perspective they place before the reader.
1> The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
If there is a story that every woman needs to read, it is this. Atwood’s dystopian fiction set in a world where women have been reduced to their reproductive abilities is a chilling reminder that at any point all the freedoms women have fought for down the centuries could be taken away.
2> Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Perhaps one of the earliest fictional explorations of gender bending, Orlando is the story of a man who wakes up as a woman after a deep long sleep, and how he navigates this strangeness.
3> The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
A retelling of the Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi, the story proceeds at layers that lie beneath the familiar narrative, because the gaze of the narrator has changed, and the first person narrative draws the reader into the dilemmas faced by Draupadi who given her position as the wife of the five Pandavas unwittingly becomes the pivot for the terrible war.
4> Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Published back in 1868, this book was the story of a family of sisters, with a tomboy, a beauty, no overt love story, but rather a search for self and fulfilment which was quite radical for the times.
5> Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
This was written in 1973, when I was two years old. I would read it two decades later and be completely shaken up by it. In this barely disguised fictionalised account of her life, the author recounts her sexual escapades with complete candour and makes one rethink the premise of the ‘perfect marriage.’ And of course, she put the term ‘zipless fuck’ into the feminist lexicon.
6> Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The book follows a Nigerian girl as she leaves her country to study in the USA and how she navigates gender and race in a strange country.
7> The Color Purple by Alice Walker
A powerful novel that takes gritty issues like domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism head on, the story is about black women in the 1930s and how they navigate the boundaries they had been shackled in.
8> Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Written by a man in 1856, nonetheless, the story is one that examines a woman’s sexuality and need to constantly fall in love, in a way that garners her our sympathy.
9> Lihaaf by Ismat Chughtai
A short story that got the author a case of obscenity filed against her, this work by Ismat Chughtai examines the angst of neglect that afflicted the women in the zenana and how a same sex relationship of convenience provides an outlet.
10> Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville West
A tale that has been told and retold many times over, but West’s retelling of the story of the Maid of Orlean’s journey from that of a peasant girl with a vision to a soldier and finally to a saint who is burnt at the stake is one that stays with one long after one has read it.
Of course, these are just a few picks from the vast numbers of wonderful books out there. Let us know your recommendations as well in the comments section.