Working in a bookstore, it is jarring to observe the lack of diversity in popular writers. At Main Point Books, we put a lot of effort into representing a high quality of diverse literature, inclusive of all genders, races, ethnicities, and sexualities. It’s just not always easy to get the customer to pick up those titles.
I am actually a little proud of how difficult it was to finalize this list. It took three separate narrow-down processes to get to this final group of truly spectacular women — first to those who lived really awesome lives, then to those who were contemporary, and finally the women who aren’t already world-renowned, such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
When one is told to envision the typical sci-fi/fantasy writer, it probably isn’t a middle-aged African-American dyslexic woman who comes immediately to mind. Octavia Butler surpassed every standard of race, sex, and disability with her successful career as a novelist. Her first story was published in 1971, and subsequently published more than a dozen novels and countless short stories. In 1995, Butler received a $295,000 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant; to this day, she remains the only science fiction writer to be a recipient.
In her lifetime, Butler won two Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards. Her literary science fiction has been translated into ten different languages, and she was active in the industry until her death in 2006. She had a memorial scholarship established in her name to enable writers of color to attend the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Butler was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010.
Alison Bechdel, an open lesbian, started her popular comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, in the early 1980s. It really took off, resulting in its first book collection within only three years. Dykes to Watch Out For is also the origin of the feminism-standard critical tool, the Bechdel Test:
The South Carolina House of Representatives cut $52k in funding for the College of Charleston because FUN HOME was chosen for freshman summer reading. The House called it “promotion of a lifestyle with no academic merit.” Feel free to donate to The College Reads!” program: https://giving.cofc.edu/donate.Many film critics, writers, and journalists have commented on the validity of the Bechdel Test. Only a small proportion of films pass the test, and at least half only pass because women talk about marriage or children.
There is a used-edited database of nearly 5,000 movies at bechdeltest.com classified by whether or not they pass the test, with the added requirement that the female characters must have names. Barely half of the films pass all three test requirements.
In 2006, Fun Home, an autobiographical “tragicomic,” was published. It focuses on Bechdel’s childhood, but mostly on her relationship with her closeted gay father before and after his death. It was critically hailed by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Time magazine. Bechdel published her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, focusing on the complex relationship she has with her mother.
Bechdel received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012.
Performance poet Andrea Gibson uses her incredible talent to focus most often on gender and sexuality through a political and social reform stance. She has published six books of her poetry, as well as six different albums of her spoken-word poetry. Gibson frequently sets her poetry to music to add to the performance. She is a huge proponent of intersectionality, even canceling her performance at The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival due to their transphobic policy of only allowing “women who were assigned female at birth, raised as girls, and currently identify as women” to attend.
She regularly tours the country, mostly to colleges, rallies, and different political events. She has earned the Denver Grand Slam championship four times, and she became the very first winner of the Women of the World Poetry Slam in Detroit.
I cannot recommend enough listening to Andrea Gibson’s slam poetry, especially live. Her words have the power to bring people to tears and to their feet. Here is one of my favorites, about same-sex marriage:
Note: Andrea Gibson identifies as a gender queer woman, and most often uses female pronouns. Her inclusion in this list is in no way meant to undermine her gender identity.
Maxine Hong Kingston
Born to first-generation Chinese immigrants, Maxine Hong Kingston has written nine different books, most focusing on gender and cultural heritage. Her most notable works are The Woman Warrior, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, and China Men, which won the National Book Award in 1980. Gayle Yamada produced a documentary about Kingston in 1990, which focuses on her Asian American heritage as well as sexual and racial oppression while living in the United States.
Today, International Women’s Day 2014, is the 11th anniversary of when Maxine Hong Kingston was arrested at an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. organized by feminist organization Code Pink. Kingston refused to leave the street when police told her to, so she went to jail, sharing a cell with other noted authors Alice Walker and Terry Tempest Williams.
Her most recent book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (Knopf, 2011), is written entirely in verse and is both memoir and fictional conclusion, bringing closure to her most recognized characters, the Woman Warrior and the Tripmaster Monkey.
Kingston received the National Humanities Medal in 1997 from then-president Bill Clinton, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Literary Awards in 2006, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2008.
When Helen Oyeyemi was a small child, she and her parents moved from Nigeria to London. Being first-generation immigrants in an unfamiliar country is never easy, but especially when you are not only a different nationality, but also a different race. It was difficult for her parents to grow acclimated to their move, and they regularly faced racism and xenophobia from neighbors and coworkers alike. After suffering through a disturbing rape attempt from a stranger, Oyeyemi decided to travel on her own around the world and find her own home. She has not lived in London since 2006 and continues to traverse to beautiful cities. She also spends a lot of her time helping the Catholic Aid For Overseas Development organization, most specifically travelling to Kenya to help impoverished citizens.
Both a novelist and a playwright, 29-year-old Oyeyemi has had two plays performed and published. She has also written five novels, the most recent, Boy, Snow, Bird, just released this week. Venus Zine, a magazine covering women in various forms of pop culture, named her as one of the “25 Women Under 25” in 2009. Her third novel, White is For Witching, won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. While this award is specifically for writers under the age of 35, Oyeyemi is still one of the youngest recipients. White is for Witching was also a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.
Oyeyemi’s writing has a very Gothic feel to it; there is often a focus on women gone mad, as well as the roles of race, sex, and sexuality in contemporary life. Her books have so many layers and concepts to them, so much symbolism and intricate language. There are some sentences and passages that you have to read twice — they just make you go “wow”. Oyeyemi writes dark, somewhat twisted stories, often likened to Poe, Dickinson, or Henry James. White is for Witching, for instance, toys with the idea of a soucouyant, a woman who consumes souls as food. Even with that supernatural concept, she also includes aspects of gender relevance, the symbolism of color, the struggle of a disorder, nationalism, and racism. Oyeyemi is truly one of the most brilliant writers of our generation and should be recognized more for her genius prose. 29 years old and already five novels – I think we can expect much more from her.
Marjane Satrapi was raised in Iran until after the Muslim fundamentalists took over during the Iranian Revolution. The Iran-Iraq war broke out, and she witnessed not only tyranny and suppression, but death and destruction of her home. Her parents sent her to study in Austria to keep her away from the devastating regime that had taken over the country. Satrapi later returned to Iran and obtained a master’s diploma in Tehran. During her time back in Iran, she attended many illegal parties, at which she drank alcohol and took off her head scarf in the presence of men. After a short-lived marriage, she decides to leave the country permanently, and she moved to France, where she still resides today.
Satrapi published her memoirs as graphic novels — Persepolis. Newsweek ranked it as the 5th best book of the decade from 2000-2010. The books were turned into an animated film, which appeared on more than a dozen lists for the top ten best movies of 2007. The film was also nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, was chosen as Best Animation by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and won Best First Work at the César Awards.
Since the success of Persepolis, Satrapi has put out seven works in French, four in English, and another animated film. She is currently directing her third film, an American-German comedy crime horror thriller starring Anna Kendrick of all people.
Jacqueline Woodson is the very definition of intersectionality in literature. A black lesbian woman, she not only discusses the important topics of race, class, gender, sexual identity, and abuse, she specifically does it for the middle grade and young adult audiences.
Woodson is known for her hopeful endings; she said before that “If you love the people you create, you can see the hope there.” She believes that there is always hope, regardless of the situation. No doubt she deals with the tough stuff — teen pregnancy, interracial couples, homosexuality, poverty. However, no matter what her characters go through, Woodson guarantees a light at the end of the tunnel for her characters. Her books are popular often due to their realistic depictions of life, as well as her strong female role models for young people. She has written more than two dozen different books, with picture books, middle grade, and young adult.
To date, Woodson has won three Newbery Honor Medals, one Caldecott Honor, three Coretta Scott King Honors, and one Coretta Scott King Award. Several titles have been on the annual ALA Best Books list, and the novel Locomotion was short-listed for a National Book Award. Miracle’s Boys was made into a mini-series by Spike Lee in 2002. In 2006, Woodson won the ALA Margaret A. Edwards Award, which recognizes one writer “for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.”
Some other kickass ladies:
- Kathy Acker
- Sandra Cisneros
- Emma Donoghue
- Nancy Garden
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Joyce Carol Oates
- Sarah Waters
- Jeanette Winterson
Amber Midgett is the assistant manager at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA. She is working towards her master’s degree in Publishing & Editing with a double concentration in Editorial and Children’s Literature. Amber loves squishy cartoon characters like Totoro and Catbug, and she catalogs her personal bookshelves obsessively. She experiences Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) and has an unhealthy love of Moose Tracks ice cream.