Book List: Women's Stories of Pain, Survival, and Joy

by Kristyn Komarnicki

Putting together the March/April issue of PRISM, which focused on tales of oppression of women around the world, was, well, depressing. The violence enacted against women–as well as the violence internalized by women–is truly appalling. But at the same time, I was amazed, inspired, and energized by the stories of the women themselves, stories of great courage, strength, survival, and even joy.

My friend Lisa Thompson of the Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking,( who helped me put that issue together, suggested that we compile a list of novels and memoirs that would put some real and beautiful flesh on issues which, when looked at academically, might sink us into paralysis rather than move us into action. I thought it was a terrific idea, and began asking around for suggestions. Here follows our list–please send us  your suggestions and we'll keep it growing!

Tracks by Louise Erdrich

Like all of her interconnected novels, Erdrich explores the contemporary Native American condition, particularly as it relates to assimilation and land.  Set in the 1920's, the novel follows the struggles of several Chippewa people who are being forced from their homeland through political and economic pressure from the United States government.  Erdrich's strong female characters rise up to resist oppressive conditions including poverty and sexual violence.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Set in Rhodesia in the 1960's and 70's, this semi-autobiographical narrative is told by the spirited and feisty Tambu who is growing up in a time and place where education is mainly reserved for boys.  When she gets the opportunity to attend a mission school and live with her British-educated cousin, she must face issues of assimilation and colonialism head-on.  Tambu and her cousin Nyasha must discover who they really are.  But can they truly separate themselves from patriarchal pressure within the family and western ideals?  This novel also explores anorexia as a postcolonial condition.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

When the infamous dictator, Trujillo, rises to power in the Dominican Republic, an underground resistance movement quickly gains momentum.  Alvarez follows the stories of four sisters and their very different forms of participation in this movement–one through religion, one through the smuggling of arms, etc.  The personal is pitted against the political, and each sister must decide if she is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the ideal of freedom.

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Now a motion picture, this semi-autobiographical narrative began as a graphic novel, a story told in the form of an extended comic strip.  Satrapi uses a paradoxical combination of wit and enduring loss to tell this coming-of-age tale set in Iran.  The narrator frankly explores issues of veiling, emigration, religion, and war.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

In order to understand contemporary Haiti, one first must listen to Haiti's stories.  Danticat aptly titles her collection after the call and response that is often used to begin a narrative in her country.  The storyteller asks "Krik?" to a waiting crowd, and the crowd responds with an enthusiastic "Krak!" when they are ready for the story to begin.  Danticat's female characters encounter all the hardships commonly associated with this country–poverty, political persecution, prison, and prostitution. Yet at the same time, Danticat's stories reveal what is beautiful about the Haitian culture–its persistent spirit and redemptive hope.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

In a remote county of 19th-century China, 7-year-old Lily and her older pen pal, Snow Flower, communicate in a unique secret language that Chinese women created in order to communicate away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower reached out of isolation to share their dreams, even as they endure the agony of foot-binding and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

In this irreverent novel, India is revealed through the eyes of Balram Halwai, a driver who tells of cockroaches and call centers, prostitutes and worshippers, the ancient and Internet cultures.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is set in India and deals with the caste system and postcolonial identity.

House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende is set in Chile and explores multi-generational conflicts, particularly as the women seek their own identity in the midst of patriarchs.

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan is a Chinese-American novel that explores the conflict between first- and second-generation immigrant peoples. This novel is particularly focused on mother-daugther relationships.

Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker is the searing story of Tashi, a tribal African woman whose traumatic genital mutilation informs her life and fatefully alters her existence.

Memoirs that expose the practice of female genital mutilation

Infidel by Ayaan H. Ali tells of Ali's journey as a spokesperson for Muslim women around the world, having wrestled with her faith in light of her own genital mutilation, and winning a seat in the Dutch parliament.

Desert Flower by Waris Dirie is the astounding autobiography of fashion model Waris Dirie who was circumcised at age 5 in Somalia, escaped an arranged marriage at 12, and now speaks against FGM as an ambassador for the United Nations. Her story was recently released as a film ( as well.

Do They Hear You When You Cry? by Fauziya Kassindja is the memoir of a Togolese woman who made history when the US Board of Immigration Appeals granted her asylum as a teenager in 1996 in order to escape the tribal practice of FGM. The case set a precedent because it granted asylum on the grounds of gender-based persecution, rather than religious or political grounds.

Special thanks to Eastern University professor Rebecca Gidjunis for her suggestions.


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