Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
In this steadfast epic, Gyasi weaves together tales of the transatlantic slave trade and its intergenerational impact, spanning from 18th Century West Africa to modern day USA.
The story begins with Effia, who is sold by her parents to an English governor and lives in luxury in the Cape Coast Castle, while her half-sister Esi is captured in warfare and then raped and beaten in the dungeon below. Homegoing is a journey through three hundred years, with each chapter oscillating between the two branches of the family. The readers follow Effia’s Ghanaian descendants live through wars and colonialism, while Esi’s descendants are sold into slavery in America, enduring the Fugitive Slave Act, the Harlem Renaissance, and the heroin crisis.
It’s an enormous project for a first book, but Gyasi pulls it off for the most part. The first half of the book is more engaging than the latter, and the West Africa stories feel less stereotypical. But each chapter in this book is unfailingly, deeply human. And though there are countless slave narrative novels out there, Homegoing does an excellent job connecting the dots from then to now, showing readers the inescapable impact slavery has on all decendants.
Emma by Jane Austen
One of the few classics on this list, Jane Austen's Emma is about staying true to yourself. It’s about being a strong, opinionated woman (who is flexible enough to learn from your mistakes), and falling in love with your best friend (someone who loves you for you, warts and all).
Emma is an upper class, twenty-year-old woman living with her father in a small English village. She is determined not to marry, but enjoys (not always successfully) playing matchmaker for her friends. Her privilege makes her difficult to like, but her witty remarks, sarcastic sense of humour, and feminist approach to matrimony make her more relatable and endearing.
Be forewarned, the book begins rather slowly; Austen spends the first three chapters laying the foundational work for the main characters in a not-so-engaging way. Austen’s language also isn’t very accessible; it takes a while to find your groove. That said, there’s a reason why Austen is still so popular – she knows what she’s doing. And as an added bonus, I always get a twisted sense of pleasure reading Austen and imagining men in the 1800’s being aghast at her prose.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This novel, written in 1985, has recently come back into the mainstream since the current political climate feels more and more like its dystopian world. The plot feels more like a forecast than a fantasy.
Atwood invites us in to the new Republic of Gilead, a theocratic, totalitarian society that emerged under a military dictatorship in the overthrow of the government. In Gilead, women’s civil rights have evaporated. Equality, sexual reproduction, and all human rights are punishable. Women are considered property of the state.
The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred, one of the many “Handmaids.” Because of dangerously low reproduction rates, Handmaids are assigned to bear children for elite couples that have trouble conceiving. Every month, when Offred is at the right point in her menstrual cycle, she must have awkward, silent sex with the Commander while Serena - his wife - sits behind Offred, holding her hand.
Atwood’s book is a glimpse into a completely patriarchal society, showing just how ugly it would be. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale today is illuminating, but also unnerving – perhaps because it’s too close for comfort.
How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Described as part memoir/part rant, Moran’s novel follows Johanna Morrigan, a 14-year-old girl in the UK in 1990. Morrigan is a voracious reader, can’t stop masturbating, and is very confused about how life works and her place in it.
After making a complete fool of herself on local TV one day, she decides she can no longer be Johanna and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde – a fearless, hard-drinking goth gal and Lady Sex Adventurer. She fashions a plan to a build a girl.
How To Build A Girl is equal parts hilarious, thought provoking, and relatable. What woman hasn’t asked themselves at one point or another: 'Why are we supposed to get Brazilians?' or ‘Why does everyone ask you when you're going to have a baby?’ This story brings you back to your teenage years when you were completely clueless about who you are and how you fit in. It illuminates the obstacles, hurdles, and impossibilities placed upon teenage girls.
How To Build A Girl isn’t political, it’s personal. Which means it’s most certainly political, but with fewer macro level analyses and more individual musings. It’s less pay gap and more thigh gap, less reproductive rights and more masturbation. It’s about a young teenage girl navigating what it means to be a young teenage girl, and that is a journey that is both deeply personal and inevitably politicized.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah is critical commentary posing as a rom-com. It’s marketed as a love story – childhood sweethearts whose paths diverge across oceans – but more so, this novel examines what it means to be African, Black, and woman.
The story begins in Nigeria, where Ifemelu and her boyfriend, Obinze, grow up with romanticized notions of the West, shaped by the endless books they read. Years later, Ifemelu gets the opportunity to study in America, and soon after Obinze moves to Britain.
Ameicanah then follows the two star crossed lovers’ stories, as they long for home, for one another, and swim in a sense of dislocation. While Ifemelu studies at Princeton, she struggles to fit in and find a job, resorting to sex work at one point. She also begins to understand what it means to be “Black” in America – very different from being black in Nigeria.
No longer willing to keep quiet about her experiences as a Black woman in America, she begins an anonymous blog – Raceteenth – talking about everything from hair politics to affirmative action. Adichie uses the blog as a tool to add another dimension to the book, and bring more depth to Ifemelu. Raceteenth is bold, biting, and disturbingly true in tone and content.
Adichie creates a masterpiece with Americanah, balancing the stinging of her brutal honesty regarding race relations in America, with the sweetness of her lovers. She lets the reader know that as humans, we are failing one another, but reminds us that everyone, after all, is human.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar follows Esther Greenwood on her internship with a New York fashion magazine in the 1950’s, where she finds herself sinking into a deep depression. Esther knows she is “supposed to be having the time of her life,” but the ‘Bell Jar’ has already begun to descend upon her. The second half of Plath’s book acutely details Esther's mental breakdown, incarceration, and stumbling recovery.
The Bell Jar, an unforgettable classic, is a meaningful insight into the complexity of ambition, the many facets of isolation, the role of women in society, the meaningless of materialism, and the crushing weight of mental illness.
Never lacking for imagery or symbolism, The Bell Jar is a beautiful, and beautifully dark, examination of the mind of one young woman.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
In The Power, Alderman asks: what would happen if women became more powerful than men?
In this love child of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid's Tale, Alderman flips power dynamics on their head and explores how the world would react if women became the dominant sex.
One day, girls around the world discover they can emit a deadly electrical charge. They practice with friends, send shocks to boys, and show older women how to awaken the power. Men start to cross the street when they see girls and schools are segregated for the safety of boys. Boys begin to dress like girls to feel more powerful and girls present as more masculine to diminish the weight of their power.
Women begin marching to demand their freedom, spurring revolutions in Riyahd and Delhi. Victims of sex traffickers rise against their assailants. Faith is feminized, recognizing not Muhammad, but Fatimah; not Jesus, but Mary. Armies are filled with women. Men become the more common victim of sexual assault.
Alderman’s question is examined through four main characters. Margot, an American politician, struggling to deal with an emerging crisis as well as her own power. Allie, a foster kid with a tumultuous past who reinvents herself as an internationally renowned faith leader. Roxy, member of a London crime syndicate, perhaps harnessing the strongest power in the world. And Tunde, a Nigerian journalist going around the globe to report on the power, admiring and fearing women all at once.
Though science fiction, The Power delivers such a realistic vision of what would happen in the world’s power dynamics were transformed, that the only thing seeming to stretch reality is the electricity stemming from women’s collarbones. The rest, well, the rest seems disturbingly plausible.
Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb
Sweetness in the Belly follows the story of Lily. Abandoned in Morocco after her nomadic parents are murdered, Lily begins an eternal quest for home and belonging. As a young woman on a pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, she finds a semblance of that home. She finds a community in Harar, finds happiness. She falls in love with Aziz, the optimistic doctor. But soon she is forced to flee Ethiopia for England, where she ekes out a living as a nurse in squalid public housing and once again confronts who she is and where she belongs.
In her novel, Gibb exploring themes of female circumcision, politics, war, and tribalism. She provides a rich examination of who belongs where and which privileges can solve which problems. Perhaps most importantly, she shares with us a beautiful homage to Islam.
Yet, the most impressive part of this novel is not the plot, but the narrative. Gibb paints such a vivid picture of Lily, a woman more complex than most characters in a novel are afforded, and brings us on an emotional rollercoaster.
I’ll just say this: when I finished the book, I finally read the back page. I discovered it was fiction. I was floored. Never has a piece of fiction ever felt so real.
Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
If you’re looking for fun, this is it. I began reading this series while travelling with a friend, and she can attest, I was smiles and giggles galore while reading this series.
Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency features Mma Ramotswe: Botswana's one and only lady private detective. At first, cases come slowly, which is quite alright with Mma Ramotswe, since she has only an old detective manual and a not-so-jubilant executive assistant. But soon, once people see that a lady can, in fact, be a detective, the agency begins to succeed. Mma Ramotswe is hired by a father worried that his daughter is sneaking off to see a boy; women who suspect their husbands are cheating; and people searching for a missing child who may have been killed by witchdoctors.
Mma Ramotswe is perhaps the most refreshing character I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She addresses the harshest of topics with the lightest touch; like when she explains that she married seductive trumpeter Note Mokoti, but eventually divorced him when she grew tired of getting beat up. With ample wisdom and humour, Mma Ramotswe feels like your favourite no-nonsense grandma.
My only qualm is that I can’t join her in sharing a cup of bush tea on the front porch.