Feminist/Womanist -a guest blog by Ayesha Harunna Attah

Ayesha Harruna Attah

Ayesha Harunna Attah is the author of The Hundred Wells of Salaga which Cassava Republic published in May. She  grew up in Accra and was educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and NYU. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Asymptote Magazine, and the Caine Prize Writers’ 2010 Anthology. Her debut novel, Harmattan Rain, (Per Ankh Publishers) was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010. Her second novel, Saturday’s Shadows, was published in English (World Editions) and Dutch (De Geus) in 2015.  Ayesha is a 2014 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate and Instituto Sacatar Fellow. She was awarded the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for non-fiction. She lives in Senegal.

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“I am a feminist,” I often heard my father say when I was young. This was long before I understood what feminism was, but I could glean its meaning from the way things went in our house: my mother had kept her last name; there were many days when my father cooked (I was so proud when he went on TV and stewed up a wicked-looking tagine) and cleaned and did the laundry; when they had one car, he would drive and she would drive; before running a story in their newspaper, my mother would put her intrepid editing skills (eagle-eyed, he once said) to work. These seem like small examples, but they were big to me. I didn’t see this dynamic outside our home, and I wanted everyone to have parents like mine.

It made sense that two people running a family should be on the same footing, that they had this complicity and complementarity. They were equals, but they weren’t fighting to occupy the same space: they had different strengths and they brought them to the table. They became my relationship goals.

Then there was my sister and I. My father wanted us to push as far as we could (I’m sure he still harbours a secret hope that I will get a PhD some day) and told us boyfriends and husbands could wait. I liked the idea of being a feminist.

I went to a women’s college, Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts. There, feminism was a buzzword, ever-present, omniscient. Feminism there came off as militant and anti-man and very far removed from the world of equals that feminism had first embodied for me. I decided I wouldn’t be a feminist. I didn’t see myself in it and I shrank back from it.

All the same, college introduced me to books like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and provided me with a safe space in which to be a woman. I discovered Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex. One is not born a woman, but becomes one grew into a mantra of sorts. Even though I was still not quite calling myself a feminist yet, I was warming up to the idea.

When I moved to Senegal, I saw another world unfold between men and women, even farther from the one I’d grown up in. I found there: men who weren’t even working who had two wives (my father is Muslim, but was only married to my mother); women sometimes had to ask permission from their husbands to take part in an economic activity; and the birth of a boy was a celebration (I am still told so many times, “It’s good you have a son”). I became a feminist in Senegal. Living here has made me hanker even more so for a world in which everybody is given a fair shot, in which men and women have the same opportunities and are treated equally.

There was a word that reassured me on my journey, one that became a bridge between the way I previously perceived feminism and my embracing of it: womanist. Coined by Alice Walker, in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, she wrote that “Womanist is to feminist, as purple is to lavender,” and that it is “Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” It was the crystallization of what I had felt in college, it explained why I’d been so hesitant to be called feminist. It was because the feminism I saw in college didn’t include me as a black woman, as an African. I loved the term womanist for embracing everyone.

Now that I have a son of my own, I hope he, like my father, would one day call himself a feminist/womanist. In his toy box, his dolls cohabitate with his vroom-vrooms. On his bookshelf are books on fearless girls and books about tractors. Boys and girls who are open to all the world has to offer from an early age, I’m convinced, will be only the richer for it. Books are great ways to open up the world, and so, I will introduce my son to books with strong women and with strong men, with books with girls who cry and with boys who cry.

When my father was ten, he would often visit his grandmother in the town of Salaga. He didn’t like the soups that had been cooked up and his grandmother would indulge him and let him cook his own food. It was a feminist move for both of them, against the grain of their highly patriarchal society, in which only women did the cooking. I have no doubt that little acts like my great grandmother’s helped shape his worldview.

 

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Feminism and Women’s Presses

Below is a blog first posted on the page of Honno Press by Callista Williams

Posted on   by 

I first began to identify as a feminist at the age of twenty. As a teenager I came into contact with feminist ideas from reading novels like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and plays such as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, but I didn’t yet realise that I could be a feminist or that I could contribute to this dialogue in some way. My relationship with feminism changed in 2001 when I stumbled across the Silver Moon Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and encountered my first literary, feminist space.

I think Silver Moon and the extensive selection of books it stocked altered my understanding of feminism, as it enabled me to connect what had been an abstract philosophy to a living movement which could potentially be a force for change. During this summer I visited the Silver Moon a number of times to buy novels and browse large art books, discovering the works of Judy Chicago and Georgia O’Keeffe in the process. Running my fingers along the spines I came across names of publishers I’d never heard of before such as The Feminist Press, Pandora Press, The Women’s Press and Virago. It was here I bought my first Virago title: The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. I think as a newly identifying feminist I was drawn to the provocative title and plus it was the perfect reading material for the train to accompany my newly shaved head and pink Doc Martens!

Now, sixteen years later, my feminism is more often expressed in the petitions I share on social media than in my appearance, but reading feminist and women’s literature published by the presses I discovered at Silver Moon has remained a constant. I have also discovered a few more along the way including Honno Welsh Women’s Press when I moved to Wales. During a recent discussion hosted by The Women’s Equality Network Wales in partnership with Honno I began to think more about these different labels such as ‘feminist’ and ‘women’s’ and what they have come to represent in publishing.

At the end of the 1980s, not long after Honno was founded, Nicci Gerrard questioned feminist publishing’s narrow commitment to ‘books about feminism’ and suggested an increase in the publication of ‘books influenced by feminism.’[1] Fifteen years on Simone Murray asked: ‘[W]hen is a women’s press a Feminist Press?’ and ‘does a press’s feminism reside in its means or its ends?’[2] In 2014 Catherine Riley concluded that Virago’s takeover in 1995 by Little, Brown (now owned by the mainstream conglomerate Hachette Livre) means that they now ‘reach a wide audience’. She concludes that ‘Virago has certainly adapted its way of conveying feminist messages, but retains its quiet influence. This has kept it relevant, continuing the attempt to convey feminist politics through publishing’.[3]

Therefore, is a press only a feminist press if all aspects of its operations are feminist-minded? And can this only be achieved if a press remains independent? Or is it the case that the ‘feminism’ resides in the output? But then should the output be solely about feminism or can it be more broadly influenced by feminism? Should feminist presses only be run by and publish women or is feminism actually a mind-set, an approach to be actioned by individuals of any gender? If a press is subsumed by a mainstream publisher is it a compromise or a progression? Although these questions are too vast to answer here they do reveal a complexity of purpose and thought which needs to be engaged with when discussing the future of women’s and feminist presses. Since the period of second-wave feminism – when many of these independent presses were first established – the publishing industry has changed dramatically and, as a result, presses like Honno are navigating a constantly shifting landscape whilst still trying to fulfil their key founding principles.

Here We Stand book coverHonno can be labelled a women’s press because it publishes only women and even though not every title is explicitly about feminism Honno is certainly motivated by a feminist agenda. For example its commitment to publishing reprints of titles by women long out of print reintroduces the writings of our ‘literary foremothers’ to the reading community. This series highlights a distinct women’s canon and provides further evidence of a history of feminist consciousness pre-1970.[4] Alongside its fiction list, Honno publishes biographies of women such as the Jewish writer from Wales Lily Tobias. Books like The Greatest Need reveal a history of female activism and creativity in Wales often hidden from view. As well as bringing to light Wales’ feminist history Honno also strives to document contemporary women campaigners. A good example is Honno’s recent anthology Here We Stand: a collection of interviews and articles which give an insight into modern issues, highlighting why the feminist movement is still relevant today.     

Although not a physical bookshop like Silver Moon was, Honno has also created a feminist, literary space which can potentially be a force for a change. It puts forward an alternative historical narrative which reveals a rich seam of feminist thought and action in Wales. This strategy continues to raise the profile of female writings whilst curating a historical foundation on which Honno’s contemporary writers can build. In her article on Virago press, Catherine Riley decries ‘the relative lack of published work on the important phenomenon of feminist publishing.’[5] Therefore, as Honno celebrates its thirtieth birthday is it now time for their contribution to feminism in Wales to be fully evaluated?

Biography

Calista Williams recently completed her PhD on ‘The National Library of Wales and National Identity c.1840-1916’ which was assisted by an innovative collaboration between the Open University and the National Library of Wales. She is currently researching the lives of the women who used the National Library when it first opened in 1909. Calista is now a Lifelong Learning Humanities teacher at Aberystwyth University.

caw52@aber.ac.uk

@Ca7ista

 

HONNO ARE CELEBRATING FEMINIST BOOK FORTNIGHT ON THE 20TH JUNE 2018, 6.30PM, AT THE BOOKSHOP, ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE.

 

[1] Nicci Gerrard, Into the Mainstream. How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing (London: Pandora Press, 1989), p.25.

[2] Simone Murray, ‘The Cuala Press: Women, publishing, and the conflicted genealogies of ‘feminist publishing’’, Women’s Studies International Forum, No.27 (2004), pp.489-506, pp.492-493.

[3] Catherine Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’: What Virago’s Sale in 1995 Means for Feminist Publishing’, Women: A Cultural Review, Vol.25, No.3 (2014), pp.235-255, p.253.

[4] Cherie Kramarae and Dale Spender ‘Exploding Knowledge’ in Kramarae and Spender (eds.), The Knowledge Explosion. Generations of Feminst Scholarship (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992), pp.1-26, p.18.

[5] Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’, p.236.

Disturbing Dystopian Fiction

Disturbing Dystopian Fiction

By Jane Anger  21 May 2018

Big publishers like trends and bandwagons.  Once a particular book is successful they like to publish lots more of the same in pursuit of sales.  It results in some weirdly tired publishing.  Now it’s happening with ‘feminist’ dystopian fiction.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist classic.  Prescient and with lots to say.  But now, there’s a bit of a trend in publishing to find more of the same, which disturbs me somewhat. It disturbs me because it seems to revel in highlighting the awful things that can be done to women.  I have just been sent a proof of a forthcoming book by a major publisher because they think it’s “just up my street” and that it’s “feminist”.  The blurb on the back goes like this:

“Imagine a world in which you can only speak one hundred words a day.  Any more, and a thousand volts of electricity will course through your veins. But only if you are a WOMAN.”

Do you know what?  This doesn’t look like anything that I want to read.  It doesn’t look like this is feminist publishing to me.  It’s wearying, this trend.

Discuss……

On Feminist Book Fortnight by Lighthouse, Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop

 

On Feminist Book Fortnight by Lighthouse, Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop

April 15th 2018

 

By Jim Taylor & Mairi Oliver

Back in the summer of 1984, the inaugural International Feminist Book Fair was held in Covent Garden, London. Supported by a growing feminist reading audience, the fair was followed by a ten day-long celebration of feminist ideas and women’s writing held in bookshops and community centres across the UK, dubbed “Feminist Book Week”. Over the next few years, this became an annual fixture for the book trade, stretching to a full two weeks every summer, and thus was the Feminist Book Fortnight born.

This summer, from 16th-30th June, Feminist Book Fortnight (FBF) is being resurrected by a group of radical and independent bookshops across the UK, headed up by Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham. There will be two weeks of events and book displays up and down the country, celebrating both the centenary of some British women getting the vote, and the recent boom in feminist publishing. As the official FBF website states:

There has been an explosion of new feminist publishing in the last two to three years.  Books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Laura Bates, Mary Beard, Laurie Penny, Rebecca Solnit, 404Ink and many others have become bestsellers. Younger feminists are also discovering feminist classics by writers and activists such as Audre Lorde, whose writing was recently republished in the UK by Silver Press.”

Lighthouse Bookshop is proud to be a part of FBF. As a feminist bookshop, we recognise that feminism is hugely important in the fight for progress and equality, both at home and abroad, and yet still massively misunderstood and underused as a way of challenging structures of power. We’re delighted to have an opportunity to shout about our vision of a truly intersectional feminism concerned with social and economic justice, and we hope that the coordinated events will draw publishers’ attention so we can bring some high-profile authors in on the conversation and reach new readers.

It’s also true that feminism faces some major challenges at the moment. As a bookshop we champion a pro-active, inclusive feminism, and the FBF offers us an opportunity to showcase writers and voices which chime with our mission, as well as the chance to make new converts and challenge outdated or exclusive forms of feminism. Feminism should be about striking at the heart of inequality and injustice so naturally we’re concerned about the increasing commercialisation of ‘feminism’, particularly within the publishing industry.

That Penguin, for example, can in the same year publish its feminist women series and bring out books by Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker shows real hypocrisy. It can’t sit well that the industry is making bank with all the suffragette inspired books coming out, whilst also having endemic problem with pay inequality based on gender and class. To us, this is evidence that for many, feminism, equality and diversity are just buzzwords and tick-boxes, rather than vibrant, exciting and necessary ways of working and publishing.

The Lighthouse’ FBF will follow the example of the indie publishers who are leading the way in both spirit and action. Like & Other Stories, 404Ink, Cassava Republic, Oneworld, Tilted Axis, Silver Press and Bloomsbury, we must bring brilliant stories and voices to readers, voices which bridge gender, class, sexuality and race. The Lighthouse will be running a series of events which uses this variety of thought and experience to help us better understand, engage with the world around us with a feminist perspective. We’ll have Feminist story/craft sessions for little ones, talks on economics with the likes of Ann Pettifor and much more.

In an age when the #MeToo movement is necessary, when we have to fight tooth and nail to repeal the 8thamendment, and when the gender pay gap is manifested everywhere we look, feminist voices and ideas are more important than ever, and we hope you’ll join us for a fortnight of debate and discussion which puts them centre-stage.