BFL: Badass Feminist Literature

About a week ago, when most businesses in Maryland closed in the wake of Covid-19, I decided to hunker down and wait things out at my parents’.

Upon my arrival, my younger sister approached me complaining of boredom and requesting I loan her a good book.

Having considered for a moment what I know of her taste in books, I was about to suggest a relatively light-hearted novel. Before I could speak, however, she refined her request—Do you have “Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl”?

I admit I was taken aback by L’s interest in this book, the primary topic of which is rape.

In her second memoir, Jeannie Vanasco pores over the details of a rape she experienced 14 years prior and invites the reader into an intimate conversation in which she asks her rapist several questions about his motives and his life following the incident.

I didn’t like the thought of my sister’s reading something so brutally honest. But L wasn’t asking my permission to read this book—she was asking if I had it with me.


Before driving over, I had packed a large felt tote full of books that attempted to cover a number of genres: pre-modern poetry, contemporary poetry, novel, reference, spiritual, and memoir.

Vanasco’s book was not among the stacks in the tote bag, but I stressed nonetheless that L should know “Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl” is a book that really can be difficult to read, emotionally… You know it talks a lot about rape, right?

L nodded casually, not perturbed in the slightest. Had she not requested this book, I never would have considered offering her the memoir I did have with me. I’d assumed memoir was not her style and had hoped to protect her from the uncompromising honesty of certain female writers. But, in the absence of Vanasco’s book, I decided to go ahead and lend L the next closest thing I had: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev.

Shalmiyev’s book traces the relationship between the writer and her mother, from whom she was taken at a young age, while exploring the topics of immigration, sexual assault, sex work, and motherhood.

My sister is strong, one of the strongest and most admirable people I know. And still, my discomfort when she requested feminist memoir was visceral.

While handing over “Mother Winter”, I tried to grant further warning—She talks about sex and women’s bodies and—but stopped when L gave me a blank stare. I tried to give her an overview of the book but was told that I was spoiling it.


Why is it that I feel a need to protect my own sister from female story? I know she has incredible empathy for others, but does that mean she should not be allowed the opportunity to choose what she reads (even if that reading contains brutal truths)?

In trying to protect my sister, am I also trying to blindfold her?

I feel more liberated, as a woman and a human, with each piece of BFL I read, and L could very well have her own freeing experience.

I don’t want to stand in the way of that.


I had already been getting my hands all over feminist memoir and literature before Covid-19 spread throughout the U.S. This time in relative isolation, however, has given me extra opportunity to soak in the messages and stories being shared, and to reflect over what these women and their words mean to me.

While luxuriating in this bountiful time for reading and thinking, I decided to compile a short list of some favorite pieces of BFL and to invite you, reader, to add on your own favorites!

Reading, like watching TV or baking, is one of my favorite ways to pass time when stuck at home, and I know from social media posts and conversations that many of you relate. If you so desire, indulge in this as a time not only to read, but read and consider things that your busy life typically does not allow for. Let the words seep in and even rock your very understanding of existence, female existence, and how what is being said is relative to, and/or relatable for you.

I’m still trying to understand why I thought for a moment that my sister would be stronger, even safer, not reading these books. But I’m glad for the opportunity to challenge myself there.


*Originally, I began by denoting with an asterisk the following books that may be particularly triggering to certain readers. However, I will let you exercise caution as you see fit, knowing that helpful summaries of the books are readily available to you online.

Without further adieu…

A few of my favorite pieces of BFL:

The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

And, in general, the poetry of Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde and Olena Kalytiak Davis


If you are stuck at home like I am, and without access to the physical library, I recommend looking into eLibrary apps such as Libby to see if you can “borrow” books online using your public library card. There are also countless other free resources for reading online, including Prime Reader for anyone who has a subscription to Amazon Prime.

As for poetry, is an excellent resource. This reputable site publishes biographies of thousands of poets in addition to small selections of their work.

Lastly, if you like podcasts, I recommend tuning into Between The Covers. In each episode, host David Naimon interviews the author of a newly released book. I have yet to find a writing/reading podcast that I enjoy as much as this one, my favorite episode being (I’ve listened to it 4 times now) Naimon’s interview with Mother Winter author Sophia Shalmiyev.

Enjoy your quarantine reading!




P.S. If you like, please do share the titles of your favorite pieces of BFL in the comments! That way, we can all keep absorbing the badassery of wordy women. 

Putting on My Face During a Pandemic

My makeup bag is red, the size of a pencil pouch, and has a 3-inch black faux leather handle branded Estee Lauder. I received it as part of a Christmas gift from my fashionable aunt probably 4 years ago. On one side, a pattern of black, nude, and mauve polka dots dances over a blissful cherry-colored background. The other side is a reprinting of the cover design for Harper’s Bazaar’s September 1930 Issue: a slender, graceful couple walks from their chauffeured car to a glamorous party as evening becomes night.

After years of use, this little bag is caked in powders of assorted colors and holds a blend of makeups from the last four (maybe even five) years—many of them gifted to me, more than a few of them secondhand.

When packing hurriedly to stay with my parents during the coronavirus crisis, I made sure not to forget my makeup. I recall pausing a moment to question the need for it—It’s not like I’d be going out anytime soon—but decided that, given the collection’s size, it couldn’t hurt to bring it just in case. So I threw the tiny tote into the backseat of my car, beside bags of cat food and a full laundry hamper, and drove out of Baltimore.

Before things froze up in the wake of Covid-19, I would always apply mascara and eyeliner when getting ready for work—sometimes even colored eyeliner (my favorite: Wet n Wild’s  Megaliner Liquid Eyeliner in Voltage Blue). Something about rimming my eyes, making them pop, made me feel less inferior to coworkers.

While I’m shut in at home, however, I don’t bother with eyeliner, and mascara is mostly reserved for video conferences. I hate getting to the end of a day spent entirely at home wearing dark eye makeup that stubbornly refuses any attempt at removal. I left my one weapon, Pond’s Cold Cream Facial Cleanser, in Baltimore, and the products I have with me don’t hold up in a fight against the tar-like war paint of Maybelline and Rimmel.

The pandemic has thrown pretty much everything into a twist, including my makeup routine. It’s sort of a convenient twist in some ways. Don’t get me wrong—this is a horrendous time for most of us around the globe—but I’m finding that I’m actually ok with some of the smaller changes this crisis is propelling in my life.

I have a new sort of bond with makeup now. I don’t wear it to impress others or to feel less inferior. I wear it because it gives me energy and a sense of pride before I sit down to work from my dining room table day after day, week after week.

Here’s a look of what my quarantine makeup routine has become:

Each morning, I begin with e.l.f. Cosmetics’ Luminous Putty Primer. It has the consistency of gelato—smooth, easy to dig into, and quick to melt. I used to apply it with a cotton round, but now I don’t care enough not to smear primer on with my own oily fingers.

If I’m feeling especially rough about my acne, I’ll rub some Neutrogena SkinClearing Liquid Makeup (Nude) in gentle circles over pimples and red spots. Sometimes I’ll put it on most of my face— spot treatment and foundation aren’t the same thing, but I never felt it was worth it for me to invest in both.

Next, I use COVERGIRL Clean Professional Loose Powder in Translucent Fair, which smells all at once like Bergamot, Clove, and Eucalyptus. I use this as a powder foundation, hoping that overtop the Luminous Putty Primer it will make me feel smooth, pulled together, and awake.

I throw on blush and highlighter from my Tarte Clay Play Volume II Palette (easily the priciest makeup product I’ve purchased, at $45). This palette, however, only has 2/3 of its original contents remaining after my clumsy hands let it fall on the tiled bathroom floor.

A long time ago, Aunt Julie gave me mineral blush in “dusty rose” that I’ll sometimes add for extra color. It’s so old and worn, however, that I can’t find a brand name anywhere on it.

Finally I’ll follow all of this up with a spritz of perfume (Black Opium by Yves Saint Laurent). And if I really want a confidence boost, I’ll throw on a head scarf, slip my vintage rose gold-framed glasses over my eyes, and pretend I’ve got as much class as Grace Kelly.


Truth be told, I don’t know much about makeup. I’ve never watched YouTube videos by Tati or jefreestar, I hardly spend any money even on drugstore products, and I keep in my possession gels and powders that should have been tossed out years ago.

Still, I delight in this new routine of mine.

I like knowing exactly which few products I have in my little red bag, however old and broken they may be. There’s comfort in the repetition and added confidence this ritual gives me during such an uncertain time. I’m not about to step out of a chauffeured car and walk into some glamorous party. But I’m not so concerned about that– I’m in control of, and feel good about what’s going on my face, and right now that’s something worth celebrating.

Luthiers, Boxed Lunches, and Books

This Valentine’s Day, my first Valentine’s Day with a significant other, I was given two books. Books before chocolates, before flowers.

I pulled these gifts from a decorative bag while sitting in the passenger seat as D drove to Pennsylvania. With sandwiches and snacks packed to last us through the day, and a double bass hugged between our seats, we were off to see D’s luthier.

It is a wonder that his tiny white Honda Fit can hold as much as it does—like Mary Poppins’ bag, but with a humble exterior. When playing gigs, D often has to squeeze into this car a double bass, electric bass, stand, amplifier, other sound equipment and sometimes a cello. Audience members and guests frequently mistake the double bass for a cello, sometimes even for a violin or an oboe.

Most upright basses intended for adults rise above my five feet and ten inches, whereas an oboe packed in its case resembles a tin lunchbox.

The double bass is also called the upright bass, contrabass, contrabass viol, and bull fiddle.  This instrument has the shape of a pear, but the pear is wearing an overzealous girdle. The lower and most voluptuous portion of its body slides between the musician’s knees, weight leaning on the left. The bassist’s right hand waits ready to bow or pluck the strings, as the left hand holds the neck and wraps gently over the fingerboard.

D had visited his luthier on February 12th and come to the conclusion that he would like to sell his two basses in order to purchase another, one that was dark and charming, with an intriguing flare. When D told me of this plan, however, his voice was littered with hesitation. I keep thinking I should go back, even if it’s silly now. I need to be certain I’m making the right decision.

And so I urged him to return on Valentine’s Day; we could go together and call it a date.


When my dad asked that week what D had been up to, I told him about our day trip and tried to explain what a luthier does. I was surprised by the effort it took to paste together a sufficient picture.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines luthier as “one who makes stringed musical instruments (such as violins or guitars).”

Such as basses.

An ordinary explanation, greatly lacking, for this ancient trade.

Luthier. The maker and repairer of stringed instruments; essential middle-man for those buying and selling instruments, and for those striving to connect with likeminded musicians; living trove of knowledge from physics to meteorology.

This profession goes back many centuries, at one point being as essential in court as a silversmith or a scribe.

When stringed instruments were prized in churches and kingdoms, so, too, were the brass instruments used in hunting and other rituals of the court. The sackbut, predecessor of the trombone, is one such instrument.

I played the trombone with devotion for 14 years, never growing tired of this grandfather name. I adored it so much, in fact, that I molded my instant messenger username after it. “Ilovemysackbut” enjoyed a deluge of attention from 13-year old boys.


It was while studying trombone that I met D. We were both in school for music, a school that I had transferred to so I could be closer to home and efficient healthcare, following the onset of chronic illness. After trying to bargain with illness, and two years after transferring, I began what I call my open-ended hiatus from playing trombone.

Chronic pain and other symptoms rendering me unable to meet the physical requirements the trombone calls for, I turn myself now to the work of writing—work that has always been an integral part of my life but was previously overshadowed by music.  


Upon arrival to the luthier’s workshop, I left the books in the car and waited as D snuggled the double bass out of his morsel of a vehicle.

We walked up a steep flight of stairs into what appeared to be a generously sized two-story garage. Neither neglected nor adorned, this small building sat about 100 feet from the home of the luthier and his wife. The workshop itself lacked some basic provisions that a home calls for—no bathroom, no running water— but offered everything required for the comfort and security of wood—heating and cooling, carefully placed windows.

Upon opening the door, there was a harsh whiff of—what was it? Oil, sawdust, rust? I embraced this scent, potent and invigorating, that swelled around a mysterious pony-tailed craftsman and his shop.

The top floor boasted an array of carved wood pieces, all in different shapes, sizes, and finishes. Some were suave and upright, demonstrating velvet curves. Others were rugged, splayed boldly across tables. My eyes, more familiar with brass, could identify a few of the isolated parts— bridges, for example, with their sunrise shape and mild curlicue cutouts—but I was left to wonder over the identity of many others.

Below the workshop was a listening space, lush with thick red rug and walls lined with basses. The luthier and his wife, who handles the financial side of the business, left D and myself to join the fat flies in this temperate rainforest of a room.

I sat down with my back to D, and listened as he took turns between playing his own bass and the bass on sale. My job now was to blindly absorb the vibrations and impart my observations.

It’s become infrequent for me to work closely with fellow musicians, to lend my ear in critical situations, and so I relished participation in this process. Coexisting with this joy, however, was a dumb hot battle in my brain telling me I don’t have the knowledge or experience to spit up something of value.

Anything you can tell me here is helpful.  You have good things to share, D assured and gestured for me to turn back around and trust him, to listen and speak with conviction.

Taking words to illustrate something one hears and sees in her head, making it so that another person understands clearly, is terrifying. It requires one to step out on a limb and forge both new and proverbial ground, requires confidence.


One of my several journals is dedicated to defining words with which I want to become more intimate, of which I want to grow in my understanding. This is motivated in part by a love of English and etymology, but also by a fear of misrepresenting myself as an educated woman, of being dumb and useless.

While at work a few weeks ago, when things were slow, I made myself vocabulary flash cards. The one word from that pile that I remember? Diffidence.


I pushed myself to speak without thinking too hard, and D didn’t laugh, didn’t scoff.

The two books he gave me that day are for writers. One encourages the writer to move loose hands and tongues in an absence of judgment, while the other provides advice for achieving and holding a writing career. Gifts that say I believe in you and what you are doing.

I pushed myself to speak.


After a few hours, D, his luthier, his luthier’s wife, and I determined together that with a few adjustments, D’s own bass would give him what he was looking for.

The luthier explained his logic: Right now this bass is vanilla—rich, smooth, and universally pleasing—while the bass you are interested in is pistachio—of darker terrain and wistful charm, but ultimately limited in its offerings. There is always the possibility to add flavor to vanilla.

He spouted wisdom, and we gladly lapped it up—all but his suggestion that we tie up our Valentine’s Day with a trip to McDonald’s. (His wife suggested Burger King.)


Once D and I had snuggled back into the Fit, we feasted (gladly) on our exotic packed lunch—simple grocery store items that we don’t normally permit ourselves to buy. We left the luthier’s with D confident in his decision to keep his bass, and the two of us excited to head back to Baltimore and enjoy a movie out.

After the movie that evening, the two of us ate a dinner of takeout and a dessert of both vanilla and pistachio ice creams. We got our traditional date night, only after supporting one another in our professional and artistic pursuits.

I had originally told D that I didn’t want anything for Valentine’s Day.

Giving me two books went against my wishes. And a few days later, he surprised me with flowers and chocolates after realizing that he does like giving these sorts of things, even if they’re cliché (and after I realized that I can stand to receive flowers and chocolates).

I have enjoyed what I’ve been given, and yet I don’t quite feel worthy of such thoughtful gifts.

I still wonder about the value of the feedback I provided at the luthier’s.

But D knows this—my lack of confidence and self-approval were part of his motivation for giving me what he did. And my desires for him to be confident and comfortable in his work were motivation to spend the holiday in a quaint Pennsylvania workshop.


Sincerely, Katya