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, poetryfoundation.com 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.