5 Books By Female Authors That Changed My Life
Reading is a tradition that my mother passed down to me. My parents were too poor to put me in a pre-school as a toddler in America, so my mother taught me how to read and write herself. By the time I was in elementary school, my mother was selecting books as varied as The Pilgrim’s Progress and Rich Dad, Poor Dad for me to read. Sometimes, I would find monetary rewards or encouraging notes buried in the pages of the more complex reads. As an adult, reading has become one of the most sacred parts of my life. It is perhaps significant that a woman instilled the love of reading in me, because some of the books that have shaped my life the most were written by women. Here are a few (in no particular order):
1. The Most of Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron (1941-2012) was a screenwriter (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Julie and Julia), novelist, essayist and blogger (amongst other things). I’ll never forget the first time I read a Nora Ephron essay: I was sitting in salon chair, waiting to have my hair blow-dried. I had tossed a small book that had been sitting on my shelf for a while called I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being A Woman in my bag earlier, and decided to read it to kill time. As I turned the pages, I got goose bumps and began to nod my head in agreement so fiercely I upset my hairdresser. I was having a spiritual experience. You see, through Nora’s essays (yes, we’re on a first name basis), I saw the exact type of writer I want to be. In Nora, I found my spirit animal.
The Most of Nora Ephron is a collection of Nora’s various works; including her essays, novels, scripts and blogs. Her subject matter spans everything from feminism to food; from the personal to the political.
Through Nora’s writing, I’ve found the courage to be honest about the things that I want to write about, and to make no apologies for it. For example, in the introduction to her essay collection, Wallflower at the Orgy, Nora writes: “I should say that almost everything in this book was written in 1968 and 1969, and almost everything in it is about what I like to think of as frivolous things. Fashion, trashy books, show business, food…I could call these subjects Popular Culture, but I like writing about them so much that I hate to think they have to be justified in this way...” Ah, in another lifetime, Nora and I were friends.
2. Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie
Born to a family of tribal desert nomads in Somalia, by the age of five Waris Dirie had survived what many women can only imagine: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). At age thirteen, Dirie’s father arranged for her to marry a sixty year old man. At this point, she made a decision that changed the trajectory of her life: Dirie ran away from home, trekking for nine days to Mogadishu, with nothing to her name but the clothes on her back and a tattered shawl. Her memoir reveals a remarkable life: Dirie went from being a domestic servant, to an undocumented immigrant in London, to an international model, to a UN Ambassador.
Because of this book, I decided to write my college thesis on FGM. I was so passionate about the topic that I finished my first draft (100+ pages) in less than a week—it won the award for the best thesis in my department. This book solidified my passion for women’s rights.
3. The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) needs no introduction: she remains without a doubt one of the most influential women and writers of our time. When I first stumbled on a book of hers in high school, I was stunned: up until that point, I had believed non-fiction was the exclusive domain of politicians, financial gurus, religious leaders, and the like. But here was a woman, writing her life’s story as literature, and doing it well. I would later come to learn that Angelou’s use of fiction-techniques in her writing helped to shape/expand the autobiography genre.
Angelou’s collected autobiographies (OK, technically, this is six books…seven if you include Mom & Me & Mom which was published afterwards) is one of the most important books I own. The many twists and turns that shaped her life (at varying points she was a teenage mother, fry cook, nightclub dancer and civil rights activist) gives me comfort about the ebbs and flow of my own life. The pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout her work rest in my soul and guide me daily.
4. Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
What Jesus Feminist is not: a scholarly discourse on the intersection of feminism and biblical theory; or a man-bashing tirade. What it is: a reflection on what the church could look like on the other side of gender debates; and a poetic call for women to use their God-given gifts alongside men. In Jesus Feminist, Bessey shares how studying the Bible and Jesus’ life made a feminist out of her: “in a time when women were almost silent or invisible in literature, Scripture affirms and celebrates women. Women were a part of Jesus’ teaching, part of his life. Women were there for all of it.”
I read Jesus Feminist in one sitting, with tears in my eyes. For so long, I had been told my convictions about gender equality and my religious beliefs were mutually exclusive. This book confirmed what I had long believed: “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity. It never was; it never will be.”
5. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adichie
Chimamanda Adichie is perhaps another writer that needs no introduction. The novelist, nonfiction writer and short story writer has been hailed one of—if not the—most prominent contemporary African writers. You may have read her book Half of a Yellow Sun or Americanah; or you may have heard her TEDx talk “We Should All Be Feminists” (made even more popular by Beyoncé). My favorite book by Adichie though is The Thing Around Your Neck.
I remember feeling so conflicted while reading the short story collection, because I couldn’t stop reading it but didn’t want it to end. I was in the process of moving apartments when I read the book, so I had no furniture. I sat on the floor reading it, barely feeling discomfort or even remembering to eat. I was consumed. As Publisher’s Weekly described it: “the tension between Nigerians and Nigerian-Americans, and the question of what it means to be middle-class in each country, feeds most of these dozen stories” in The Thing Around Your Neck.
As a Nigerian-American, I had never (and still haven’t) read anything else that so beautifully ties America and Africa, or that so vividly captures the experience of being ‘other’ in America.
When I had the privilege of meeting Adichie, this is what I said (and what I’d say to the rest of the women on this list): Thank you for putting in words what I have always felt but never known how to articulate.