I had a moment, the other day, when I realized that all the writers I’m currently trying to find time to read are women. I read Shailja Patel’s wonderful Migritude in a café in Georgetown in a glorious haze of indolent luxury last weekend, and I was absorbed in Leila Aboulela’s Minaret on the plane as I flew home. And then, as I went over the list of books I wanted to read/re-read in my next (perhaps imaginary) phase of exploratory/pleasure reading, I realized that they are all women. Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (which I don‘t even remember reading, it’s been so long), Ahdaf Soueif‘s The Map of Love (because I adored In the Eye of the Sun), Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra (never read), Leila Aboulela’s The Translator, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (which I didn‘t like nearly as much as everything else she‘s ever written, and I want to figure out why), and Tsitsi Dangerembga‘s The Book of Not, which no one seems to have read (including me) despite how omni-canonized her Nervous Conditions has been. Oh, and Persepolis.
This should not be as surprising as it is, of course. There is nothing “natural” about the thing where a list of writers comes together and it’s all men, however often it happens. Obviously, in fact, the opposite is true: such an occurrence has to be made to happen, even if we don‘t realize the social pressure being brought to bear (even if we‘ve been scrupulously trained to perceive such pressure as “natural“). And, of course, there is nothing random about my list, either; I am reading particular books for particular reasons, even if I wasn’t, at first, thinking in terms of gender. There are a lot of writers there in the grey space between Africa and the Middle East, for example, the places where people like to draw lines demarcating the imaginary difference between Africans and Arabs, and a space I’m trying to better read about and in. And it may be that I’ve previously favored male writers without realizing it, leaving the important lady writers in the place where my gaps were. But still. If gender didn’t inform my original intention — or at least not in any simply, obvious way — there is something too dramatic in the correlation. I need to spend some time thinking it through.