Reading Women with Michelle Porter

In honour of International Women’s Day, we invited some of our authors to tell us why reading books by women is important and to share some of their favourite books by women with us.

Our final featured author is Michelle Porter. Michelle Porter is a Red River Métis poet, journalist, and editor. She holds degrees in journalism, folklore, and geography (PhD). Her academic research and creative work have been focused on home, Métis mobility, and the changing nature of our relationship to land. She’s won awards for her work in poetry and journalism, and has been published in literary journals, newspapers, and magazines across the country. She lives in St. John’s.

Michelle’s nonfiction has been anthologized in Best Kind (recently named a Foreword INDIES finalist), and her debut collection of poetry, Inquiries, is now available for pre-order.

IWD2019_Michelle Porter

Michelle Porter on Reading Women

I can tell you that I don’t read women writers so that I can read about familiar worlds. There’s so much diversity among women that I almost never recognize myself in the books I read that are written by women. The notable recent exception is when I read The Break by Katherena Vermette. In that book, for the first time in so, so long, I recognized myself and my family. And that’s why I’ll read anything and everything by Katherena Vermette. But that’s a rare thing.

Indigenous women are writing some of the best books in Canada and in the world. They’re writing books that offer us a different way of thinking about our selves, our connections, about the land we live on, this country we all want to understand, about possibilities for the future, and about new paths that lead to something like hope, but are too real and too connected to be as wispy as hope. Lee Maracle, Katherena Vermette, Maria Campbell, Marilyn Dumont, Louise Bernice Halfe, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Eden Robinson are just some of the writers I’ve been encountering. And I’m a better person for it. If you are looking for more, this Room Magazine list remains strong.

I read women authors so that I can enter stories that offer a full spectrum of human experience. In so many ways in today, we live in a world that holds up the male experience and body as the norm. The world we encounter on a daily basis is built on the male experience of the world, as writer Caroline Criado Perez points out in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. The world we live in offers itself to the common daily lives and bodies of men. Some days it is only in essays, books, poems, and novels written by women that a person can begin to understand a world that is focused on the imagination of a woman.

See also: “You cannot be ‘well read’ without reading women”, The Guardian 

And rarely does this female imagination create worlds that are similar to each other. Women, even from the same place, are just too different from one another. That’s the beauty of the untapped scope of the female imagination and world — there’s so much to lean into. Think of the Brontë sisters’ three very different responses in literature to the challenges of their places and lives in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Think of the wonderful gaps between the different stories told in new novels by two women living right here: consider the startling worlds evoked by Sharon Bala in The Boat People and in Megan Gail ColesSmall Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club.

It is my opinion that one of the best ways to experience a place you’ve never been is to read it through the eyes of a woman author. Sophie Baggott wrote in The Guardian that “male authors dominate more than two-thirds of the translated fiction market.” That’s so much of the world left untranslated. And Miles Klee writes about our personal bookshelves, many of which are dominated by male authors—great authors, certainly—but male.

I read women authors because women write good books. Just look here in Newfoundland and Labrador. How incomplete would our understanding of Newfoundland and Labrador be without writers like Melissa Barbeau, Lisa Moore, Bridget Canning, and Trudy J. Morgan-Cole?

I believe that what [Miles] Klee wrote about women writers is true:

“If you’re passionate about an art, a science, a sport or a business, you owe it to yourself to seek out the women who are mastering it, and to study how they do so. Otherwise you’ll never get more than halfway to anywhere good.”

And read Mary Oliver. Poetry and essays both. Just do it. The world she unfolds before us, built with nothing but words, is fierce and beautiful all at once. Like the woman who wrote them.  And oh, dear God, read Miriam Toews’ Women Talking. Like all the best novels it is universal and particular all at once, uncovering through women’s talk, one conversation in a barn at a time, the dilemmas women face as we try to grapple with the years beyond #metoo. It left me breathless.

From March 8th – 12th, take 20% off all books by our female authors in-store and online.

Enter promo code: WOMENSDAY2019

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Reading Women with Melissa Barbeau

In honour of International Women’s Day, we invited some of our authors to tell us why reading books by women is important and to share some of their favourite books by women with us.

Our second featured author is Melissa Barbeau. Melissa Barbeau is a founding member of the Port Authority Writing Group. She has been anthologized in Racket: New Writing Made in Newfoundland, The Cuffer Anthology, and Paragon. She lives with her husband and gaggle of children in Torbay, Newfoundland.

Melissa’s debut novel The Luminous Sea was recently shortlisted for the 2018 BMO Winterset Award along with Robert Chafe‘s Between Breaths and Heather Smith’s Ebb and Flow. Melissa will be reading from The Luminous Sea and taking audience questions at a public reading and reception: 7pm Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at The Rooms (in the Theatre), 9 Bonaventure Avenue in St. John’s.

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Melissa Barbeau on Reading Women

Why read women?

When I first looked at this question I thought: easiest thing ever. What topic could be more simple to write about? Why read women? Why wouldn’t you? It’s exciting to read women. It’s invigorating. I read women because women are brilliant. I read women because I like to watch their brains at work, their synapses snapping. I like to see their thoughts swimming like koi fish inside their skulls, flashing with electricity. I read women because they’re innovative. Because they’ve invented whole new forms, new ways of writing (Hello, Virginia Woolf); because they take chances – with characters, with words, with social norms (who could ever forget the bloody tampon scene in Zadie Smith’s NW?). I read women because I have no idea what to expect. I read women because they are fearless. Because they are not afraid to offer up ugliness and despair – because they’re not afraid to revel in ugliness and despair – and because their search for the beautiful is never-ending (see: Tanya Tagaq’s heartrending novel Split Tooth). I read women because they’re contrary and brave and passionate and cold and angry and forgiving and joyful and fierce. Because their voices are singular and because they speak for their sisters. Because they’re eccentric. Because words like dynamic and explosive apply. Because we are the carriers of sorrow and joy and anger. Because our hearts hold half the world’s dreams.

But I realized the question wasn’t that simple. We are admonished to read women, too, to see the world from a new perspective; to experience a new way of seeing. But what does that even mean? What new way of seeing? What new perspective? How is that women look out at the world and see something other than? What vista have we arrived at that offers a new view and how did we gain it? What path did we take through the trees to find a view looking out over the valley? My theory is this: that women are by nature, maybe by necessity, watchful. That we have learned to feel the atmosphere of a room as we enter it; to suss out the particulars of our environment and the organisms in it; to collect information with our eyes and our ears, with our subterranean senses. That we see the world in all its nuances and subtleties and that our stories come from a place of observed truth. I read women because we are truth tellers. Because we are creators of worlds that ring with authenticity.

What are some of your favourite books by women?

What women-author books are my favourite to read? A Room of One’s Own is the one book I read over and over and over again. As with many women, it has become a kind of manifesto for me about women working, writing, creating. And witty? And sly? That Virginia Woolf is as cute as a fox.

One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently since my novel has been published is ‘how do you do it?’ referring to the blurb on the back flap mentioning that I work as a teacher in the public school system and have a gaggle of children. The answer is, of course, that it wasn’t easy – lady, let me tell you – but, also, the whole enterprise was in many ways a family affair, and that included a supportive partner who was all the way in. It meant our family reimagined work and traditional gender roles and caregiving and hosts of other things – the very topics Anne-Marie Slaughter writes about in her book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. This book is on my new favourites and, I think, an important read for anyone who works or has loved ones that they care for or who wants to live a fulfilled life (a.k.a. everyone).

And lastly, I love women who write weird. I love magic realism or books that dip into magic or oddity or the plain unlikely. And while I love those male masters of the genre (I won’t name them, you know who they are) I can’t get enough of women who write strange. I love the novels of Jeannette Winterson; if I had to choose one I’d pick The Passion with its web-footed female protagonist poling her boat through the canals of 19th century Venice. Also, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, and anything by Chilean writer Isabel Allende. My very favourite short story – “Spinning for the Empire” which is about a group of women literally spinning silk in wartime Japan – comes from Karen Russell’s sublime collection called Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

From March 8th – 12th, take 20% off all books by our female authors in-store and online.

Enter promo code: WOMENSDAY2019

WOMENSDAY2019 Sale

Reading Women with Bridget Canning

In honour of International Women’s Day, we invited some of our authors to tell us why reading books by women is important and to share some of their favourite books by women with us.

Our third featured author is Bridget Canning. Bridget Canning’s debut novel, The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, was published with Breakwater Books in April, 2017 and selected as a finalist for the BMO Winterset Award, the Margaret and John Savage First Book (Fiction) Award, and the IPPY Award for Best Fiction, Canada East. She was raised on a sheep farm in Highlands, Newfoundland and currently lives in St. John’s where she is busy working on an MA in Creative Writing at Memorial University.

The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes is one of four books selected for the first ever Read Local Month at Nova Scotia public libraries. Read more about the Read Local Month initiative here.

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Bridget Canning on Reading Women

Why read women?

It’s frustrating to answer this question because it’s frustrating to feel that we still need to ask it. Do we really have to explain the importance of the point of view of half the population? Do we really have to explain the importance of reading work that includes a broad range of human experience? Have women not proven their worth as storytellers?

I feel there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) “writing” and “women’s writing.” Women writers should not be expected to create only work to be marketed in shades of pink and frilly, resigned to a special corner of bookstores. And we shouldn’t approach the work of writers who aren’t cis male, white, and straight as a fringe market, like something only to be consumed by the kind of people who create it.

To answer this question myself, I read the work of women for the same reason I write. I’m interested in complex female characters who are represented as fully human, with all the flaws, vices, strengths, and vast potential we all possess in reality.

Favourite Books

I’m very drawn to both reading and writing very character driven work – below are three of my favourites and happen to be written by women.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
The character of Blue is so rich and wonderful as a person who has lived with few connections other than books and film. Blue processes new information in a kind of bibliographic way – connecting everything to her vast knowledge which is so limited in her personal isolation.

Antarctica by Claire Keegan
I met Claire Keegan at the Sparks Literary Festival this year and immediately devoured her collection of short stories. She picks you up and puts you there. That’s the best way I can describe it.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
One of my favourite books from childhood which I feel inspired me to write. As Harriet collects her observations in her notebook during her “spying”, she is learning to see and write in her own voice.

From March 8th – 12th, take 20% off all books by our female authors in-store and online.

Enter promo code: WOMENSDAY2019

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Reading Women with Trudy J. Morgan-Cole

In honour of International Women’s Day, we invited some of our authors to tell us why reading books by women is important and to share some of their favourite books by women with us.

Our second featured author is Trudy J. Morgan-Cole. Trudy J. Morgan-Cole is a writer and teacher in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Her historical novels include By the Rivers of Brooklyn, That Forgetful Shore, A Sudden Sun and Most Anything You Please. At her day job, she teaches English and social studies to adult learners. She is married and is the mom of two young adults. Trudy’s passion is uncovering and re-imagining the untold stories of women in history.

Most Anything You Please recently won NL Reads and the inaugural Margaret Duley Award. Read more about her win here.

IWD2019_Trudy J Morgan-Cole

Trudy J. Morgan-Cole on Reading Women

My answer to the question “why read women?” is really the same as my answer to “why read?” in that I don’t feel “books by women” are a special sub-category of books. If you love books, if you read widely, then you should read and love books by women, which are as varied and diverse as are books by men.

However, with that being said, I realize it’s very easy to fall into ruts with our reading, to only read what’s familiar, what we’ve read before, what gets recommended to us through certain channels. And so, for some readers, that might mean that they’re more likely to read books by men than by women, simply because that’s what they’re used to or what they’ve been exposed to. If you’re not reading many books by women, you’re leaving out a huge chunk of the human experience.

So for anyone who is not already reading a lot of books by women, I would encourage you to diversify your reading. Challenge yourself to find new women writers, new books by women that you might not have discovered if you hadn’t gone looking for them. Adding any kind of diversity to your reading list—whether it’s trying to read more women, more books by writers of colour, more books written in a language other than English, more books by LGBTQ authors, whatever—can only give you a richer reading experience as you get exposed to more perspectives, more views on the world. And that holds true whether you’re reading fiction or non-fiction.

When I think of my favourite women writers, I think of a huge variety—some very well-known; some not at all well-known. It’s easier for me to choose a few if I break them down into categories. I love historical fiction: Sharon Kay Penman, Dorothy Dunnett, Margaret George—those are just a few women who I think are masters (or mistresses?) of that genre. One of my favourite fantasy writers is Robin Hobb, and then there’s a very new female fantasy writer, S.A. Chakraborty, whose work I’m really excited about. For contemporary realistic fiction, I love classics like Anne Tyler, but I also love an American writer called Joshilyn Jackson and British writer, Catherine Fox, whose work is not nearly as well known. I think as Canadian readers we’re very lucky that some of our best-known and most foundational fiction writers are women, and of those I would say Margaret Laurence had the biggest impact on me of anyone.

But throwing out all those names is just scratching the surface. I could name a hundred more, in all different genres and styles, past and present. I believe in reading widely, books by men and women from all sorts of backgrounds—but as a woman, I do particularly love seeing the world through female eyes.

From March 8th – 12th, take 20% off all books by our female authors in-store and online.

Enter promo code: WOMENSDAY2019

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Reading Women with Leslie Vryenhoek

In honour of International Women’s Day, we invited some of our authors to tell us why reading books by women is important and to share some of their favourite books by women with us.

First up is Leslie Vryenhoek. Leslie Vryenhoek is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry. Her novel Ledger of the Open Hand was shortlisted for Newfoundland and Labrador’s prestigious Winterset Award, long-listed for the international Dublin Literary Award, and won a silver medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Leslie has also worked as a professional communicator in international development, advanced education, emergency response and the arts. Based in St. John’s, Canada, she travels extensively to gather stories about the lives of poor working women, which have been published worldwide.

IWD2019_Leslie Vryenhoek
Leslie Vryenhoek on Reading Women

Why read women?

It’s a trick question, ridiculous on the surface, and more maddening the deeper you delve. What does it mean to “read women” anyway?

Doesn’t the question presume that there’s some commonality, or at least a common sensibility, in all women’s writing? Doesn’t it strip away the author’s distinct voice, her individual experience, and leave just a set of genitalia holding a pen: estrogen as muse, the uterus as scribe?

Isn’t the call to “read women” just another way of saying “Look, these books aren’t quite as good, but you should read them anyway (please) because the ladies are trying so hard”?

Well maybe. And no. And absolutely not.

Still, it galls me. We should be decades beyond having to exhort anyone to read what women write.

Except we know (because booksellers tell us so) that men regularly say “I don’t read women.”

Except we know that when men write about relationships and sex, egos and feelings, it’s brilliant, courageous and deeply human social commentary. When women write about those things, it’s ChickLit. Or at best, it’s women’s fiction, ghettoized on the shelf and ignored by serious readers.

Except we know that a young man who signed up for the same amazing literature course I did (not way back—I mean in this millennium) took one look at a syllabus that was 50% female and said nope, he didn’t mean to take a women’s studies class.

And who can blame him for thinking that? Syllabi, like the bestseller lists and the big award shortlists, almost always favour male authors. And here’s another thing they favour: books about men, about male protagonists and male pursuits no matter who wrote them.

So here’s another question: Are you reading women if the author is female but you’re still reading about the lives of men?

I know it’s rude to answer a question with another question, let alone a barrage of them, but I’m vexed. I hate the question. And yet—

And yet books written by women that view the world through a female lens, that contain women as fully realized characters—as narrators and protagonists and multi-dimensional individuals, not just wives and lovers, mothers and daughters—those are exactly the books I gravitate toward. Those are the books I love. So I must have an answer.

Fine, here it is then, as near as I can figure and in broad general terms.

Read women because women’s stories are different than men’s; because women’s brains and the way they experience the world is different. Nurture or nature, conditioning or hormones—whatever. It’s true. So not reading women is like growing up without any female influences in your life. You’re missing a piece of the puzzle; your understanding of the world is truncated.

Read women because you’ll have to endure far fewer eyerolling mentions of simultaneous orgasm during intercourse—and a much deeper understanding of the consequences of sex.

Read women because women learn young to listen, to sand their outright opinions down into propositions, to consider other points of view before pushing forward. That early-girl training is a hindrance in most careers, but it might be the best possible training for writers. It makes women better, I think, at crafting distinct multiple viewpoints (see Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, Carol Shields’ Swann, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, for starters). It makes women adept at revealing the subtleties and moral failings of the human heart.

Read women because women’s books tend to ask more questions than they answer.

Some of my favourite books by and about women:

Short stories –

  • Carol Shields’ elegant, insightful collections in The Orange Fish and Various Miracles
  • The muscled prose and memorable women, of Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing and Play the Monster Blind
  • Rosalind Gill’s Too Unspeakable for Words—uncommon stories that take you right inside what it was to be female in 20th-century Newfoundland

Novels –

  • Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise for its smart, funny and deeply original protagonist
  • Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler, a wild ride alongside women of 1890s San Francisco
  • Martha Baillie’s mysterious, evocative The Incident Report and her earlier, gutting The Shape I Gave You
  • Anything by Louise Erdrich, but most especially The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
  • Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman – I like it better that To Kill a Mockingbird with all its complex and messy feelings of grown-up Scout and her imperfect daddy Atticus

From March 8th – 12th, take 20% off all books by our female authors in-store and online.

Enter promo code: WOMENSDAY2019

WOMENSDAY2019 Sale