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.

IWD2019_Melissa Barbeau
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