Monday, 5 March 2018

Penguin Women Writers - From Across the World by Savita Kalhan

Last week I braved the arctic weather and went into London to an event at Waterstones Gower Street. Kamila Shamsie and Penelope Lively are part of an interesting project with Penguin to mark the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage. The idea behind the project was for each of the two authors to rediscover two books written by women that had gone out of print over the years, which would then be republished by Penguin. 

Kamila Shamsie’s choices were Meatless Days by Sara Suleri and Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chughtai. Penelope Lively’s choices were Mary McMarthy’s Birds of America and The Lark by E Nesbit. 

During the course of the evening, Penelope Lively and Kamila Shamsie discussed why they chose these particular books to bring back into print. All four books have something to say about women and the people around them, about their lives, their choices, their experiences, all of them evocative of the different times and places of their setting. Women and women's suffrage remained at the heart of their choices, whether locally, or more globally.

Edith Nesbit was a firm favourite of mine when I was growing up. I devoured Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, and many others. But I wasn’t aware of The Lark, a novel for adults. Edith Nesbit was a prolific writer, a political activist, and, at the time, her writing was considered innovative. She inspired many great writers,  including Dianne Wynne Jones, C S Lewis, and more.

First published in 1922, The Lark is about two girls, orphaned, left without anything, save a small cottage and their wits, to make a living.
‘"When did two girls of our age have such a chance as we've got - to have a lark entirely on our own? No chaperone, no rules, no..."
"No present income or future prospects," said Lucilla.’

Mary McMarthy was a prolific American writer. First published in 1971, her Birds of America, is a coming-of-age novel about a young man, Peter Levi, and his mother, set in a time of political unrest and change. The 19 year old protagonist moves to Paris to study at the Sorbonne in the 1960's. “...the positive was so rare here for a foreigner that you felt like falling on your knees and kissing the hem of the garment of anybody who was kind to you,” he says. It’s a statement that is still true of any time and any place.

First published in 1989, Meatless Days is a memoir set in the time of newly created post-colonial Pakistan. ‘Some of the more heart-shaking writing about love and grief I've ever read,’ Kamila Shamsie says in the Introduction. It is an exploration of what it is to be a woman when your life revolves around your roles in relation to other people – wife, mother, sister, daughter; it is about loss and grief, and about new beginnings in a new language. This was the only book of the four books presented that evening that I had read.

Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chughtai is a collection of stories which were considered extremely provocative and dangerous at the time. Born in 1911 in India, Chugthai was a feminist writer who pushed boundaries. She wrote in secret at first because it was frowned upon by her traditional community. She was a liberal Muslim whose daughter, nephew and niece were married to Hindus. In her own words, Chughtai came from a family of "Hindus, Muslims and Christians who all live peacefully". She said she read not only the Qur’an, but also the Bhagadvad Gita and the Bible with openness. Over the years, many of her books were banned in South Asia. They were never translated well from Urdu for an English speaking audience. So it’s great to see this book in print again with a good translation.

I look forward to seeing more in this new series of books. Are there any books that are out of print that you would like to see back in print?

Thursday 8th March is International Women's Day. Penguin are opening Like a Woman bookshop, a pop-up shop, from 5th-9th March in Shoreditch, which will stock books written by women. A series of talks will also take place in the space, and all proceeds from ticket sales from the talks will go to the charity Solace Women's Aid. You can also buy books to donate to refugees. Here's a link for more information - LIKE A WOMAN - PENGUIN


Lindsay said...

This must have been a most interesting evening. I've not read any of the books mentioned but I will be looking out for them. Thanks for telling us about it.

Savita Kalhan said...

It was a very interesting evening, Lindsay, both writers spoke so well about their book choices. I'm reading Home Fire at the moment, and I highly recommend it!

David Thorpe said...

Very interesting. I've just finished reading Lively's Cities of the Mind. She has a keen sense of history (well, it was her degree). I also read Nesbitt as a child, and I hadn't heard of any of the four books, I'll try and seek them out. Books only die if people forget them.

Savita Kalhan said...

That's so true, David, and a lovely way to put it - 'Books only die if people forget them.'

Mystica said...

Thank you for the information 're the Chughtai book. Id really like to get hold of it.