In Her Words: Inspirational Women Writers and Poets
I first read Winter's Tales by Isak Dinesen nearly thirty years ago. Like nothing I'd ever read before, it was poised somewhere between Andersen's tales and the 1001 Nights, but with a storytelling panache entirely unique to the author. I was immersed at the time in psychoanalysis and philosophy, and shocked by Dinesen's aristocratic stance; she was neither a feminist icon like her contemporary Woolf nor a modernist pioneer of the short story like Mansfield. It was Dinesen who made me aware that I had to write short fiction: and it's Dinesen's tales to which I return when I find myself bored with the genre and set off in search of that indefinable quality we call voice.
Aamer Hussein, author of "Electric Shadows", has published six collections of short stories and two novels.
I've been influenced by several women writers/poets, so it is difficult to pinpoint to one name. From my early years of reading Enid Blyton to more recent pleasures of delving into the works of Penelope Fitzgerald, Qurratulain Hyder, I've been fortunate to discover wonderful female writers. I can, however, trace back to a poem by Emily Dickinson, which caused a tectonic shift in my mind. Everything about the poem, from the title - The Heart Asks Pleasure First - to the short lines of two short paragraphs, had a certain pull. In that poem, I found liberty, melancholy, irony, and most of all it told me at a very early age the best poems for me were not going to be the happy ones.
Ahsan Akbar is the author of The Devil's Thumbprint, a book of poems.
The Heart Asks Pleasure First
By Emily Dickinson
The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain-
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.
I am a huge fan of the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has written 3 novels and 1 collection of short stories.
I think Chimamanda awes me most with her characterization. Like Zadie Smith who is also a master of character and detail, it doesn't seem to matter what class, race, nationality, age, occupation, or gender – everyone in Chimamanda's books is fully realised, a living breathing person with nuance and depth and resonance. From African emigres in America, both uneducated and highly educated, to white working class labourers and African illegals in England, to black, white, and mixed race professors, entrepreneurs, activists, domestic help, politicians, socialites, military officials, students, and teenagers in Nigeria and the States - it's all there in technicolour.
"The question came out before she could restrain herself, so used was she to sharpening her words, to watching for terror in the eyes of boys."
I find her novel, Americanah, especially important for its treatises on race in America – so sharp and dead on that I wanted everyone in America to read them (and elsewhere too, but especially America). The differences between non-American Blacks and American Blacks is a deep divide, yet often overlooked. It's one I noticed myself when I first moved to America from Nigeria, unable to relate on any level to African Americans despite a childhood spent with Africans.
The love stories in each of her books are gorgeous and deep, even more so as these relationships fall apart. And Chimamanda's sense of history and politics is wide and wise, as shown in her beautiful sprawling historical novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, about the devastating Biafran war that almost tore Nigeria in two, and left southeastern Nigeria (including my home town of Nsukka) ravaged and desolate, in famine and grief.
Chimamanda grew up in my hometown – we were two or three years apart in school so we didn't know each other then. Nsukka was also the home of the late great Chinua Achebe, a literary giant of Africa. Growing up, we were so proud that Chinua Achebe was one of our own. Chimamanda is proving herself worthy company.
"In Lagos, the harmattan was a mere veil of haze, but in Nsukka, it was a raging mercurial presence; the mornings were crisp, the afternoons ashen with heat, and the nights unknown."
Abeer Hoque's novel in stories, The Lovers and the Leavers, was published by Bengal Lights Books (2014) and is forthcoming from HarperCollins India. See more at olivewitch.com.
Bernardine Evaristo is one the bravest writers I know. She decides to write a novel in verse and she does it.
She decides to reverse the history of slavery in fictional form and she delivers a masterpiece.
Most recently I was touched by her latest novel, Mr Loverman, which features Evaristo at the height of her storytelling, but also recounts the story of a forbidden love that crosses two continents and over half a decade.
I have learnt from her to be brave in taking creative and storytelling decisions, be bold and honest with the subject matter, yet gentle in exploring its many layers.
Ali May is a broadcaster and writer based in London. Twitter: @alimaytv
Jane Austen comes to my mind instantly as the woman author who has most possessed my readerly imagination. I have read with great pleasure almost every novel she has written and have liked them all. I have four sisters and the world of romance beckoned when I first read her works, but it was as if differences of gender, race, nation or century were no barriers in entering her world. As I matured as a reader, I learned to appreciate her plots, characters, and themes more and more and learn from her to be more sensitive about men-women relationships. But I have always marveled at the way she can take one into the consciousness of her heroines and make one see the world from their perspectives.
Fakrul Alam is a Bangladeshi academic, writer, and translator.
"There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."
(Pride and Prejudice)
I want to mention many names, but I will only mention one. Jennifer Egan's writing has influenced me the most in the recent years, and
I think present counts more than the past, so I will not dig my brain to search for names from teenage years or my early 20s when almost everything moved me.
What I find striking about Egan's writing is her easy flowing and very realistic voice, that is not restricted by gender. Her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad which got the Pulitzer in 2011 and the National Books Critic Circle award in 2010, experimented with writing style, played with time and space, connected stories yet told it all with a certain focal theme.
To me that is new, challenging and strong, which easily puts Jennifer Egan at the top of my favourites list, gender aside.
Iffat Nawaz is a columnist and currently working on her first novel.
As a child, I was addicted to detective fiction. One of my favourite characters was Dosshu Bonhur (Bonhur the dacoit.) Its creator, Romena Afaz, was a Bangladeshi writer who lived from 1926-2003.
Afaz wrote over 250 novels in her lifetime, many of them about Bonhur. He was an old fashioned dacoit who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. And of course solved many mysteries along the way.
There were two women in his life: Nuri, who was his accomplice and close friend, and Monira, who was the daughter of a rich man. Afaz first published when she was nine – a poem in the magazine "Mohammadi" published from Kolkata.
Ihtisham Kabir is a columnist and author of three photo-books.
I came to Jane Eyre as an adult, too late for my reading to be distorted by a teenage crush. Instead I got the full force of Charlotte Bronte's brilliance.
Jane understands, as well as any character in nineteenth century fiction, that she has to earn a living or face destitution and beggary. She also recognises that life is a struggle for moral survival and that physical comfort can be bought at too great a cost.
More subtle than either of these, she must fight to assert her identity, to claim her right to exist as her own person in the face of indifference, hostility and abuse.
Joe Treasure is the author of two novels: The Male Gaze and Besotted.
"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will." (Jane Eyre)
I'd say it has to be Carol Ann Duffy.
She doesn't always hit the mark but her work is contemporary and trenchant, campaigning without being didactic.
She's been a revolutionary Poet Laureate too - the first woman.
Julia Bell is author of two novels, Co-editor of the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook and three short fiction anthologies.
If I were to list all the women poets/writers I admire I would run out of the allotted words. Let me instead talk about one special favourite.
She is the French writer Marguerite Duras. Born in 1914 in French Indo-China, she had an intimate knowledge of Third World conditions and a profound understanding of the unhinged psyche.
She mined her childhood for her most moving works, "The Sea of Troubles" also translated as "The Sea Wall"; "The Vice Consul"; "The Lover".
The anonymous madwoman from Battambang who features in several novels is the most touching portrayal of an outcast I have come across. I appropriated her for my poem "Battambang".
Besides novels, Duras wrote many celebrated screenplays, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour, and occasional journalism. In every genre her style is direct and punchy. Sadly, she is not well known in this country. She died in 1995.
Kaiser Haq is a Bangladeshi poet, translator, essayist, critic and academic.
"Suddenly, all at once, she knows, knows that he doesn't understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness. And that he can never move fast enough to catch her."
K. Anis Ahmed
I don't know if I can speak of my influences as a writer, as real influence is supposedly subliminal! Still, if I had to name a woman writer who took me by surprise, when I first read her and forced me to look at writing - and the world - in a way I hadn't before, top of the list for me is definitely the one and only: Virginia Woolf.
I was at third year university when a friend handed me a copy of To The Lighthouse.
I found the start of the novel a bit 'slow' and 'meandering', but something about the prose, and a sense of urgency even around daily minutiae, held my interest and then, deeper I went into it, the more I was taken by the sheer vividness of the most quotidian detail.
To see the passage of time - decades - conveyed between the laying of place-mats was breathtaking. I stayed up all night and finished the book in one marathon read.
The scene in my Forty Steps, when Shikdar wakes up from his last ever nap, in my mind, is a secret homage to the inimitable and immensely powerful Virginia Woolf.
K. Anis Ahmed is the Bangladesh-based author of The World in My Hands and Good Night, Mr. Kissinger. He also contributes to WSJ and Newsweek/Daily Beast.
I have so many favourite women writers, and I guess they have all influenced my work in different ways. Among fiction writers, I admire Renata Adler, whose unconventional Speedboat ranks as one of my favourite books of all time, for it mixes social commentary, personal reflection, travel writing and fiction with such ease, and A.M. Homes for her daringly intense dissection of the darkest corners of the American soul - dysfunction, perversion, the slaughter of innocence.
She's not an easy read, but it is for the same reason I admire Lorrie Moore (more for her short stories than her novels): for her bracing wit, difficult themes (doomed relationships, ageing, sickness, loneliness) and dark humour.
My three other eternal loves are Nadine Gordimer for her humanity and her ideological conviction, coupled with her ability to reimagine whole canvases of violent pasts through a bracingly brutal prose, and Toni Morrison and Jeanette Winterson for their seamless melding of a poet's lyricism and a radical's ardor.
Of philosophers/non-fiction writers, I am most influenced by Susan Sontag, for her devastating intellect and her sophistication, and Rachel Bespaloff, a French contemporary of Simone Weil's, who explored in her treatise on the Iliad the complex relations between literature, religion and philosophy with a poet's grace. Of poets, I LOVE Kay Ryan, Mimi Khalvati and Jo Shapcott.
Laksmi Pamuntjak's debut novel, Amba, published in Indonesian in 2012, has been reprinted four times and is a national bestseller.
"What is the point? That is what must be borne in mind. Sometimes the point is really who wants what. Sometimes the point is what is right or kind. Sometimes the point is a momentum, a fact, a quality, a voice, an imitation, a thing that is said or unsaid. Sometimes it's who's at fault, or what will happen if you do not move at once. The point changes and goes out. You cannot be forever watching for the point, or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life." (Speedboat)
Marilyn Hacker seems to me to be one of the foremost poets writing in English today – not only for her remarkable formal virtuosity but also for her political passion and her rare ability to write both public and personal poems, often combined, that rise to the daunting challenge of witnessing our times, while staying true to the vision of poetry itself.
I admire her enormously for her extraordinary body of work, including her pitch-perfect translations, and for her generosity as a poet to her peers – though she is pretty peerless - and to younger poets, particularly those from the non-Anglophone world.
Mimi Khalvati has published eight collections of poetry with Carcanet Press.
"As you leave the place, you bring the time
you spent there to a closed parenthesis.
Now it is part of that amorphous past
parceled into flashes, slide-vignettes."
(Essay On Departure)