This year’s International Women’s Day is all about advocating for balance—whether it’s in the boardroom or on your own bookshelf. And while diversity in literature is something we should always be thinking about, a good first step toward gender-balance is celebrating the amazing work women have already produced. From memoir and non-fiction to graphic novels and poetry, women have a lot to say about the world around us, and our sometimes precarious place within it. With that in mind, here are seven insightful, challenging, and beautiful books to add to your shelves today or, really, any day.
In her moving, powerful memoir Dear Current Occupant, Chelene Knight explores childhood trauma, resiliency, and the meaning of belonging. Her narrative is told through poems and pictures, poetry and fractured prose, all grounded through a series of letters addressed to the stranger-residents who now live in the twenty or so houses she moved in and out of while growing up in Vancouver’s Eastside. Winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award, Knight’s heartbreaking, heart-lifting prose offers readers a kaleidoscope of memories, punctuated by her own tender interrogation of what it was like to live and love a parent who struggled with drug use and sex work. In the end, readers are confronted with an eyes-open account of life as racialized kid on the Eastside, the messy contradictions of love and safety, and, ultimately, what it means to make your own home.
Katherine Leyton’s debut collection of poetry tackles the contemporary male gaze—and all the sexual politics wrapped within it—with a steady, unflinching gaze of her own. Oh, and a fair amount of slyly acerbic wit. Winner of the 2017 ReLit Award, Leyton’s collection demands her reader consider what it means when that (gross) never-ceasing male gaze is everywhere, facilitated by technology and mass communication, the new lens through which we’re all forced to see the world, and ourselves. In “Search,” she writes: “Type in girls / and Google pulls up its skirt: / thumbnail upon thumbnail of cunt” The poem “The First Time With Pay-Per-View” is simply, “Her body was an ostentatious palace / where he broke all the furniture.” Ultimately, we are left to wonder what identities we’d build if we were able to look clearly through our own eyes.
Bad Endings is Carleigh Baker’s debut collection of short stories, each of them a meditation on the many rich and troubled relationships a person—in this case, mostly women—can hold in their hearts. The stories are about beginnings and middles, but mostly, as the title suggests, they’re about endings (which are, in so many ways, we learn, their own type of beginnings). Also, they’re kind of weird, in the most wonderfully absurd way that life so often is. Some of the stories are loosely connected by a honey farm, but it’s really the echo of that buzzing, potentially painful, potentially life-giving energy felt in Baker’s own writing that remains a constant for readers. And if her characters are flawed, which they surely are, it’s always in ways that illuminate deeper truths in our own selves.
This graphic novel, written by an author only known as Una, opens with typeface on a floating cloud, a vast expanse below that could be prairie or sea or nothing: “My name is Una. Una, meaning one. One life, one of many…” It’s a reminder that the themes explored within—gender-based sexual violence, victim-blaming, shame, and a culture that supports it all—doesn’t just affect the author, but all of us. And indeed, I couldn’t dismiss the gut punch of recognition when Una goes on to describe the dark realities we learn as women and girls. She describes walking straight and looking the world in the eye; she describes learning to lower her gaze. She describes real incidents of sexual violence, both hers and others’, and asks the reader: Wouldn’t it be nice if these stories had happy endings? She also describes not telling anybody about her assaults. Becoming Unbecoming is that telling, at last, and we should all listen.
Hard to Doby Kelli Maria Korducki (Coach House Books)
Have you ever found yourself grappling with the stay or go question? Of course you have. In Hard to Do: The Surprising Feminist History of Breaking Up, author Kelli Korducki sets on a journey after ending a nine-year relationship with a good man, asking herself: “When did it become so damn difficult to figure out not only what we should want, but what we do want?” The result is a rich and insightful exploration of, as she puts it, “the political, religious, and economic shifts that have made breaking up possible, yet still so hard to do.” At its core, Hard to Do is as much a deeply rigorous exercise into the historical and cultural foundations that form our perceptions of women’s partnership and independence, as it is an exercise in permission-giving: do what is best for you.
In naming Sarah Henstra’s novel The Red Word the winner of 2018’s Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction, the committee described the book as an “utterly effing good read.” In addition to being just that, the book is also not an easy read. And nor should it be. The Red Word tackles one of today’s most polarizing topic, campus rape, but finds its magic settling in, and poking at, the grey areas. In an interview with Huffington Post after her GG win, Henstra admitted she struggled to find a publisher for that exact reason: “I don't offer easy answers in the novel.” As readers are pulled into the murky (and increasingly charged) world of protagonist Karen, who lives in a household of staunch feminists and dates a frat boy from a house dubbed “Gang Bang Central,” they’ll soon realize they’re all the richer for it.
The Woo-Woo, explains Lindsay Wong in the introduction of her book, are the fake demons or ghosts that her “crazy Chinese family” exorcises from “anyone whose opinion they flagrantly disliked.” Sometimes, she adds, that had included her. Everything is explained away by the Woo-Woo, mental illness especially. Wong believes in none of it until she receives a rare and troubling diagnosis that forces her to consider whether the Woo-Woo caught up with her after all. As she dives into her family’s history of mental illness, and the twinning narrative of their experience as immigrants, she learns that nobody can ever run away from themselves—a discovery she, and the reader, will face together.
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Lauren McKeon was the editor of Canada's progressive, independent This Magazine from 2011 to 2016. While at This, Lauren helmed one of the bestselling issues in recent years, "Why Canada Need More Feminism," and also organized a sold-out event on the topic, which headlined a diverse, intersectional roster of speakers. Her feature work has been recognized several times at the National Magazine Awards, including four honorable mentions, one silver and, in 2015, a gold in the personal journalism category for her Toronto Life piece "Save me From My Workout." Her work has most recently appeared n Toronto Life, Flare, Hazlitt and The Walrus. Lauren's first book
F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism (Goose Lane Editions) was released in Fall 2017.
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