Erin Cobby attended a recent discussion with an exceptional panel of women to celebrate The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction
The Tuesday before last, tucked away in the basement of Waterstone’s on Gower Street, was a private powerhouse. An exceptional panel of women offered their nominations for titles which they believed best encapsulated the theme of the evening: ‘Women, Power & Revolution’. The timing was perfect; the talk coincided with the birth of the first prince who would not take lineal precedence over his sister and the erection of the first female statue, artist and muse, in Parliament Square. Therefore, with progress in the air, these authors embarked on a discussion which underlined the important role of literature in celebrating female advancement, especially in a time where so many diverse voices feel quieted.
Kit de Wall is the author of the outrageously popular ‘My Name is Leon’, a book which focuses on familial love overcoming racial boundaries. She is currently working on ‘The Anthology of Common People’, which aims to showcase working-class literature that escapes the ‘rag-to-riches’ paradigm and steers away from the ‘gritty’ north, using tropes such as needles or an abandoned pram on a council estate. The emergence of this ‘novel’ book reaffirms that female voices aren’t the only ones that are under-represented in the publishing world. Furthermore, the fact that this book was completely crowd funded displays that publishers are not only ignoring potential authors, but potential audiences also.
One of Kits nominations was ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love’. The book is a collection of short stories written in the 60’s, but only published by her daughter five years ago. This book is exceptional for a few reasons, chief among them being the author’s progressive ideas concerning the intersectionality between feminism, race and sex, especially as interracial sex was only legalised in 1968. De Wall continues, stating that the true prevalence of this book is that it acts as a reminder that progression is not linear. That despite the somewhat hokey relationships depicted within, the 60’s held a more positive view towards interracial couples than the present day. Her second nomination was ‘The First Bad Man’ by Miranda July. The book follows two time structures both encapsulated by streams of consciousness. The book takes an unapologetic look at the disparity between the restraints of being a perfect homemaker and the fun you can have when you let go of society’s expectations surrounding the perfect female. Hilarious and off the wall sexual escapades ensue.
Catherine Meyer, co-founder and president of the Women’s Equality Party, presented her own book, ‘Attack of the 50ft Woman’, which she wrote after coming up empty handed when searching for a book to help aid in her own personal revolution. This non-fiction book clearly outlines not only the ethical reasons for gender equality but the economic reasons also. The perfect handbook for the next time you need to take a misogynist down a few pegs. Her second nomination focused on a book of speculative fiction, a genre which has boomed since the success of the TV adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. ‘The Binti Trilogy’ by Nnedi Okorafor takes speculative fiction into the realm of afro-futurism, as by placing characters in a fantasy world they can act unbound by social strictures which pervade other works of fiction and reflexively create commentary on them.The relocation of earthly struggles into a new theatre awards the discourse freshness and encourages those to think outside their own binary and look at the problem with a new level of emotional distance. The trilogy is short, almost a book in parts, and centres around powerful heroines and the role of the constant outsider.
June Sarpong, (MBE) the British journalist and panellist, also nominated a work of speculative fiction. She describes her choice, ‘The Children of Blood and Bone’, by Tomi Adeyemi, as ‘Harry Potter meets Wakanda’. She states that despite not being a big fan of fantasy literature, this book drew her in due to the inspiring search for power by women amongst the struggles not only between the coloniser and the ‘native’ but also between ‘native’ forces. June’s second book was her own: ‘Diversify’. She recalls her inspiration to write the book; shocked by her own intimidated reaction to someone who appeared different to her, she felt propelled to write an inclusive conversation, which covered gender disenfranchisement, and encouraged all people on the privilege ladder to fight for the person on the rung below you.
The next nomination came from Kate Williams, feminist historian, author and journalist who recommended fellow female historian Mary Beard’s work: ‘Women in Power’. Beard, she states, re-examines classical literature and uncovers that many works of classical fiction which are deemed canonical are structured around the idea of silencing women. She also highlights the presence of 16thc female poets such as Eliza Hayden and exalts the new-found wave of feminist history which allows women who aren’t monarchs, such as Amanda Forman the duchess of Devonshire, to be written about. Kate ended with reaffirming the importance of female fiction, especially at the intersection between history and literature, as uncovered by Beard’s book, it is the writers of today that determine the classics of tomorrow. The last nomination was ‘Power’, by Naomi Aldermann, another work of speculative fiction, which discusses what happens to the barriers between race and class as well as gender when the power balance shifts.
The talk ended with an audience member stating her worry that if we keep championing diversity we will lose sight of what makes us all the same, humanity. Each author spoke eloquently and knowledgeable on this, stating varied examples including, Trump and the recent Windrush debacle, as evidence for how important it is to still champion diversity as many still believe humanity to be an exclusive term. One of the most beautiful sentiments expressed explained that the utopian society isn’t color blind, and for difference to be celebrated fully we all need to be treated the same.
I believe however, that the most poignant answer to this question however lays in the genres of the books nominated. The fact that the books either focused on the re-evaluation history or economic policy to display the worth of women, or took place in another world to display the strength of women, reasserts the struggle for these issues to be properly discussed in our present. While discourse has come along greatly, the theatres for this discussion are often found retrospectively or futuristically. This reaffirms the glaring need of our present to keep the Women’s Prize for Fiction alive, so that the forgotten women of history or the strong women of our dystopian fiction can be used to aid the women of our present to continue searching for power and revolution.