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In honor of International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, and all women everywhere, we asked the all-volunteer staff at VIDA to tell us about the books that changed their lives. Ranging from educational to empowering, these titles celebrate and interrogate femininity, humanity, and the act of writing.
Queen of the Fall, Sonja Livingston
Christy L. Agrawal, VIDA Count Intern & Web Team: I had a really tough time narrowing this down to one book, but nevertheless: Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall, for demonstrating how great women can be and how they are often turned into “cautionary tales,” as well as for encouraging me to sink my teeth into the word “pleasure.”
The Girls Who Went Away, Ann Fessler
Jennifer Baumgardner, Advisory Board Member: This book opened my eyes to the birth mother experience pre-Roe, which was even more silenced than the abortion experience. Each page is heart-rending and a revelation.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Hannah Bonner, Web Editorial Assistant & VIDA Count: The Bell Jar stuck with me when I read it in high school and again, in college, when we parsed through Plath’s language and lyricism. She’s not only fiercely funny and intelligent, but her ardor for words is astonishing; her vitality on the page is electric—it crackles and sparks.
A Woman in the Polar Night, Christiane Ritter
Emily Brandt, Web Acquisitions Editor: A Woman in the Polar Night taught me something inexplicable about the expansiveness and constraint of living on this planet in a human (woman’s) body.
Wonderland Quartet, Joyce Carol Oates
Melissa Chadburn, Web Acquisitions & Events Committee: In the afterword to Them, Oates quotes the poetic epigram from John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil, which asks the vital question “because we are poor/Shall we be vicious?” This is the question to which the Wonderland Quartet provides an extended answer. The Wonderland Quartet gave words to things I already knew: the problem faced by poor people is poverty. Or rather, the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. The sort of terror that dwells deep in the meat of my psyche—everything I need to tell you about me, about people, about power—is brought to life by the men and women of these books.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel
Maggie Cooper, VIDA Count Coordinator: Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic speaks to me as a queer woman, a daughter, and an artist. The care and humor with which Bechdel weaves words and images with literature and memory showed me a new way to approach the stories we tell about ourselves.
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
Christina Djossa, VIDA Count Intern: The Bluest Eye helped me understand colorism, how it is weaved into today’s unrealistic standards of beauty, and the systemic harm it puts on people of color.
Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
Melissa Febos, Board of Directors; Events Coordinator: By the time I was 14, I already knew that obsession could be erotic, that all stories start in the body, that desire is a skein long enough to weave into any shape—even a rope. But I did not know you could write it all at once. “Nail me to you,” wrote Winterson. “I will ride you like a nightmare.” Tucked in the sunny corner of the library, my cheeks flushed and fingers itched. “Wisdom says forget, the body howls,” she said, and in that papery quiet, my body howled. “Thus she was, here and here.”
Mosquito, Alex Lemon
Ashaki M. Jackson, VIDA Count Committee Volunteer: This book affirmed for me that I was not alone in seeking a language for grief. Here is a man in his hospital bed, existing through the loss of part of his brain, but very present within himself to recall and reclaim language. His clarity allowed me great access into my loss in helpful ways. I cannot say that I’ve developed a grief language, but I understand that the body speaks.
Homecoming, Cynthia Voigt
Beth Jacobson, VIDA Count Intern: Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman cycle was the first series of novels I read that had a female character who, like myself, has general learning disabilities. Maybeth Tillerman’s “slowness,” which she never “overcomes,” doesn’t have a clinical diagnosis, but it impacts her daily life in significant ways. The series made me hungry for more representation, and ultimately paved the way for me to combine my long-held love of literature with my passion for disability rights.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
Alexandra Jacunski, VIDA Count Intern: Before Bad Feminist, I was still coming into my own as a feminist—one with no understanding of intersectionality. Gay introduced me to important questions not just about gender, but also sexuality, race, politics, and media, with both humor and gravitas. That, plus her love of Scrabble, stole my heart and changed my reading life.
Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire, Brenda Hillman
Justine el-Khazen, Web Editorial Adviser: This book taught me something about how to balance and synthesize the sometimes opposing and sometimes complementary forces of the political and the personal, the individual and the community, poetry and the world.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde · The Price of the Ticket, James Baldwin
Amy King, Executive Board of Directors, Chair & Web Operations: I cannot choose between these two books. I found them both while I was a new student on a predominantly white college campus on the outskirts of Baltimore. I had just gotten involved in activist groups, wanted to explore my sexuality and figure out what it meant to belong, anywhere. I walked that campus with Zami pressed to my face, fittingly as Lorde’s journey was a lens that guided me in many decisions. Baldwin’s sharp, eloquent words taught me about prejudices I would never have to face, how to look for them, and also shed light on my own history of growing up as a white person on the Bible Belt. I saw the push-pull of the white identity from a new perspective, and I learned to listen. The two taught me to avoid trading a desire to fit in with compliance and fomented my need to be brave and work for justice.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
Kari Larsen, VIDA Count Intern: The first novel I picked up based on instantaneous, instinctual attraction when I saw it at B. Dalton with my best friend was Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. It keeps making me feel that, whatever I want to write, I can make it as poignant, as dark, as haywire, as arresting as that book—even with the fact of that book in the world and how it continues to be better than virtually every one I have read since.
White Oleander, Janet Fitch
Ashli MacKenzie , VIDA Count Intern: This was the first book that resonated with me on a deep level. There was such tragedy in the main character’s life, yet there was an abundance of beauty. Her perseverance through it all gave me hope and still does each time I read it.
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Krista Manrique, Executive Board of Directors, Treasurer: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things for its supple language and its magical orchestration of history, family, and the beauties and tragedies therein.
Diving into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich
Sarah Marcus, Events Committee; former VIDA Count Coordinator: This book changed how I approached activism. This collection radiates justified “phenomenal” anger and embodies a landscape of silence, released.
Lydia’s Funeral Video, Sam Chanse
Sheila McMullin, Managing Web Editor: This book came to me like magic. I was in the thick of an identity crisis triggered by a violent attack that unexpectedly and forcefully made me examine my mixed-race Filipino heritage. Chanse’s hybrid of performance, poetry, comedy, visual art, and theater explores living as a mixed-race woman in crisis, and it gave me a great deal of strength and creative courage.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Lynn Melnick, Executive Board of Directors, Social Media and Outreach Director: This book absolutely changed my life because, before I read it, I didn’t know that one could speak (and write!) about child rape; it also taught me that a girl could go on from such trauma to have a very rich and real existence.
Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Lauren Slater
Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Web Acquisitions Team; former VIDA Count Team: Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir is playfully resistant. Slater dances between truth and speculation, metaphor and outright lie, urging readers to occupy the gray space many so often avoid. While some readers balk at Slater’s refusal to admit whether she is telling the truth about her illness, this text encouraged me to challenge the experience of illness and the finality of diagnosis, to resist a gendered legacy of duty and obedience, and to delight in the freedom of uncertainty.
The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol
Olivia Postelli, Assistant Web Editor: The UnAmericans reminded me how painfully small and how cosmically, wonderfully big our lives can be.
We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Jennifer Rabedeau, VIDA Count Coordinator: Adichie’s book was originally a TEDx talk, but I first encountered it as a book. Her sense of humor and narrative skills punctuate what could have been a dry, didactic work and she shone a light on feminism outside of Western/white contexts.
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa
Héctor Ramírez, Web Acquisitions; Events Committee: This book gave me the courage to write with my own tongue of fire, and, more importantly, it showed me how to listen in many ways at once.
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange
Camille Rankine, VIDA Executive Committee: Not strictly a book, I suppose, but a somewhat uncategorizable thing of beauty that its maker had to coin a term for: choreopoem. This work taught me what a new kind of magic language could do, and that literature could be wildly more than I’d imagined.
Road of the Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers, Ian Hancock, Siobhan Dowd, Rajko Đurić, eds.
Jessica Reidy, Web Acquisitions Editor: Though I didn’t discover this book until grad school—on my own steam—it changed my life: before this anthology, I didn’t know that women like me could write. I discovered Romani writers Papusza, Luminița Mihai Cioabă, Mariella Mehr, Paola Schöpf, Margita Reiznerová, and more, which led me to writing and teaching poetry, fiction, and non-fiction about my heritage and culture.
Krik? Krak!, Edwidge Danticat
Jenny Sadre-Orafai, VIDA Count Intern: I pulled Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! off the library shelf when I was an undergraduate and read it in the aisle. I had never read anything so honest, urgent, and teeming with imagery. I teach the collection now because I want undergraduates to know what reading Danticat feels like. Those stories follow me everywhere I go.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Jocelyn Sears, VIDA Count Coordinator: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for its masterful, shape-shifting prose and its fierce moral authority—for its refusal to apologize, to submit to genre conventions, to be silenced.
Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg · House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros · Zaatardiva, Suheir Hammad
Naomi Smith-Hough, Count Director; PR Assistant: It’s a tie, for all of this brave, tough, precise, visceral and cerebral goodness.
Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
Melissa Studdard, VIDA Voices & Views Host: This book taught me the importance of locating and accessing the dark, fertile, feminine power of my own authenticity. She says, “These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness.” It’s a lesson I’m sill learning, a beautiful and terrifying lesson. I turn to Lorde every time I need courage.
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
Carly Rae Zent, VIDA Count Intern: Bluets changed me by showing that emotions are a true way to tell a story, and sometimes the only true way. Nelson also inspires me to embrace what fascinates me.