It’s the beginning of the year and reading challenges are thick on the ground. Whether you’re aiming to read one book a month or one a week, part of the fun of reading is the after-book discussion with fellow readers.
In 2017, I was part of a Feminist Book Club made up of 10 women in Brunei who wanted to read and talk about what it means to be women in this time, culture, country and context. Last year our fledgling Feminist Book Club read nine books together.
Of course, feminism is a supremely loaded term. None of us in the book club means the same thing when we say “feminist”. Shaped by our different backgrounds, ethnicities, faiths, and the world generally, we seldom agree on very much.
What we do have in common, I think, is a willingness to respect — or at least listen to — those viewpoints which we don’t agree with or even quite understand, and a willingness to question or uphold our own values when challenged. Which makes discussions about books heated, provocative, and very fun.
If you’re looking for things to read this year, here are some of my favourites from our book club picks from 2017.
1. The Power by Naomi Alderman
This was one of my favourite books of 2017. Mentored by Margaret Atwood, Alderman creates a dystopian world in which an electric, deadly “power” materialises in girls of 15 and can be passed between women. With this power in hand, women around the world rise — no longer at risk of rape, deadly force or abuse. The Abrahamic religions reform around Mother Eve, Miriam and Fatima. The sex slave trade is brutally destroyed. Women move freely in spaces once dangerous for them. Already called a classic of the future, The Power is part of a larger global conversation about women today.
2. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik
At first, this novel about Londoner Sofia Khan’s dating life, career and family seems like a hijabi version of Bridget Jones. It keeps a light-hearted tone throughout, but there is definite depth towards the second half of the novel. Malik has said that she wants to write about ‘moderate, sedate‘ Muslim characters. And as Sofia says in the novel, “people are nuanced”. I liked that Sofia wasn’t the perfect Muslim, and the book spurred some great book club discussions about married life and dealing with in-laws and expectations.
3. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
I mean, with that title, how could this book not be on my list of top book club reads? ‘Modern‘ Sikh girl Nikki starts teaching a writing class to elderly women at her local Sikh temple, and erotic stories ensue. Jaswal’s novel asks serious questions about the Sikh community in London, and about all religious communities that conceal or enable gender-based abuse and injustice. The book asks: How do women speak out against injustice conducted in the name of religion, without being accused of alienating their community or contributing to dangerous stereotypes perpetuated in the West.
4. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen
Petersen is a senior culture writer for Buzzfeed and this collection about female American icons is as readable as anything else on Buzzfeed. Each chapter discusses a different woman — how her femininity is construed or constructed, and how it has challenged, transgressed, and broadened ‘acceptable‘ American femininity in some way. My favourite was the chapter on Serena Williams (“too strong”), but honourable mentions have to go to the chapters on Hillary Clinton (“too shrill”), Kim Kardashian (“too pregnant”) and Nicki Minaj (“too slutty”).
Other books we read last year:
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
A contemporary collection of essays on American pop culture, femininity, race, media and Gay’s own ruminations on what it means to be a feminist or a “bad feminist“. It’s wide, sprawling and not always cohesive as a collection, but I particularly enjoyed the chapters on female friendships and Sweet Valley High.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
This book is the only one I personally didn’t finish for book club, but other members used it as a springboard for reading Nabokov’s Lolita and discussions of cultural policing of feminine ideas and spaces.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
Andrea Bern is 39, single, and childless in America — the people around her seem to feel more strongly about these decisions than she does. I found this immensely readable, with a powerful ending and a heroine who is imperfectly human and relatable.
How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published in 2011, this memoir from the British writer feels dated —particularly the statements on body hair, the burka, and the choice of whether to have children or not. However, this is a tribute to the way that public conversations on feminism have evolved, rather than an indictment of the book itself. The memoir is entertaining, and bolshy — the chapter on abortion is so emotionally truthful that it was well worth a re-read.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Roy’s long-awaited second novel is a sprawling, rich, colourful epic of the marginalised in India – politically, sexually, economically, and in various permutations of the three. I found this book bleak in the limitations it imposed on earthly happiness; other members of the club found it empowering and redemptive. Either way, it was well worth a read, but be warned – this was over 450 pages. To Roy’s credit, it was readable and I never found myself too confused by the different characters.
And some of the books we’ll be reading together in 2018:
• Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
• The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
• Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
• In the time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
• Courage is Contagious: And Other Reasons to be Grateful for Michelle Obama edited by Nick Haramis
If you’re interested in reading along with us, we do have an Instagram account under @readlikeafeminist, and one of our New Year resolutions is to be better about updating this account as a group!
Here’s to plenty more good books in 2018.
Dr Kathrina Mohd Daud is a lecturer in the English programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. She is currently a visiting research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. In 2017, she co-founded the Salted Egg Theatre, an all-female theatre troupe from Brunei.