Monday, August 20, 2018

WITMonth Day 20 | 10 Recommended Pre-20th Century Classics

One of the most common (dismissive) responses to WITMonth's existence is that of course there is bias, since women did not historically write as much as men. While true that women often did not have the same opportunities to write as men did, it is simply not true that women did not write at all. Nor is it true that women only began writing from a certain period and onward. In fact, women have been writing and telling stories for literally hundreds (indeed, thousands) of years. The first credited novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu. Some of the finest ancient poetry was written by women. Not being a literary scholar or historian, it's certainly hard for me to point to the best classics by women in translation... but it's not impossible! So here is just a taste. (And keep an eye out for the 20th century edition!)
  1. The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu (tr. from Japanese by Royall Tyler, among others): The literal first novel, a genuine classic and cornerstone of literary culture at large!
  2. The Book of the City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan (tr. from French by Rosalind Brown-Grant, among others): Before feminism was feminism, there was Christine de Pizan, eloquently arguing for women's rights (albeit through a deeply Christian, European, and at-times narrow-minded lens).
  3. The Clouds Float North - Yu Xuanji (tr. from Chinese by David Young and Jiann I. Lin): One of China's early poets, with poems ranging from the personal to the atmospheric.
  4. The Princess of Clèves - Madame de Lafayette (tr. from French by Nancy Mitford): Romance, intrigue, and drama combine in a novel that is clearly rooted to its time period, but also surprisingly modern.
  5. Indiana - George Sand (tr. from French by Sylvia Raphael): A pre-feminist novel exploring the rights of women (and poor women) in a world that simply does not view them as worthy.
  6. Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings - Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, among others): Nun, writer, proto-feminist, and scholar, Juana Inés de la Cruz is not the name of a leading Mexican prize for Spanish-language women writers for nothing!
  7. The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon (tr. from Japanese by Meredith McKinney): Musings on life, poetry, art, and boredom by a writer who would probably feel perfectly at home on Twitter... even though she wrote over 1000 years ago.
  8. The Appeasement of Radhika - Muddupalani (tr. from Telugu by Sandhya Mulchandani): An erotic poem about Krishna and Radha, groundbreaking in the sexual liberties its women have, as well as having been a Telugu classic for hundreds of years.
  9. Birds Without a Nest - Clorinda Matto de Turner (tr. from Spanish by J. G. H., among others): A Peruvian novel detailing the struggles of indigenous South Americans, heaping criticism on existing power structures and demanding a better future.
  10. The Book of Mahsati Ganjavi - Mahsati Ganjavi (tr. from Persian by Paul Smith): A 12th-century Persian poet and court-member, whose surviving works primarily focus on love and emotion).
Here's the thing: This list isn't easy to compile. It's not all novels. It doesn't quite cover the entire world. It's limited in terms of the backgrounds of the writers (almost all of whom were at the very top of their respective cultural classes). But it also is a list of classic women writers, and given another hour or two, I could come up with another 10, 20, or 50 more titles (especially if I let myself include a lot more European women!). There are dozens of brilliant women writers from all eras whose works have been translated into English; there are thousands still more who have yet to be translated.

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