Illustration by Aura Lewis, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
“A better world is not possible without freeing the minds, bodies and most of all language of women.” – Nawal El-Saadawi
When Nina Simone wrote and recorded the song Four Women — a wrenching indictment of the legacy of slavery — she gave voice to generations of African American women who had suffered injustice and abuse. In the 20th century, courageous women like Simone rejected “decorous silence,” spoke out and encouraged others to find their voices: pioneers like Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig, Maya Angelou, Bell Hooks and Nawal El-Saadawi, to name a few.
I inherited a passion for literature from my mother. All the books in our house — crammed into bookshelves, stacked on floors and bedside table — were hers. She often read to me, and I loved hearing the rise and fall of her voice. As she read, she not only taught me her “mother tongue” but also that words make the world: A skilled writer has the power to shape the world around them.
Books bind my mother and me to this day — we swap them, discuss authors, and when reading certain women I often find the most original, urgent, and above all, political connection to language. To celebrate the year that Berlin marked International Women’s Day as a public holiday, I’m going to reflect on four such writers.
When, at the age of 23, Clarice Lispector published Near to the Wild Heart, the poet Lêdo Ivo went as far as to call it “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language.” Near to the Wild Heart’s explosive, stream-of-consciousness description of a woman’s interior life astonished her Brazilian contemporaries. The reflections of Joana, the main character, are lyrical, hallucinatory and elusive. She defies convention and expectations, including her own.
In 1944, the book won the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize. Lispector went on to write many more acclaimed novels, articles and short stories, including The Passion According to G.H. (1964), which describes a woman’s ecstatic experience when faced with the death of a roach, and Agua Viva (“Water of Life”, 1973), a collage of barely-mediated reflections:
“I remake myself in these lines. I have a voice. As I throw myself into the line of my drawing, this is an exercise in life without planning. The world has no visible order and all I have is the order of my breath. I let myself happen.”
Critic Sergo Millet claimed that Clarice Lispector “penetrates the depths of the psychological complexity of the modern soul.” Time and again, she interrogated the connection between language and consciousness and unflinchingly explored what it means to be alive in a woman’s body. Undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, her American translator and biographer Benjamin Moser describes her as the most important Jewish writer since Kafka. Author Hélène Cixous wrote:
“Clarice is the name of a woman capable of calling life by all of its warm and cool names. And life comes. She says: I am. And in the instant Clarice is. Clarice is entirely in the instant when she gives herself to being, alive, infinite, unlimited…”
French Algerian writer Hélène Cixous is considered to be one of the mothers of post-structuralist feminist theory. The philosopher Jacques Derrida, who shared her Jewish-Algerian background and with whom she collaborated closely, spoke of her as the greatest living writer in French. She has published over 70 works, including 23 volumes of poems, six books of essays, five plays and countless articles. She co-founded the University of Paris 8 and founded the first department of Women’s Studies in Europe.
Yet Cixous is more than a prolific writer. She’s committed to pushing language to its absolute limits, to breaking rules and chasing the ever-elusive present moment. A polyglot, she writes across many languages and in her 2016 lecture “I say Allemagne” proposed that “When you learn a new language, you gain in humanity.” She overturns the centuries-long practice of defining women by what they lack and challenges herself and others to redefine themselves through the individuality of their bodies and biographies. In her most famous essay, Le Rire de la Méduse (The Laugh of the Medusa, 1975), she explains:
“When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking.”
This essay is a passionate, defiant declaration of love for emancipatory, transgressive women’s writing. By writing herself, Cixous demonstrates that language can be harnessed to claim the freedom and future that women have long been denied.
The very same force infuses the work of Audre Lorde, who argued that female eroticism — suppressed and devalued by white, western society — is an empowering force:
“Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world … not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.”
Born in New York to West Indian parents, this self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” wrote and recited poetry from a young age. Feminist, teacher, librarian and activist, her writing speaks to the experience of marginalization and disenfranchisement. She was hugely influential in the black women’s movement and she also critiqued white supremacy within the mainstream feminist movement. While exploring her identity in her writing, she highlighted the complex intersection of gender, race, class and sexuality.
Lorde supported women in Cuba and in apartheid South Africa, and took up a visiting professorship at the Freie University in Berlin, Germany, where she helped coin the term “Afro-German.” This gave rise to the black movement in Germany, where she encouraged resistance through language rather than violence. Professor of English and poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992, she tirelessly proclaimed the importance of writing:
“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, made first into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
Her work is full of power, rage, revolution and change — the reflection of a woman who sought to “take our differences and make them strengths,” who refused to remain silent when faced with injustice:
Another author who refuses to be silent is Joumana Haddad — the enfant terrible of the Middle East. Award-winning poet, journalist, publisher and translator (she speaks seven languages), she is the cultural editor of an-Nahar and scandalized the Arab world with her erotic magazine, Jasad (Body). Author Tahar Ben Jelloun wrote: “Literature is often a storm that breaks the rules of decorum … Joumana Haddad is a poet who inhabits the storm.”
The eye of this metaphorical storm is Beirut, Lebanon, where she was born and where she raised her two sons. She takes exception to Western clichés of Arabic women but also challenges dominant Arabic views about womanhood. Having discovered Marquis de Sade in her father’s library at a young age, she describes her journey to intellectual freedom in the autobiographical book-length essay I Killed Scheherazade — Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (2010).
In this work, she wrestles contentious topics such as female eroticism, women in politics, and organized religion — a scathing critique of both Western and Arabic beliefs. She quotes Hélène Cixous: “‘Censor the body and you censor the breath and speech at the same time,’” and goes on to write:
“For a woman is her own sole expert, and her own guide to herself. She is the only reference on her body, and her spirit, and her essence.”
In the poem Still I Rise, Maya Angelou asks “Does my sexiness upset you?” Joumana Haddad — sexy, unashamed, uncompromising, outspoken — rises to the task, using language to contest the status quo and claim her own, unique space in the world. She believes that:
“reading is one of the most important tools of liberation that any human being, and a contemporary Arab woman in particular, can exploit.”
Today, on every continent, women are reading other women and rewriting the world.