Artwork by Lex Trickett

A list of books to include in your feminist survival kit

To be committed to a feminist life means we cannot not do this work; we cannot not fight for this cause, whatever it causes, so we have to find a way of sharing the costs of that work. Survival thus becomes a shared feminist project. So this tool kit contains my personal stuff, what I have accumulated over time; things I know I need to do and to have around me to keep on going on. We will accumulate different things, have our own stuff; we can peer into each other’s kits and find in there someone else’s feminist story. But I think the point of the kit is not just what we put in it; it is the kit itself, having somewhere to deposit those things that are necessary for your survival. Feminism is a killjoy survival kit.

We could think of this feminist survival kit as a form of feminist self-care.

– Sara Ahmed

There is no better way to introduce the purpose of this piece than to use the words of Sara Ahmed who inspired the writing of this article with her own ‘killjoy survival kit’ which she chronicled in her book Living a Feminist Life. Here, two women share some of the books in our survival kit, we hope this assists you in your journey of feminist self-care.

Malaika’s Book List

Sula by Toni Morrison

Pretty much all of Toni Morrison’s works are essential reading, but Sula is one of the most special ones. Sula is set in ‘The Bottom’: a fictional black quarter in Midwest America. The story follows two best friends: Sula and Nel. Nel, for all intents and purposes, has a stable and conventional upbringing in a Christian home. Sula’s home life is chaos. Though they are best friends, this early dynamic rear its head at several points in the story: as Nel becomes a pillar of the community and Sula becomes an outcast. Sula is one of the best stories I’ve ever read about black women. Both Sula and Nel are complicated characters: they love people, they lose people, people hurt them, they hurt people in return. They are nobody’s sidekick, or second fiddle. And their friendship is at the core of the story, even when it would be better for them to let each other go.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s story of a young woman finding herself outside of her home. Ifemelu grows up in Lagos with a fanatic Christian mother and an unemployed father. She meets Obinze, her love, at school where they both excel and dream of the future. It’s a time where it seems like to be successful you have to leave Africa, and she goes to the U.S while he goes to the UK. Their lives take on very different paths, as Ifemelu becomes successful in America while Obinze is forced to return home and make his name in Nigeria. The book follows Ifemelu as she works through love, diasporic longing, depression and ‘Americanisation’. Americanah tells the story of a black woman growing, acclimatizing to a new place, feeling a sense of disconnection from home and finding love in all the places where your heart has a home.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

I love an African love story! This book begins with Ijeoma, a young girl whose childhood is ruined by the Biafra war. Her mother sends her away to another town to get an education, and this is where she meets Amina: a lost girl who will become a central part of her life. Amina and Ijeoma are immediately connected to each other. The two fall in love with each other in a way that makes it seem like they might have invented love. When their community inevitably pulls them apart, Amina and Ijeoma must figure out what love, home and survival mean to them in the new Nigeria. Under the Udala Trees is one of those stories that is simplistic in the best way, and that helps make it one of the sweetest love stories to come out of African literature recently.

All We Know of Pleasure by Enid Shomer

Poetry has always been one of the ways that female writers express themselves. Nikki Giovanni once said “If everyone became a poet, the world would be much better. We would all read to each other”. ‘All We Know of Pleasure’ is a collection of poetry that begs to be read between people. It is an anthology of work by female writers, talking about what sex. In addition to her own work, Shomer collects poems by amazing writers like Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde and Ericka Jong that span over 75 years. This anthology is women recounting their own stories of arousal, desire and want and heartbreak and longing through poetry about sex and lovemaking.

A Burst of Light and Other Essays by Audre Lorde

Someone once said, “when I don’t know where to turn I look to the Lorde”. I spelled that with an E because they were talking about feminist poet, author and activist: Audre Lorde. There is a ton of work in Lorde’s canon, where she discusses a range of things like studying blackness, love, anti-apartheid work and health. On top of doing great social justice work, she’s also one of the most beautiful writers. A Burst of Light is a collection of some of her best essays: where she delves into raising children as a black lesbian woman, her battles with cancer, her struggles against the medical industry and her views on race and intersectionality. Lorde passed away in 1992 but her words feel as though she could have written them last week. Audrey Lorde has the amazing ability to explain complex topics in words that are easy to grasp and don’t make fighting for your rights seem like some large complex task. Instead, she’s able to bring politics down to the everyday. If anything, let A Burst of Light be an entry point for you into more of her writing.

Marcia’s Book List

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

A seminal piece of writing, The Bluest Eye came into my life as fate would have it, through another favoured author Sara Ahmed in her book Living a Feminist Life also listed here. Ahmed quotes the following excerpt from Morrison’s first novel: “it had begun with Christmas and the gift of dolls. The big, the special, the loving gift was always a big, blue-eyed Baby Doll. From the clucking sounds of adults I knew that the doll represented what they thought was my fondest wish … which were supposed to bring me great pleasure, succeeded in doing quite the opposite … Traced the turned-up nose, poked the glassy-blue eyes, twisted the yellow hair. I could not love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable … I destroyed white baby dolls.” After reading this, my attention was certainly grabbed and I immediately went to the book store and purchased my very own copy. Needless to say, I finished the book in a day. So, what’s it all about? Set in the year 1941 the book narrates the life of young Pecola, an African American girl who grows up in the years following the Great Depression. Through the story we learn that because of her mannerisms and dark skin she is regarded as ugly. Pecola has a wish to be equated with whiteness as she believes that this will make her beautiful and therefore her biggest desire is to have big blue eyes like a ‘beautiful’ white baby-doll’s. Without giving away too much the book has been criticized for its controversiality in dealing with themes of racism, insect and child molestation. The Bluest Eye is a powerful articulation and critique of the damaging effects of the idealization of white womanhood on black girls. Though written 40 odd years ago, Morrison’s words are as powerful today as the day that they were written and beacons for a moment of societal reflexivity.

Outlaw Culture by bell hooks

Honestly this book was a game changer for me. With quotes like “What we as women need to ask ourselves is: “In what context within patriarchy do women create space where we can protect our genius?” It’s a very, very difficult question,” it’s easy to see why this book is in my feminist toolkit. Outlaw Culture is organized as a series of essays containing both feminist critique and notes on contemporary African-American culture. These essays revolve around pop icons such as Basquiat and Madonna acting as interrogations of these icons: their presence, legacy as well as a dissection of their work. Unafraid in her criticality these reflections are both alarming and refreshing. They challenge, they provoke and they intervene.

Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed

The notion of the feminist killjoy came into my vernacular through my circles of associates. Curious about where this idea came from I started researching and found that it was used by Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life. I have always considered myself a feminist. Growing up with a mum who is a powerful and complex career driven woman it kind of rubbed off on me and became a natural instinct. But it is Ahmed who taught me how to truly live a feminist life and how to use my inner killjoy. Living a Feminist Life is a guide to incorporating feminist theory both at work and at home–basically in every aspect of your life. The writing draws on the legacies of feminists of colour scholarly work and opens a unique window into the personal. Vulnerable and insightful this manual is for everyone who is interested in living a feminist life. Great building blocks from the writing include her killjoy survival kit as well as the killjoy manifesto. These tools are a practical ‘show how’ of living the theory and sustaining it in everyday life.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This novel, regarded as Plath’s ultimate masterpiece and a classical piece of writing is incredibly emotional, shocking and real. The fiction tells the tale of Esther Greenwood and her fall from grace into the malice that is insanity. The reader is drawn into a breakdown that is more real than life itself­–read it and weep. The Bell Jar is a plunge into that which makes us uncomfortable, as we plummet into the deepest parts of human psychology with Esther–haunting in its execution. Plath was one of the first female writers I absolutely fell in love with and her words have changed me and have left me unchanged. Plath is a part of me.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time in high school and since then it has formed a part of my list of favoured books. It has everything you could ever want from a story: rivalry, supernatural experiences, envy, nostalgia, pessimism and wait for it–true love. It is to me, the greatest love story ever written and though Brontë’s only novel it is a piece of writing that will forever be read. At the time that it came out (1847) under Brontë’s pseudonym reviews were polarized as the novel provoked strict Victorian ideals in terms of morality, religious hypocrisy, gender inequality and social class. The novel centres around the lives of the two main characters Heathcliff and Catherine who due to a myriad of unfortunate circumstances can never truly be together the way they want. Catherine dies and haunts Heathcliff for the rest of his life turning him to madness and bitterness. It is beautifully written and a narrative that is still relevant today when considering the immense power of Miss Catherine who basically runs the show–an odd turn of events at that point in time. Catherine though a cold hearted ice queen is a feminist icon in her own right.

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