In my earlier years I read anything from Sweet Valley. To raunchy Mills and Boon’s that I was forbidden to read but I snuck out from my Aunt’s “hidden” collection (they sat right under her nightstand). To the Classics assigned in school that I consumed cover to cover before the rest of the class. In more recent years I’ve discovered titles on best seller lists, to bookstores (yes, an actual, physical store), to books I’ve found laying around at friend’s places.
So when people ask me what I like to read I always have trouble answering. For me, this is the best way to learn about what’s around us beyond our personal spaces, our familiar neighborhoods, and everyone who operates just like we do.
On an annual trip to Pakistan last November I decided to dedicate a year to only reading titles by women writers. I was browsing the aisles of Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad when one of the shopkeepers asked if I needed help. I asked for books from South Asian authors as I usually do on these trips, their works are not always easy to find in Bay Area bookstores or Amazon. When the shopkeep returned with a few books, I noticed that 3 of the 5 were titles written by women. Intrigued, I asked for more publications but requested only women authors.
As my pile grew I thought about how much more I would learn by exploring the ideas, imaginations, and lives of women around the world.
The list below is a combination of print and audio works I’ve collected since last November. I will likely add to this list — it’s impossible not to when there are so many interesting women to read and discover.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Much like the God of Small Things that I read years ago, there is plenty of published praise for this novel. And I agree with almost all of it. This book is vulnerable and brave, had me laughing and left me gutted. It isn’t often that a book does justice to the complexity of gender, war, love, and hope all in one, complete writing.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The love story of this book felt very Bollywood. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some good old fashioned drama. But what was more interesting to me was how the darkness of jihad intwined with every day lives. The book was evocative in it’s exploration of innocent lives entangles and affected by radical beliefs.
Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah
Very Handmaids Tale-esque I devoured the immersion in to a dystopian future where men basically fuck everything up. To assume this book is about a repressive Muslim society is a narrow and lazy opinion. This book addresses patriarchy on the whole with it’s the attack on women’s lives and bodies.
The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
I find myself thumbing through this gorgeous collection over and over every few days. I particularly loved the journey of her immigrant mother. Perhaps because it feels so very personal.
is the offspring
of two countries colliding
what is there to be ashamed of
and my mother tongue
is her father’s words
and mother’s accent
what does it matter if my mouth carries two worlds
Sex Object by Jessica Valenti
I didn’t grow up in New York and my upbringing was very different. Yet the description of what she experienced, and how people around her reacted, was uncomfortably familiar. Listened to this memoir on Libby, which made this first-hand account feel all the more closer. I think this is an important piece of writing that everyone — especially men — need to read.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
This memoir 100% lives up to the hype. It’s simple and loving, tough and determined in it’s own way. A few folks I’ve discussed this book with confessed they found the first quarter or so boring and skipped ahead. I think this is a lazy opinion because what understanding can one build of another if we don’t take the time to learn about where they came from? I’ve also heard the opinion that people were unhappy with her in parts. Blaming her, for instance, for the time Barack sat out a gun control vote because of a sick kid. To put the onus on a woman for a man’s choice is dangerous, backward thinking. It upsets me that many women still think we as women have to be responsible for men’s choices. Listened to her narrate her memoir on Scribd, her narration makes it all the more powerful.
Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Haiti, like Pakistan, seems to get only negative press. The problem with news cycles is that they makes us forget that there are real people in these places. There are lives and loves and twists and turns in these places just like everywhere else. To me this is a delicious collection of storytelling. It’s gritty and to the point. Loving and heartbreaking. I enjoyed this book because it’s real and talks about inconvenient truths. And also, Roxane ❤.
I Should Have Honor: A Memoir of Hope and Pride in Pakistan by Khalida Brohi
I discovered this book in the cutest little tea room, the Chai Spot, in Sedona. This book is attests to the strength of women. This writing, and her life, are fearless and brave in a way most of us can only hope to be. I didn’t know much about Khalida beyond the Sughar Foundation before visiting her chai shop and discovering her memoir. And I’m so glad I stopped by for some #peaceloveandchai.
The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris
I borrowed this book on Libby because I wanted to understand Kamala Harris. Next year I’ll hopefully vote for the first time ever and it’s important to me to go beyond my surface-level intrigue. I went to her rally, I even bought a t-shirt. But I needed to understand why she’s being described as a cop in a Fuck The Police kind of way. I needed to learn about where she came from. Yes, this is a campaign book and that by default people will mainly talk about it’s effectiveness. To me it was helpful in learning about this person, this bi-racial, tough-as-nails senator, who could one day be Madame President.
Make Trouble by Cecile Richards
The title of this book gets right to it — to do something you have to make people uncomfortable. Change isn’t easy and I think she sums that up really well when she says;
Get comfortable making others uncomfortable.
Yes, this book is a journey in to her beliefs and politics. But anyone who thinks social justice and the right to one’s own body is just a belief system is well, a moron.
Goodbye Freddie Mercury by Nadia Akbar
Storytelling wise this book was fine. However it is so steeped in rape culture with a dash of homophobia and pinch of racism that it left me groaning. Sure it touches on the class divide in Pakistan, and does an okay enough job when discussing music. But it was so tone deaf that I made a list of everything that troubled me as I read page after page with an almost sick fascination. Here’s a sample:
- For male characters it was “all about getting some ass”
- A character’s social status was established by his “ass-rapingly expensive designer watch”.
- All the best looking folks are described to have “fair skin”.
- “Sex and the desi female disease of saying no but wanting yes”.
- “His sister’s sexually depraved friends hoping to get felt up”.
- “Gandu” — Literally translates as butt fucker. Straight people: You 👏🏽Do 👏🏽Not 👏🏽 Own 👏🏽 This 👏🏽 Word 👏🏽 !
- People standing around in “military butt-fuck position”.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
I wish I had discovered this book in 2017. This was the year the divided time — there was before 2017, and then everything after 2017. The writing was direct and matter of fact which is rare for books about grief. It was raw and even funny in the most relatable way. I appreciated her examination about the physiology of grief. It helped me understand that I recoil at the smell of red roses in Karachi because they smell like loss.
Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes.
It’s a lesson in coping in whatever zigzag way makes sense, and a reminder of how powerful the human mind is.
Superheroes Are Everywhere by Kamala Harris
This is a children’s book. The experience of reading kid’s literature as an adult is really interesting to me. To break down an idea so simply that a 6-year-old can digest takes a lot of effort. This book was cute and I especially appreciated the work put in to illustrate kids from different ethnicities. My little nephews however didn’t find any lessons in compassion or diversity that the book hoped it would.
American Like Me by America Ferrera
I love the very idea of this book. An an immigrant I‘m thrilled that there is a book that gives stage to the highs and lows of such a wide range of people chasing after the American Dream. The stories range from fun; to sad; to thoughtful; to frivolous. I like that there is so much variety because even when some don’t resonate, I kept reading because there are others that are completely engrossing.
The Upstairs Wife:An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria
It took me a minute to get in to this book, but once I did I couldn’t put it down. A family’s memoir unfolds alongside the history of their chosen country — love of country, the loss of self, and the hearts of women. I think this is a necessary history lesson every Pakistani should read.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Dark, delicious and full of surprises, it was hard to put this novel down. Love, at every level, is complicated and this novel takes one down the twists and turns of what it means to love and be loyal. Blood is most certainly thicker than water but no one tests the boundaries of sibling loyalty like Braithwaite.
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
This book examines what it means to be free in the truest sense. It’s heart wrenching and layered in it’s examination of trauma, history, and culture. I felt that this work doubles up as an important reminder of long lasting effects of human displacement—the physiological and economic effects of living the life of a refugee is handed down and felt for and by generations.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
This graphic memoir was hard to put down. It’s brilliantly compact yet so dense and consuming. The examination of her relationship with her father, his death, her sexuality and coming out, her childhood and the role of art and literature; fearless, darkly funny, emotional and often elusive.
A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren
Listened to this on Libby, she’s a great narrator. She takes you through her personal, professional, and political journey in a beautifully fluid way. Her passion and dedication to the middle class are clearly more than just a political statement. To me this book is about strength, dedication, and the sheer will of one of the strongest women history will ever know. Americans are luckier than they’ll every know to have her on their side.
Titles I’m currently reading
Not That Bad (edited) by Roxane Gay
I’m taking my time with this book. Reading about rape culture is hard and getting through so much content about it is upsetting. But I do intend to finish it because I think it’s an important work in awareness. I’m also reading it because I think it’s essential to step out of our comfort zones. And also, Roxane ❤.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
I’ve read a few works by her and mostly like her work. This book is very different to the vibe of her other work though. It’s a little slow for me and I haven’t been able to read more than a few pages at a time. I like the idea of it though — of wandering freely and being okay with being lost.
Songs of Blood and Sword by Fatima Bhutto
Taking my time with this book because I don’t particularly enjoy the writing style. Often fragmented and wordy following along is sometimes challenging. That said, an insight in to the lives of this family is fascinating. Their impact has been the strength and destruction of Pakistan throughout it’s troubled history. Her insider’s view, though often biased, is fascinating.
Titles I’ll read next
Under the Magnolia Tree by Naila Parveen