Feminism and fiction: two of my favorite F words. They’re the kind that you should definitely never be afraid to say, even in front of your grandparents, or at the dinner table, or somewhere like church. Separately they can pack a serious punch, but throw feminism and fiction together and you’ve got a cannot-be-beat duo of literary brilliance. And while the yearly VIDA count certainly makes a point — or really, a lot of very important points about women’s equal right to put pen to paper and make some noise — there is still a ton of fiction out in the world right now that’s just waiting for a novel-hungry feminist.
If any of this sounds familiar then you’ll definitely want to devour this list of feminist-themed fiction immediately. From Afghanistan to Armenia, Port-au-Prince, Haiti to Greenville, South Carolina, and all over other parts of the world, the women in these books struggle, fight back, fail, and never, ever give up. Plus, 9 out of these ten novels were written by totally amazing women (and one admittedly pretty cool fellow too.)
If it’s wrong to love my fiction with a side of feminism, then I don’t want to be right. Here are 10 novels every feminist should add to her bookshelf ASAP.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
This historical novel explores some of the untold stories of the Armenian genocide, and spans the lives of two women: Elizabeth, who has volunteered to deliver food and medical supplies to Armenian refugees living in Syria during the genocide, and Laura, a woman living in present-day New York City, who is only just beginning to contemplate her Armenian heritage. Both women experience the horrors of the genocide, although living generations apart, and both are women whose stories and strength of character will humble any reader.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
Maribel Rivera is a teenage girl with a severe brain injury. Her parents have left their life of comfort and safety in Mexico to come to the United States in hopes of providing Maribel with special education resources that were not available to her in her home country. Alma, Maribel's mother, is one of the predominant voices in the novel, and it is her quiet strength and determination that keeps the family moving forward, even in the face of poverty, illness, violence, and devastating loss. Maribel and Alma are two of the bravest female characters you'll find in recent fiction.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
When Melinda Sordino calls the police after being raped at a high school party over the summer, her friends don't understand the gravity of Melinda's experience and begin to ostracize her. She becomes increasingly silent and isolated, until her only form of self-expression is through a series of trees she is producing in art class. But when she finds herself confronted by her rapist again, Melinda finds the power to save not only herself, but to also speak for the numerous girls who have suffered silently at the hands of this same young man.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
When Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped in front of her family's home in Port au Prince, Haiti, in broad daylight, she never suspects that her father won't pay the ransom demanded by the armed men and their leader, known to her as The Commander. When her father fails to come to her prompt rescue, Mireille suffers life-altering torment at the hands of The Commander, and must ultimately learn how to save her own spirit herself.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
This novel by Afghan-American writer Nadia Hashimi tells the story of two women living generations apart, but who, in many ways, share similar destinies. Rahima is a young girl living in 2007 Kabul, while Shekiba, her great, great, great grandmother, is living in early 20th century Afghanistan. In a culture where women are often treated as less than second-class citizens, both women are enlisted to dress as men in order to protect themselves and their families. Although they both ultimately suffer the fates imposed upon them by the men in their lives, their early experiences of freedom give them the strength to survive the rest of their lives.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Ruth Anne Boatwright's mother, Anney, gave birth to Ruth Anne when she was 15, and has spent the rest of her life trying to get the word "Illegitimate" removed from Ruth Anne's birth certificate. But when Anney meets Glen, her priorities change completely, and Ruth Anne's life is altered forever. Suffering unspeakable abuses at the hands of Glen, Ruth Anne doesn't understand why her mother won't choose her safety over having Glen in her life. This book is about choices, motherhood, the boundaries of love, and ultimately women who have no choice but to save themselves.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Although Clara del Valle is clairvoyant, she is only able to predict the upcoming events in her life, and remains powerless to change them. (Seriously, how frustrating?) Still, she is the powerful matriarch of this turbulent, Latino family. Esteban may be the patriarch of the de Valles, but the clan itself is filled with fierce, outspoken, and brave women who aren't afraid to fight, love, and rebel in equal parts.
Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
This true life novel tells the imagined story of author Jeannette Walls's grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who broke horses as a child, left home as a teen, learned to drive a car, pilot a plane, run a ranch, raise children, and give men a run for their money. A woman well before her time, Lily Casey Smith traveled the country, was self-reliant and creative, and didn't need anyone to help her find her way in the world. This cowgirl wrote all her own rules.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Narrated by the five women of the Price family, The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of Nathan Price, a zealous Baptist who packs up and moves his entire family to the Congo in 1959, in order to minister to the Africans who live there. Naturally, Nathan has no clue what he's doing, and can barely keep his family fed, let alone preach to a rather unwilling congregation. Each of the five Price women respond to the inevitable culture shock differently, and each ultimately have to take charge of their new lives in Africa if any of them hope to survive there.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple tells the story of a community of African-American women living in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. Narrated by Celie, who meets readers through her letters to God when she is 14 years old and has just been raped and impregnated by her father, this novel takes a critical look at gender roles, rape, and violence. Celie spends her life surviving horrifying acts of domestic abuse, but ultimately takes control of her own destiny, and never loses her ability to experience love and compassion.