March marks Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contributions of women throughout history and contemporary society. As the month winds down, we’d like to commemorate the occasion in our own way, by highlighting a handful a first-time female writers whose work we’ve admired this year (and the year is still young).
Lee Miller was already an accomplished model when she made her way to Paris in the 1930s, but her aim was to be behind the camera. A chance meeting with famed Surrealist photographer Man Ray set this plan in motion, and revealed that Miller’s artistic ability--and her ambition—rivaled that of her mentor (and eventual lover). Whitney Scharer’s sumptuous debut novel, The Age of Light, captures their passionate, and complicated, relationship, and pays homage to the pluck, determination and profound talents of a woman sometimes relegated to a footnote in Man Ray’s history. Both his and Scharer’s muse shines here. --Erin Kodicek
In the exquisite The Far Field, Shalini’s mother, a Bangalore housewife with a secret, holds the world at arm’s length. Caustic and inscrutable, she withholds affection, even from her daughter. After her mother’s death, grief propels Shalini to track down a figure from her childhood, a traveling salesman who visited her mother for years before disappearing. Certain that his disappearance and her mother’s death are linked, Shalini travels to his hometown, Kashmir, and into the heart of a community roiling with political strife. Sheltered and privileged, Shalini’s yearnings gives way to an awakening as she makes the deep, human connections with the Kashmiri people that evaded her in her life in Bangalore. Vijay does a superb job of showing how the personal and the political spark off one another to drive change in both. But when violence erupts in Kashmir, difficult choices must be made and sobering lessons learned about privilege, Indian history, class prejudice, violence, and sexuality. --Vannessa Cronin
Jodi McCarty just can’t catch a break. Fresh out a 18-year stint in prison, for a mysterious crime we learn about as the story unfolds, she is eager to return to her slice of Shangri-La in the Appalachian Mountains. But first she takes a detour that, however well-meaning, ends up threatening to throw her aim of staying on the straight and narrow off course. Mesha Maren packs a lot into Sugar Run, a Southern noir that follows our heroine’s dogged attempts to rebuild her life, efforts that are stymied by things both outside and inside her control (for starters, the woman has woefully terrible taste in romantic partners). Maren writes beautifully and with keen insight, but what makes this debut truly special is her ability to engender compassion in deeply flawed characters; that’s the power of good fiction. --Erin Kodicek
Stephanie Land lifts the rug on the life of the working poor in her eye-opening book, Maid. She is writing about the people who clean our homes, who tend to our yards—yet so often these workers go unseen and their stories untold. As a single mother, Stephanie Land cares for herself and her young daughter through a complicated system of government assistance programs and through employment as a house cleaner. Her experience with government aid programs magnifies their worst inconsistency: how difficult is it for people to become self-sufficient when they are reliant on child care and food assistance credit in order to work and live, yet even the smallest increase in income can mean a significant loss of benefits. Land doesn’t have family or friends who could help her financially. They just don’t have it to give. She is truly on her own, yet using a food assistance card at the grocery store checkout has earned her scorn and judgement from strangers who think anyone using the system is abusing the system. Land is a fighter—her desire to create a better life for her daughter is what drives her to keep trying to dig her way out of poverty, working long hours for low pay, and grasping what kindnesses she receives like a life line. Maid is compelling because it’s so personal. Land isn’t whining or blaming, she’s letting us into her life, sharing feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and desperation that come with trying so damn hard to do better and still living below the poverty line in spite of her efforts. Land has a hard life but she also has hope and resilience. She finds joy in small moments that are often overlooked in the distraction of material things. Maid is an important work of journalism that offers an insightful and unique perspective on a segment of the working poor from someone who has lived it. --Seira Wilson
Newlywed Isra thought life would be different when she immigrated to America from Palestine, but her dreams were quickly dashed. You’ll need to steel yourself the more you delve into Etaf Rum's penetrating debut novel A Woman Is No Man, which follows Isra’s journey, and that of her daughter Deya. The clash between dual cultures creates much of the drama, as Deya tries to do what her mother ultimately couldn’t--break free from their family’s violent, misogynistic past and forge her own path in life. While A Woman Is No Man is a rallying cry to resist patriarchal strictures designed to keep women in ‘their place,’ it is also a love letter to books and their transformative power. Reading was one of the only comforts, and acts of rebellion, that Isra enjoyed, and she had a particular affinity for literary heroine Scheherazade: “For a thousand and one nights [her] stories were resistance. Her voice was a weapon—a reminder of the extraordinary power of stories, and even more, the strength of a single woman.” It’s the harnessing of that strength that sets Deya, and this family, free. --Erin Kodicek
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